How to use Basecamp for Project Management? (If you are a small IT service company)

by Abhishek

We have recently started using Basecamp as a project management tool in our company. Before this we had our own project management system which was poorly followed! Well at least I am not afraid to accept that in public :)

I personally know Basecamp as a product for quite sometime and have decent understanding of it. But it was not the case with my team so I started teaching them. I am doing it for last couple of weeks now. During this time I realized although it is a very simple product, some understanding is still needed.

So here is a basic tutorial on how to do a project management using Basecamp, especially in an IT service company. (OR custom software development company etc etc)

I am assuming you have purchased the required license and have added all of your team members in Basecamp. And guess what, you also have a project on hand right now.

So let’s get rolling then.

  1. Click on “Create a new project” and add project name. If you are planning to give Basecamp access to client, add client’s company now or skip it. You can add it later on also.
  2. Add required team members to this project
  3. Add responsible party from client’s end (if client access is required)
  4. Since you have a project in your hand means you have already done some kind of communication via emails, document exchanges etc with client. Add all those emails, chats, documents in the project under messages and files sections.

Now you have setup a baseline for all the stakeholders in the project.

By the way, what is a Message?

As explained by Basecamp:

“Messages are used to discuss ideas, ask questions, or post announcements about a project. Messages are like emails except they don’t clutter your inbox.”

So post announcement about the project and let everyone know that we have bagged the project and are ready to go.

In the ideal scenario, if requirements are clear the next step should be to create to-do lists for projects.

Each module, functionality or work flow of the project can have associated to-do list. Make sure you enter proper explanation related to the to-do list.

For e.g. a To-Do list can be “Stadium Booking Work flow” and description can be “Contains all the to-do items required to complete the stadium booking work flow as discussed with client in Stadium Booking.doc”

Once you create the to-do lists, enter to-do items in them to achieve the intended functionality.

Now its time to create “Milestones”! (I know its a scary word but fact of life!!)

Each milestone should have a date associated with it. Don’t be afraid of putting dates on milestones (keeping in mind holidays and leaves of course).

As we all know nothing is certain in this world and any random event can disrupt your plan. But then you can always shift the milestones.

If you shift the first one, Basecamp gives you option to shift all the following milestones. When you do that, make sure you enter proper reason in comment. It’s always better to tell client upfront about the delay rather than on the delivery date.

Next step is to attach to-do lists with respective milestones.

It is recommended to have to-do lists and messages associated with a milestone.

If you follow above steps you have forced yourself and your team members to plan before you start the development. It may not be a 100% plan but at least some percentage.

As per my experience most developers do not like to plan before they start the development. They love coding so much that they jump on it as soon as you give them a project. I don’t see it as a good practice. So using Basecamp like above may help such developers and companies to become better planners.

I guess you are ready to start the development now.

Developers (or Designer, QA, Project Managers) should start entering time in respective to-do items as and when they finish them.

I prefer that one task should not be greater than 2 hours otherwise mostly it has not been thought of properly by the developer. But things may be different for your team.

Now what happens if you do not have all the requirements clear? (which is the case most of the time)

My suggestion in either case would be to have first demo scheduled as soon as possible. May be in 2-3 days after the project starts.

Ask yourself this question “What can we deliver in 2-3 days to get the real feedback from client?”

Project plans, functional specs are fantasies. What you build is the reality! Show real things to client to have real feedback. 

Read “There is nothing functional about functional spec” and “Race to running software” from “Getting Real” to know what I am talking about.

So create a Milestone called “First demo to get the real feedback” and attach it with a to-do list called “First set of tasks to get real feedback” in Basecamp.

If you can do above, you already understand what Basecamp is and you know how to go forward from here.

Let’s quickly glance through some other important features of basecamp (there are very few and that is the best thing about it):

Writeboards: They are used to collaborate with your team members and client for any kind of content writing. It can be a requirements document or website contents.

Files: You can attach files in Messages, with comments or upload directly from this section. Basecamp also maintains the versions for you if you are uploading the same document. So use “Upload a new version” if it is the same document.

Private Messages and To-Do lists: In case you wish to have communication with your team members which client can not see, use this feature.

At the end, the best way to use Basecamp is to use it!

Disclaimer: I have outlined my way of using Basecamp and I am not perfect. So feel free to add your own spices to this simple but beautiful product.

Thanks 37Signals for this.