Will Atlassian Be Recognizable in 2016?

As the largest purveyor of JIRA classes outside of Atlassian, we are as keen as anyone on their plans for the future after the round of press releases and articles related to JIRA, Atlassian’s value, and a possible IPO. The news and reporting around Atlassian of late has been pretty intense, confusing, and possibly alarming.





Atlassian has a long history of being a quirky, pleasant, and technically excellent company. They just announced that they were the the #2 best company to work for in the US and #1 in Australia. Meeting their employees and listening to how they feel about the company leaves you with a very positive impression. Watching “Ship it” at the end of each Summit also demonstrates another amazing attribute of the culture, innovation.

“Ship it” is an internal 24hr hack-a-thon that happens at Atlassian every quarter. At the end of Summit they bring the best projects for the previous year and have them present to the attendees. The attendees then get to vote on their favorite (barring a voting malfunction). It is not unusual for many of the projects to already be available in the Atlassian Marketplace. I believe that was the case for three of the projects this year.

Atlassian has communicated to its employees that the team matters; that each employee is important and can add value. They have communicated the expectation that their employees will have fun and be creative. The big looming question is, can this culture remain if the company goes public?

IMG_20151105_090849 (1)The founders of Atlassian as recently as last year were discussing their 50 year plan for the company. Talk like that was missing from the stage this year. I could still hear it being discussed on the show floor, but not in the main keynotes. I honestly got the sense that they knew this could be their last event together and it had a “retirement party” sort of feel. Lots of talk about accomplishments, video snippets and photos of their early years, etc. All that was missing was a toast, a roasting and a gold watch.

Now this does not mean they will cash that billion dollar check and ride into early retirement. There are many paths that can be taken from this point forward. There are examples of companies that have successfully navigated the transition and kept their culture intact. Southwest Airlines (I am on one their planes coming back from the Summit in San Francisco as I write this), is a prime example of this.

There is another big change that is rolling out now that could threaten Atlassian as well. For the first time in a decade they have changed what JIRA means in the marketplace. JIRA has been broken up into three products:

  1. JIRA Software – What we have historically known as JIRA + Agile, to be used by development teams.
  2. JIRA Service Desk – Formerly a plugin and now a stand alone product.
  3. JIRA Core – A new product based on JIRA that is streamlined for non-software use.

The three versions can be confusing enough but their delivery to the marketplace, while sensible, appears to me to fraught with opportunities for buyer confusion. I will do my best to explain.

Confusing point #1

If you own JIRA Software you already have JIRA Core. When you load version 7.0.0 on any platform (Cloud, Server, Data Center) you have new project templates available to you. With version 7 they added a new Project Category to bundle projects for Software and Business into different groups.

Confusing point #2

JIRA Service Desk is now a standalone project. Sort of. You can certainly buy JSD separately and install it on a server by itself. If you own JIRA Software and buy JSD you can also run it right on the same server. If you own cloud then JSD will simply show up for you, all nicely integrated. Clear as mud.

Confusing point #3

JIRA Core and JIRA Software both can be deeply customized in the traditional way you edit schemes, workflows, fields and screens. The base projects provided as a part of JIRA core are extremely simplistic and I wonder if customers will be a little frustrated at the overly basic nature of the setup.

Confusing point #4

Following are the various permutations of products users can own. A bit confusing for those of us that make applications that work with the JIRA API.

  • JIRA Software/Core
  • JIRA Software/Core/Service Desk
  • JIRA Core
  • JIRA Service Desk
  • JIRA Core/Service Desk

Confusing point #5

IMG_20151105_084143JIRA Portfolio? The product was missing completely from the keynotes. Odd after such an emphasis the last year.

It will be interesting to watch Atlassian sort through these challenges. If it were not for the looming IPO I would not have much concern. They have proven adept at improving products very rapidly and moving out of awkward situations with aplomb (HipChat anyone?). They can still do it but launching on a public or private offering would clearly run the risk of a dangerous distraction. Distraction is not what is needed when rebranding and relaunching your core product, you need intense focus.

The Summit was fantastic and Atlassian is an amazing company. Lets hope we say the same of them this time next year.

Filters are the “Language” of JIRA

Often I describe JIRA as a large set of Legos in a bucket. JIRA is one of those tools that is so flexible it is hard to get your head around how to use it.

