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Long Form Communication in Software Development

deep work cover

After spending a better part of the decade with Slack, HipChat and Microsoft Teams I joined a team that chooses to work a different way and the depth of work is evident.  The engineers on the team contribute a lot to the Kubernetes codebase and it seems like hours and days of uninterrupted time are critical to the way they work.  This made me think about the necessity of “always on” culture.  Is getting someone unblocked worth everyone keeping an eye on Slack throughout the day?

For those who have read the timeless classic Deep Work by Cal Newport this is a well explored subject.  I have read this book a few years ago and it immediately resonated with my experience.  I think about some of the key ways that I worked early in my life and I realize that my mentors were preaching and practicing deep work.

Growing up I went to a boarding school where at night homework was done behind a desk, in the classroom with the entire class sitting there quietly.  There was a teacher present who could answer a question if you had one. This taught the kids how to sit down and focus for a few hours at a time.  ADHD was not in fashion back then, and when kids that had their attention drift, they figured out how to bring it back to their homework.  Discipline does wonders!

When I was doing my undergraduate work at University of Washington in the late 90s responding to an email was not expected for a day or two.  Very few people talked about a quick e-mail conversation, in fact most of the e-mail clients were polling every 5-15 minutes when you were connected via the dial up modem.

Today Slack and Microsoft Teams are a part of engineering organizations’ workflow.  A lot of people believe that the chat systems gained popularity because people enjoy have a quick, interactive conversation, but maybe there are other features that attract people to systems like Slack?

Here are reasons I like internal chat systems that have nothing to do with the quick mode of interaction:

1. My inbox is not a mix of internal / external / system notifications in one place

2. The rules, such as GitHub notifications go to #github channel, are done once for the team and people do not have to start from scratch like they do with email.

3. Search is close content and it searches all of the channel history even prior to people joining.

The downside is that the interface lands itself to quick, not very well formed communication. The message gets hashed out interactively instead of the messenger thinking through the question and doing research.

My current team prefers to have long form thoughts in a Google Docs.  People read the documents, comment and edit the content.  The documents can be on the subject of software development, processes changes or product requirements.  Meetings are mostly limited to just Tuesdays and Wednesdays.  There is no expectations that someone is going to respond quickly to your request and there is no expectation that you are responsive at all times.  The amount of traffic in the chatrooms is fairly small.

I have been enjoying this flow quite a bit in the last several months.  I remember that even typing up a 3 page document would sometimes take a day because something would ping me all the time.  Instead of e-mail triage I became accustomed to the notification triage, each one of them taking me out of of my train of thought.

I don’t think we are done with the evolution of communication just yet.  There seems to be something missing between long form communication, chats and the flood of information that goes to my inbox. I am hoping that someone is working hard on it as we speak.


Deep Work by Cal Newport


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