Category Archives: Business

Why I don’t like Slack

I’ve been using Slack on a daily basis for around 5 years now. If I started a new project today I’d almost certainly advocate using it. But I have very little enthusiasm for it, and I have deep reservations about the idea that it will (or should) replace email.

Five things I don’t like

Slack is misleading on price

One issue with Slack is that it only stores the 10,000 most recent messages. Even in a small team you can hit that remarkably quickly. Of course, this is only a problem on a free account, but it exposes a bit of misleading marketing. They want you to believe that:

  • Slack is free to use for light users
  • Slack is an improvement on email

but these two aren’t true simultaneously. The free account is no substitute for email, because it can’t do what even a modest email box can do: preserve the important in preference over the ephemeral. If I get an email with my employee number on day 1 with a new company, I may well still want that email years later, but Slack doesn’t let me make that choice.

Slack puts the burden of organisation on the sender

Email does force you to spend time arranging your mailbox to keep things organised. Slack saves you this time in exactly the way that having your legs amputated saves time shopping for shoes.

Everyone has a different method of organising their emails. But that isn’t a problem, because email doesn’t require everyone to agree on how to do it. Furthermore, if I receive an email from someone who doesn’t care to classify their message by topic or urgency that’s no big deal, I can just do it myself.

On the other hand, Slack forces everyone to agree on what the list of channels should be. If someone creates a confusing or duplicate channel, look forward to long discussions with them trying to convince them it’s not necessary. Of course, if you do choose to stick with just one channel you can’t usefully merge the history of them. Did someone send a message to the wrong channel? Too bad, it’s stuck there forever, and when you’re looking for information on that topic you’ll have to give up and search all channels.

Threading doesn’t seem to work for anybody, at all, ever

I’ve yet to meet anybody, myself included, who uses threading consistently and effectively. When people are new to Slack, they usually miss the existence of threaded conversations altogether.

Even once everyone’s realised the feature is there there’s no real consensus on when and how to use it. Will branching off a thread lead to comments looking less important? If I decide a conversation is dominating the channel and needs to be moved to a thread, I have to pick a single person’s comment to branch it from, and will that look like I’m singling them out? After I’ve branched my thread there are a few more comments in the main channel, should I reply to them there and further the confusion, or awkwardly refer to them from the thread?

Discussions get terminated by confusion rather than consensus

Long slow-moving conversations are almost impossible to have on Slack, because only one topic can really live in a channel at any one time. Context rapidly gets lost. You could argue that threading would be the solution for this, but this relies on the conversation having been kept to a single thread the entire time, which doesn’t happen.

Sometimes I have an announcement I want to make but hold off on doing so because I don’t want to move the topic of the channel on from an important issue we haven’t reached consensus on. This is a communication tool standing in my way, not one giving me options.

There’s no way to mark a conversation as dealt with

In email, it’s usually fairly clear which conversations are done and which are waiting for input from you. In Slack they just scroll off the screen. Worse, there’s no accepted way to re-raise the issue to check if the person you’re talking to is still thinking about it or needs a reminder.

Similarly, there’s no way to spot important topics when looking back over an archived chat. If you’re away for a couple of days, good luck reading through a hundred messages and spotting the three that are important.

One thing I do like

Sending a Slack message to someone fits a nice gap in urgency between sending an email and making a phone call. Rightly or wrongly a rough consensus has formed that email can be ignored for an hour or two, but a phone call has to be picked up immediately. When someone’s online Slack messages are typically turned round in a matter of minutes, which neither email nor phone contact gives you.

This a level of urgency that seems very common in the type of work I’m usually doing, and I’m grateful for it as a tool.

The problem with “the new email”

Email has been around for a very long time, and many of its early design decisions show through as limitations today. Formatting is inconsistent and doesn’t mix well with quoting. Encryption is a pain. Attachments can be clunky. Quoting is useful in small doses but the default of dumping the entire previous email in below is unhelpful.

The protocols involved in email are hard to extend, and non-standard extensions leave us stuck with a lowest common denominator problem. It’s natural to argue that we need a complete break in order to build on better foundations.

