Friday, February 1, 2013

Using Basecamp to Manage Large Software Projects: Not for Me

I'm a big fan of 37Signals.  I often quote chapters from Getting Real when describing my software design philosophy, and I've even got a copy of ReWork on my desk.

So, it's strange that as a project leader, I've never used 37Signals' flagship product, Basecamp, to organize my project.  In the past, I've been used to using heavier-weight solutions like Altassian's Confluence and JIRA, and Microsoft's Team Foundation Server.  Recently, my teams have been using TFS both for task management/project tracking and for source control since we need to work in Visual Studio for Xbox-related work.

I'm starting up an Android project this week, and as I was setting up our source control on Github, it occurred to me that this was a great opportunity to experiment with new project management software.  Naturally, Basecamp was the first thing that came to mind.  The prospect of a radically simplified approach to tracking a backlog and burning down tasks in our Agile/Scrum process got me excited.  (Perhaps I need to go skydiving this weekend to recalibrate what gets me excited...)

Basecamp: Too Simple?
I fired up Basecamp, and eagerly jumped in to create my Product Backlog: a collection of stories and sub-tasks underneath each story.

Basecamp works based on To-do lists, so I added a Product Backlog To-do list:

I then started editing my first story "Custom Video Player", looking to add tasks.  Um...I can't.  Ok - let's try to just add each task as a note:

Wait a minute - in Agile/Scrum, tasks need distinct delivery dates and effort estimates.  This approach isn't going to work.

Am I doing something wrong?  Basecamp's simplicity is kicking my ass so far.  Let's try another approach - maybe I just need to think simpler myself:

Basecamp forces me to Simplify
Ok - I think I need to create one To-do list for each story, and then add items under each To-Do list for each task:

Alright - that's looking better!  I can even add milestones on the calendar and apply them to each task/to-do item.  Great!

Now - to apply effort estimates and see what a burn-down chart would look like...


Time for Plugins and Hacks
To my surprise, Basecamp didn't include any affordance for burndown tracking within a Sprint.  

After some searching on the internet, I discovered I'm not the only one missing my full-featured PM tools.  

In fact, a clever group of folks were similarly frustrated by maintaining a parallel Excel Spreadsheet to run burndown graphs for their Basecamp-tracked work a couple of years ago. They productized a solution that creates burndown charts for Basecamp projects called "BurndownGraph".

Perfect - that's exactly what I need in my situation!  However, to make it work, I'll need to:

  1. Give BurnDownGraph, a third party, my Basecamp login and password.
  2. Manually specify duration/estimates in the names of each To-do in a rigid format: "Custom Video Player 8.5h".
  3. Keep all account information in Basecamp and BurnDownGraph synced.
  4. Shell out more money for the BurnDownGraph product.

Does this still make sense?
Suddenly, it dawned on me: "THIS ISN'T SIMPLE".  Going to these lengths of hackery is something I've trained myself over many years in software to recognize not as cool and clever, but brittle and non-scaleable.

The irony of the situation is that 37Signals are my revered proponents of achieving beautiful design and great user experiences through simplicity.

Ultimately, I'm still a Basecamp fan, and I do respect 37Signals for keeping Basecamp simple and easy for the use cases for which it works well.  However, I'm now convinced that it's not the right tool for the job of managing larger agile software projects.


  1. Great article. Thank you!! I'm struggling with Basecamp for similar reasons and I'm torn on whether I should go full featured or not. Especially since so many other apps play nice with Basecamp. But thanks for voicing it.

  2. What did you end up using?

  3. Hi, what did you end up using after all? I am on the same boat as you.

  4. I used basecamp for my launches, but it is too cumbersome. Then I was overwhelmed and so I refused to look at basecamp. Also, it takes too long to move the calendars around when something happens and you have to reschedule the tasks. Plus I pay $99 a month for Highrise, basecamp, campfire from 37 signals. Well, I also pay $49 a month for, so why not save the money and just use Well, we have to migrate it all over which is going to cost me labor hours. But I think in the end it will be worth it.

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