Tech Life My Sidebar is not my Inbox

How I Slack (2022)

Each Slack team I’m on has a different set of humans building their own unique communication culture. I’m actively on six teams: Work, Leadership, Destiny, two private nerd Slacks, and a private family Slack.

Three out of my six teams have 100+ active humans, 100+ channels, and are high traffic with hundreds to thousands of messages per day. The majority of my interaction centers on these teams. If I’m away from the keyboard for a few hours, my sidebar can be ominously full of unread channels and conversations. Looks like this:

sidebar1

In this piece, I’ll explain how I use the desktop version of Slack to sift quickly through these channels and conversations. If you’re on a Slack team with one channel and ten humans, much of the following will feel like overkill, but there are helpful optimization nuggets below. Important to note upfront that I am the former VP of Engineering at Slack. The following is full of my opinions, quirks, and neuroses and not those of Slack.

A Game of Microseconds

The rule has always been: if my hands leave the keyboard, I’ll screw it up. For years, I’ve written about the maddening imprecision of the mouse. With due respect to illustrators and other deft operators of the mouse, I am presented with too much optionality when I am required to use one. It is the intrinsic power of a mouse that its default workspace is my entire desktop – each and every pixel is available to click, whether it’s the suitable pixel or not.

I understand and appreciate that the mouse’s broad optionality is perfect for novice users. It allows for curious unhindered exploration, but once a mouse teaches us the virtual landscape, a mouse’s utility fades once we understand how to work, and I need a clearly defined path to move faster. There is no more important area where I need to move quickly and efficiently than how I communicate.

Keyboard support has always been quite good in Slack. This is good news because my ability to quickly and efficiently find, triage, and respond to information within Slack is not a mouse task; it’s a perfect keyboard job. There are a handful of well-defined actions that literally instantly need to be at my fingertips. Let’s start with two related essentials:

Switch to my unread things ( CMD-K / Ctrl-K (Mac / Windows) ) If there is only one keyboard tip I want you to remember, it’s Cmd-K. The Quick Switcher is inspired by LaunchBar, QuickSilver, and other handy context switching tools, and it’s dead simple: hit Cmd-K and start typing the name of a person or a channel, and when you see what you need, you can instantly jump to any context by hitting ENTER. If I’ve been away from Slack for a bit, I hit Cmd-K and glance at the list in Quick Switcher. It’s a prioritized list of direct messages and unread messages.

Show me a recent conversation ( CMD-SHIFT-K / Ctrl-SHIFT-T ) Throw a SHIFT into the Quick Switcher keyboard combination; CMD-SHIFT-K (or Ctrl-SHIFT-T on Windows) brings up Direct Message Quick Switcher. What I’m looking at here is a history of all of my single and multi-human conversations sorted by time. The more I work with an existing team, the more I find this conversation history useful daily. As single or multi-human conversations tend to be higher signal since they’re directed at me, this history is full of conversations between individuals and groups that I need at the ready for the next week.

Don’t Read Everything

Aggressively Join Channels : I don’t join every channel available, but the bar to get me interested in a channel is incredibly low. Any interest at all and I’ll join. With the current default Slack configuration, this can lead to channel sidebar proliferation, but here are my sidebar set-up moves:

Remove Sidebar Detritus: The sidebar can have a lot of different categories, many of which you don’t need. I fire up preferences, select Sidebar, and only check All DMs, Mentions & reactions, and Slack Connect (these are Slack channels across workspaces). Underneath that, I select Show… Custom, depending on the section. More on this choice in a moment.

Create Channel Sections: Slack allows you to group conversations into different sections. I have a different strategy for each high volume Slack, but over at the Rands Leadership Slack, I created an Admin section and a Project section. Along with the default star section, I use these sections to either categorize different channels or, in the case of Projects, flag a channel where I have a non-trivial project in flight.

Set Section Preferences: For sections with more than a few channels, I select the section menu and set the defaults only to show unread messages and sort by priority. This used to be a global setting in preferences but is now a per section preference, and it’s the number one thing you can do to decrease channel noise. Only show me channels where there is recent activity.

This Sidebar nip’n’tuck is magical. Here’s the before and after:

sidebar2

You will note that all of your custom sections are collapsible, which means if a section is bumming me out, I can collapse it and deal with it later.