Furthermore, the more annoying aspects of email are social. I’m old enough to remember when email was unfamiliar enough that the term “netiquette” was bandied about to encourage people to be mindful of their behaviour, for all the good it ever did. 2+ decades after email’s widespread adoption our ways are set and we’re stuck with people copying too widely, quoting too much content, endless inflation of the urgency markers in the subject line, and so on.

Again, maybe we need a clean break.

But not Slack.

Unused employee creativity

I’ve been reading about the Toyota Production System (TPS) recently. As everyone knows, one of its key principles is eliminating waste in the production system. Waste is defined much more broadly than you might first assume, but it makes sense: anything that doesn’t add value to the customer is waste.

As I looked down the list of eight sources of waste, one of them caught my attention:

  1. Overproduction
  2. Waiting (time on hand)
  3. Unnecessary transport of goods
  4. Over-processing or incorrect processing
  5. Excess inventory
  6. Unnecessary movement of staff
  7. Defects
  8. Unused employee creativity

I wasn’t expecting “unused employee creativity” to be considered, let alone to be given equal footing to the other types. There’s a tendency to think of Toyota and TPS as extremely conservative and valuing of strict procedures, and not at all open to creativity.

I think what brings these two concepts together is another Toyota principle:

“Make decisions slowly, considering all the possibilities. Act quickly.”

The decision process is conservative by virtue of taking its time and requiring evidence before something is changed, not by virtue of considering a small number of possibilities.

For a long time I’ve felt that there is a false dichotomy between the popular visions of small dynamic start-ups and conservative larger companies. Perhaps this example provides a useful model how companies can be exceptions to this rule.

The delusion of omnicompetence

In the context of the failure of the Affordable Care Act exchanges, Megan McArdle relates a fun anecdote about a user who expected too much from his speech recognition software:

“Hold on, please,” I said. “Can you show me exactly what’s not working?”

“It’s not doing what I want,” he said.

“What do you want?” I asked.

“I want it to be,” he replied, “like the computer on `Star Trek: The Next Generation.’”

“Sir, that’s an actor,” I replied evenly, despite being on the sleepless verge of hysteria. With even more heroic self-restraint, I did not add “We can get you an actor to sit under your desk. But we’d have to pay SAG rates.”

I’m sure we’ve all been there. But there’s a wider point made by the article, and you should read the whole thing. McArdle argues that there’s a more systematic problem with people who are smart in one domain assuming that they are equally able to handle any topic, “the delusion of omnicompetence”, as she puts it:

The technocratic idea is that you put a bunch of smart, competent people in government — folks who really want the thing to work — and they’ll make it happen. But “smart, competent people” are not a generic quantity; they’re incredibly domain-specific. Most academics couldn’t run a lemonade stand. Most successful entrepreneurs wouldn’t be able to muster the monomaniacal devotion needed to get a Ph.D. […]

Yet in my experience, the majority of people in these domains think that they could do everyone else’s job better, if they weren’t so busy with whatever it is they’re doing so well.

This is definitely consistent with my experience of software engineers, who often seem to feel that they are the most important people in the company. And I’ve certainly met academics who look down on anyone without a PhD.

An interesting thing to me is that in my experience (and I may be biased), the type of intelligence that good engineers have actually does transfer to other topics. I’ve had many a conversation about business strategy or marketing or history or politics with my fellow engineers, and I believe they are generally highly perceptive and rational.

What engineers often are, though, is ignorant. I believe one issue is that understanding of computers comes so easily to people like us that we tend to view with suspicion disciplines that require more study. It may seem like people who study history, say, are taking refuge in a subject where hours of grind can make up for lack of incisive brilliance. And that gives rise to a naive faith in perfectly logical solutions that somehow omit to deal with the real world. In other words, thinking we’re good gets in the way of being the best we can be.

This is a wild generalisation of course. But probably nearly all of us can stand to make some improvement in the degree of respect we accord to other professions, and absolutely everyone can improve themselves in some way or other. We shouldn’t let a (correct) sense of satisfaction in our achievements hold us back.