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🔥 Hot Take Alert #6: I have some feelings about JIRA
And I'm not the only one
Hi there, it’s Adam. 🤗 Welcome to my (weekly) newsletter. I started this newsletter to provide a no-bullshit, guided approach to solving some of the hardest problems for people and companies. That includes Growth, Product, company building and parenting. Subscribe and never miss an issue. Questions? Ask them here.
Welcome to another 🔥 Hot Take Alert 🔥 where I opine on something that I feel very strongly about and try to make it a little bit better. I don’t expect you to agree with all of them but please keep an open mind. Or don’t. It’s your subscription.
Past 🔥 Hot Take Alerts 🔥 have included:
I once worked with an engineer at Patreon named Derek who said this to me. It was right around the time that we were migrating from Asana to JIRA and that journey did have a certain feeling of inevitability to it.
Then there’s this:
And this — an entire Web site devoted to the hatred of JIRA:
And most recently, this:
So, it’s pretty easy to dunk on JIRA, Confluence, and the rest.
I’ve had the pleasure of working at ~8-10 tech companies in my career and advising many more and the vast, vast majority of them are using JIRA and the Atlassian suite of products. Everyone at those companies seems to have a Stockholm Syndrome relationship with these tools.
They complain endlessly about the UX, the capabilities, the ease in which you can change something and break the entire workflow of the development team… and yet… they keep using the Atlassian suite – specifically JIRA and Confluence, but often others in the suite as well.
In fact, the only place I’ve worked that didn’t use JIRA was one that used Trello (now an Atlassian company) and they also wrote code in .NET so I wouldn’t hang my hat on any decisions happening over there.
A classic hot take would just be shitting all over JIRA and Confluence. After all, everyone else already has. But as Seth Berman recently reminded me: if everyone already hates JIRA then that’s not a very contrarian take.
Instead, I decided to dig in a little more to understand what’s underlying these POVs and what to do about it.
I started with a survey on LinkedIn.
Interesting. 64% of anonymous respondents were either “Indifferent” or “Love it.” The remaining 1/3rd think it’s terrible aside from a handful of people who responded to my cheeky “What’s JIRA?” option.
Is it possible, perhaps, that a lot of people secretly don’t think it’s all that bad but publicly like to disparage it because it’s the fashionable thing to do?
So as a follow-up, I asked a bunch of people what they thought about JIRA and Atlassian. These results were also interesting.
It turns out that this tracks the survey results pretty closely. Most of the people I talked to think that JIRA is just fine – especially when you don’t over-configure it. And some of those people actually like it.
To do a final confirmation on my research I went to my main source of JIRA knowledge over the years: Evan Goldin. Evan has set up more JIRA instances than pretty much anyone I know. He was the first PM at Zimride, then Lyft, and now he’s the CEO and founder of a company called Parkade.
Don’t judge him because he runs a parking startup folks. Actually, the kind of person who runs a parking startup is exactly who you’d expect to be an authority on JIRA (which he is).
Here’s what he had to say:
“This take is gonna be too hot to handle: Jira is great, and people need to get over themselves. How useful Jira is, is purely a function of how it’s set up and how much the team actually uses it.
If it’s set up poorly, and no one bothers to spend 15 minutes to learn how to use it, and the team isn’t bought in, it’s gonna suck.”
“There are ways to set it up that are super simple and lightweight, and make it approachable and sticky. But the nice thing about Jira is that it’s super customizable and if you want it to be insanely complex with ridiculous workflows everyone has to follow, and only 1 way to create a new task that needs to go through X person for approval with Y, Z fields filled out, you can do that. It’s all in your hands.”
Which returns us to Josh’s point:
So after surveying, one-on-one conversations, using JIRA and Confluence with at least a dozen different companies, you might be inclined to think that my conclusion is that WE are the problem, not JIRA.
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Is that really it? Can we end here and just accept that Kristina, Matt, Jeff, and Evan are right. No notes?