With this set-up and after a few hours of activity, my unread count builds. So, I merrily Quick Switch my way through this unread activity. If I need to respond or don’t have time to answer, I will either Star or Project a channel depending on the amount and type of work. This makes my sidebar a draft of my to-do list relative to this Slack. This strategy has kept my sidebar tidy and easily under control, even the highest traffic Slacks.

Two other points:

  • My attention is a precious thing, and if the reason I joined the channel in the first place is gone, I want to spend my valuable seconds glancing elsewhere. So, I type /leave.
  • Yes, when I get behind, and when I end up in this state, the keyboard command I use is Ctrl-Esc. This marks everything read. The FOMO inbox zero zealots in the audience just freaked out a bit. What if there is something important in those channels? How do I know what’s essential without reading every single message? Wait for it.

My Sidebar is not my Inbox

For a large group of humans in a company using email, we believe that we’re doing each other a favor by making sure the TO: line of this critical email is populated with the correct humans and mailing lists. Also, protocol dictates the proper construction of the CC: line for the humans who are slightly less essential than the humans on the TO: line. We believe we’re doing the right thing because we believe this is the only way they’ll find this essential information.

This is incorrect. We’re lazy.

It’s not deliberate laziness; it’s tool-induced laziness where we feel the need to blast every possible human with this essential piece of data because we believe that email is the only source of truth. This makes our inbox a sacred place because it is our connection to our fellow workers. Conversely, we feel that if the information is in our inbox, we have a deep compulsion to read it.

Three questions: How much time have you spent constructing mail filters for mails sent TO YOU that YOU REQUESTED that end up in folders that you NEVER EVER READ? For all of those emails actually in your inbox, how many did you read? Finally, how many days of your life have you lost worrying about your inbox?

My working and perhaps incorrect assumption in a Slack team are that if a piece of information needs to get to me, a qualified human will make sure I get it by either using the @name convention, sending me a direct message, or creating a channel for us to have a long-running discussion of this essential information. Ctrl-Esc doesn’t delete a thing; it just marks it read.

Three More Keyboard Essentials

Further means by which I avoid the mouse:

Edit ( Up Arrow ) Anyone who follows me on Twitter knows that I excel at making typos even with the fixed availability of the 78 keys on my keyboard. All the time. I altogether drop entire words during caffeinated keyboard fury, and Slack messages are no exception. Hitting the UP ARROW in Slack allows me to select a message, and hitting E will enable me to edit the message. Strangely, this feature gives me so much joy.

Forward and Back ( CMD-[, CMD-] / Alt-[, Alt-] ) The defining characteristic of the keyboard is that it allows me to move fast. Often I’ll blast right past a channel with an essential piece of information that won’t be relevant until I’ve visited a few more channels. What was that channel again? Like a web browser, CMD-[ and CMD-] allow me to page through my channel viewing history. Handy for that piece of information that just zipped by but suddenly becomes important five seconds later.

Emoji reaction ( CMD-SHIFT-\ / Ctrl-SHIFT-\ ) I’d resisted emoji for years. My opinion was the same as my opinion of all messaging abbreviations. If you want to say something, take the time to write the words. Slack changed my opinion about emojis, and the reason is, again, efficiency. There is a type of communication where all I need from you is the smallest of acknowledgments. I don’t need commentary or an opinion. I need to know from you: yes, I received this. Emoji reactions are the perfect low-friction way to deliver this acknowledgment. Here are my current top three Emojis and my internal mental translations.

  • 👍 – Got it.
  • 🙏 – Thank you.
  • dancing-penguin – This… is awesome.

Emoji usage can quickly lead to emoji madness, but when I think about the cumbersome alternative: reading mail, hitting respond to generate another mail, typing “Got it!” and hitting send, well, I’m ok with dancing penguins.

The Right Tool for the Right Job

When did I send my first email? Wow, I think it was during the 80s. It was a pre-Internet email on a forgotten Silicon Valley BBS, which means I’ve been using email as a means of communication for around three decades. Sometime during the 90s, it became my primary means of written digital communication. Like other message platforms, Twitter and FaceBook have certainly provided new forms of connective tissue; email has remained an essential part of my communication life.

