2016 Apr 14

Here at Industrial, we're in a constant state of learning - new technology comes at us at a feverish pace: in our industry, the day you stop learning is the day you become obsolete. Yesterday our team came together not to learn a new technology stack, but instead for a 2-hour bootcamp on using the powerful Atlassian-built wiki tool, Confluence.

For those in the software field, the Atlassian software toolset is well known: JIRA is the most commonly used tool for task and bug management, and is widely used by software companies all across the world to manage SCRUM as part of an Agile methodology. At Industrial we transitioned from Trello (a simple online tool for managing tasks across lanes) to JIRA about a year ago. The transition wasn't easy... Trello was loved for its ease-of-use, but what it lacked was reporting, an area where JIRA shines.

After one year of heavy JIRA-usage to manage our 2-week sprints, we felt it was time to take the plunge into its sister-product, the powerful wiki-based Confluence knowledge management tool.

Why Confluence?

For years we've felt there was a missing piece in our arsenal of tools. We use a great toolset here at Industrial to manage our projects, track our time, communicate with clients, and manage codebase. Historically, when it came to defining requirements we used a lot of different tools and templates, and largely we'd end up with a lot of different Microsoft Word templates, documents, and Excel spreadsheets. This approach got us by, but there was always a desire to find a tool that could allow for better group collaboration on documentation, while also ensuring the documentation was readily available to our designers and developers.

We knew Confluence was out there, but didn't really understand its full potential... One day, we started to play with it, and fell in love.

What Makes Confluence Awesome?

The project that pushed us to embrace a knowledge management tool like Confluence was our development of the Wicket member data platform. The requirements for Wicket are very complex, and we knew we needed to step up our game in terms of how we document the functional specifications and user stories. As we started to play around with Confluence, we soon saw its full potential for collaborating on detailed product requirements, user stories, and tracking everything we know about our clients and projects. 

At a high level:

  • Wiki: Confluence is a wiki first and foremost. It makes it super-easy for multiple people to collaborate on a single page or document, manages version control, and permissions.
  • Knowledge base: Confluence is where we store all of our knowledge for any client or project. Tools like Basecamp are great for managing communication, but Confluence brings structure to storage of meeting notes, product requirements/features, and most anything else.
  • Searchable: Confluence has a powerful search that allows you to quickly get to any piece of content.
  • Commenting: Confluence has become our primary decisions making platform as we work through requirements. Not sure about something, add a Comment and tag a co-worker. Have an in-line discussion about it until the question is resolved, then update the requirements.
  • (at)Mentions: Like many tools we use today (i.e. Slack), being able to press the @ key and mention a team member is super convenient and aids on collaboration.
  • Shortcuts in Confluence are slick: For geeks like us, anytime we can use our keyboard instead of reaching for our mouse or trackpad is a bonus. Confluence is filled with shortcuts to edit, save, insert links, comment, and just about anything else.
  • JIRA integration: The tight integration between task management in JIRA and requirements documentation in Confluence makes for a solid toolset when ensuring everyone fully understands what we're building.

Bootcamp... The Final Countdown

We started Bootcamp with Europe's "The Final Countdown" blaring from Mel's phone - fitting because we'd been talking about this Bootcamp for a while, and we were finally getting all staff up-to-speed and using it. Before we got started, Laura presented everyone with some Atlassian swag: t-shirts for everyone from the Atlassian online store (some of us even have Atlassian socks, but we won't say who). See the photo above for some of our crew.

We spent the first hour of Bootcamp reviewing how we've been using Confluence... creating Spaces, creating Pages, integration with JIRA, release management, use of Epics, using the wide array of macros, commenting, editing.... and so on. In the second hour the whole team jumped onto their laptops, logged in, and started using the tool to create pages. Confluence is a very intuitive tool, and for our group of developers and designers it's a quick learn... the key is knowing how we're using it, and what it means for not only us, but our clients.

We closed out the session with a little Stairway to Heaven from Led Zeppelin... random, yes, but timely given the band's legal problems around their biggest hit.

Documentation Isn't Easy, but...

For companies like us who live in the world of software development, documentation is a constant challenge. We're Agile at heart, and while Agile promotes "doing" instead of "documenting," the reality is that requirements are needed in order to keep projects on track, clients informed, and products refined. Finding a balance between taking the time to document vs. taking the time to build will always be a challenge, but tools like Confluence go a long way towards easing the burdensome task of documentation.