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  4. Ep. #36, Collaboration Tools with Jira’s Zak Islam
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In episode 36 of JAMstack Radio, Brian is joined by Zak Islam, Head of Engineering at Atlassian’s Jira platform, to discuss Jira’s entire toolset, and how they are able to simplify complex projects for teams of all sizes.

Zak Islam is the Head of Engineering at Atlassian’s Jira platform. He oversees engineering teams that deliver the core experience for the entire Jira family including Jira Service Desk and Jira Ops. He was previously a Senior Manager at the AWS Messaging group.


Brian Douglas: Welcome to another installment of JAMstack Radio. On the line I've got Zak Islam. Zak, introduce yourself and let us know what you're doing at Atlassian.

Zak Islam: Absolutely. Brian, first of all, thanks for having me here. I'm really excited. I'm the head of engineering for the Jira Platform team. Basically my responsibilities can be split into two core areas, one is managing the Jira experience or what we call the Jira experience. Of course the other is every platform team owns the infrastructure components of it.

So, what's the Jira experience? It's the consistency that our customers get, and our users get from using Jira. Things like managing issues, creating issues, deleting issues, and of course things like configuring your projects and all that. As you may know, we've got a couple of different products. Jira Software, Jira Service Desk and just in our last summit we announced Jira Ops. Across all of those products we provide that Jira experience.

Of course what happens behind the scenes at the infrastructure layer is just keeping Jira alive, so capacity planning and making sure our logs are getting rotated, making sure that security is locked down and the database is scaled properly. A bit of both, some customer experience areas and a lot of infrastructure stuff. That's Jira Platform in a nutshell.

Brian: Before we move on to more about what you're doing day to day and what Jira is planning for the future, can you zoom back and let's talk about what Jira is? I have the privilege of using Jira two companies ago. I have firsthand knowledge, I've worked with a lot of PMs that are using it, but can you explain a little more of why and who is using Jira?

Zak: Yes absolutely.

Simply put, Jira is the number one software development planning tool. That's what we do. That's our bread and butter. Taking really massive complex projects and enabling customers that range from project managers, product managers to developers, to break down those really complex projects into manageable chunks so you can go and implement those.

What you get out of that is the predictability, that reporting where when things are off track you get those early signals. Where project managers can say "Is it time for us to descope things to meet our timelines?"Or Dev managers can say "My teams aren't working hard." I'm sure my team doesn't want to hear that, but sometimes that does happen.

Brian: I remember when I used Jira, it was my first dev job. We had the point system to be able to qualify the level of tickets. Is that something that came out of Jira? Or is that just part of product management and that--? I don't even know where it came from, I'm just curious if you knew.

Zak: Yeah. I know we've done a lot of work to innovate and disrupt how Agile is adopted, so I think it's a mix of contributions from various agile manifestos and whatnot. What I do know is we have made it much easier to manage and track all of that.

Brian: OK, yeah. Cool. As you mentioned, the word agile. Now I remember the book, the original book that came out, and a lot of the talk said around that time. I think that's where the point system came, but I think you guys--

Zak: That's right.

Brian: You've owned it as far as me seeing it in the wild, and I think it's pretty elegant how you can track tickets. I remember at this time I was taking all the low level tickets at one time, at my first engineering job, and it's the week I learned VIM is by doing all level ones. Originally, you got invited to come onto this podcast and I originally wanted to talk about this whole trend between micro services and monoliths.

You'd mentioned Jira being able to take large projects and scale them and manage them, but there's a larger trend of people moving towards having multiple small projects. How does Jira approach that? I've read an article specifically on the Atlassian blog, but I'm curious of what your perspective is on Jira and how they manage that going forward.

Zak: If you take a look at how most companies are working now, back in the day it used to be "Let's go to do big planning, big requirement stocks, use cases," and all those different things. Then you hand over those requirements to the development team, the development team goes and builds a whole bunch of things, and of course that's going to be the wrong thing. You launch this thing and your customers are unhappy.

Well, agile aims to solve all of that. The way that Agile aims to solve some of that, some of those problems, is to build software in a much more iterative way. What we also know is when you have really large complex teams, communication is a huge challenge. With Jira what you can do is basically, once you take in your big complex projects and put it into your roadmap and laid out a visual reference of how the project is going to be managed, you have a nice backlog of user stories and task breakdowns and proper estimates of how you're going to tackle this project.

What you can do is basically take those small chunks and hand it off to teams to go and implement, and you can manage those dependencies through retrospectives, and that's where a lot of Confluence also comes in, to be honest. As part of our larger project management collaboration story.

Jira helps you manage the day to day, whereas Confluence helps you manage the overall project. The vision, the charter, the retrospectives and so on. It's really a mix of those two tools that enable customers to not just manage projects, but also how you're making progress towards a vision.