Slack allows me to rethink a means of communication that hasn’t fundamentally changed in decades. Slack provides me with a valuable set of communication primitives that continues to have me experimenting. I’m trying new approaches to communication paths I thought were forever fixed, which deserves a…

dancing-penguin

Tech Life Essential missing information

What We Lost

Who is this?

Princess Leia, right? End of Rogue One. Wrong, this is not Princess Leia. This is.

A photograph of Carrie Fisher in her role of Princess Leia. Chances are, your brain can tell the difference between the two photos. The first is a computer generated image (“CGI”) and the second is a straight-up photograph.

How does our brain know its CGI? It doesn’t. Your brain knows that something is strangely off about this image. The eyes are a little too big. They lack life. The smile isn’t a Carrie Fisher smile. My brain is fully aware this image is intended to look like Carrie Fisher. Still, my brain also instinctively raises a red flag alerting me, “Something is wrong” because my brain is shockingly good at receiving and parsing visual information when it comes to the human face. It is essential that I can gather and process signal from the humans around me. Quickly and efficiently.

The dissonance you sense staring at this image is a part of a rich, more significant problem we humans are collectively experiencing during this unending Pandemic.

This is Not a Meeting

Let’s start with disclaimers:

  • I’m pro humans working together. Always have been.
  • Distributed work has been and will continue to be required in these times of the Pandemic.
  • There is no doubt in my mind that distributed work works. I believed this before the Pandemic, and I believe it more now.

With that said, I can confirm that this is not a meeting.

I suspect this is a staged Zoom call for marketing purposes. How do I know this? Everyone is smiling.

Here’s another one. Again, randomly pulled off the Internet, but more slightly realistic.

That’s more familiar. Humans staring in random directions. Many clearly not listening. Camera off for one participant. Here’s the question, how many humans are on this call?

Zero.

Yeah, I won’t let this point go. There are no humans on this call. Yes, there are 14 participants with their video on, one with their video off, and someone dialing in. Yes, you can gather some interesting signal from a single frame of this meeting, but this is a crappy 2D representation of the team; both essential signal and purpose are missing from this situation.

Five or Seven Senses

You have five base senses: sight, hearing, smell, taste, and touch. Bonus fact: you actually have seven. The mysterious additional two are:

  • Vestibular: the movement and balanced sense, which gives us information about where our head and body are in space. Helps us stay upright when we sit, stand, and walk.
  • Proprioception: the body awareness sense, which tells us where our body parts are relative to each other. It also gives us information about how much force to use, allowing us to crack an egg while not crushing the egg in our hands.

Every single of these senses, yeah, even vestibular and proprioception, are limited in a video conference call. You do not see the entire person; you see them from the chest up. Your hearing is limited and frustratingly altered by the milliseconds of lag and subsequent awkward interruptions to the conversation when someone attempts to insert a vital fact only stomped by the current speaker who hasn’t heard the interruption yet. You probably don’t think smell, like taste, is essential, but that is because you’ve been sitting all by your lonesome in your home office for the two+ years (like me) and have forgotten that smell, while not critical, contributes to the information tapestry of an in-person. And touch, the feel of the table in front of you. The slight echo you feel in the wood when someone sets their coffee cup on the table.

It’s an endless list of little things that you think you’ve forgotten, but you haven’t. You are quite literally built to sense an infinite amount of subtle bits of signal from your fellow humans. We were not built to live alone in caves; we were built to live together in them.

And this is not Princess Leia:

Endless Bits of Friction

Relative to the Pandemic, the single biggest work question I’ve been asking myself for two years is: what did we lose? What is the measurable and objective loss for teams not working in close proximity? I’ve been looking for cracks. I’ve been looking for leading indicators of future doom. The Great Resignation seems like a proper crack, right? But are people quitting their jobs because they can’t work together or because their current job sucks and all this terror in the air has given them a new appreciation of what really matters?

What I see are endless bits of friction:

No, I can’t hear you. You’re muted.

No, I can’t see what you’re sharing.

No, I have no idea that you’re in a bad mood. You’re just the same old postage stamp two-dimensional muted headshot that you were in the last three meetings.

