How to choose the best software development project management tool
There seem to be infinite project management fish in the software as a service sea, but how do you navigate through the endless options and find the best one for you?
Not only that, how do you find one that will work not just for you, but for your entire team and organization? If there’s one major issue with project management software it’s how every single tool promises to help engineers work more efficiently and get things done, while also somehow inspiring non-stop grumbling from half the engineers using them.
To help you out, this guide will:
- Break down the types of project management features you should look for
- Provide you with a framework for how to go about choosing the right project management tool for your software development team
- Give you a curated list of project management tools recommended by other software engineers and developers to consider and try out
Features that match your software development needs
Let’s consider some of the features you should look for in a project management tool.
Software development-specific features
The more logical way to weed out your options is to look for tools that have features specifically prescribed for software teams since tools that are specifically not for software teams seem unlikely to work well for software teams Here are some of the most useful features ::
- Supports agile development
- Built to support the software development lifecycle: Planning → Define Requirements → Design → Development → Testing
- Workflow management and automated workflows
- Sprint planning support: When working in sprints, you need to know exactly what iteration, launch dates, and backlog your team is working on.
- Issue tracking: You’ll want to make sure the PM tool makes it easy for your whole team to report and fix bugs easily without leaving your preferred workflow.
Planning and scheduling
Using a whiteboard or excel sheet to manage your project plans is probably doable for small projects but cannot and will not scale. In software development, things can (and always do) get really hairy, really fast.
You need to be able to visualize and track progress from every angle to understand how various timelines and dependencies can impact each other. A good PM tool doesn’t just help you manage tasks, but also provides your team with the context to see how everyday tasks are contributing towards larger goals without overwhelming them with too much information.
Here are some planning and scheduling features to look for:
- A Kanban board: Because modern software teams need to be agile, a Kanban-style PM tool is usually preferred. Kanban—the Japanese word for “billboard”— uses digital cards to represent and assign tasks, and columns organize those project tasks by their progress or current stage in development.
- Advanced filtering options and a variety of views for greater visibility such as velocity charts, burndown charts, and cumulative flow diagrams
- Roadmap: Create and share customized roadmaps directly in the PM tool. Or, if you already have a separate roadmap tool, make sure you can sync them with pre-built integrations.
- Customer feedback repository: You’ll need a way to collect, organize, and connect customer feedback and feature requests to help with prioritization and planning.
Ease of use and speed
Shipping software can be a real balancing act, and choosing the wrong software can knock the whole process out of balance. You need an engineer-friendly PM tool that your teams actually want to use instead of just tolerating it.
There also needs to be a balance between having all of the features that match your needs while still being quick enough to keep up with your continuous development cycle. There are many tools out there that are bloated with features, checking boxes for graphs and reports that maybe one manager will look at once a year, which can make things overly complicated and often laggy.
When you’re trying to go through a mountain of tickets or projects, if you have to spend even just an extra minute or two per thing, well, then that might be an extra 30 minutes per day and an extra 10 hours per month and an extra three work weeks per year and next thing you know you’re retiring and looking back with deep regret at the two years of your life you spent trying to update statuses on bugs you didn’t want to fix.
These days, most software teams are working remotely or are distributed around the world across different time zones. Having a project management tool that empowers asynchronous collaboration is a must.
But it’s not just about collaborating with your own software development team. The right project management tool should bring people from across the company together to accomplish larger goals and initiatives. That means it should also work well for the other core development teams like product and design. Otherwise you’re gonna spend a lot more time in meetings explaining things to people who could have just seen your update within the shared pm software.
Some team collaboration features to look for:
- Cloud-based. It’s not 1996 anymore.
- Integrations with communication tools like Slack
- Built-in collaboration and communication tools like @mention, activity feed, chat, and direct inbox
Integrations and API
While it would be great if there was a unicorn project management tool that had everything we want already built right in, that doesn’t exist and won’t exist since such a product would be so powerful that it’d devour the entire world.. That’s why it’s important that the PM software you choose integrates with the tools you’re already using.
This will include any and all tools that specifically support a part of your software development lifecycle. So you’ll want to make a list of all the cross-functional tools used during the planning, defining requirements, designing, development, testing, deployment, operations, and maintenance.
