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Ask HN: How do you feel about backchannel communications for engineering teams?
22 points by shatteredvisage 5 months ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 21 comments

On the teams I've worked on, I've usually always been part of a public Slack channel (with managers, product, designers, various stakeholders) and a private slack channel which is only engineers.

1.) I think the private channel makes people more likely to ask the "dumb questions", be more frank, and generally more communicative: do you agree?

2.) Should engineering managers be part of the private channel?

In general, I'm curious what HN thinks about this paradigm!

I'm generally in favor of it. Whether to include your manager or not is up to the team dynamic. On our team, absolutely (she used to be a dev on the team, then the team lead, then the team manager).

What I've seen in our own "private" room is that the list of invitees has grown and now some folks with power but not context have gotten into the room. I feel that their confidence in our team has dropped due to them seeing "dumb" questions (things like, "hey, does anyone know how such-n-such-critical-component work?" with responses like, "doesn't it do blah?" "no, it does blah blah ... I think. Don't recall."

We previously had a public room and a private room for chat. But with the private room having some important folks now, I'm not sure we can just kick them out. We might need a private-private room.

Thanks for the question, it reminded me to have this conversation with my manager (as we would want her in the private-private room, but want her blessing and input - maybe she is fine telling the others to leave).

"folks with power but not context" is a great phrase!

Thank you for your answer! I'm in a similar situation--the channel made it about four months before someone invited (by mistake maybe) a manager.

Should the manager be there is the question I'm hung on. Since she's the one who does reviews, 1:1s, and ultimately reports the "status" of each engineer, I feel like her presence changes the dynamic from a cooperative-team-locker-room to something that involves a little more posturing. Which saddens me.


Having a dedicated channel for engineers seems like a necessity. And it's important to keep non-engineers out of it, due to points raised by /u/sethammons.

As an engineer I want to be comfortable asking questions that are too technical for the general audience. And to ask them without fear of the managers thinking I'm an idiot (and yes, managers/non-engineers do come to that conclusion if you ask a question that they feel that every engineer should know, even if they're nowhere near to being in a position to make that judgement).

Besides just factual knowledge-sharing, there needs to be a place where engineers can complain, celebrate, swear, and say whatever comes to their mind. The general/main channel doesn't allow for that.

And sure, engineering managers can be in the channel, so long as they don't throw their weight around and keep the tone informal. I.e., don't use something that an engineer said in that channel against him, or put anything in a negative light. Basically, the more informal the side channel, the better and healthier. If people can't shoot the shit freely, negativity will build up and toxic patterns WILL emerge.

It's vital to have a "safe space" channel where people can ask questions without judgement, or worries about looking bad to management or people who have some say in their promotions, bonus, project assignments, etc.

Also important for "Widget X might be broken folks, do we have a problem?" triaging without inviting premature noise, especially given some such concerns will be false positives.

With all due respect to the other answers in other threads, it sounds to me that there is a toxic company culture if employees feel they need a “private” slack channel where they can post work appropriate messages without reprisal. I understand that a single dev can’t always fix the underlying problem and sometimes needs to focus on mitigating a symptom. But should the question really be “what can we do to fix the company culture”?

I’m surprised that people want private channels so much. Most teams I’m on have been public only, and it’s never been an issue. Even private messages are frowned upon, better to have input from others. It’s especially annoying if someone from another team is asking for help but the context is hidden behind a wall.

And outside of engineering they generally self select out of the channel. Or we trust that the people we work with to understand that they aren’t the intended audience in those channels - they’re still welcome but usually don’t contribute.

Same here. We also have quiet offices with no more than 2 people per room for our devs. Maybe it’s no surprise we have a strong company culture.

Anecdotally, the answer is: In an overwhelming majority of the cases, not much.

It seems as engineers/programmers/etc are generally looked down upon by many in marketing, sales, and various management position regarding their ability to understand how a company should be "run", down to trivial things like how to plan an office space.

I don't have much issue with open office spaces, at least not well designed ones, but many engineers do, and all those engineers are demonstrably more productive in a space adapted to their work habitat preferences. And still, even where office space costs are a fraction of the costs, you see terrible open spaces. Almost always against the entire engineering departments wishes.