No, I have no idea that everyone hates the idea you just proposed because my ability to read the room has been mostly erased. I can’t tell the difference between “We hate this idea” silence and “We’re mostly just quiet because it’s a chore to speak during a video conference” silence.

Yes, I’m inserting your name into the conversation because I see you aren’t paying attention, and I know the conversation is heading in your direction.

Yes, I appreciate that folks are using visual cues like nods and thumbs up to indicate their agreement, but does everyone remember that we were capable of such understanding with none of the awkwardness?

Yes, I spend an excessive amount of time looking at myself. It’s ridiculous.

A video conference is a sterile dehumanizing experience. A good in-person meeting is pure jazz. Its elegant sparring between those who care deeply about the things they are building, and watching and participating in this banter is one of the joys of my professional career.

And This is Not Princess Leia

If I were to ask right after you viewed Rogue One whether that was Princess Leia or not, you’d say, “CGI, right?” I respond, “Yes, but what was wrong with the image? How could you tell it wasn’t Princess Leia?”

To which you’d shrug, “I don’t know. Her eyes were a little creepy?”

Suppose you’re not a professional computer graphics artist. In that case, you don’t know what’s precisely wrong with this image, but understanding the specifics is not a requirement for your brain to alert you that something funky is going on. Your brain has been trained and rewarded for successfully deriving information from the simplest facial expressions. You have learned much from listening, from understanding each word they speak, and for listening to the pause between the words because there is information there, as well. And you were in that meeting. We all were, and we’ll never forget it because, at one point, she stood, slammed her fist on the desk, and yelled, “I can’t believe we’ve let this happen!” I couldn’t believe it, either.

Do you want to know why you’re fatigued at the end of a long day of video conferences? It’s because your brain has been straining to collect essential information that is no longer there.

I look forward to seeing you again. Together we are more.

Rands Carefully calibrating the new test

Five Thousand Stories

The first book I purchased for myself. When I understood the science fiction genre. Getting beat up as a kid and how the marbles helped. My favorite pen. When I learned why typography mattered. Why I care about bears so much. Why Tribeca matters to me.

When I was a kid, I had nightmares. Saying that “every kid gets nightmares” doesn’t matter to a seven-year-old on week two of dread-filled nights who doesn’t understand if he’s being punished, if something is wrong with him, or something worse.

My Mother gave me a small trinket before bed one night. I don’t remember what she said, but what I remember is I believed if I held that trinket when I went to sleep that I would not get nightmares. It worked. For an entire summer. One night while I slept, the trinket fell between the bed and the wall. I can not tell how quickly I tore apart my entire room looking for that trinket and how relieved I was when I found it.

The only book about dragons that matters. Gifts from dear friends in New Zealand. The seven books I will always recommend when asked. Every Field Notes I’ve ever received and used. A framed silver dollar. The back of the frame reads, “Remember Las Vegas, June 1959. Golden Nugget.”

The trinket lives in a small wooden box next to my bed, along with small gifts I’ve collected over the past decades. When life is excessively complicated, I open the box, pull the trinket out, and place it in my pocket for the complicated day. I am neither a religious nor a mystical person, but, yes, I do believe the day will be more manageable with that trinket in my pocket. Because it reminds me of the story of unconditional love a parent has for a child. When a child suffers, all a parent can do is work to ease their suffering. I got this.

The best vinyl I could steal from my parents. A history of Apple boxes. Every book I’ve written. Every book I’ve published. That copy of the Dungeon and Dragons Monster Manual I begged my Mom to buy me in Hawaii when we had no money. Moon Knight #1 — thrown away two decades ago by my Mother but found and given to me by family this Christmas. When Wanda made Marvel so much better with a single phrase.

I collect objects which contain stories meaningful to me. I’ve done so since I was a kid. How do I know if the story is meaningful? I hold the object in my hand, and I remember the story and how it makes me feel. Some items pass this test for a few years before the stories fade, whereas others are as real as when I first experienced them.

You’ve seen some of these objects before:

That’s the southern wall of my office, and those were two seven-foot-tall bookshelves that dutifully collected stories. Roughly a year ago, as we were starting a remodel of a bathroom, I spun around in my chair in my home office dreaming. The bookshelves were full, but I had a lifetime of other stories that belonged in the Cave.

