Tag Archives: Slack

After Moving to Slack: Inbox Zero (at least twice per week)

TL,DR Version: Moving my entire Engineering organization to Slack and adopting a ChatOps collaboration mindset has reduced email volume over 95% and now enables us to resolve issues in 1/4th of the time.

I have always been a fan of using automation, web hooks, and chat-assisted operations to streamline work and enable collaboration across different locations. However, this traditionally required some Engineering and Operations (i.e., DevOps) investment in setting up collaboration servers, programming bots, etc. Slack has changed this, virtually eliminating all technical friction of moving to a ChatOps model. Here is our of how Slack enabled us to move to a ChatOps environment with far less email, faster response times, and greater overall productivity.

In late 2013, I joined a new company that—at the time—had no one on staff at the time with a DevOps-style background. After coming from several years of Chat-integrated operations, it felt like hitting the brakes. One night a few weeks later, I saw a Tweet by @mparca on February 9 about this new great service called Slack. I took a quick look and realized I could achieve everything that HipChat and Hubot did—with a simple push-button SaaS service. My initial set up (our organization, some channels, and hooks to Github) took less than 10 minutes. As it was free (for many features), I did not even need to process a Purchase Order (even better). I was off to setting ChatOps at a new place.

Initially, things went pretty slow. At the time, most of our tech stack and tools were hosted on-premise. Our chat tool of choice as a Skype (not a hook-friendly app). I got a few people to move to Slack, but not many.

Over time, as we implemented a full continuous integration and deployment chain, we added more and more hooks into Slack. First came a move to Atlassian (Cloud). Next Jenkins. Next Sentry. Then Ansible. Then Icinga. Then came custom RTM scripts for more complex things, such as letting our Data Scientists know they have left an idle PySpark context running for more than eight hours. What made this so easy was that everything but the custom RTM scripts could be done in less than five mouse-clicks (it is very helpful that so many collaboration and monitoring tools have enabled web hooks).

As we added more hooks, and started to bring more people onboard, I noticed an interesting shift. People joining our team began to just use Slack to communicate. One developer would come across an interesting new open source repo or article and share it with the rest in #general. Developers with DevOps privileges would jump on issues as soon as they saw a Sentry alert in #prod (saving the need to even text or phone the on-call engineer). Some people even answering questions in code review while they were doing things like waiting at the airport to depart on vacation.

Today our Engineering Teams (Product, Hardware, Software, Data, and Ops) all now primarily use Slack for communications. Most even use it in favor of texting. We Slack each other tickets that are ready for work, UAT, or release). We use group chats to have conversations to answer questions about stories, designs, bugs, and more. We use Slack channels integrated with Github for better code reviews. We use Slack to facilitate pair programming (and pair testing). Slack is now our default tool  for issue diagnosis, as sharing log messages, code snippets, and JSON is much clearer thanks to native markdown.

We achieve this with the following channel model:

  • One channel for each environment (so we can let people know if we are about to add nodes, run a load test, etc.). We have our respective Jenkins, Ansible, Icinga and Sentry hooks tied into each environment channel as well.
  • One channel for each code repository (to see PRs and conduct code reviews). We have aligned our JIRA projects with these to integrate tickets as well.
  • We have some basic team channels for more focused group conversations
  • We also have a #rm channel for simple-to-read log of what was released, when

As our organization moved to this model, life and work got easier in some rather visceral ways:

First, I have been able to dial down my notifications to only ping me when four things happen: I get a call, I get a text, I get a direct Slack message, or there is public Slack in a mission-critical channel. I no longer get endless interruptions, making me more productive at work (and more attentive in meetings and at home). If my phone does ping, it means there is something very important—which actually lets me react to these issues faster.

Second, my email volume is down over 95%. The bulk of the emails I now get are related to true business questions (vs. endless status messages and FYIs). As a result, I can answer email faster and now regularly hit “Inbox Zero” at least twice a week—while managing a 24x7xForever SaaS Engineering organization with follow-the-sun development and operations spanning California, Washington, Europe, and Asia.

Our full embrace of Slack did not happen overnight. It organically evolved over a period of about 18 months–a natural rate of adoption for organizational change. Because it was organic, we did have to institute policies  that forced usage. Instead we allowed our teams to naturally adopt Slack in ways that made work easier. I hope more organizations can make this transition as everyone could benefit from less email and fewer interruptions.

Natural adoption of Slack over other forms of communication would have happened if the usability was not as good as it is. One of my favorite features is how well Slack detects when I am no longer at my desk: if I walk down the hall, my phone chirps on key Slack messages; when I sit back down my phone stops and my laptop takes over.  This happens within seconds.

Oh BTW, we do all of this with the baseline free Slack account. That’s one less excuse to not give it a try.

PS – Want to work in an environment like this? Check us out.

