ChatOps and ChatZero

Inbox Zero was always a concept I never fully understood the need for before I moved to a big company. You get some email every day and you read it, what’s the problem? Now that I’ve been in a big organization for a while, I think I understand the problem better: you eventually end up on email lists that are about things that are only tangential to what you do. I’m on one particular email list about communications from partners we integrate with; I’m not involved in those integrations at all, but can’t unsubscribe from the list. Inbox Zero both helps you stay focused on doing real work and makes sure you don’t miss anything important.

Chat and ChatOps has been replacing email usage across the industry, since it is an easier way to collaborate in real time and the chat histories make it easier to share information asynchronously. As ChatOps has picked up in my office I will get to the office and see there are hundreds of new messages spread across the roughly 20 channels I’m in. I used to read all of them every morning, but some of the channels had been getting chatty, which made it harder to keep up. I first dealt with this by muting or leaving channels that I was less interested in, though apparently leaving channels in Slack is considered bad etiquette in some circles. This hasn’t helped, since I keep getting involved in more and more channels, no matter how many I drop.

I had started skimming some of the channels I am in rather than really reading all of it. This helped keep up with the increased flow, but deciding which channels to skim was hard. I recently listened to Arrested DevOps talk about ChatOps, which was an interesting because they came from multiple different backgrounds and chat usage styles. They made a couple of suggestions, one of which was counterintuitive but has been working great for me since I’ve implemented it – make more channels, especially short-term channels for intense conversation. More channels helps keep the content of each channel more focused so instead of having four semi-related conversations in one channel, you have four channels each with one conversation. With each of those breakout conversations being linked as it moves out you can either go read it or skip it freely. One of the other great but more obvious suggestions was the use of dedicated update channels for notifications from automated systems.

The switch to chat from an email based system has been a great experience overall in my opinion, but it will take a while for all of the productive patterns of how to use chat to get established. The great part is that the Chat system is open and pluggable and not centrally controlled. This ability to innovate on how the platform works brings about hubot and all of the other bots and integrations that make ChatOps an amazing tool.

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