I’m not indifferent nor do I love it.
Here’s what JIRA is good for: basic bug and task management. Essentially: delivery. It’s great for engineers in that regard.
From Jeff Dwyer:
“I think the core is that we've conflated two things. We come to the problem with the perspective of "work is things that engineers do" so it makes a lot of sense to put all the things that engineers do in the same place.
But bugs and product work couldn't be more different. We have no control over how many bugs come in. They're of different importance. They're easy to forget. The aren't well spec'd and need investigation and follow-up. This explains all the useful features of a JIRA install. Ways to sort and filter and prioritize and report.
But product work should have little of this. It should be a curated list of the most important things that we think will provide enterprise value. We won't forget them, because they're top of mind.
The suffering comes from the assumption that we should track things in the same place.”
So we’ve established what JIRA is good for. Now what about the opposite?
Here’s what JIRA is not good for: everything else.
For starters, there are UX and usability issues with JIRA that put it on par with the other greats (editor note: not greats) - Salesforce, Concur, most Microsoft products. The number of menus, dropdowns, unintelligible icons, nonsense words, and things that don’t link anywhere is baffling. It’s like the Winchester Mystery House of software.
Just look at this screen:
The colors. The icons. The notifications. It’s all too much.
And Josh is 100% right on the save/publish action in Confluence. Even when I do “close” there’s no reminder for me to publish AND when I’m looking at a “closed” page it shows me I have unpublished changes but I can’t publish them from there. ☠️
The other, bigger problem is that the majority of product work isn’t delivery. It’s opportunity assessment, feedback, design, debate, discussion, research, managing ideas and plans, modeling, etc.
For this, JIRA and Confluence are wholly inadequate. You end up with a bunch of Confluence pages that link out to Google Docs and then a bunch of people don’t have access to Confluence or JIRA and so they can’t contribute. It’s a colossal mess. It’s like trying to file an expense report in Concur or get paid via Coupa.
You might say, “But hey, Adam, this sounds like it’s a user problem… not the tool’s fault?!?” And as my Dad used to say, “Tis a poor workman who blames his tools.”
You, and my Dad, are technically correct.
But the other side of the argument here is that if the tool is used incorrectly it’s the tool’s fault. In complex software I tend to lean more towards this argument than the “user error” argument. If you give a user a normal hammer and they can’t figure out how to use it then it probably is their fault. But what if the hammer looked like JIRA and had 47 different ways to hold it? I’d blame the tool.
And that’s exactly what we should be doing. Let’s hold the software we use to build the rest of the software accountable. We shouldn’t have to create Confluence pages that link to other documents all over the place – make them work better for writing, editing, and commenting so we don’t need those other tools. Do better Atlassian!
But you know what? I won’t be canceling our relationship with Atlassian. I’ll grumble about it and go right on using it still.
Because most of the other competitors are also crap.
For the most part JIRA isn’t any more or less usable then a lot of other popular tools out there. It’s just a little less slick looking. It could be that I’m one of the “norm core” product people that Josh eludes to, but I don’t find the shiny alternatives to be any better.
Notion? Yeah, lots of people like it and I use it too, but it’s terrible for writing and ends up becoming a gigantic document farm resembling grandma’s attic. Without a little care and feeding it quickly ends up like the Island of Misfit Toys. Deep cut. Or the document equivalent of Lord of the Flies. How is that any better?
Trello? Nope. Sorry Jeff, I don’t love it. Once you have a certain number of cards it's basically unusable.
Coda? Linear? Miro? Monday? Clickup? Pivotal? Asana? Basecamp?
Pretty much all of them bother me in some way.
And THIS is why JIRA continues to maintain such a market-leading position. At the end of the day it works pretty well out of the box, is infinitely customizable, and equally as maddening as all these other tools.
So for now, I’ll be sticking with JIRA. As much as it angers me I’m not bothered enough to switch.
Now if you’ll excuse me I have to go create a ticket to send this newsletter.
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