The Lego analogy works on many levels. Using the predefined project types, JIRA Agile, JIRA Service Desk, etc is like opening Lego kits. Yes, they still include regular legos, but the fun stuff only works when it is built in a certain way, and will only make what someone else imagined. While working with the standard block shapes you can put together almost anything you can imagine. With this in mind, there are three main components of JIRA that make up the core building blocks of a system: issues, workflows, and filters.

Every feature in JIRA revolves around one of the three. I want to focus on filters and their broad impact in JIRA. It is incorrect to think of all the issues in JIRA broken up into projects because this is simply not true, even a project is simply one filter of the greater issue store. All the issues created in your JIRA instance are in the same bucket. When JIRA moves to display items to the user it first looks to see what subset of issues this user has permission to see (regardless of project), and then shows the list based on the filter being used at the time.

A good way to think of this concept is the diagram included here. There is the larger issue bucket of the whole instance, and individual users can see the issues that span the projects, issue security, and permissions given to them. They are then able to apply filters within that cross-section they have rights to.

Filters are used for all Reporting, Agile boards, Dashboard Gadgets, Wallboards, API calls, and of course filtered issue lists. If you are looking at more than one issue on your screen, filters are at work.

Once you grasp this idea you can really start to use filters in a powerful way. I often see the light bulb come on in either day 1 or day 2 of our JIRA Boot Camp class. Users will often say, “So that is why <insert situation here> happens!” and then they will be empowered to fix some long-standing problem that has caused frustration with JIRA.

An important aspect of filters that is often overlooked is sharing. The lack of understanding runs across a wide spectrum. On one end people struggle with the idea that users cannot see a particular Agile board or a gadget on a Dashboard without having the necessary filter shared with them. Often in these environments the company is only organizing everything at the project level. These are also often the companies that only use the built-in issue types and avoid customized workflows. They will find it hard to have desired data and functions available where users need it.

The other extreme is the system where everyone automatically shares every filter with all users. In this situation people can easily get frustrated by having hundreds and sometimes thousands of filters to deal with. Over time the list just gets larger and larger as employees come and go within the company. Imagine if an average employee has 25 filters and the company turns over 100 employees per year. In two years you could have 5000 abandoned filters in the system.

It does not help that the interface adds confusion to an already complex idea. in the words of Inigo Montoya:

“You keep using that word, I do not think it means what you think it means.”

On the main filter page is this big, obvious button that says “Share”. This is not actually how you share a filter! You must click into the less obvious “Details” hyperlink and add permissions to the filter. I do hope this gets fixed soon by the removal or re-purposing of the share button.

Neither of these extremes is actually necessary. The proper balance is to have an intentionality to sharing of filters and an administrative discipline to curate the issue list in the System Admin area of JIRA. See the image shown. In this area an admin can delete abandoned filters and change ownership of important ones. Keeping this list manageable is simply good JIRA hygiene.

Filters are a core building block of JIRA. Understanding them and guiding your users to apply them properly can dramatically improve the user experience.

JIRA Customization

Technology platforms mature and improve over time. The Atlassian ecosystem is no exception. One area where Atlassian has matured dramatically is in supporting customizations. In the past customizations were a real “wild west” edit the database and file system approach. Today we have flexibility in configuration and a strong API. Often people have a hard time letting go of history, especially with technology we feel has failed us. There are many that assume that any customizations are unwise in JIRA. I wanted to cover JIRA customization and contrast the past with the reality of today. Later in the article I will lay out a few best practices as well so you can get what you want from JIRA without risking too much.

In the not-too-distant past, a typical JIRA installation might have played out something like this:

A group in a company obtains a copy of JIRA Server, installs it, and immediately jumps into configuring all the admin screens to get projects running. They start by using one of the built-in workflows with all the standard transitions. As usage expands, needs are found and are either accommodated by the administrator or met by a nifty add-on that did what was wanted out of the box.

Once in awhile something very specific will be desired to increase efficiency or user adoption, so the admin will go in and modify the database, add some scripts, or edit some of the configuration files directly. A few months later they realize they cannot upgrade JIRA because they would lose all their customizations that they depend on–or perhaps worse, they upgrade and most of their functionality is broken.  

Some companies invest the hours to fight through the upgrade pain and customize a much newer version, but many companies simply stay at a very old version until the application is abandoned. I recently spoke with a company that was still stuck using 4.x, while 7.x is the current version! This cycle is far more prevalent than people realize. Many smaller and mid-sized companies find themselves in this position, I have multiple students in every class facing this very specific dilemma.