Brian: Awesome. Confluence, I'm glad you mentioned that. That's a great product within the Atlassian suite. I was just in Atlanta talking to a couple folks at a conference, and they they mentioned that the reason they pay for Atlassian wasn't because of Bitbucket or Jira, it was because of C onfluence, and the way to store historical data and where the project came from.

Zak: I'm sure the Confluence team would love to hear that. I'll make sure they hear that.

Brian: Yeah. So, since you mentioned Confluence, can we talk a little bit about Atlassian? How does Jira fit within all these little pillars and pieces of the Atlassian suite?

Zak: Absolutely. We have a couple of different Jira products, so I'll focus in on Jira's software which is what a lot of the listeners on this show will be familiar with. Basically Jira software is the software development planning tool, allowing you to take-- Like I mentioned these massive use cases, breaking it down and building out your roadmap, breaking it down to task level and running your sprints. That's the day to day tracking.

Then you have Confluence, which is more of our content management platform that allows customers to store the vision track and use things like retros and just day to day collaboration of "I'm going to throw up a design dock here, let me share it out with my team and get their feedback very quickly." I think that's really what Confluence is powerful for.

Of course you have Jira Service Desk, which is geared much more towards service desk type roles where your agents and your operators are managing incoming tickets and making sure that your customers are happy and you're not missing your SLAs.

The last one that I wanted to touch on was--we have quite a few products--but the last one I'll touch on is Bitbucket. That's really targeted towards developers for code hosting. Awesome code reviews and of course with Bitbucket pipelines, direct integration into your infrastructure, deploying your code into various environments, and whatnot. Deep integration with Jira software, so when you've finished working on an issue and your code is deployed you know that it's now done-done.

That's one of the things that's really difficult to track if you've ever been in a manager role, is when is your story really done? Is it when your engineers pushed it and now it's in Ingot? Or is the code running on the production host? Those three platforms that I just talked about allow software teams to manage their work really effectively.

Brian: Yeah. I would even say it might not even be done until even after you ship it and it's live in production. It could be done once you start getting issue tickets and support desk tickets about this problem that keeps surfacing, or even feedback. I know a lot of times with my PMs, they like to talk about the response on Twitter or Hacker News, if it gets that far.

Then it's these simple conversations in support. Did somebody like this feature, is somebody struggling with this feature, is there enough documentation on this feature? The cool thing about Jira and the whole suite is that you can track the history of where this came from, who shipped the feature, what team was it responsible to, maybe whom has the expertise to improve or fix or add on to this going forward. That's what it sounds like you were saying.

Zak: Absolutely.

Software development is changing every day, especially with the adoption of Cloud.

To touch on your point, back in the day, even back five six years ago you could package up a software and throw it on your site, customers would download it and you would have no idea what was going on. With AWS it's changing the way we manage and operate software now. It doesn't even end once it's in production, you now have to support it. It's evolving and Jira plays a critical role in helping our customers manage post-production incidents and whatnot. So, lots going on there and I'm really excited to be playing in this space.

Brian: Yeah. With the whole agile method, it seems like agile changed the game as far as how we approach shipping software. I'd say even the whole purpose for this podcast, JAMstack Radio, we're changing the way we're approaching developing projects. Now we're really tapping into agile and we're tapping into CI and letting automation deploy our stuff for us, our code for us, get it live in front of people.

So the speed at which we're now developing and that we can develop is overwhelming to the point where it's hard to manage all these ideas and these thoughts, and especially if you're a smaller team. Which is the power of having some project management solution for you.

I know you're in engineering for Jira. I also use another product, I guess this is the Atlassian show at this point, but I use another product that I use for my personal organization which is Trello. I literally use Trello for ideas of projects in learning. So if there's a new technology that I want to approach, I just create a Trello board and add a bunch of documentation or a bunch of tutorials into the Trello board. That's my managing of my life and my future technical learnings. I don't use Jira day to day, and I haven't for some time, but it's the same approach that I use in Trello. It's the same thing that you could use for Jira, as far as researching and developing new features and products.

Zak: Absolutely. I use Trello every day and it really helps with the unstructured work. I know I sound like I've thought so deeply about this, but I haven't. But listening to you talk about it, it really helps with that day-to-day, whereas Jira is a little bit more structured and helps with team collaboration and just the things that we have. So, I'm a huge fan of Trello. We work with them all the time on sharing ideas.

Brian: That's awesome. So, you're in Sydney, and I know there's an office here in SF and there's another office at Mountain View and a couple other places. How much cross collaboration happens within Atlassian? If you're working at Jira, how much talk do you get to talk with Trello to see what's going on there?

Zak: I'm talking to the Trello team at least once or twice a week, at least at the leadership level.

