Wednesday, June 6, 2012


A number of my clients use chat systems. Most of them use Campfire, but a few use Skype or IRC. Either way, it's basically a place where some or all of the engineering team hangs out. As with most hangouts, it can be really helpful or a complete waste of time.

A few simple rules increase your chances of successful chat:

  • Don't expect immediate responses. Sometimes people are working and ignoring chat for an hour or two or four. That has to be okay - chatting isn't about interrupting work, it's about having a resource.
  • Log chats. Chat history is a good resource for remembering conversations, including helpful things like where the "make it better" command lives, or which commit introduced a massive memory leak. Make sure that history is available and searchable.
  • Everyone should log in. Chat's not useful if only half the people are there. Not everyone has to be there all the time (see above about immediate responses), but everyone should log in and scroll through the history periodically - at least once or twice a day, usually.
  • Use alerts. Pick a chat client that allows alerting, and then set up alerts on things like your name. That way, when someone says "catherine, how'd you do that neat trick?", you get a more active alert and don't have to scan through the whole chat history.
  • Keep it mostly work. Just like meetings or work conversations, there can (and should) be a little fun. Most of the conversation should be work-related, though.  A good ratio is roughly 90% work, 10% goofing off... err... camaraderie.
  • Use it for questions and non-urgent notifications. "How do I blah?" or "Where's that change deployed?" or "Hey everybody, I'm going to redeploy our shared database server at noon unless someone tells me otherwise" are good things to put in a chat room. This gets back to the idea non-immediate responses.
Effectively used, a chat room can be a great resource for using the group's collective knowledge. It provides all the benefits of talking with the entire group without the downside of interrupting team members who are concentrating. It takes interrupting activities - questions, notifications, discussions and debates - and makes them less disruptive. Chat can be your friend or your enemy - make it your friend.

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