How we Slack at Media Suite

I haven’t verified this with the rest of the team, but I’m pretty sure Slack is the first app most of us fire up each day. Either that or Spotify. Probably both.

My point being, Slack is at the heart of how we communicate with each other at Media Suite – be it for work or for play. Our team has been growing, and how we use Slack has been evolving as well. So, I thought this would be a good time to share our Slack setup, and at the same time, give you an insight into how we go about our daily lives.

For those not familiar with Slack, it is a team chat application that aims to centralise internal communication and collaboration into one place. The idea was that it would replace internal emails and threads, and improve transparency.

With half of our development team working remotely (and across time zones) having that visibility means we can stay connected with each other, collaborate and build that culture of trust.

Everybody, now

By default, Slack creates a #general channel which all users get added to (and can not leave). As its name suggests, this is where the all the chatter and water-cooler conversations happen.

#random is where all the fun happens. By that I mean, photos/videos of our cats and dogs, all the memes and gifs, as well articles that aren’t work related. Also dad jokes. Lots of them.

For company-wide notices, we have the #announcement channel that has a (kind of) strict reply-only-in-threads policy. This is to prevent important messages from getting lost in the noise. Recent announcements include an impending visit from a former colleague (Richie!) in December, and… cake in the kitchen.

(We do love our cakes here at Media Suite so… that announcement does come up pretty often.)

The #learning-lunch channel is where we organise and discuss topics to be presented by one (or a few) of our team each Thursday. #lunch-order is where the daily lunch train gets started on other days.

To keep track of who’s in and out of the office, we have the #whereabouts channel. This helps manage expectations of when you can expect a response from folks who are out of office, or working from home.

Beyond that, being the geeks we are, of course we have channels such as #music-for-programming, #getschwifty (for the Rick & Morty fans) and #got-spoilers to yarn about the things people love.

Spending some time in the channels above would likely give you a very good picture of the awesome people at Media Suite. But of course, we’re not just about having fun.

Work, work

Every function/team e.g. #accounts, #front-end, #devchat (for developers) have their own channel, so discussions and decisions can be recorded. Of course, conversations happen offline too, but we’re usually conscious of the need to keep our remote team up to speed as well.

Project teams also have separate channels, where work is coordinated, meetings are confirmed and async stand-ups take place when it’s a cross timezone project team. Integrations with other tools we use are installed to help increase visibility and keep everyone on the same page.

Some examples would be the Github plugin, that posts a notification to the channel whenever a new pull request is opened and needs review. We also have one for Jira, which informs the team of ticket status changes.

We’ve also started managing incidents in Slack channels recently. When an incident is reported (e.g. an outage of a site), one of the first tasks is to create a new channel for that incident, so that we can keep our communication and information in one place. Stakeholders can be invited if/when appropriate, but the information in the channel can be condensed into a report that is then shared with the wider team and stakeholders anyway.

All in all…

Having Slack as our primary communication hub is not without its downsides. We currently have 82 channels in total, and I’m part of 30 of them. Staying on top of all the conversations is impossible, let alone the numerous distractions it creates.

We get around this to a certain extent by letting people join only channels they are interested in, bar the project and company-wide ones. Knowing when to mute channels or turn off notifications helps as well. Overall though, the benefits gained by having a centralised and open method of communication to build trust, relationships and share knowledge far outweigh any cons.

Like every other tool we use, it’s only as good as how we choose to use it, and I think we’ve managed to wrangle the beast that is Slack pretty well so far. Now, where’s that cake…?

So, why was our last hire an anthropologist?

Disclaimer: this title is no longer accurate… Our latest hire actually holds a Bachelor of Arts with Honours majoring in English Literature. The question remains however – what on earth is this small tech business actually hiring for?

In my six years with Media Suite, we’ve grown from a small team of technical, skill-based, executers (developers, designers, project leads) plus me (the outlier). The Media Suite of today is a much larger, yet cohesive team. We’re rich with complementary skills and experiences yet come from deeply different training and backgrounds.

