Three Ways for Distributed Engineering Teams to Use Slack

At Area 1, we’ve been fighting phish as a distributed team since our founding. While our HQ is in Redwood City, Calif., our team includes several prominent engineers in other states, coasts, and countries! Making this distributed set-up work well is part of what helps us deliver great product and service to our customers. Below, I highlight three practical ways our team leverages Slack to make distributed engineering easier.

1) Reduce friction through … Reaction Emojis?!

The hardest part about being remote is quickly making a decision, confirming buy-in, and letting everyone know about that decision.

Our team members (geographically dispersed since 2014) first post proposals in Slack. Our convention is to start with a bold “proposed,” followed by the details of our suggestion (like writing this blog!). :plus: and :heavy_minus_sign: symbols are used for voting. Generally, we block if someone posts a minus sign, and that person threads their feedback on why we should hold off. When the proposition is in progress, a :wrench: or :gear: icon lets everyone know the work has begun. A :white_check_mark: lets everyone know it’s complete.

This simple workflow lets us quickly make many group decisions every single day, with a minimum amount of effort spent communicating, but with the benefits of a larger team discussion. The proposer gets a burst of confidence when others agree with their plan, and gains a sense of who’s available to support them if unexpected issues arise and help is needed. The biggest benefit is less friction, and more results for our customers.

2) A threaded triage channel

We create specific #channels dedicated to responding to escalations. On-call teams are put into Slack groups and receive notifications from these #channels when appropriate. Our CTO, Phil Syme, wrote a little bot to keep our PagerDuty groups in sync but, most importantly, we keep each escalation to one top-level message and handle follow-ups as a thread of that message. This process keeps the channel clean (easier to look back at events), the notifications minimal (as only people in the thread get notified for sometimes long conversations), and prevents items from getting missed. We use the same approach for monitoring alerts and customer escalations — it really reduces the strain of support!

Reaction emojis are key — a quick :eyes: by the first responder lets other people know who’s on the case, and prevents overlapping efforts from multiple people working on the same issue.

3) Effective build notifications!

We let our CI tool Slack us for key production events, with links to the actions so we can proactively cancel or click on to track closely. That way everyone knows what our robots are up to, and can veto any action that’s about to take place. A short delay built into the job gives enough of a window to respond, but lets actions proceed without manual intervention. The appropriate on-call team is tagged so that priority messages aren’t missed. We really avoid @channel messages.

Without a communication process to let new ideas, immediate needs, and task priorities flow smoothly and quickly, we’d be missing out on the incredible talent of our diverse and distributed cybersecurity engineering team. Some simple Slack routines enhance productivity and strengthen our team so we can stay focused on blocking phishing attacks.

  • A streamline proposal process captures new ideas that can be voted on and debated fast, moving individuals’ suggestions into production
  • Threads for triage allow for immediate response time and happy customers
  • Notifications can provide a useful time buffer to act on last minute priorities without affecting automated deployments

If you’re a Slack emoji pro and interested in joining an engineering team that helps hunt bad actors on the Internet, please connect with me on LinkedIn or visit our Careers page.

Issa Ashwash is Area 1’s Director of DevOps. Aside from Slack and stopping phish, he enjoys bad music (especially electronic pop remixes), short walks on sandy beaches, and everything automation.

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