Spin, spin, spin. The ceilings of my office are just over thirteen feet high. The southern wall was mostly bare. You know. Why not shelves? An entire wall of shelves. All the way up to the ceiling? I conferred with my wife, who promptly added, “And you’re going to need a ladder.”

A LADDER. Of course, a rolling ladder. That’s the dream.

Why I love journalism. The importance of short stories. How I learned how to make hard decisions. The Winter Soldier codebook. Handmade. The first object I put on my desk at work that I cared about. The second thing, too. Ginormous black notebooks. Severus Snape’s wand. Why my son is named Spencer.

Our interior designer recommended a furniture maker. He made a good first impression, but the process of getting the shelves built was endless weeks of silence punctuated with moments of hope. Three times during the long silence, I told myself, “Well… better find another craftsperson,” which was promptly followed by an out-of-the-blue text giving us hope once again.

We dared to hope more when the money finally exchanged hands for materials, and questions regarding stain were asked. Then, another month of silence. As Fall approached, my wife laid down the law, “We need to be done by Thanksgiving.” We’re weren’t, but it was close, and it doesn’t matter now.

When I knew writing was for me. Anything Steve Martin has ever written. My father’s life’s work on the cover of a book. Too embarrassed to write it down. None of your business. The ironic book that got me started on writing about leadership. That book I’ve read 100 times. Three NHL All-Star hockey pucks. The story that meant the Internet was a big deal.

Before the day of installation, I emptied all the existing shelves. This was an excellent warm-up exercise. Hold it in my hand and see if I could hear the story. Day of the installation, I was at work and instructed my wife to tell me nothing. I broke halfway through the day and asked, “Is the stain ok?”

“You’re going to love it.”

My favorite piece of Apple hardware. That notebook. The picture that best expresses our love. The prettiest ocean wave on the planet Earth. Why bridges matter. My grandfather’s last gift to me. My Mother’s copy of Magic of Oz – signed by her at age seven.

Here’s before and after the installation process:

A custom-made knife from a dear friend. The Stephen King years. The encyclopedia we had as kids. What redwoods tell me about life. Why leadership has very little to do with management. That silver box. The writers who taught me the Rands voice.

It’s taken weeks, but the first draft of the shelf arrangement is done. Thousands of decisions. Carefully calibrating the new test of shelf-worthiness. Placing related objects together to tell meta-stories for each shelf. This is a wonderful wonderful task that will never end because…

We are the stories we remember.

Writing Edited, modernized, and pandemic-enabled

Managing Humans, 4th Edition

Just in time for Christmas, I’m happy to announce the 4th Edition of Managing Humans. It appears that four years is the sweet spot for new editions of this book.

The process of getting this edition out the door was the least painful of the four unless you factor in, ya’know, the pandemic. Edition notes:

  • I broke my streak of hating every single first draft of the cover. I was pretty OK with the latest. I will miss the pencil, but it was time for it to go.
  • There are 33 more pages and 11 new chapters. 33 might not seem like many pages to you, but those 33 pages changed the feel of the book. The 4th edition crossed a pleasing heft threshold that you will only understand when you hold it in your hand. It’s this weight that is my favorite attribute of this edition.
  • There’s an epilogue.
  • I nuked two chapters: The Monday Freakout and Avoiding the Fez. They did not stand the test of time.
  • My favorite new chapter is The Metronome. You can read it here right now.
  • There was another deep cleansing edit to correct errors, modernize, and acknowledge the multi-year pandemic vastly affecting how we lead. There are also several pandemic-inspired new chapters.
  • The glossary remains my favorite bit of the book. It, too, has been edited, modernized, and pandemic-enabled.
  • The promotion website is kind’a janky, but I love it. It’s up to date.
  • In publishing four editions of this book, I have not met a single human in person who is responsible for its publication. Really.
  • Covers quotes have returned, and I’m deeply thankful to John Gruber and John Dickerson to the two thoughtful quotes for the cover.

O’Reilly and I are in the process of rebooting Being Geek. That’ll land next year.

Again, thanks to all of you who continue to appreciate Managing Humans. You are the only reason there is the fourth edition.