The project management software ftrack started as a production tool, and was originally developed as an in-house tracking tool at Fido in Sweden around 2008. Today the company still has its base in Sweden, but its software helps projects all over the world run more effectively and efficiently.
The company recently showed its new integration with Maxon Cinema 4D and Adobe Creative Suite as part of a move to address the design and workflows of motion graphics. While these advances are important there are two other developments that caught our eye. The first is the move to mobile, with their new production tracking app: ftrack-go (IOS and Android : Dec 2015). The second is the company’s open and adaptive approach to their own product development using ftrack to improve ftrack.
If you go to the ftrack page on Trello you will find an Agile project management or Scrum like ‘Kanban’ board that shows you and all their competitors exactly what is on the company’s roadmap. Anyone can vote or comment to influence the ftrack development. This is not some marketing trick of pseudo-engagement. Trello is a well known task online tool and the ftrack team use Agile project management techniques to develop their own code internally. The Trello board anyone sees is the company’s real and constantly updating roadmap.
We spoke to ftrack CEO Fredrik Limsäter about the logic of being so open and also the nature of project management. He believes there is so much more to be gained by engaging directly with clients and allowing other potential clients to view what is coming that he just does not care about the competition. The Trello board has been active now for just under 6 months.
“In the past, we would develop a feature over say months and we would release it and it might not be what the customer wanted,” explained Limsäter. “What we really wanted to do is get close to customers and find out what they want and need I saw another company with a roadmap on Trello and I said – ‘why can’t we do that?’ People did point out that all our competitors would see what’s coming – but you know, it is just better to have customers transparently see what we are doing and their feedback has been great.”
The company uses this in concert with an online chat system that allows any user to chat in real time directly with senior developers. Combined, this has driven a surge in customer loyalty. “We just strive to be as open as possible,” he adds.
The idea of a Scrum or Agile board, as exemplified in Trello, is as simple as dividing tasks between:
- Customer Ideas or requests – (often called a backlog)
- Accepted ideas
- In progress tasks (or “stories”)
- Done or implemented features.
A current example of a roadmap idea from customers is to improve the ftrack-go app to include full review capabilities, and as a result is currently being explored by the engineers.
If you looked at the roadmap online today, one can see that the Maxon and Adobe additions are in the “done” column. In the next column, one can also see that the ftrack team is working on a completely new “Planning module in ftrack, highly integrated with the rest of ftrack. Adding a bidding module.” This live roadmap is updated constantly by both the team and users. Limsäter comments that the review extension for ftrack-go is one of the highest requested features currently.
Regular readers will know that fxguide have been exploring a range of new approaches to visual effects project scheduling and management, so we were particularly interested to know that the ftrack team are both internally Agile in approach and use ftrack as their own R&D scheduling tool.
Most software development teams servicing our industry are moving to Agile, yet very few vfx companies have embraced this adaptive approach. Thus a tool designed to serve the vfx community today is by no means guaranteed to have any Agile tools in the product, yet alone a complete suite of Agile tools.
Furthermore, this internal approach of inclusive team management and non hierarchical software development philosophy has lead to the Agile approach of constant releases. Unlike some companies that take a more traditional route of annual releases and big splashes, the Agile approach is to create a series of short ‘sprints’. This, combined with the mantra that the only metric of success is shipped user code, means that ftrack ships new releases all year long. The current version is 3.3 but with minor versions being released almost every fortnight.
Why every two weeks? All of ftrack’s developers work in Agile Sprints, two week, locked down periods where they burn through customer ideas as defined into a series of small easy to estimate ‘stories’ or tasks. By working both with small task units and in short Sprints, the project never gets away from them, – never balloons out and misses a deadline by months. Instead, the team refine, produce and implement customer ideas in short Sprint constantly. The team also use Atlassian’s Bitbucket for their professional Git secure source control.
While Agile has not yet taken off in vfx production, several ftrack customers, who also develop production software, have moved to an Agile software R&D approach and are now using ftrack as their s/w Agile project management tool. All of which begs the question: why does Limsäter think that production vfx teams are not exploring Agile? After all, many vfx R&D teams use Agile, so the VFX companies know it and see it benefits in R&D. Why not use it or a version of it in production? “That is a good question.I wonder if VFX is just late on adopting it, I know a few are starting to approach it… I don’t know if they are afraid of it, but I think (Agile) could really help them,” he states. He comments that technically speaking, traditional vfx “is a waterfall model – well at the start, but too often it soon just often turns into a mess.”
To be clear, ftrack works extremely effectively and its popularity has been built on helping with traditional VFX pipelines. There is no inherent or prescriptive management approach defined by the ftrack tools; one is free to use it with ‘old school’ scheduling thinking, and most customers do. Given that the team themselves use ftrack in new and more innovative ways, the software is very capable of supporting any company that should choose to explore a more innovative way of bidding, planning and running projects. It seems that ftrack is a more Agile friendly production tool than any other on the market right now due to their own adoption of it.
