E-book

Why engineering teams love Slack (and why yours might love it too).

The adaptive collaboration hub for software engineering

Whoa, that was fast

Back in 2009, we were a small team of software engineers building a massive multiplayer game called Glitch.

We started using Internet Relay Chat (remember IRC?) to keep everyone on the same page. As work on the game progressed, we kept wishing our IRC channel could do more than just basic communication. So we found ourselves tweaking it, adding to it and hacking new ways to get things done faster.

Well the game was a flop, so we decided to focus on this new collaboration thing we’d developed.

That was a good decision, because we ended up with a great product-market fit: a really effective way for teams to work together.

Maybe that’s because we weren’t trying to “design” anything. There was no ego and no speculation about some fictional user. We were the users.

That’s how Slack was born.

Today it’s grown bigger than we’d ever imagined – and its adoption by developer teams of all sizes is a major reason.

Yes, Slack is used in pretty much every department and discipline, but software engineering is where it all started and is still the source of a lot of the user love that keeps us coming to work smiling.

It’s hugely gratifying that we’re able to create something that makes a direct impact on the daily working lives of developers.

This e-book is a quick introduction to some of the ways Slack helps developers.

We hope it helps explain why software engineers seem to like Slack so much.

Why Slack fits software engineering so well

Slack is used by all kinds of non-technical teams every day. It seems to organically adapt to the work it’s supporting.

But Slack seems to fit software engineering like a glove. This is quite a specialised sort of work, after all.

When you think about it, all work is getting more and more like this. But software engineering is an ideal use case. It demands a kind of collaboration that just can’t happen through emails and face-to-face meetings. This kind of work needs a new kind of collaboration.

The adaptive collaboration hub: a new thing

People who’ve never used Slack think of it as a messaging app. It’s way more than that. In fact, it’s a whole new thing that hasn’t existed before.

We’ve taken to calling it an adaptive collaboration hub because it adapts to the way different teams like to work, to their existing software choices… and to change.

An adaptive collaboration hub combines three things in one tool

  • Channel-based messaging

This lets teams put in place channels dedicated to specific tasks, projects or issues. Such as a #devel-new-site channel where all developers meet to work on the new website. Or a #triage-mobile-app channel where teams work together to squash bugs on the mobile app.

Channels are much better than one-to-one messages or closed email threads because they make it easy to include the right people in the right topics at the right time.

  • A searchable knowledge store

A single place where anyone can find all relevant documents, conversations and decisions – such as those product specs or the discussion around that new feature.

Email attachments usually sink out of view to everyone except the people copied in. Knowledge is only valuable if it’s discoverable.

  • An integration layer

A place where the software your people spend the most time in (such as GitHub, Jira, Jenkins and Trello) hooks into the place where work is discussed every day.

This minimises the constant context switching that comes from working across many different apps. Instead of forcing your people to go to the apps, bring the apps to your people.

Note: Bringing these three things together in one place makes each one of them far more powerful. The hub is far greater than the sum of its parts.

Benefits to software engineering teams

The right collaboration hub directly influences the things that are most important to every engineering team: better code delivered faster, more efficient bug squashing and a better developer experience (so you keep your staff happy). Any software that helps you do all that is probably worth looking into.

Slack is a living documentation hub and everything is searchable.

Malika RajvanshySenior Engineer, Slack

IDC helped us put some numbers to our claims: Engineering teams use Slack to do more.

How Slack streamlines the whole software engineering process

We’re undoubtedly some of the most sophisticated users of Slack for software development – all our developer teams live in it. But every day we still hear about new use cases and interesting apps and integrations that software teams are using.

Let’s go through some of them, organised by stages in the software development cycle.

Plan

Slack helps product managers, designers and engineers agree on what they’re building and why.

  • Kick off the whole process with a single channel for a new product or feature

It could be called something like #feature-new-app.

Now there’s a single place to define the project scope, gather feature requirements, discuss alternatives and make basic decisions on functionality and UX.

