Behind the Team: How Communication Processes Evolve at Slack

Chatting with Bear Douglas, Director of Developer Relations at Slack

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In this article you’ll learn:

  • How to evolve your meeting lifecycle as headcount grows
  • Using Slack the Slack-way to maximize team efficiency
  • Moving from specialized teams to departmental collaboration
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Lifecycles and team evolution

Meetings and processes evolve as the teams evolve. What worked for you at 10 people might not work for you at 20 might not work at 30 and so on. Bear explained her thinking around process lifecycles:

“When it comes to processes, my attitude has generally been that all processes and all meetings have a life cycle. And so we have been through different formats and outgrown different formats over time.”

The Developer Relations team at Slack currently consists of approximately 20 people across different time zones, so the group follows a hierarchical model where small teams specialize and the team leads make departmental decisions together.

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“With a group that size, you want something that’s not just a status meeting. You also want something that is still primarily broadcast, because 20 people can’t really have a functioning conversation about something. Recently, we’ve used Zoom breakout rooms to have discussions about the presentation in smaller groups.”

Bear notes that as your team grows, people may feel uncomfortable. At first, they don’t know what everyone on the team is doing, but the initial discomfort passes as people realize it’s just simply not possible to know all the details. For anyone with the inclination and the time, all the information is available on Slack or other channels.

How Slack Uses Slack

Today, status updates, discussions, and requests have moved to Slack rather than requiring real-time meetings. Similar to setting up the right formats for meetings, setting up the right formats and channels for Slack conversations have contributed to the team’s effectiveness in using these kinds of asynchronous channels.

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The Developer Relations team uses the following channels:

  • Public channel, #team-devrel, for company interface with their team.
  • Private team-only channel (#devrel-only) for the team to socialize and share internal issues or topics they don’t necessarily want to publish or discuss more widely with the company.
  • Intake channel (#plz-devrel) where other teams in the company can make specific requests to the Developer Relations team, which can be triaged and managed.
  • Reviews channel (#devrel-reviews) where the team members post content or material that require review by other team members.
  • Status channel (#devrel-updates) for status updates and news. The leadership models and encourages updates that aren’t strictly work-related, for example, if people are dealing with stress due to their environment or if they did something fun over the weekend.

Keeping your team aligned

When Bear described the shift, it was as a circular process. When there’s a small team, everyone is aligned on the same goals, and you expect people to jump in and help one another to cover different domains. As the department grows, people specialize more.

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“The top projects list is designed to show that you can borrow time from other teams. If we agree on those top projects that are shipping, we set the expectation that someone might come to you and say, “Hey, I need some engineering help on this,” or “folks on my team don’t have a specific expertise. Can I have some of this person’s time?” It’s a different mode of thinking. Usually if you are under pressure, the first reaction is to ask for more headcount. The new mindset is to think about your team not as three people but as 25 people.”

Having individuals work across the teams within the department gives people the opportunity to know one another better, attend different teams’ meetings, and learn from the processes in different teams. Keeping one set of priorities means that everyone has a sense of pulling together towards a shared goal.

Growth at Hugo. Previously data science at Squarespace. Writing here now:

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