I have been running remote teams for almost a decade now. Tools available for remote teams have evolved a lot during this time.
In the early days tools like Skype made it easier to communicate with remote teams via text, audio and video. After that came a wave of tools like Dropbox, Google Docs that helped manage files in the cloud for remote teams. However, these utilities were never able to create a real office like environment. A real office doesn’t feel like you are transacting with a co-worker, but has a character to it. You don’t talk with co-workers only when you need something. You overhear other people talking about the new episode of The Game of Thrones. You crack jokes, you huddle. Not all these things can be done by remote teams, but having a “virtual office” can help get the team connected better.
At RightBuy, we started using HipChat, which is an excellent chat application for a small team. I really loved the simple design. We kept things simple by just setting up 1 room where our small team interacted. HipChat had opened up their API and enabled teams to integrate with external services like GitHub, Pingdom, CircleCI, etc. using Zapier. That was pretty cool. I have heard CampFire had some of these great features, but never used it.
I found about Slack through Jason Calacanis‘ interview with Stewart Butterfield. It was intriguing, but I dismissed it because it appeared to be exactly same as HipChat with IRC-esque UI. On asking other startups using Slack about differences between HipChat and Slack, all I got was – it has built-in search and it is pretty cool. I tried asking Slack themselves about why people are going crazy about Slack, they didn’t have anything concrete to offer either.
Search wasn’t a big deal for us so that was the end of Slack’s evaluation.
About a month later, a friend from Seer was going gaga about Slack and showed how they were using Slack. That was the moment where I actually found out how Slack was a lot more than HipChat. The thing that sold me on Slack was how well Asana is integrated with Slack. It is a first-class integration that updates any comments or new tasks. As compared to this, HipChat had integration using Zapier and had limitations where we only could get only new tasks from a specific project. To keep things simple and extendable, HipChat didn’t provide custom experience for these integrations. I don’t mind using Zapier for integrations, but the UX on HipChat’s side was lacking. Here is how the integrations (at least for us) looked in both of these services.
Asana isn’t the only better integration. GitHub, Sentry and the webhook to push messages into Slack can be customized a lot more and provide a better experience. For instance, this is the same commit from Github to HipChat & Slack.
I found out from Bryan Helmig that they use something called async at Zapier, which is an internal WordPress blog for things that do not need immediate attention. It seemed like a great idea when I heard about it, something that I would like to implement for RightBuy as well. We have a lot of conversations among us that are way too long for ‘chat’, not actionable enough to be put in ‘Asana’ but at the same time needs to be captured in some shape or form.
Slack has a great feature for this use case. You don’t have to setup an internal WordPress blog, but just use their ‘Post’ feature. Anyone can write a post which can be shared with any channel or a person. It is great to capture things like your medium to long term goals, certain processes and in general company updates (especially if you are a big team.) The posts act as a ‘notice board’ (when was the last time you actually saw a notice board?) for the company.
Another great feature Slack has that I hadn’t even thought would be useful until we started using Slack – Favorite a Message. It is a like bookmarking a message for easy access for later on.
Not Everything Works
As I mentioned above, I really like that they are themselves building the integrations with other services. It provides a unique experience which can be customized based on each service they are integrating with rather than have a one-size-fits-all model where none of the integrations have an outstanding experience. That being said, not all of their integrations are the best. For instance, we found out that Slack’s default RSS integration is far inferior to Zapier’s Slack-RSS implementation. I haven’t tested all the integrations, but wouldn’t be surprised if there are more integrations that are being implemented better by third parties.
Another nitpick with Slack is that when writing a ‘post’, they use Markdown syntax. I would much rather use a WYSIWYG editor that can speed up formatting.
Email Killer & Future
I remember sending a lots of “chatty” emails to my co-workers a few years ago where everyone on dev mailing list had to bear with them. Combination of tools like Asana and Slack are effective on killing email use at least internally for small teams. This is a great start. Slack seems to be integrating with several services, but it has to be seen where does their future live. To expand, do they in future start competing with likes of Dropbox, Google Apps, Skype, or even Asana and provide a plug and play infrastructure layer for remote teams for a virtual office? It is yet to be seen, but so far they seem to be heading towards the right direction.
Did I miss something? Would like a follow up on how we use Slack? Reach out here.