Limsäter himself has been talking to studios about a better approach that embraces an adaptive or Agile approach since 2014. “They have been saying: ‘we really want to do that’,” Limsäter relates, “and the technical people have been really up for it. But I just don’t think they have been able to convince the production management people to go that way. I think that’s what stopping it.”
We raised the issue of the ‘triangle of pain’ with Limsäter, often quoted as “you can have it fast, good or cheap but only two of the three.” This adage in the Agile world uses different words, but it tends to fall into a pattern where a project team fixes time and resources (thus cost) and adjusts the ‘scope’ of the project. This is in contrast to the vfx world where producers are conditioned to never pull back on scope or quality/quantity of shots and thus seem to always push overtime or cost.
Limsäter does not feel ftrack is everything it can be yet, he offers two examples of major things he personally would like to see from the product. “Adopting ftrack should take an hour not a day, and it should have an easy to use resource load prediction, such as ‘will I have enough people to be able to get this done in 3 months?’ ”
No matter what approach you take with your project, one of the great benefits of a program like ftrack is the captured data to help predict the next job or next project. The notion of a post-mortem seems very unappealing when you have finally delivered the last shot, but learning from one’s successes and failures to more accurately predict and quote the next job is an often overlooked key production trick that benefits everyone in the long haul.
“In my experience not everyone uses the data that ftrack collects for the next show, they don’t do a proper post-mortem – some do. They really analyze what happened… what can we do better on the next show. But some don’t really use the data they have and that is something we want to make easier for customers to see when they start the next project… ‘how did compositing end up on the last project?’ – ‘what can I do on the next project because of what we learnt?’ – this kind of thing… To be honest, I think producers could much better utilise the data in ftrack, and it is up to us to remove the pain points to make that easier to do,” explains Limsäter.
He cites the teams’ reporting functionality as an area he would like to see improve for ftrack. “This is something we hope to see a lot more of this fall, something that really harnesses all the data we have… I would say today, business intelligence is a weaker point, and somewhere we can really improve and provide a lot more… and we have been working quite a lot on this – with various customers around the world, and I will be excited to announce this later, when it is ready.”
Cinesite and other companies such as MPC, that work with ftrack have evolved with the development of the product. Many of these companies use the ftrack API to remove their internal use of legacy programs such as Filemaker Pro databases and thus pipelines such as Cinesite’s new animation pipeline in the Cinesite Montreal office.
About 50% of ftrack customers use either the Python API or the new Java-script API for customizing their production pipelines. Big lighthouse accounts like Cinesite are also able to get source code access to the ftrack software to build even tighter integrated tools, especially with their own in house animation and effects software that ftrack would not natively support. “We work very closely with the Enterprise level implementations of ftrack,”Limsäter explains.
ftrack, and professional tools like it, provide automation tools that facilitate artists being efficient. It creates a better way to view a project, thanks to the many views one can have using a relational database, and the overview of how a producer needs to see how production is progressing.
While the debate may continue on why production managers do not embrace Agile, it is worth noting that many teams, especially smaller ones, are still run with Excel as their software project tool. Spreadsheets are poorly suited to the constant changes and resource allocation problems of a production. For these companies mthe task is upgrading to adopt even the simplest dedicated project tools. For them, it is not just about using ftrack, but adopting professional tools in the first place,
Limsäter is sees many potential customers still using Excel, Google sheets or some sort of generic production tool that is not fit for the task of project management. “I am so surprised how many companies do that, especially at the 10 – 20 people size companies,” he says. “We still see a lot of them… some of them even have their own proprietary tools and we need to convince them – you should focus on your core business – the content creation business that you do best, and let us work on these tools for you.”. ftrack will even develop custom tools, via one of their integrators, for clients if they really feel they need them and they don’t want to support in-house development or API programming.
ftrack is used by companies such as Trixter and Luma Pictures in VFX (feature and episodic TV) as well as by others in animation, games, motion graphics and new areas such as VR. But the company also has design clients such as car companies and product designers such as Lego. “I put this range of customers down to the flexibility of ftrack as a platform – it is quite easy to change the way you work.. it is not tied down to a set structure,” comments Limsäter. The company’s view had been that most companies around 10 people can really benefit from the product, but this has changed. “If you’d asked me last year I would have said 10, but now I would say 5 users,” he says. “But we have one customer who is a one band band, but he uses it to collaborate with his clients.”
ftrack still has its head office in Sweden but from November the company will open an office in San Francisco and support the American market more from that laction. The USA is the company’s biggest market, but other countries such as Germany are key markets as well. Asia is growing quickly, as many Asian users find it very easy to learn. From its international point of view, the company is gearing up for more global, virtual companies.
ftrack already works well in managing where data is around the world for distributed multi-site companies but the virtual company is a different model. Limsäter sees these new types of companies as a new model, where a small team of experienced freelancers come together to work as one, and are not a traditional company with traditional corporate offices or fixed teams. Such flexible virtual teams can pose unique problems for project tracking and management. While Limsäter will support traditional methods, ftrack is committed to new evolving approaches, for these new types of companies. Limsäter feels approaches like Agile project management are “what we think the way forward is, and we are going to continue pushing for this.”