  • Sharing documents here makes everything discoverable

For all contributors and any new joiners. Slack integrates beautifully with Google Docs, so all documents are just a click away.

  • Got a question? Pop it into the channel

Launch a discussion and come to a resolution for all to see. Now there’s a permanent record.

Code

Slack helps developers orchestrate the myriad moving parts of a large code base, speeding up development and improving quality.

When it’s time to start coding, Slack makes sure the whole team are working together:

  • A #devel-product-name channel is the home for everything

Including day-to-day work across engineering and QA, pull requests, code merges, design revisions, daily huddles, discussions, etc.

  • A central hub for code review

Slack supports whatever process you use for branching, merging, reviewing and releasing code, whether that’s developing on version branches, feature branches or from a merged master.

Git integrations (with GitHub, Bitbucket or your chosen repository) bring all change alerts into Slack.

  • A new kind of huddle

Huddles are an important part of agile development but they don’t have to be face-to-face. Developer teams use Slack for huddles – whether every morning or every week – and have face-to-face meetings only when they make sense (for many developers, the best meeting is a cancelled one).

Integrations with software such as Standuply automatically push summary reports into Slack so your teams can share goals and tasks, track business metrics, post meeting notes and monitor the team’s progress and happiness.

Promote code reuse: Code reuse is a core principle of efficient engineering teams, but it’s a challenge when you have hundreds of developers contributing to many different products. Before writing any new code, your developers can search across all Slack channels to see if anyone else has already built something similar. The next step: ask in the right channels, “Has anyone made a date picker yet?”. Stop reinventing the wheel.

Create and share code using snippets: Snippets make it easy to share code, configuration files and log files directly in Slack. Colleagues can download them, view the raw file and leave comments.

Slack in action

Extensibility at its core

Slack is a collaboration hub. That’s what it’s great at. It doesn’t try to do the work of the software your teams already use – such as Trello, GitHub or Jenkins.

Instead, Slack simply unites all these different apps, bringing the relevant information from them into the channels where the work is being discussed (and inviting actions in those applications, triggered from inside Slack).

Any time I’ve seen a Slack integration I’ve turned it on. It’s provided so much value and helped us save so many extra steps in our process.

Thomas LawlessSenior Software Engineer, IBM

These integrations help developers do what they love to do: create systems that just work.

The examples shared throughout this e-book are just that, examples. There are as many ways to use Slack as there are software teams using it.

Test

Testing is woven into the modern development/deployment process. Slack supports a dynamic, collaborative and transparent approach to testing.

Continuous integration runs your testing suite on every merge with each new chunk of code. Slack streamlines the process in lots of ways, big and small:

  • A #testing-feature channel coordinates QA

Let the QA team collaborate with developers in an open forum.

  • Jira integration automates test workflows

Capture issues in Slack and get them into the pipeline automatically. Send customisable notifications from Jira into your channels. Quickly assign issues to people and know they’re recorded where they belong.

Some teams use Slack to automatically move change requests into a new channel, updating Trello or Asana at the same time.

  • Branch off a channel for each platform

With dedicated testing channels for iOS, Android and web.

Working with Jenkins

Lots of teams use Jenkins as their continuous integration server. It didn’t take long for them to work out new ways to integrate Jenkins with Slack to automate all sorts of routine development tasks.

One example: a software team’s custom Slack integration activates a Jenkins server running a big testing suite whenever a developer opens a pull request.

Once the tests have been run, the notifications pop up in the right Slack channels. If the code fails the test, a notification is sent to the developer.

Release

Slack helps push code to production by helping automate the workflows and notifications.

Continuous delivery always calls for lots of small code releases, deployed frequently. Slack helps engineering teams streamline some of that.

An example: one of our own software teams wrote an app called Deploy Wizard that integrates with ops and communicates the status of the code in channel. It starts with a “canary” stage (a tiny release to catch any sudden fails), then progresses to 10, 25, 75 and 100% of the user base.