A quick review of current Suities’ CVs reveals a political science and philosophy double major with graduate diploma in journalism, degrees in art history and law, fine arts, psychology, mechanical engineering and information management as well as those (more intuitive) computer science and software engineering degrees. Then there are those with courses of study or work experience spanning business administration, nursing, hospitality etc. We have a mechanic, a horticulturalist and, of course, that anthropologist.

For some of us, our course of study and/or professional experience is clearly linked to our day-to-day roles. For others, the vocational relevance to a tech company may seem less obvious.

In particular, the plethora of arts degrees might surprise. Yet, it’s not exactly a novel proposition to assert that arts degrees equip us with useful, human-centred, ways of thinking. Specific majors aside, they teach us to ask why, to research deeply and to write clearly. Some courses of study encourage us to develop a deep understanding of human fears, behaviours and motivations, while others might develop our ability to translate complex concepts or processes into plain English. Whatever the major, a liberal arts background brings a perspective to our team that is highly complementary to the scientific method that might otherwise prevail in our approach to problem solving and decision-making.

By way of example, James Pearson recently wrote a post exploring what a resident anthropologist actually does at a software development company. For my part, the study and practice of law gave me a certain level of comfort with shades of grey and structuring arguments in the badlands of subjectivity and ambiguity. I’m quite comfortable with the notion that there is not necessarily a “right” solution. Instead, I try to tackle decision-making by evaluating all options to find the “most right” solution (given the circumstances).

Assessing human needs and negotiating with empathy will generally close a deal faster and more effectively than any reliance on pure legal rights. That same human-based pragmatism has held true as we work to grow this company.

Our technical solutions invariably meet humans, so it shouldn’t really surprise that we value skill sets related to organising and communicating with people across the breadth of our roles. Whether it’s wrangling dissenting opinions on how an app should look, analysing how users behave when faced with a problem, extracting business requirements and writing user stories or working in a development team; we work closely with humans to design and develop technology.

Increasingly, the journey to deliver working software is requiring us to help product owners manage their internal stakeholders or to support our clients with connecting and uniting their internal teams. In fact, as our business matures, I would argue that we are wrangling human needs at least as much as we are wrangling code.

The ability to quickly synthesise information and structure it in a way non-technical humans can relate to is an advantage in some roles. Obvious examples might include, sales, marketing, communications or account and project management. Yet, highly technical roles also benefit from the same human-centred skills. The ability to work effectively with others to progress a common goal is central to job descriptions across the breadth of our professional skills. Developers who can understand the actions and motivations of their team members and colleagues are hugely valuable to our organisation. Those who can mentor others, who can empathise with clients when the going gets tough, who can interpret business rules and user stories in context are worth their weight in gold.

Academic and work experience aside, I also consider interests, hobbies and passions to be of direct relevance to our hiring decisions. Among our numbers we count surfers, sailors, skiers, cyclists, actors, artists, parents, musicians, a cricket aficionado, a student of languages and a cat-fancier with a serious penchant de fromage… Cheese-fancying and whisky appreciation aside, we have some seriously interesting humans on the team with pretty niche passions.

I believe these extra-curricular activities and roles help our individuals to facilitate human connections and develop useful soft skills (such as communication, teamwork, adaptability, mental curiosity, conflict resolution, leadership and problem solving). More than that, I think we’re all a better version of ourselves for living a balanced life; a CV that addressed only technical expertise would certainly cause me concern. Whether through study, work or play, a diversity of backgrounds and passions fosters the very soft skills we value most highly in the workplace.

So… What on earth is this small tech business actually hiring for?

We’re hiring the right people with the right skills to help us build the right things. Alongside subject-matter expertise we deeply value human-centric skill sets. Whether the role is executing particular needs of the business or helping to solve our clients’ problems, we hire to balance our team and to enhance our collective ability to innovate and create. Ultimately, we are looking for that perfect combination of values alignment, passion and demonstrable “soft” (as well as highly technical) skills. People who “get” people are always going to top our offers list.