One of Atlassian's secret sauces is how collaborative the environment is, and I think we live and breathe what we sell I guess, in a way. That's collaboration tools and collaboration software.

And because we utilize all of that internally, dog- fooding everything, we've built this culture where we're constantly talking to each other, sharing ideas. A lot of day-to day-interactions are happening.

Brian: That's good to hear. That's only creating that cohesion between all these suites. It's good for the Atlassian business for sure, and I'm sure it's great for Jira. It's good to hear that these things are talking. The biggest question when Trello was acquired by Atlassian, everybody loves this product and it was their home away from Jira. "This is where I can do my own side projects and just use Trello." But if there's an integration to maybe step up into Jira if your project becomes big enough--.

I think what a lot of what we're seeing is a lot of the small companies and startups will start on a hack day or hack weekend or side project. They use all these free tools, and then they grow out of them. So it sounds like Atlassian can get to you that stepping stone into other things. Is that correct?

Zak: That's exactly the way we look at it internally. It's great to get your unstructured work and structured thinking put into Trello, and off you go. You have a list, you have a bunch of cards, and you can get going. As you get a few more people into the mix, what you realize is "OK. Who's working on what? We need to start tracking the velocity of the team, how many stories are being moved from "to -do"back to estimation, and so on." I think that's really where we see a lot of customers graduate into Jira, but we're also learning a ton from Trello because we also know customers love Trello. That's why we bought Trello, I guess, and work with them closely.

Brian: Excellent. So this is more of a personal question too, since you're a head of engineering at Jira, how much of product management or not-- Do you feel like you're more of a product manager, that you're working on a product manager tool?

Zak: Jira has a broad applicability, and you can really use it to--I'll say this again for the sake of it, it's to allow you to break down those really complex pieces of work into manageable chunks.

And as the head of engineering, a lot of my responsibility is to ensure that our teams are operating as effectively as possible. Not just from a developer coding perspective, but how can we unblock them? How can we make sure that the right requirements get to the right person, and what not?

For me I use Jira as more of a planning tool to keep track of how my team is operating. I also know that my counterparts in the organization use it very differently. Internally we have stories of product managers using Jira to plan how their kids will manage chores at home. There's some really-- I think there's a blog out there somewhere about that. So, if you can dream of it, I'm sure you can throw it into Jira.

Brian: That would be excellent. I have a five year old, and we have the gold star system. Basically, brush your teeth you get a gold star. If you get 20 gold stars you get a small thing from Target. That's our system that we have.

Zak: Brian, you have to graduate to virtual stars now.

Brian: Yeah, right? I just need him to log into Jira. Be like, "OK. Wake up. Before you eat breakfast, open up your e-mail. Time to get to those tickets."

Zak: I'm sure your kids are going to love you.

Brian: I'm not sure if that would be borderline child abuse or not, but yeah. I'm all for it if my son becomes the next awesome PM or engineer, then I guess it'll be worth it.

Zak: Brian, let's just call it a good experiment. How's that? If it works, fantastic.

Brian: You'll you'll be at my TED talk, or my court hearing in the next few years.

Zak: I look forward to both.

Brian: You mentioned some stories for internal usage. What's the best story for Jira usage externally? Any companies to note that are using Jira?

Zak: Yeah. We recently went and visited a car manufacturer, and it was really interesting to see how this company was leveraging Jira to make sure they track what piece of code is deployed to production and whatnot. They use Jira essentially as a core in their planning process to ensure that what's out in front of customers, and what functionalities are customers using.

So it's really interesting to see how critical Jira has become for companies that utilize agile processes, and they want to optimize for moving really fast. That was a really cool story. We have a bunch of use cases from Dropbox, Airbnb and Lyft, posted out there. It's really inspiring to see how Jira helps these companies operate so much more effectively.

Brian: You'd mentioned too the Atlassian Summit you guys just had. Could you talk more about that? I wasn't aware that you guys do a summit.

Zak: Yeah. So, we have one coming up in Las Vegas in April, I think it's at the end of April. Basically it's really a gathering place for Atlassian product users. We are really excited about it. We have a couple of different tracks like most conferences. We have the technology track where you where you learn about how other software teams are utilizing Jira and Confluence and Bitbucket, and how are they managing projects and what not.

We have a leadership track where you get to hear about how product managers and even development managers and heads of engineering and C-level folks are influencing their teams and how they're operating effectively, completely on not-product related. It's a huge conference. Last year we had it in Barcelona in October and November timeframe. We unveiled a couple of products and we recently acquired Opsgenie as well, so that's where we announced that. Lots of big exciting news happens out of our summits as well.

Brian: Excellent. Yeah. I look forward to hearing more about that in the future, and then also looking for those case studies. I'm sure it's somewhere on a sales page somewhere, but I'll definitely check that out.

