So I thought I’d write down some tips for using a chat application effectively on a development team. Chat applications can revolutionize a how a development team works and even its culture. I’ll go through some of the goals of implementing a chat application, some best practices, and pitfalls.
Obviously the goal of a chat application is to improve communication amongst the team. It is meant to remove “silos”. Silos refers to an organizational structure where members of the same team do not communicate directly with each other. The image of a silo is a very tall structure with a very small opening (for communication) at the top or bottom. Developers aren’t given good opportunities to communicate with each other except through their manager or what they deliver.
Silos are bad for development environments because often different members of the team will duplicate work. They aren’t aware that others have already solved the same problem. Or worse yet, the work of different team members can be divergent, pulling the products and development strategies is different, conflicting directions.
The answer to this in the Agile and Scrum movements is “The Daily Stand-up”. This is a brief meeting at that start of the day where everyone gets together to let the team know what they are working on. The typical structure of the meeting is to answer “3 questions”: What did I do yesterday, what will I do today, and what impediments are getting in my way. Just by answering these questions publically to the team can be very effective in breaking down silos.
One of the problems with the Daily Stand-Up is that it does take some coordination. Everyone has to get together at the same time and in the same physical space. The meeting can’t start until everyone arrives. This can be problematic if different people are on different schedules. Remote developers and different time zones, client phone calls, and traffic delays can all infer with this. A chat application can be a very low friction way to allow this meeting to happen with the flexibility for people’s schedules and locations.
It also allows for updates to be posted multiple times a day. If someone runs into an impediment they don’t have to wait until the next morning to seek the team’s help.
The chat application is well sized as a communication medium for this problem. Phone calls or face-to-face meetings can be highly disruptive. Developers are forced to drop what they are doing immediately. It can take from 10 to 25 minutes or more to recover from the interruption. Email on the other hand can become too long winded. It lacks the brevity that chat encourages. When email is used as chat the large number of chat emails can make drowned out the important emails. Chat seems to be a happy median between these extremes. It is brief and it can be easily deferred and non-interruptive when desired.
Chat can also improve the interpersonal relationships on a team. Instead of the only team communication being at a biweekly manager-supervised sprint planning meeting, communication occurs daily. Most developers know how disruptive face-to-face communication can be, therefore they avoid it. Chat is less formal, non-intrusive vehicle for developers to interact.
So to get started using a chat application on a developer team, I’d suggest starting with the Daily Stand-up 3 Questions: What I did yesterday, today, and impediments. That is the standard format for the physical stand-up meeting.
I don’t think that chatting about yesterday is needed, because all the chat history is there. But letting people know what you are about to work on and anything getting in your way is critical.
Chat can be used to post whenever a release is made of software. Most chat applications allow for these postings to be done automatically from the build process. This makes sure that everyone is aware of changes that have been made to the product.
Although learning what has been done is nice, it is best if the chat contains information about what is about to be done before it is done. Sometimes release announcements can be greeted with “you released what?!!”. Work items should be bookended in the chat application so that people are clear when work starts and ends. This way there are no surprises.
The main advantage of the chat application is informing the team what is being worked on at the earliest possible moment. This allows for feedback to be received as soon as possible and nip any problem in the bud. There are a number of advantages to announcing before work is done as opposed to after.
It corrects any communication errors around priorities. If you are working on the wrong thing, this will quickly be caught. This can also prevent yak shaving.
Chatting allows to catch duplicate work before it is done. I someone posts that they are working on a class to process command line arguments, other on the team can intervene and point to the location where that code is already written.
This process also works good for design. The chat application can serve as a good brainstorming tool. It can allow for feedback on designs in their infancy. Many think that designs are very mutable as long as they haven’t reached the implementation stage (coding) yet. However spending days designing and documenting a new feature can cement the mindset on the proposed design. The design review can become a violent defense of one person’s design rather than an open discussion. If feedback was allowed before the initial documentation is done the design much more fluid and open to change.