It almost has to be some sort of culture thing, as I've seen first hand how common engineering values such as openness, a relative objectivity, clarity of vision/direction, etc works when actually applied. They work amazing!

It was at this company, one that during the dotcom craze managed to retain engineers 3 times longer than the industry average. They constantly hit their deadlines, customer trust was sky high. All this with good velocity while having a technically very advanced product.

If I would name one thing that might have been the sauce that made it possible: You could not become a manager, go into sales without working 1st line support some amount of time until you knew the product(s)

I don't understand exactly why that seemed to have such a staggering effect, if it indeed was the cause, but I've never ever seen an org run even nearly as smooth as that one!

Maybe it helped people at all levels to understand intuitively, that a bold claim in a meeting room, doesn't fix the customer issues? Only a lot of hard work does.

Make a private IRC channel. It's a pretty hardcore technical filter, but such are the times.

> [...] employers of the 1960s regarded programmers as unmanageable, citing contemporary sources that branded programmers as "prima donnas" who were "arrogant," "egocentric," and devoid of social skills.

> [...] a manager at IBM and Diebold bemoaned the fact that programmers' labor-market power undermined "the normal employer-employee relationship, which, in part, depends on the fear of termination or disciplinary action."

> Weinberg, who managed large software projects at IBM [...], argued that software was produced most effectively in egalitarian teams that emphasized open communication among members. [... He] contrasted his approach with what he saw as the macho attitude of many managers: "Managers tend to select themselves from the 'aggressive' component of society... They are especially at a loss to understand the smooth functioning of a programming group based on mutual respect for individual talent and cooperation in the common cause."

Janet Abbate - Recoding Gender, p93-95

The “normal employer-employee relationship” still “in part, depends on the fear of termination....” What has changed?

The fear part most likely. Depending on what year the quote is from there's a chance that they literally couldn't find a replacement for a programmer. Or want to soak the costs of training one on the job.

Nowadays a lot of developers I know, myself included, work where they do because they like it and it pays somewhat better than the other guys. If I lose my job oh well. I'll throw out my resume, take a week off, and there's a good chance I'll have another job.

It isn't that it won't suck, but it's not going to cripple me or really interrupt my life. The question of "Are they going to fire me?" becomes kind of a joke.

> Depending on what year the quote is from

It's from "On the Management of Computer Programming" published in 1970. He complained about some of programmers being Haight-Ashbury hippies and disliked programmers' desire for "beards, sandals, and other symbols of rugged individualism."

The more things change, and some such...

Interesting. That sounds like it could be a fun read just to see the change in management styles around programmers.

In my experience, the “I’ll just find a new job in a week “ meme is overstated. It takes longer than a week to get to an onsite interview in my experience. Sometimes it’s even longer.

Admittedly yes, especially in the current market but it does illustrate the reasoning behind the quote. The shift in labor-market power of developers is undeniable. Realistically it would take me closer to a month from search to first day if I was jumping at the first opportunity. I've certainly known people with a broad enough network and in-demand skills who could land one in a week or two however.

On my team we have a “dev” Slack channel which is public and a “dev_private” channel which is private. The former includes managers/stakeholders and is almost exclusively for providing status updates and raising critical issues that need manager input.

The latter is fairly locked down and limited to only the dev team, and it’s where we troubleshoot together, ask dumb questions, and chat about work in general. Having it definitely makes working through certain issues feel much “safer” without risking looking like we don’t know what we are doing to management (though whether or not I know what I’m doing is debatable).

We had a project where we had a remote team of contractors doing some of the lower-level work. Our engineering manager finally said: Look, I need my own weekly call with their engineers. Managers can listen if they want to, but it's our call. It was amazing how quickly things got solved when it was just engineers talking to engineers, without business people or politics.

I'd be up for no Slack channels at all, but I'm just old schoool. I find Slack quite distracting.

I think it's fine to have a private channel for developers. If nothing else, it will give you a place to discuss technical problems without all the other noise.

A lot of context can be lost in 1 to 1s, however it doesn't mean they can't exist. Often I'll say let's take this to #dev so a) stakeholders are involved b) it's not just a line item on an invoice. If we're just talking shit or having a moan then 1 to 1 is fine

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