Work Note: Why and how we use Slack

After trying out several tools, we’re now using Slack and found some fun hacks to extend its functionality.

It’s not like there’s a lack of solutions for teams and companies to communicate internally. Without even getting into email this time, there are plenty solutions for chatting between coworkers. From Skype group-chats to IRC channels to IM. There’s also dedicated professional chat app like Campfire and HipChat. Let’s just say that “Somebody needs to fix group chats for teams,” wasn’t uttered a lot.

Searching for an internal chat tool

As a 2-person company, Igor and I didn’t need much for the part of our daily communication when we are not in the same room. We tried out IRC with an encrypted room, guarded by a bot, mostly out of nostalgia for The Web We Lost. It didn’t stick because IRC is not the best protocol for the mobile age. Neither is Jabber/Instant Messaging. Going back and forth between different devices is hard for these protocols. And Skype wasn’t an option after various leaks put a lot of Microsoft’s security for the service in question.

We settled on iMessage. It works across macs and iphones, is comparatively secure and it’s free. So when the hype around a new chat app for teams called Slack started to build up, we didn’t see the need for us. But after friends kept praising it, curiosity won.

Execution makes the difference

Slack is a startup, founded by the flickr co-founders Stewart Butterfield and Cal Henderson. Once more (just like flickr), it emerged as a side project while Butterfield was developing a game. Check out this extensive portrait from Wired for a detailed story how Slack came to be.

There’s a lot of typical Silicon-Valley rhetoric around Slack about big product visions. But where Slack shines for us is in execution. This is app feels like the developers and designers keep asking: “if this feature was invented today, how would it be done right?”

Here are some of the features:

  • Its notification system is smart. It will ping you when there is a new messages. If you don’t react within a certain time, it will send you an email, informing you about the latest activities in your chat rooms. If you get a notification on your phone and check the chat room on your computer, it will take the notification away on your phone.
  • It tries to display some details about links that you put into a chat. Put in a Soundcloud link and it will show the player for that track. Same for videos, tweets etc.
  • Slack understands that not everyone is a full-time employee of one company anymore. More and more people freelance or need to work with several teams and companies. So they made switching between different Slack accounts easy. A practice I hope to see taken on by a lot more app developers.

More than just a chat tool

Where Slack really shows its strength is in the integration of other tools, services and platforms. For example: we use Asana to coordinate our tasks. In Slack, I can see when Igor has added a task and I get a special notification if he delegated the task to me. I can even add tasks from the chat room.
We also get pings when someone subscribes to our newsletter or when one of us has send a tweet with the company Twitter account. This is where Slack’s vision of being the central hub for your company’s communication is starting to make sense.

There’s also some fun stuff you can do with that. We have created a chat room called #fav and are using it with Slack’s integration of IFTTT. Now whenever one of us is faving a tweet or an article in Instapaper, a message is send to that chat room. We have another one for music that is connected to our Soundcloud accounts. I’ve turned off notifications for these chat rooms to not be bothered every time Igor (or Martin or Jens, our office mates) favs something. But I like going in there from time to time to see what got Igor’s attention.

We’re sold

All these features and how they are implemented convinced us to use Slack as our main communication tool. We think it’s worth it, even for a 2-person company. Using it with our office mates also offers us a glimpse at the benefits it can have for larger teams. And so far we haven’t used features like search and document exchange (with connection to Dropbox etc.). Let’s hope that Slack won’t be bought too soon.

Week 112

Maddie discusses the process of writing to strangers.

Writing to strangers

One of the most intimidating things I have to do now and again, both at work and outside of work, is writing to people I don’t know. There is something about contacting people in writing that can be scarier than in person.

In person it is far easier to correct yourself, and to read how your communication approach is working through the other person’s behavior and reactions. This is especially the case upon meeting someone for the first time, at which point you’re still trying to figure him or her out. First-time conversations are constant revisions of strategy, in terms of language used, but also in sentiments expressed and body language. I have little trouble doing this; I usually enjoy it. In writing, these revisions are not as readily available, and while the outcome may be good, the process can be stressful.

An even scarier situation is where you want to make a good impression on somebody you don’t know. The scariest of all goes one step further: you also want or need something from the other person. There may be a benefit for them too, but ultimately you want them to do you a favor. Even if you have the best of intentions and your request is not at all unreasonable, this can feel uncomfortable, or even grimy.

This situation can be embarrassing, though quite often unjustifiably so. I’ve decided that at least for me the embarrassment is inevitable, and that as long as my intentions were good, and I tried my best to be polite (but not too polite) and friendly (but not too friendly), I don’t need to feel ashamed about contacting this person. And should things go pear-shaped and my words are wildly misinterpreted, I can always do as various GOP politicians have been doing of late, and say that ‘I felt it in my heart’ that I had to say the things I said. (I jest.)

What further complicates this matter, and as a linguist I’m perhaps a little too tuned in to these things, is that different languages/cultures deal with these situations completely differently. In Irish and British English at least, the tendency when writing to someone for something you need or want is to make yourself smaller, apologizing, using conditionals (‘would you please,’ ‘it would be very helpful if,’ ‘if you wouldn’t mind, could you’) and plenty of pleases and thank-yous. The unfortunate thing about this technique is that it can come off as disingenuous or even passive-aggressive. In German it seems to be more acceptable to be carefully polite, but still direct about your wishes. Since I write in these and a bit of my first language, American, it can be complicated to respect the respective traditions.

I have a sort of mental decision tree that I traverse in order to decide whether to, and if so how to, write to a stranger. This is a strategy still very much in development, and it certainly has its shortcomings. (Feel free to suggest improvements.)

  1. Do I need to contact this person at all?
    No? Then don’t, unless 2. is the case. Especially if it’s to ask them to do work you could really have done yourself. That’s when things get properly embarrassing.
    Yes? Then proceed with 3.

  2. Do I want to contact this person?
    No? If you don’t need to and you don’t want to, then what are you doing here?
    Yes? Proceed with 3.

  3. Do I want to contact this person to get to know them better? Or, do I only wish to thank or congratulate this person, or show appreciation?
    No? Proceed with 4.
    Yes? Write. Be quick, don’t overthink (but reread to be sure your message is clear), don’t throw out the draft or leave it sitting around for ages out of shyness. The person may not read your message, or may not care, but chances are that he or she will be happy to have made an impression on someone. And there’s even a small chance that it could be hugely encouraging, and really make a difference. Who knows, perhaps you’ll even get to work together on some project in the future.

  4. Do I want something from them but don’t really mind if I don’t get it?
    No? Proceed with 5.
    Yes? Ask away, but do so out of a genuine appreciation, and figure out a way that the thing you want could be of use to them too. Don’t be presumptuous, ask very nicely, and explain the situation and your motivations. If the motivations aren’t reasonable, don’t write.

  5. Do I need something, and this person may be able to help, or may know someone who could help?
    No? Then unfortunately the solution isn’t in this tree, and you’ll have to figure out something new.
    Yes? If contacting out of necessity, make sure beforehand that you are not able to get what you need on your own, and that there aren’t people you already know who can help, since these are usually more likely to respond. Once that is established, .

In higher-risk situations, I tend to get someone else to look over my note, especially if it’s in a foreign language, to make sure I haven’t said anything unwittingly that is inappropriate or ambiguous.

Of course the whole process of writing to a stranger is even more complex than all of this. But I think discussing the complexities can help identify which concerns are justified and which ones can be safely ignored. It can also help in figuring out whether or not the point of the conversation is a worthwhile one, or if it could be adapted to produce more interesting results.