Zak: Yeah. If you're interested in the summit, it's in Las Vegas from April 9th to 11th. So, definitely check that out.

Brian: Cool. As we wind down, is there anything else you-- Hidden features or success stories from Jira you want to cover?

Zak: Yeah. We've gone through a massive change internally, and our change and our success for Jira has been moving over from behind the firewall as a solution, to moving us into AWS which allows us to reduce our downtime and improves or our developer productivity. We've seen a great uptake in our customer feedback when it comes to the speed of Jira, and all the things that we've been doing, so our focus is really has been around how do we continue to deliver value to customers through by reducing the complexity of Jira? We love the feedback, keep them coming, and we're really excited about our customers using it. If you feel like you've got a great story, please don't hesitate to share that with us.

Brian: You mentioned taking down the firewall. Do you guys have an API for Jira too, in case someone wants to build in some next level features for themselves?

Zak: Yeah, we do. It's part of our developer ecosystem. Definitely check it out. We work very closely with our ecosystem partners and our marketplace vendors and whatnot. So, that's an area that we'll continue to innovate. Definitely check out the APIs.

Brian: Awesome. So cool, Zak. Thanks for talking about Jira and what you're doing there at Atlassian. I do want to transition us into picks, these are jam picks. These are picks that literally keep us jamming, it can be music or food, technology picks, side projects, Jira combine boards as well if you have a really cool example and you want to go into more detail on how you manage your kids.

Regardless, I am going to start with my picks if you don't mind. My first pick is the Black Panther soundtrack. Black Panther got 9 nominations. I think it's one less than A Star is Born, so I am pretty happy. I love the movie. I loved that it was based here, a part of it was based here in Oakland, just down the street from me. The soundtrack is amazing, not just because it's got all the cutting edge trap and Kendrick Lamar, but also the soundtrack for the score of the movie. They literally based-- Every time the antagonist kill monger was on the screen he had a theme song. It was very subtle, and then every time a Black Panther was on screen he had a theme song. A lot of people don't really pick up on this unless you watched it 20 times like most people did, which is why it did so well.

My next pick is gonna be Song Exploder. It was a pick previously here on this podcast, but this specific episode on Black Panther soundtrack. It's really fascinating. I happened to meet the director. I went to school with the musician that created the score for Black Panther. That's the connection. It was friends making music, but it turned out to be extremely amazing. So, definitely check out that S ong Exploder episode to find out why this got-- The soundtrack in particular got so many nominations. Those are my two picks. Just go watch Black Panther, and make sure if you know anybody in Hollywood tell them to vote for it.

Zak: Awesome. I'll share mine. My therapy away from the day-to-day of managing massive teams and building massively scalable stuff is cooking. So, that's my therapy on the weekend. Lately I've been getting into slow cooking and smoking meats. I bought myself a Weber.

Brian: Nice.

Zak: I just, I moved to Australia about eight months ago. So, what do you do on the weekends? You barbecue.

Brian: Put a shrimp on the barbie, right? Is that what they say?

Zak: Absolutely. I won't repeat that, but you're absolutely right. I don't want to--

Brian: I guess if you wanna keep your friends in Australia, don't say that.

Zak: I certainly do. But I'm glad one of us said it, and it was you. So that's been my jam on the weekends. My second one has been, if it weren't for doing what I do now, I would be a pilot. In the next two to three weeks --I just had my birthday, and my wife got me a flight experience pass, so I cannot wait to go back to flying again. I think my license is expired by now, but I can't wait to go back to it. Hopefully it doesn't cut into cooking time.

Brian: Yeah.

Zak: Yeah.

Brian: So, I have two follow ups. One, what's your favorite thing to cook on the barbecue, at this point?

Zak: Beef ribs. Can't go wrong. Slow cook it for about six hours and then smoke it for about two. That's a good weekend.

Brian: Nice. I'll make note of that once I get my grill. Unfortunately, my backyard is an alley, and people complain when you start smoking meats in the alley. It's also not very good for urban areas. Fire department does not like that. Second thing is you mentioned you already had a license that's going to expire, so you were flying planes for how long?

Zak: I was. I was flying planes for about four years, so that was really fun. I had to cut that back as work and kids had picked up, so every weekend you think "I should go do that again," but you just keep making excuses and you know the rest of the story.

Brian: Yep. I've got a lot of half-built things. No pilot's license, but definitely a lot of half-built projects for sure, that I should get in Jira so I can manage that.

Zak: I hope you do. I know at least we'll make you feel guilty, it's going to be up there.

Brian: Yeah, exactly. Excellent. Zak, thank you very much for coming on and chatting about Jira. Listeners, keep spreading the jam.