Fortunately JIRA customization is far different today than it was a couple of years ago. Atlassian has done a great job moving to a clean API that allows for significant external input while increasing the flexibility of the system. There is a new danger I will talk about in a moment but customization can live across version upgrades today, unlike in the past.

JIRA Customization Best Practices

I typically describe JIRA as a big box of legos. Used properly there are few scenarios that cannot be accommodated with the base system. When approached in an educated way it is incredibly flexible. Here are some guidelines around customizations I share when consulting on JIRA implementations.

  1. (Click to Enlarge Image)
    (Click to Enlarge Image)

    Understand completely how projects come together. Utilize “Custom Issue Types” to break up your workflows, allow for clearly defined field configurations, and ultimately better reporting. Here is the diagram we use in our classes to teach students how to correctly put together a project.

  2. Search for a way to accomplish your goal within the base system. I commonly encounter cases where people moved to Add-ons to do something they could have accomplished by customizing filters, issue types, workflows, or other elements. Only use Add-ons that are truly necessary.
  3. Do not view applications in the marketplace as similar to Android or IOS apps. They are more deeply embedded than that and can be a major roadblock in the upgrade process. Approach them cautiously.
  4. Use Add-ons that are heavily used and updated often. This seems really obvious but I have run across organizations that are one of 50 people using an add-on that has not been updated for years. Stay on the main road and you will not be left behind.
  5. If you have a specific need do not be afraid to integrate using the API. It is powerful, well documented, and can really open up “safe” customizations using BI tools, web integrations, etc.
  6. If you use JIRA Server simply DO NOT MODIFY the database or the file structure. Lie down until the feeling goes away. Ignore all the old Confluence pages that tell you how. (I wish Atlassian would take these down)
  7. Within JIRA there are issue types specifically created by JIRA Agile. Unless you are comfortable working 100% in the way Atlassians implements Agile, create your own issue types. The behavior, features, rules etc around the Epic and Story issue types WILL change as they continue to develop their products. If you create your own issue type it will behave however you have configured it and will be far less likely to change.

If you follow these best practices (which may need to be modified over time), you are not guaranteed to completely avoid problems. But In our experience you are far less likely to be caught in a situation where an upgrade breaks your customizations. Unlike a couple of years ago we encourage customization as long as you stay on the safe path.

JIRA is easy to get, inexpensive, and generally accepted as a great tool. It is very easy to get off the safe path and into the weeds with such a configurable and powerful tool. Good training and best practices are a sensible choice.

JIRA Case Study: Nested Workflows

Using custom issue types and multiple nested workflows to bring business management processes into a project without disrupting the core workflow.

Last month I had the pleasure of teaching a private JIRA Boot Camp at a national corporation on the East Coast. They had been using JIRA for a while, and had achieved a level of success in within their development team. They knew JIRA had the ability to play a larger role, but they were struggling to really integrate it into the business. They asked if I could come out and go through my normal curriculum but with an eye on their particular situation.

Working with the Director of IT, we decided to really push hard to complete the curriculum in two days and spend the third heavily focused on their internal challenges and their production environment. By the end of the day it was really clear this had been a wise choice. They were picking up the main curriculum very well, and they could see how to move development based items through the workflow. They were struggling with how to manage the business-related processes that precipitated and followed the software development process. Like most people, they understood JIRA could be so much more than an issue tracker, they just needed a little guidance to make it happen.

As we went through the workflow exercises in the curriculum, the problem crystallized. In their organization, initiatives would be proposed by various leaders of groups throughout the company. Those initiatives would go through an assessment, research, and approval process before any development occurred. They needed to track these initiatives so they knew what was coming, but kept mixing them into the development workflow. After we covered custom issue types, I approached the solution with them. They needed to nest a development workflow inside a workflow to track initiatives. This could be done with custom issue types and advanced workflow configuration.

First we white boarded the initiative workflow both before and after development occurred. The results are shown below.


The process for the initiatives was fairly complex both before and after development. The entire development process was represented by a “development” status for the initiative. Important truth, the business process “around” development work is often far more complex than the development process itself.

After this we nailed down a straightforward workflow for the development process, represented in the next image. The essential process became crystal clear to them once we removed the distraction of the messy process surrounding it. I needed to coach them very little once the distractions were removed.


