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6 reasons your development team should be using instant messaging

The ElectricAccelerator development team sits at desks less than 30 feet apart, but despite our close proximity, we don’t often speak to one another. To an outside observer this may seem to be a sign of disfunction in the team — after all, developers have to communicate to work effectively. Some people think we’re obviously not communicating, but the truth is that we’re not obviously communicating! That’s because we use instant messaging for most of our communications, including status updates, technical collaboration and even code reviews, rather than face-to-face conversations. I believe this has made my team more connected and more productive. Here are six reasons why instant messaging trumps face-to-face conversations for software teams.

1. Logging

The key advantage of instant messaging is that all conversations are logged automatically. As a result I’ve got records of every conversation with every member of my team for the past two years. That’s proven invaluable on a few occasions, to provide additional context for decisions made weeks or months earlier. Obviously this is not a replacement for other types of project documentation, but it is a fantastic supplement.

2. Non-intrusive

The second most important advantage of instant messaging is that it’s relatively non-intrusive, at least compared to a face-to-face conversation. We all know how important it is to get into and preserve a state of flow when programming. Spoken conversations, by social convention, command your immediate attention — effectively an interrupt of the highest order. When somebody comes to my desk to ask me something in person, they are implicitly saying, “What I have to say to you is more important than anything else you might be doing right now.” Sometimes that’s true, but many times it’s not. And yet every time somebody initiates a face-to-face conversation with me, it destroys whatever flow I might have developed.

In contrast, instant messaging allows me to defer a response until I reach a good breaking point, so people can ask questions without interrupting me.

3. Non-disruptive

Our office has an open floor plan, which means that instead of individual offices or cubicles, we have a single big room. This layout worked very well when the company had only 6 people, who were all working on the same project. Now the company employs over 100 people, with two separate development teams working on completely different products, so the open layout doesn’t work quite so well. Conversations between other people can be very distracting when you’re heads down on a tricky technical problem. By using instant messaging instead of face-to-face conversations, we significantly reduce the distraction for our collegues.

4. Simultaneous conversations

Carrying on multiple face-to-face conversations on disparate topics is practically impossible, but doing the same via instant messenger is simple. Every IM client I’ve seen displays the last several messages of each active conversation, so you have context when a new message arrives. That signficiantly reduces the mental burden associated with each conversation, so it becomes possible to sustain several simultaneously. I often have five conversations “active” during the work day, and sometimes even more.

5. Consistency

Unlike face-to-face conversations, IM works well regardless of the relative locations of the conversants. That means that it doesn’t matter if my colleague is in the office with me, or working from home, or working from a customer site, or halfway around the world. I can use the same tool to communicate with them, which in turn means I don’t have to change the way I work to accomodate changes in the way they are working.

6. Versatility

One final advantage of instant messaging compared to face-to-face conversation is the versatility of the medium. I can trivially share a code fragment with somebody via IM, or a link to an online resource. Try doing that in a face-to-face conversation: “Yeah, you should check out the STL reference docs, at aich tee tee pee colon slash slash double you double you double you dot …”.

Instant messaging: give it a try

If you’re not already using instant messaging in your development team, give it a try. There are multiple free IM services out there, and there are good free IM clients on every platform, including smart phones, so you’ve really got nothing to lose — but you might gain a more efficient, productive team. It worked for us.

Comments

  1. I can’t imagine working without IM. But after a few messages I really prefer to go to video chat. The higher “bandwidth” of face to face communications pays off. I guess if you work in an office that’s when you would walk over and talk to someone. G+ hangouts are great for video chat.

    • @Scott: Yeah, I do occasionally go back to face-to-face conversation, usually because I’m having trouble fully expressing my intent in written messages. I find that happening less and less over time, presumably because my written communication skills have improved due to frequent use in this context.

  2. 7. Knowledge Access
    In a face-to-face conversation, at most one person has their development environment open in front of them, with access to the code (where they can refresh their memory of how that thing they wrote 3 years ago actually works), manual pages, and search engines. In an IM conversation, each person can be dredging up relevant information while the other one is typing. The chat log is then available to refresh your memory when you task-switch back to the conversation.

    • @Max: Excellent point! Since we haven’t got neural implants (yet), the ability to access your terminal during the conversation is pretty valuable.

      • This is where video chat is great. You have face to face, you both have your dev environments open, and you can IM things like code, urls, etc. Combine that with screen sharing and its the best of all worlds.

        I’ve also worked where we all sit around the same big table, and then we use everything except video chat. We still use IM and screen sharing when we are in the same room because it is more comfortable. Crowding around one screen, sharing one keyboard kind of sucks.

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