Deploy Wizard pings the right developers and channels in Slack as the deployment progresses. The whole thing is managed by the on-duty deployment commanders (trained engineers working on three-hour shifts).

If developers want to test their code in the staging environment, they specify that with their merge request. The deploy will stop in staging until a developer reports that they’ve tested the code in the deploys channel.

Some developer teams use slash commands (such as /deploy_productname_staging) to trigger a deployment right from Slack. Automated messages show when the deployment has succeeded, with a link to go and check it (or a button to push it to production).

Operations 

Developer teams use Slack to manage tickets, come together around issues and squash bugs.

  • All issues flow through the #triage product-name channel

Including reports from customer support (manual or via integrations with tools such as Zendesk).

  • Integrations bring all alerts into one place

Instead of expecting developers to monitor emails or check in to dashboards, Slack becomes the single place where all alerts find the best people to respond.

Aggregating PagerDuty events or Asana tickets and posting them to the right channels reduces incident resolution times and creates a triage trail. Team members can work with each other on triggering, viewing, acknowledging and resolving incidents straight from Slack.

Similarly, Slack can route all web, transaction, server and mobile alerts from New Relic into a Slack channel for fast response. Anyone curious about the incident can just pop into the channel and read about it. This reduces managers interrupting the incident responders for constant updates. It’s all there.

Emoji and reacji help triage issues and trigger workflows

Reaction emoji (reacji) are an efficient way to capture the responses of team members, but they’re also a way to trigger automated workflows. An app collects these so they can be aggregated, flagged and actioned. Any open issues (eye emoji but no tick) are shown in PagerDuty.

An automated #decisions channel: Some teams use the gavel emoji to indicate when a decision has been made. A bot then pushes all these decisions to a #decisions channel where management can see the flow of decisions – and team members can easily search.

And we’ve built a bot that collects and reports on these in a dedicated channel.

The people side

Software engineers are in demand. To retain your talent, you need to give them the best employee experience you can.

The right collaboration software can play a big role in this: helping reduce work friction, foster transparency, automate routine tasks and help work across teams.

Talk to any software engineering team who use Slack.

Ask to see how they use channels, apps and integrations.

Then try asking them how they’d do without it.

Onboarding new developers

Two new developers join the team. How do you get them up and running?

Old way: Lots of onboarding meetings and a slew of forwarded email threads to root through. Might not be the best way.

New way: Invite them to the #dev-new-product channel to review pinned posts such as:

  • Product spec
  • Tech spec
  • Designs

(If these are Google Docs, Dropbox or OneDrive, they’ll always be kept up to date).

They can also scan through all previous conversations, decisions and the people involved. Now that’s more like it.

That’s how software engineers use Slack

So that’s our quick tour of how Slack helps software teams streamline, automate and accelerate their work. We hope we got the main points across:

  • This is a new thing: An adaptive collaboration hub helps engineers work in new ways. It’s way more than a messaging app.
  • It’s super-flexible: Letting your teams “make it their own” with workspaces, channels, apps and integrations that reflect the way they like to work.
  • It helps you get more from your existing software: From GitHub and Bitbucket to Jenkins, Jira, PagerDuty, New Relic, Zendesk… whatever your developer, product, QA and support teams use, they can use those tools more efficiently by bringing their work together in Slack.
  • It adds value at every stage of the development cycle: From planning to developing, testing, operating, deploying and bug squashing.
  • Software engineers love it: Which means they’ll adopt it and expand their use over time.

We have what we like to call an ‘end-to-end delivery pipeline’ that starts with source code and goes all the way through to production deployment. And now we have Slack integrated into all the key milestones in that process.

Thomas LawlessSenior Software Engineer, IBM

If you want to see more, set up a demo or ask one of our developers to show you around our own Slack setup. We’re dead proud of it.

    Footnotes

    1. IDC research, The Business Value of Slack, 2017, sponsored by Slack

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