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The Best Issue Tracker

Last Updated November 18, 2020
Reading Times:
Summary only: 1 minute
Full guide: 7 minutes

Introduction

If a friend had an early stage startup and asked what issue tracker we'd recommend to support their engineering team we'd say Linear. It's our favorite tool because — with a handful of nitpicks — it captures the effective but not intrusive approach closest to the platonic ideal of a maintenace-free, lightweight, communicable, and easy-to-manage command line workflow.

Ratings Matrix

Issue Trackers
Ease of Use
Maintenance Effort
Cross-Functional Appeal
Portability
How Far Can You Get For Free
Affordability
Clubhouse
Our take: Clubhouse is a broader project management tool with a more baked-in agile perspective. Well-designed and fast but also more opinionated than Linear.
Linear
Our take: Our pick for best issue tracker lasers in on engineering teams as their target customer. The tool emphasizes shortcuts, an opinionated workflow, and keeping context within the app when needed.
Gitlab Project Management
Our take: Good choice if you're committed to the broader Gitlab product and use the other tools and features in the platform. A mature card visualization with good tags accomodate the complexity required for tracking even for a larger software engineering effort.
Github + Zenhub
Our take: As sleek a UI as we saw amongst the issue trackers and it's a good agile layer on top of Github Issues to boot.
Github + Zube
Our take: Zube is the cheapest way to get started with an agile project management toolset on top of Github issues. It's less slick than Zenhub, but it's also an easier initial buy.
JIRA
Our take: JIRA is a complete piece of software that needs a design makeover and simplification, but can't get it because it would upset existing workflows. Free for teams up to 10 users, quite expensive thereafter.
Tara.ai
Our take: Free plan only and currently in beta so more to come soon.

What makes a great issue tracker?

Early-stage startups need an issue tracker that helps them speed-up. Practically, this means that the issue tracker should handle the division of requirements and log work in a way that's accessible but with a light touch. Startups are particularly sensitive to this logging work because the day-to-day of it will likely fall to an already under-resourced engineering team. So, if a tool enables engineers to spend 2-20% less time or frustration tracking work it's a no-brainer at $0-$20/seat/month.

To understand what we mean by lightweight consider the command line purist's view on issue tracking: the ideal tool for keeping developers at the command line is the command line. With some straightforward bash scriptsSearch <VCS> flow automation and you should turn up bundles, a bit of training around a command line workflow,More on this in our tips section and a vcs-linked time trackerE.g. Timeglass almost all the value of an issue tracker can be replicated in text on your terminal.This is true for almost everything on a computer, but particularly so here In reality though GUIs exist to smooth the maintenance of this workflow, reduce some of the frustration associated with the work logging process, and to make it more transferable. So, what we're looking for out of a "best" issue tracker is something that handles the bridges these two worlds with a great VCS integration and a work-block designAn issue or a card are the most standard format for this to manage priorities.

Our pick: Linear

After milling through ticketing workflows, tutorials, and demo boards in a dozen project management tools and speaking to founders, PMs, EMs, and developers we found that Linear has developed a tracking system that maps best to a git-based workflow and provides the blocks required for a work tracking system. From the layout to the settings dashboard its clear that the development team understands how startups organize their workflows with clear priorities and less clutter. Like so many great PM/EMs we know it effectively ring-fences work-tracking while being considerate of teams' time.

There are some complaints where the design falls short of the ambition — all users we spoke to mentioned the value of learning the shortcuts upfront, but where they seemed incomplete or missingAn add a new project shortcut would be a help for those of us so inclined to open a few new ones every week there was some frustration around digging through a shortcut reference page in the first place. The requirement that you install their CLI to import issues from other projectsYes, even from Github and the absence of simultaneous issue editing, or even some type of multiple editor notification, are clunky for an otherwise polished tool.

Our second favorite non-directly-vcs-integrated tool is Clubhouse. It felt like the easiest to transition to if you've used an issue tracker before and was raved about by one startup that moved from a more general project management tool for their small team. Clubhouse strikes a balance between catering to developer workflows like Linear and something more targeted at PMs or EMsE.g. JIRA with a few layers of agile processHenceforth agile, meaning a way to prioritize issues and organize/plan work on by default. We prefer Linear to it because it feels more tailored as an issue tracker, but if you're looking for a good mixed-team compromise, this is it.

Tethered to your VCS?

Then consider more coupled to the VCS-GUI issue management tools like Github Issues or Gitlab. For this category of we product, we think switching costs are small enough that you should consider an issue tracker that is separate from your VCS GUI. But, if you're a creature of habit or already slinging tickets via the paid Gitlab or Github interfaces, it might not be worth it to make the switch right now. Teams we communicated with worked in any number of systems from pen and paper notes to knowledge bases to Airtable templates to full-blown scrum systems. So, if you feel like the overhead of switching to something new while your product evolves is too high and your issue tracker isn't a bottleneck, then don't do it.

Gitlab's integrated issue tracker provides all the decorators you'll need so that users who are familiar with the platform will be happy with the issue tracker. Github also has quality project management tools with extensions that add agile best practices and structure to an engineering managers' toolkit. The Zenhub and Zube extensions sold within the Github marketplace allow teams to build a quality agile project management experience and feel opinionated mostly for their support of agile workloads.

We found few JIRA lovers amongst teams we spoke to, and the phrase "necessary evil" was offered unprompted more than once. JIRA is lacking in the way that early 2000s webforms were lacking, but it's clear that some of the grief it gets comes the pain of larger-scale deployments. Complaints about cost and the pervasive sense that the tool was built for managers first also grated teams we spoke to.

Tips

Does it handle my [marketing/customer support/documentation/operations] project management needs?

Almost all the tools reviewed in this article could also be used for general project management,And as an "agile-ish" template but that's not our focus here. Instead, this article is about issue trackers as a distinct category from project management tools built to support diverse workflows E.g. Basecamp, Trello, ClickUp, Asana, Airtable, Notion. If git branches and the unit of progress measurement by which teams can be automatically mapped via tags then it's a likely candidate for this reviewThen shoot us an email if you know of tools should be added to this list, we do updates!.

Watch for another article on what the best general product management tools are as well as recommendations for other issue-tracker type use-cases targeted at sales, operations, customer service, marketing, and design teams.

The best workflow advice we found

We tried to pick out the common threads from our conversations with teams and research to distill some of the best engineering management insights into this post, the top three takeaways were:

  1. Keep your basic units of work broken up into small pieces. Any work-progress measurement that scopes more than one PR adds outsized overhead communication and priority ranking.

  2. Treat estimation like estimation. Although planning is essential, most plans are useless and it's helpful to remember that estimates are a measure of a team's capacity given current plans and information. Plans and priorities change, especially at a startup, so be realistic about your estimates' reliability.

  3. Once you've identified a scope for your team don't change it because the shift is a big distraction. The goal is to keep your team productive rather hew to a benchmark or productivity chart.

All this is to say that much of the instrumentation around all project management, developer teams included, helps boil down a huge set of challenges into the next five goals the team needs to accomplish. Once that's set folks should go-go-go with as few breaks in context as possible.

Deals, deals, deals

Not many deals for this class of tools. Clubhouse offers 12 months of free use if you sign-up through their startup program. Gitlab offers a free year to YC participants, but check with your accelerator or startup network and let us know if you find anything.

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Chandan
Linear is leaps and bounds ahead of the rest
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