Here are some common integrations that your own software development team may be using::
- Analytics: LinearB, Amplitude, Plecto, & Google Sheets
- Automation: Zapier and Outgoing Webhook
- Bugs: Sentry, Rollbar, and Bugsnag
- VCS : GitHub, GitLab, and Bitbucket
- Communication: Slack, PagerDuty, and Status Hero
- Design: Figma
- Documentation: Confluence and Notion
- Support: Zendesk, Help Scout, and Intercom
- Planning: Productboard and Miro
- Test Management: LambdaTest and TestLodge
If the PM tool you’re eyeing doesn’t seem to have all of the integrations you need, then make sure the tool has a well-crafted API that can help you automate your workflow, integrate with other applications, and build custom reports.
Another obvious but vital element of a standout PM tool are the reports it provides. In order to plan ahead, manage resources, and make smarter decisions, you need to be able to measure how well projects are managed.
Most project management tools already have a predefined set of reports that you can utilize. Some tools also offer support for customized reporting.
Here are some software development-specific reports to look for:
- Delivery statistics
- Time spent in various workflow states
- Lead Time/Cycle Time
- Created vs. completed charts
- Velocity reporting
- Burndown charts
- Computational fluid dynamics (CFD)
Time tracking is a bit of a controversial topic among developers. Many engineers feel that tracking their hours is not realistic because much of their work is not done in hourly chunks. Forcing engineers to feel like they’re continually doing administrative work can get in the way of both productivity and happiness. Your tool should make your team feel empowered because happier developers mean better software.
Freemium plan or free trial
Companies who are confident in their product offer a freemium plan or free trial, so you can test out their project management tool for yourself to make your own judgment. And we’re not just saying that because we offer a freemium plan and free trial both.
This is also a good time to check out what their onboarding, customer support, and other resources are like. Nobody likes a pushy salesperson, but this is the time to get everything you can out of them, whether that’s a demo, in-depth case study, proof of concept, customer referral, or whatever else you need to decide if you’ve found the right fit and make your case..
Easy transition support
If you’re already using an existing project management tool and looking to make a switch, it’ll be crucial to have good support. It can be tough enough to make a case for a switch, but ensuring a smooth and easy transition will be paramount to the adoption rate.
As I mentioned earlier, it’s also a good idea to test out the customer support team and go through their support resources. Here are some things to look for, and make sure to also check for depth, not just breadth:
- Help center and knowledge base
- Training videos – When you’re onboarding new or existing team members, training videos can be beneficial.
- Release notes – Release notes will also tell you what they’ve got up their sleeves for the future.
- Community – Some PM tools have also set up their own community where you can connect with the internal team and other users.
How to choose the best PM tool for your software development team?
Now you know what features to look for in a project management tool, but how do you go about choosing the right one? Here’s a helpful framework to help you decide.
Step 1: Audit your existing solution
First, you’ll want to survey your team(s) experiences with your existing tool—that could be another software, a whiteboard, or good old Google Docs.
If you’re not already using a project management software, you can also gauge your team’s experiences with previous PM tools that they’ve used. I can confidently say they will have lots of opinions on what worked and didn’t work.
Next, map out your existing process and where it falls short. You’ll want to lead with your most important workflows and processes.
Or, if you’re just at the beginning stages of developing your product and don’t have a PM tool in place, then it will be really crucial to find a solution that can offer software development-specific workflows, reports, and templates that will scale with you as you grow.
Step 2: Dream up your ideal project management software
Ask your team to dream up the ideal project management tool. What would that look like? Create a list of features you absolutely need, features that would be a bonus, and equally as important, the features you don’t need or want.
After collecting all of these undoubtedly wonderful opinions, prioritize the features you need by mapping them to your most critical processes and workflows.
Step 3: Assemble a small project management tool review team
. Pick a handful of people who will research what project management tools to try and prioritize that list based on the requisites defined in step 2.
The review team should have cross-functional representation from the core team—engineering, product, and design.
Step 4: Take the top 2-3 developer project management tools for a test drive
The grande finale is taking those top-choice tools for a spin. I recommend narrowing down the list to around 2-3 options so that you can really take the time to dive into each of the tools.
The review team should provide an analysis of the pros and cons of each tool and how well they match up to your specific needs.
On top of testing the tools, don’t forget to check out their customer support and other resources, too.