Chat works well after the design meeting as well. At that design meeting there is usually an agreement of how the code should be implemented. However when coding occurs you usually run into one or two minor details that weren’t thought though well enough in the design meeting. The design needs to be changed ever so slightly. It is really a small change and doesn’t warrant reconvening the entire design review committee. However over the course of a week or two there may be several of these very small design changes that begin to add up. The coders can post on the chat the small corrections they are making to the design so that no one is surprised.
When coding you are never writing the same code, solving the same problems day after day. Everyday you take the product is a slightly new direction or learn a new technique. You’re constantly faced with a couple different options. Each decision made should be broadcast so that the team has a common vision of the path being taken.
Not all chat posts are made because you are seeking immediate feedback. Sometimes they are a reminder for a future conversation. When I meet with friends or family and they ask, “what I’ve been up to?”, I often struggle for an answer. It is usually the standard “same old, same old, nothing much, work and home”. However, if I share Facebook with them the posts often spawn a conversation. Didn’t you go camping or to a concert a few weeks ago? How was that? Using chat on a development team can be similar. Weren’t you working on some encryption algorithm? How did that turn out?
“Today I Learned (TIL)” posts are also great for chat. If you learned something new today then it is likely that there is at least one other member of the team that doesn’t know that either.
Chat is good for just educate other team members what your dark corner of the system. You may be working on components that some members on the team might not even know exist. Use the chat to teach others about the system.
To get better at something you need to practice. If you are currently estimating work at biweekly sprint planning meetings then that is 26 opportunities to practice estimating per year. If you are posting daily or twice a day what you estimate you’ll be able to complete in the next few hours then that is hundreds of estimates per year.
Chat can be great for monitoring support calls as well. It can give any developer insight into the types of problems that customer support is dealing with. Reoccurring issues can be noted and preventative action taken.
Chat can also be helpful for on ramping new developers. The new hire will get the sense that the entire team is behind them, instead of just a single mentor. Chat exposes the training given and ensures there is no misinformation or inconsistencies.
If using Chat as a daily stand-up meeting there is the potential for the same problem. That is “zombie scrum”. The answers to the 3 questions become a dull drone that is repeated day after day, “I’m working on the same thing today as I did yesterday, no impediments”. If you are listing your current work item as the same thing day after day, you are not being descriptive enough in your post.
“No impediments” listed day after day is also an anti-pattern. If you haven’t posted any impediments in the last few weeks, then you might want to examine your chat history for an “elephant in the room”. I’m going to spend all day today resetting my test environment, and I have no impediments. Well maybe the fact that you’re spending all day to create a test environment and that step is not automated is the impediment.
Be clear and informative on what you are working on. Don’t just state the program or component you are working on. What enhancement is being made? What value will that bring to the customer?
Don’t simply quote bug numbers or source control check-in IDs. Don’t say read my design document or check the minutes of the meeting if you want details. Give some details on the work that is being done. Describe what decisions are being made about how something is being implemented. Give some quick highlights of any external references.
Be respectful. Don’t use the chat for public hazing. If you think your comments might be considered overly critical, discuss them privately first. Let the original poster correct or clarify their statements instead of being corrected by others.
Sometimes chat or other meetings can get in the way of getting work done. It is OK to turn off the chat application, email, and take the phone off the hook to get a task done. Most chat applications do have a “do not disturb” feature.
However, do remember to turn it back on when you are ready to reengage with the team. Review the posts that happened while you were dark. Obviously, a way the chat system can fail is if nobody uses it. Another way it can fail is if people just “lurk”. They will read what people are posting, but not offer up any comments of their own. They may be reluctant to post out of fear of saying something stupid. It might be an impostor syndrome, where they think that anything they have to post everyone else probably already knows. In order for Chat to be successful, you must be active.
- Post what you are working on
- Post decisions being made
- Post anything learned
- Don’t repeat yourself