The answer to the overall problem was to allow the original initiative to be created, researched and run through an approval process. This initiative then needed to be tied to the development work while it was being completed. Once this phase was completed, there was a well-defined business process that needed to be completed for the whole initiative.

The next challenge was how to implement this in JIRA. The first step was to define the two separate workflows and lay out the statuses and transitions of each. Even though there were some possibilities of sharing statuses between the workflows, we were very careful not to do so. I have learned to isolate workflows that have different purposes. I have written about this previously, here. Mixing the purpose of a workflow includes using a status from a different workflow that may share a name. If the meaning is different in any way then a status should not be shared.

We then created the custom issue types that would be used by each workflow. There were multiple custom issue types needed for each workflow. We created multiple custom issue types for each workflow, then negotiated the transition between the issue types and workflows in a way that fit the organization.

An initiative would ride through its process until it was approved. It was then transitioned to the development status. The initiative was then assigned a label and the development items were created and tagged with that label. The initiative was not allowed to transition out of development until all the items with that label were resolved. The development items then make their way through the process to completion, thus allowing the initiative to move forward to the review, field testing, and deployment stages in the first workflow.


Another bonus of this approach was reporting. An agile board could be created for each initiative, allowing the stakeholder to monitor progress of his project. Another agile board could be created to track all the initiatives, another for initiatives by department, another for development tasks by developer.

The net result was that a very complex, opaque process made manageable and transparent by utilizing custom issue types, separate workflows and advanced workflow configuration to nest the two workflows together. Yet another example of how powerful JIRA is, and how strategic use of its flexibility can improve organizational efficiency.

Custom Issue Types, A Real Asset in JIRA

I often receive questions from JIRA users arising from a lack of understanding of the underlying system architecture. It is not unusual to desire some functionality and instinctively know there must be a way to do it with the data and the tools available, but not quite grasp the best way to accomplish it. Often users do what they have done with their computers, phones, and tablets: they go to the marketplace. I have found that almost all of the needs of an organization can be met by the core system. This is not to say there is a lack of value in the marketplace add-ons, some can be tremendously helpful, but I find it problematic to rely on an external plugin for critical functionality.Screenshot-2014-12-19-at-10.33.11-AM

One core JIRA feature that is often under-utilized, and can be an answer to many perceived needs, is Custom Issue Types. Let’s take a look at four scenarios where a user might be tempted to look at add-ons for something JIRA can do with Custom Issue Types.

Need 1: I need a template for recurring and repetitive issues, how do I do that?

I find the strongest solution to be using JIRA’s custom issue types. If for example you have a background check requirement for new hires in your HR workflow, simply create a background check issue type. You can then associate fields, and custom screens with this issue type within your project..

Need 2: I have a particular aspect of our projects that is managed by a central group. How do I aggregate these into a single manageable list?

You can use a custom issue type to accomplish this goal on a per-project basis or across multiple projects. A filter, which can be selectively shared, can be created to display this custom issue type. This filter can then be used to create an agile board or a simple list view that will show issues across all projects that match the search criteria. Continuing with the background check analogy, if there is a central group that manages HR for a number of organizations, the filter can give them visibility to manage the process easily.

Need 3: I need to give an external user access to a part of our projects. How can I do this without that user seeing everything?

Using a security scheme that restricts a user to seeing only certain issue types will achieve this goal. JIRA’s issue security feature is an often overlooked aspect of issue management in JIRA, but one that offers a lot of possibilities. That same HR group likely has no business reading all the details associated with the projects they have to touch. Issue security can restrict their access to only what they need to see–limiting liability. This is a topic I can address in more detail in a separate article. (putting this on my to-do list)

Need 4: I have different types of work in my project. My workflow works for most of my process, but to accommodate everything would require a very complex workflow. How do I accommodate all the types of work within a manageable workflow?

Using custom issue types allows you to select a workflow specifically for each type of issue. This gives you a clean palette to customize how the work occurs, is tracked, etc. Your workflows do not even need to be based on the same principles when split by issue type. I wrote about this in a recent article. You can even send data and triggers to external systems through the transitions of your custom workflow. A background check is an example of a fairly unique process that could easily justify a unique workflow.


All of these needs can be met by utilizing custom issue types. I hope you can see how the combination of all of them makes managing the specific example a breeze. Many of these needs are real and have value across a large number of organizations. Exploring the toolbox in JIRA is important if you want to use the tool effectively. Like anything in life, a deep understanding will almost always yield a better result.