Tools for a Distributed Software Agency – 2021

Last year, I posted an overview of the tools that Silverpine uses, and I thought it might be interesting to revisit our toolset and compare with where we are versus where we were. Many of the tools continue to be the same, but there are a few changes. Read on for the details!

Communication Tools

Without a doubt, Slack is the single most valuable tool for us as a distributed company. One thing that has changed over the past year, however, is that almost all of our clients have now adopted Slack as well. This has been a great improvement as we can now utilize shared channels between workspaces which greatly reduces clutter and overhead. This has allowed us to stay mostly within the Silverpine Slack workspace which makes everything simpler and cleaner in terms of organization and tracking conversations both internal, and external. If you’re new to Slack, or have yet to try it out, I have a few posts here and here to help you get going.

Looking back to where we were last year, it’s clear that teleconferencing technology and tools have rapidly improved. This is one of the few silver linings of Covid. I’ve never held video conferencing software in very high regard, but I can definitely say that the tools have gone from incredibly awful to “ok”. And to that end, Zoom has definitely moved the quality/easy of use bar further and faster than the competitors. We will see if Zoom can keep the crown in the coming year as Teams and other platforms try to leapfrog it. For now, however, Zoom is the best, easiest to use tool for video conferencing for our business.

Last year, we standardized on Dropbox Pro for file sharing and quite honestly, it’s been so seamless to our workflows that I sometimes forget about it. I’m still surprised that Apple or Google haven’t acquired Dropbox yet, but I have no complaints. It just works.

We use Gmail for our email, and thereby get all of Google Workspace (formerly known as G Suite). I said before that I’m not even sure where I would look to replace the email side of the tools, and that still applies. This past year, however, we have also started using more of the other Workspace tools (Sheets, Docs, etc) but we definitely haven’t standardized. Most of the tools are convenient simply because they are ever-present, but if you need to create a document with a significant amount of formatting, you’ll want to look elsewhere.

Development Tools

We have looked at a few alternatives to Github (like BitBucket) but at this point, GitHub is pretty much the de facto standard for source control systems. I will admit that I was a little nervous when Microsoft acquired them, but quite frankly, their service has improved to the point that we now use them for both source control and for our automated build system through GitHub Actions. Their cost model is also very helpful to us now that it’s seat based rather than project based.

The choice of a git tool can be fairly controversial, and we will never mandate a particular app/tool, but we have found that, overall, Tower is a very good, stable, and constantly improving product. They have versions for both Mac and Windows, and their licensing model makes it easy for us to provide seats to any of our engineers that want to use it. I wouldn’t say that it’s a perfect piece of software, but it’s definitely better than using the command line. We’re not barbarians!

Of all the tools on this list, MantisHub is the one that I’m the least confident that we will still be using a year from now. MantisHub is a fairly inexpensive, hosted, bug tracking system that’s based on the open source Mantis platform. It has replaced Lighthouse which we previously used. We made the decision to replace Lighthouse because it has fallen into abandonware status, and lately hasn’t been able to provide the workflow that we need. I wouldn’t say that I love MantisHub, but it’s not as heavy as Jira and definitely less expensive. We are continually looking to improve our bug tracking system so if you have one that you like, I’d love to hear about it.

Design Tools

Sketch has owned the “non-Photoshop” tool space for years, and it remains the default/standard for our designers. Sketch is a familiar, comfortable, design tool that does what it needs to do. The licensing and cost model work amazingly well for an agency and while I wish that their administrative tools were easier to use when managing seats, it’s not something we have to do often. While we were still a Sketch shop this past year, it’s possible that the winds of change are blowing. We’ve been having internal conversations recently about switching to Figma which has quickly emerged as the cool, new kid on the block. I’ve used Figma a bit and its collaboration tools blow Sketch out of the water (at least at the time of this writing.)

I believe I overlooked our use of Zeplin in my previous tool list. That is a fairly significant oversight on my part! We’ve been using Zeplin for years now and I don’t see that changing any time soon. Zeplin is a very robust tool that engineers and designers can use to easily export image assets out of Sketch (or Figma) and import directly into project workspaces. Zeplin provides that “last mile” in the asset pipeline and supports exporting for web, iOS or Android, each of which have differing format requirements. We love Zeplin!

A critical part of our development process with clients is our prototyping phase. We work extensively with them to help them understand how the UI that we are designing will translate into UX. Particularly when working on mobile platforms, the interface really needs to “feel” right, and InVision is the prototyping tool that we utilize.

Operational/Finance Tools

Like nearly every other small business in the U.S. we use Quickbooks to manage our finances. I don’t have a lot of good things to say other than the fact that our CPA prefers us to use Quickbooks.

Silverpine’s web content is fairly static, and in general our web traffic is very low. I think it’s mostly visited by people who are curious about who we are in the hopes of potentially partnering with us on a project. To that end, we don’t really need much in terms of web hosting, so we use Squarespace. One of the best things I can say about Squarespace is that it is easy to get a decent looking web page up, quickly. They have a plethora of templates and basic customization is very easy. If you start wanting to get fancy, though, it gets incredibly clunky, quickly. It’s also slightly expensive in comparison to some of its competitors. That being said, we’ve been using it for years now without too many complaints.

One new addition/change to our set of tools is that this past year we dropped Blinksale and replaced it with Harvest for invoicing clients. A lot of people use Harvest for time tracking, but it also has a good set of invoicing tools and reports. Both Blinksale and Harvest are good tools and are fairly similar in terms of cost, but Blinksale seems to cater its tools more towards freelancers and less towards agencies. Harvest seems to do a better job of catering to both groups, and it’s made our invoicing processes much easier this past year.

People like to get paid. That seems to be a nearly universal truth, and for us, Gusto is how that happens. We’ve been using Gusto for quite a while now and they have done a fantastic job at continuing to roll out new features and products that really complement their core offering, which is payroll. We use Gusto for both employees and contractors, and I haven’t heard a single issue about it. Gusto does a really good job at tracking taxes and tax reporting for federal, state and most local requirements and many times they will pro-actively alert us about upcoming changes. On top of that, their customer service is very responsive so when we do have questions about things, they get back to us quickly with real answers. Gusto is fantastic.

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