Evolving ideation into social collaboration

Note: This post was written before this concept evolved into what is now known as crowdsourcing (or crowdsourced software for content development). It was also written before the evolution of private social production platforms like HipChat and Slack

What Web 2.0 brings to the table

Often I am asked, “What the heck is Web 2.0?” by my non-technology friends (most of my friends are not technologists).

Here is the answer I give:

Web 1.0 let organizations publish information that could be accessed easily by all of us when we needed it, at our convenience. This changed entirely how we read the news, looked up movie times and checked stock quotes or the weather. The problem with Web 1.0 was that it was biased towards making it easy for large organizations to share information. CNN could easily setup a web site to share news and opinion. However, if *I* wanted to share information with many other people in this fashion, I had to setup my own web site, publish content, figure out how to control access to it, etc. This was too hard for the everyday person (who had “more important” things to worry about in his or her life).

Web 2.0 changed this by making it easy to share my views and information–and to control how I share it. Now I can use Facebook to share my vacation pictures with my friends (but limit my contact information to my professional colleagues). I do not have to build a web site, administer it, share the URL with my friends and get them to bookmark and visit it. Instead, I can rely on the fact they will visit facebook as part of their normal life and see my updates there (the network effect). It makes it much easier for me.

Enterprise 2.0 and Government 2.0 do the same — but directly in support of the missions of public and private enterprises. They let stakeholders share information and views regarding how industry and government should work (instead of simply proclaiming, “I feel blue today.”)

I have had pretty good success with this definition. It is short and relevant enough not to bore them and detailed enough to not insult their intelligence.

If you keep this in mind, it does not take a large leap in logic to see that the Web 2.0 communications medium can be used to create new services to help manage businesses and public organizations. These types of services will be ones that leverage the network effect, i.e., interaction with members of the community to find information, measure opinions, foster collaboration or share ideas…

How Web 2.0 an evolve ideation into social collaboration

Ideation is a defined as the process of forming or creating ideas (hence the terrible portmanteau). People have been using various ideation techniques for years to design more compelling products, processes and campaigns. The problem is that ideation has been limited by how much input you could manage in a collaborative efficient manner. This typically limits you to working face-to-face (ideation over conference phones — even tele-presence units — is not efficient) in groups no larger than 8-12 people. To get the input of many, you have to incur travel costs and hold many workshops or focus groups. This is slow and expensive. Here is where Web 2.0 comes to play.

Using Web 2.0 technologies and communications practices you can manage ideation in a way to lets people from all over the world participate in the ideation process — with far more speed efficiency:

  • People can participate when they the are ready
  • They can do so remotely, looking at content you have made accessible on line
  • They can interact with each asynchronously, e.g., I can make an idea at 2pm in Florida and someone else can comment on it twelve hours later in during normal business hours in Tokyo

About five months ago I began using the name “Social Collaboration” for a social networking business service to manage this:

Social Collaboration |ˈsō sh əl kəˌlabəˈrā sh ən| (noun)
A Business Service that enables—

  1. Enterprises (business and public sector) to call their stakeholders (customers, employees, and citizens) to action to solicit their input and ideas
  2. Stakeholders to respond collaborate with each other to build on each others ideas and drive preferred ideas to high level visibility
  3. Enterprises to gain understanding and insight into their stakeholders’ ideas and demonstrate that these ideas have been heard and acted upon

Abbreviation: So•Co |ˈ’sō kō |

SoCo can be used in many arenas to improve product research, service delivery, customer loyalty, business change management and public policy outreach.

What makes a good social collaboration business service

Several companies are working on building ideation-related SoCo services. The ideal SoCo service will have the following characteristics:

  • Be easy to use — from anywhere, by anyone
  • Support multimedia-based ideation (so people can collaborate using videos, pod casts, documents and pictures)
  • Enforce structured ideation, i.e., automatically organizes collaborative input, content and preference (without this you will not be able to manage large-scale collaboration)
  • Based on the network effect: if it does not work in a manner that leverages the power of the network you will gain no benefit from going beyond small working groups
  • Require attribution (to reinforce the natural process of person-to-person collaboration and enable direct follow-up)
  • Enable multiple levels of moderation (to make the ideation safe and ensure it remains focused on the problem or challenge on hand)
  • Readily support analysis (to enable you to find the most popular, most unpopular and most controversial input so you can take informed action and ultimately realize your business benefit)

Two-thousand-nine, the year of Change (political, economic, business and technology) may ideal time and place for Social Collaboration. Using it, we can figure out how best to be more efficient, develop our infrastructure, work globally and recover from our current recession.

Follow-on Note (January 2010):

By the end of 2010 this line products coalesced around the category name of crowdsourcing. At Neighborhood America we combined both our ideation (e.g., Microsoft Public Sector On-Demand) and YouTube-like UGC contest products (e.g., Kodak Idea Center–now ShutterFly) into a category set of crowdsourcing products.