Zen and the Art of Project Management

What Niki and I have been working on.

Someone posted a message to the Ninject user group last week asking if anyone had heard from me, and if I was alright. The rumors of my demise have been greatly exaggerated! I’ve been next to silent on my blog and Twitter for awhile now, and although I’ve alluded to it before, I’m finally ready to announce what I’ve been up to.

This is my last week at Telligent. I’m leaving the company to launch a startup with my wife Niki.

Sometime last year, I was looking for an application that could support a lightweight agile development process. It seemed like all of the existing solutions were bloated with unnecessary features, difficult to use, and too expensive for what I needed. I heard similar grumblings from other developers — it seemed that there was a lack of simple, flexible, and cost-effective solutions available for lightweight project management.

Around the same time, I was introduced to the concept of lean software engineering. If you’re not familiar, lean software engineering draws inspiration from the Toyota Production System, and focuses on optimizing flow, reducing waste, and continually improving your process to become more efficient. The development process is organized around the use of a kanban board, which is a visual representation of your process and the status of each work item as it moves from concept to completion.

I was immediately hooked. For the past several years, I’ve been on a crusade to convince software developers that the majority of effort in software is spent changing software after its initial version. Therefore, the easier your application is to change and improve while maintaining a high level of quality, the more effective you will be at competing or satisfying your clients. Lean is very much in line with this way of thinking, and it’s the first time that a development methodology has really made sense to me.

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Today, Niki and I are proud to officially announce Zen, a lean project management solution. The system is geared around a web-based kanban board, on which you can hang cards representing work items. Here’s an example (scaled down for the screenshot):

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The columns on your board can be customized to your project, and can be changed anytime. As a task passes each phase of completion, you drag its card to the next phase. When it reaches the right side of the board, it’s done. Cards can have different colors, you can tag them to organize them, and when things go wrong, you can mark them as “blocked”, indicating there’s a problem.

Zen’s not limited to just a kanban board, though. Collaboration is the key to making a process work, so when things happen in your project (like moving a card from one phase to another), Zen shoots notifications to the other members of your team. And, since nothing’s more annoying than having a service send you a million emails, Zen can notify you of changes not only via email, but Google Talk/XMPP, AIM, Windows Live Messenger, or ICQ. And since everyone has their own preferences on how they want to be updated, each user can customize how they want to be informed, including turning notifications on and off to create cones of silence. :)

Because it’s web-based, and because of its emphasis on messaging, Zen is particularly useful for distributed teams, where you can’t just hang a physical kanban board in the team room. Even if your team works in the same location, having a software application support your process can be very useful — Zen tracks key metrics like lead time and cycle time for you, and provides big visible charts to keep you motivated and on track.

Zen doesn’t force you to adopt a lean process. It’s designed to be as simple and straightforward as possible, while being flexible enough to customize it to match the way you work, and improve your process as you find ways to be more efficient. Zen lets you start with just a task board, and if you want, gradually add lean artifacts to your process at your leisure. Whether you’re a lean expert, or you just want a project management system that stays out of your way and lets you work, Zen is a great option.

Another way to think about it is that Zen is the Ninject of project management software. :)

Zen is still in limited closed beta, but we’re wrapping things up, and will be launching in July. In the meantime, check out our website, and sign up to be notified when we go live. If you have any questions at all, don’t hesitate to drop me a line on email (nate at enkari dot com), Twitter, or Google Talk / Windows Live Messenger (nkohari at gmail dot com).

Leaving Telligent is bittersweet; while I’m excited about Zen, Telligent has a lot of absolutely fantastic developers, and I’ll miss working with them. My time with the company has been memorable, and I wish them nothing but the best of luck. The good news is that the cat’s out of the bag, I get to start talking about all the cool technology that powers Zen, and some neat tricks I’ve picked up along the way. Between that and my obsession with lean/kanban, I’m going to start being more talkative again… I’ll leave it to you to decide if that’s a good thing or not. :)