Software engineering project management tools to try
To aid in your quest for finding your PM software soulmate, I’ve curated a listof the top project management tools to test out. I’ve also taken the liberty of doing the dirty work for you by rounding up the pros and cons of each tool. Please enjoy.
- Supports roadmap requirements
- Good for agile
- Available integrations
- Highly customizable — this can also work against you because tons of customizations can overly complicate your processes
- Many developers feel that Jira is over-engineered with features that they don’t need, which hurts overall usability and adoption. If you’re wondering if this is true, just ask any engineer who passes you on the street.
- The bloated features also affect the software’s performance, and many users complain about Jira’s speed. Specifically it’s lack of it.
- There is a steep learning curve for new and casual users and a lack of guardrails to prevent user errors.
- Compared to the other PM tools, Jira requires more upfront and ongoing overhead, which increases its cost beyond just the monthly or yearly subscriptions.
- Lightweight and easy UI
- Great for small projects or running individual sprints
- Lots of “power-ups” to add additional features
- Not well-suited for more complex projects with dependencies, different user groups, etc., which means you can quickly outgrow Trello as your team scales beyond its capabilities.
- Does not support hierarchies that show relationships between tasks and projects
- Not purpose-built for software development and lacks dedicated features, workflows, and reports.
If Goldilocks was a software engineer testing these PM tools, she would probably say that Jira was too complicated, Trello is not comprehensive enough, and Shortcut was just right.
If Santa Claus compiled a list of all the best PM features from all the good little engineers out there, he’d wrap up Shortcut and leave it under the tree.
If a magic lamp fell at the feet of a software engineer and the Genie within it asked that engineer what they’d most like in a PM tool, that Genie would… you know what, we’re probably reaching a point of overpromising and potentially under delivering so we’ll stop there.
- Opinionated by default and customizable by option—Shortcut offers a prescribed way for software developers to do their work so that you can avoid any grueling setup and just jump right in.
- Intuitive enough for anyone to use, but flexible enough to support a scaling organization.
- Robust features and no fluff—Shortcut has everything you need for serious software development, without the bloat of features you'll never use.
- Fast—Over 10x faster than other tools.
- Transparency and visibility by default so users an get the views they need to do their best work
If you want to hear more about Shortcut, check out this case study on why open-source SaaS company, Tidelift chose Shortcut.
- Dashboard can’t be customized — the Shortcut team (hey, that’s us!) is looking into the kind of customization our users want on areas beyond the dashboard like Reporting
- No native time tracking feature — Kurt, the CEO, and co-founder of Shortcut and a software engineer, purposely didn’t include this feature for the same reason I mentioned earlier. He believes that software teams should be measured on the quality of their work, rather than the time spent on that work.
- No Gantt charts - though our new Roadmap feature can give you the visualization of a Gantt chart
- Good storage security
- Customization of dashboard
- Tasks can only be assigned to one person.
- Not built for software development
- Lacks strong integrations with development-centric tools
- No time tracking
- Offers many features, but projects can get quickly get too complex or confusing
- Engineers can stay in Github without leaving the command-line
- Comprehensive documentation as long as it is related to a git
- Good collaboration for open-source projects
- Ideal for creating a backup of your work
- Complicated to use
- Resembles a bug tracking system to some extent but lacks most of the crucial features that a project management platform represents
- No clear filtering and definition of components and milestones
- Reporting for work done to date, time spent on projects, tasks closed by the user, and other combinations used for billing and people management
- No form of sprint management for agile teams
- Keyboard first design
- Very developer-centric
- Built for speed
- Does not have enough power for true software development collaboration
- Too many features make it overwhelming and bloated for many use cases
- There is a steep learning curve, which can stagnate adoption
Let's sum this up
How do you go about choosing the right project management software for your software development team?
- Lead with your most important workflows and processes.
- Look for software development-specific features and align those with the above-mentioned priorities.
- Assemble a cross-functional review team that represents the core development team—engineering, product, and design.
- Narrow down your list of PM tools and test away!
The best way to find out if a project management software is right for you is to take it for a spin. And because Shortcut was born out of frustration from software engineers using existing PM tools, it was built for software developers like you with teams just like yours.
Give Shortcut a whirl—it’s free to try!