How Notion thinks it can win the hearts of software-development teams

For more than 20 years, Atlassian's Jira has been the primary issue-tracking tool used to manage software development projects. But Notion is increasingly gaining converts among software developers as an asynchronous project-management tool.

a screenshot of the product roadmap screen from Notion Projects in calendar form
Notion thinks it can build on recent momentum with software development teams to take on Atlassian's Jira through products like Projects, shown here.

While the rush to embrace remote work ended with a thud in 2023, even modest-size companies are never going to have everyone involved in a major project working in the same room at the same time. That's especially true for software development teams, which are often spread across continents working around flexible schedules and saddled with distinct tasks that must be completed and assembled.

For more than 20 years, Atlassian's Jira has been the primary issue-tracking tool used to manage software development projects. Thanks to its stability and prevalence within large enterprise companies, it has stubbornly held onto that position despite a long-running list of complaints about the tool, which persist to this day.

Notion, on the other hand, was originally designed to manage documents in the middle of the mobile computing revolution. It developed a bit of a cult following thanks to great word-of-mouth recommendations from design teams, marketing departments, and personal users who just wanted a modern tool for managing their own tasks.

But Notion is increasingly gaining converts among software developers as an asynchronous project-management tool, a team-wide communication channel for situations when real-time collaboration is unavailable or unnecessary. Earlier this year developers surveyed by Stack Overflow ranked it among the most-used asynch tools; behind Jira and Atlassian's Confluence, to be sure, but a much higher percentage of respondents expressed a desire to use Notion in the future after giving it a try during the past year.

And that survey was conducted before Notion launched a new version of its Projects tool in May, which made a lot of users realize for the first time they could also use the app to manage their software development workflow, said Akshay Kothari, co-founder and chief operating officer at Notion, in a recent interview.

"People live their life in so many different apps and different (types of) software; that is quite unproductive." Kothari said. "I think the value that Notion brings is not that it's feature by feature better than Jira. The value that Notion brings is that the context of the projects you work on (and) the context of the tasks you are assigned to is right there in the same product."

Up for debate

There have been a lot of project management tools that have tried to knock Jira off its perch atop the software development community. Asana, Trello (acquired by Atlassian in 2017), Miro, and all developed their own take on a basic project status board, a task scheduler, and bug-tracking tool that were mobile friendly and based around design thinking, and few have made an outsize impact on Jira's core market.

According to Megan Cook, head of product for Jira, the app's success has come because Atlassian has deliberately tried to avoid the temptation to add too many additional features to its original capabilities. Instead, it has developed a host of API integrations with other products — including its own, like Confluence — that allow users to rely on the best tool for a specific job while still being able to work across several different tools.

"We're definitely one of the only tools that has such a rich ecosystem, rather than trying to just build everything in one tool and possibly not doing the best job when you're trying to cover such a broad space," Cook said in a recent interview.

With its revamp of Projects, Notion is obviously taking a different approach, and this debate is one of the oldest in enterprise software: Are corporate users best served by working with several different tools that strive for excellence in their disciplines (this is still somehow known as "best of breed," and that needs to stop) or are they better off using a single tool that comes from a single vendor and allows them to do everything they need?

Both approaches have had their moments in the sun over the last few decades, and after the rise of mobile and cloud computing provoked a surge in the quantity and quality of enterprise software, several vendors — including Microsoft and Notion — are betting that the era of "tool sprawl" might be coming to an end.

"Part of our inspiration is that the world had moved to too many specialized solutions, with the internet and the distribution that it drives," Kothari said. "That's why you end up with like 80 to 100 different tools that a company uses. We think that the pendulum will swing back to more consolidation, people wanting fewer things to sort of do their work."

AI solves this

Notion's strategy for increasing its share of the software development market relies on convincing potential customers that everyone in their organization should have access to something that's as good as what the engineers get to use, Kothari said.

"One of the things that we think about is like, why do only the engineers of the world get a highly powerful functioning project management tool?" he said. "I think a lot of the customers start with their engineering product teams using Notion, (but) I think it ends up being used by a wide variety of (business) functions."

But while Jira is used extensively within software development organizations, it's probably not the tool that marketing teams will use to plan their next launch campaign. Notion thinks it can offer businesses one tool that appeals to both groups, and that its heritage as a documents-management app could make it easier for those groups to work together when they have shared projects with changing requirements.

"For the first time, your docs, your wikis, and your projects are in the same place: What can we do together for those three use cases that makes it so that the workflow feels much more connected and much more seamless?" Kothari said.

And like every enterprise software company in 2023, both Notion and Atlassian are also betting that generative AI technologies are going to change the way that software development teams manage projects and use project-management tools.

"I think as new ways of using AI unfold in the future, there's going to be different appetites for what people are comfortable with," Atlassian's Cook said, listing off several possibilities such as using natural-language input for searching across a project, or having Jira automatically generate summaries of a ticket history for people coming to an issue or bug for the first time.

Generative AI could also be a boon for project managers that let things get a little messy.

"I used to tell people, 'Hey, tidy your workspace. Keep everything organized. And now with AI, I'm sort of like, 'It actually doesn't matter how you kept it, just throw everything in there and we will make sense of it using embeddings'" and other AI techniques, Kothari said.

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