4 min read

I broke up with slack

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I broke up with slack
Any idea that can't be expressed as an emoji should not be communicated via Slack.

Show Notes

Hey, folks, can you believe it? This will be my last podcast of 2019. I will confess it's been kind of a rough year for me. I've wanted to quit doing this podcast many times. But every time I'm in the dumps, I get an affirmation from one of you. So thank you all for your feedback and support. I'm so gratified that people get something out of this podcast, and hopefully, I can keep it going for many years.

Today, I have something very important to report. A few weeks ago, I broke up with Slack. The love affair is over slack. It's not me. It's you. I got a lot of weird looks when I told people that I was going off Slack. Nowadays, continual presence on slack is kind of expected, like wearing pants. So does my breakup with Slack amount to me mooning the modern world? Perhaps. Was that kind of my intent? Not really. Well, maybe a little. To be honest, I was a little nervous at first. My abstention from Slack may turn out to be the dumbest thing I've ever done professionally. But I doubt it. I've done a lot of dumb things. No, I know what you're thinking. You're thinking how awesome it would be to drop out of Slack yourself. But maybe you're not ready. Maybe you need a more incremental approach. For all of you incrementalist out there I offer you this simple heuristic. Here we go.

Any idea that can't be expressed as an emoji should not be communicated via Slack. To understand why, it helps to understand a concept called speaker-listener neural coupling. This is a phenomenon first discovered by a professor at the Princeton Neuroscience Institute named Yuri Hassan. In brief, Hassan's research shows that verbal communication causes the listener's brainwaves to mirror the speaker's brainwaves. Wired magazine referred to this as a mind-meld. The idea is that when people understand each other, their brains start to act the same. So when two people are on the same wavelength, they're actually on the same wavelength. Pretty cool. Now the fascinating thing about neural coupling is that it only occurs in verbal communication. Written communication does not result in the mind meld and in fact, frequently results in the opposite. And this explains why written communication is such a treacherous beast. How many times have you sent an emails, Slack, or text which blew up in your face like a sack of turds? If you love unintended consequences, communicate everything in writing, hilarity will ensue.

Here's the thing. Just because writing is easy, doesn't mean it's easy to do well. Are you really willing to stake your professional success on your writing? If you're not an excellent writer, and extremely self-aware, your words in Slack are likely setting you back professionally. I was an editor at a top 20 Law review and have published professionally since I was 16. Writing is one of my core competencies, but at least 90% of what I write is complete garbage. I am not willing to stake my professional success on my competency as a writer. Should you be?

So here's where we are. Let's break it down to first truths. If you want to succeed professionally, it helps to reach a mutual understanding with your team and your manager. That is best accomplished through verbal face-to-face conversation. If you want to fail professionally, put yourself at the center of a shitstorm of misunderstandings, assumptions, and confusion. This can be accomplished most efficiently by spending lots of time on Slack. Thank me later.

So what about those of you who work on distributed teams? Well, I would argue that it is even more important for you to avoid written communication. Because you're on a distributed team, you have to go above and beyond to avoid miscommunication. So when I want to achieve a mutual understanding with a teammate in another office, I use video conferencing, or I just pick up the phone. Verbal communication over the wire may not be as powerful as a face-to-face conversation but it is definitely preferable to writing. Remember this. Any idea that can't be expressed as an emoji should not be communicated via slack.

And if that's your starting point, why stop at Slack? Let's talk about JIRA. In the old days before JIRA, agile stories were written on a three-by-five card, a three-by-five card can fit maybe 200 characters, so user stories used to be about the size of a tweet, because you can't write very much on a three-by-five card. Before JIRA, a dev and an analyst had to have face-to-face conversations. In other words, literally, no coding could get done without first establishing mutual understanding. Whoa.

Nowadays, the cheapness of communication makes it possible to lose a week's worth of work before a feedback loop exposes the team's failure to communicate. Because that's what a bug is. Bug density reflects your team's ability to communicate. So if you want higher quality, communicate better, it's pretty simple. One of the best ways to promote communication is to embrace pair programming. Pair programming is so effective precisely because of speaker and listener neural coupling, the constant stream of verbal interplay that occurs while pair programming actually promotes mutual understanding at the deepest level.

And that begs the question, if mutual understanding is important, then why would you not pair program? Why would you deliberately choose to work in a way that promotes misunderstanding and confusion? That makes no sense. However, that's where we are as an industry. Instead of grownup conversations, we have legions of keyboard warriors shouting themselves hoarse inside a digital echo chamber. Hey! Get off Slack, you fools. Take yourselves away from the keyboard. We're over here, and we're waiting for you to join the real conversation.

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