For Kevin Steigerwald, co-founder and CPO of Notion, leaving behind the advertising world in Chicago for a relocation to Portland meant not only a change of scenery—it also meant going from pen and paper to keyboards, billboards to websites, and getting familiar with farm equipment. “The first job we did was essentially eBay for tractors; it was combines and farm equipment and all that type of stuff that we’d list and sell online.”
The change in professional landscape also allowed him to get cozy with Agile development practices—and Pivotal Tracker—with which he previously had no experience. “We hired a dev team and that was my first exposure to Pivotal Tracker. It was the end of 2010 and at that point I had very little exposure or knowledge to development cycles, to sprints, to Agile workflow, the whole gamut. So to me, Pivotal Tracker was the tool to do all that stuff.”
“All that stuff” has helped Steigerwald and his small Portland team create Notion, an analytics dashboard that combines all your various SaaS tools in one convenient location. Like most good ideas, it came alive because of the perception that something was missing.
We talked to Kevin about Notion’s beginnings and modern software teams.
Coming from the advertising space, I definitely knew that there was the need for data specifically around your marketing and advertising campaigns. How are you really tracking that conversion on those things and bringing a report back to your client? None of that data or reports really existed during my time, so I definitely knew that there were pain points there.
So just over a year ago I started working on this full-time, then we hired our first developer in January last year. We’re all in one location, and there's five of us now—two developers, Dave is the CEO, Billy the Director of Growth, and myself.
Modern teams move a little more fluidly sometimes, because they can be a little more autonomous with their decision making. They have the ability to make their decisions based on information that's available to them. They don't always have to go through chain of command and wait weeks, and they're not taking directives down from on high. Then certainly software's helping lead that push. A lot of businesses are switching to that model and behaving more like that, where you have divisions within a company that then get broken down further into those team units.
Sometimes those teams are running different software than the team sitting across the aisle from them or across the office from them. So with the exposure of SaaS software, you're seeing the teams within companies and companies as a whole using dozens of different software options. And that's where things like Slack are becoming so popular because it acts as that layer, connecting all those tools together.
So whether you're using Tracker or Asana or Trello, or the 100 other project managing tools that are in there, you can connect all those things in Slack, so now your PMs across the board are receiving all the same notifications in a single location. And so take that and apply it all across all the different segments of SAS. It's created that layer for communication. Then you look at something like Segment or Zapier; they've become this developer layer where you have automated processes for developers to connect all these tools together.
We recognized those two experiences and saw that no one's doing that for the analytic space and that's where we see ourselves fitting in: becoming the analytics layer for those modern teams. The same teams that are using Slack, the same teams are using all these SAS tools, they need to extract all that data into a single location, and that's our goal.
I don't think there's a literal connection in our mind. I would say all agile teams are probably modern business teams, maybe not the other way around. But I think the agile methodology definitely lends to that thesis much stronger than say waterfall or anything else.
We tried out Sprintly and they were just clunky. It kind of reminded me of those other tools where it's more about the interface and options than about ‘get in, get out’ and bringing new things to your team. And we used Redmine and then JIRA, and at one point my team used Trello as well.
I had exposure to all these different tools and none of them really ever met my expectations like Pivotal Tracker did. I thought what was great about Tracker is it helped define the workflow, but it's also adaptable to your workflow so you don't have to define a lot of process with it. It's flexible enough that you can change the way you estimate your points, you can change how long your sprints are and things like that. But at the end of the day, it's a train and it's moving and as long as everyone is staying up to date with their stuff, you don’t have to do a whole lot of management with the tool. The tool gets out of the way and lets you get your work done. I felt like with JIRA specifically and even Redmine, those tools were so clumpy or so busy that you're in the tool half the time just figuring out how to do stuff as opposed to getting work done.
Don't feel that you have to be Agile to use Tracker or you have to be 100% to the bone exactly what an Agile team means. The tool was definitely set up to run that way and definitely if you are a full agile team it's going to work perfectly for you. But there's enough flexibility in there that you can make it work for your workflow, but still get those essentially hidden benefits of being a natural team without realizing you are an Agile team.
I think some people will get too hung up on process and too hung up on those words, and if you try to do something that isn't agile, someone will say, ‘Well that's not agile, we're not going to do it that way.’ And it creates this road block.
Some of these tools are so ubiquitous that they can be used with almost anything. That's great in a sense, but at the same time, that's one of the things that is bad about them is that they have no spine, no structure.
Tracker to me seems to be a perfect balance. It has a great amount of structure, and it has the right amount of guidance because that's kind of the only way. Stories have to go through this process of being in the Icebox, in the Backlog, then you estimate them to go into your Current. That happens naturally and whether you know Agile or not, you end up working in an Agile way. But it's definitely worth discovering your own path through it because it probably will work greatly.