The Important Thing Therapy time

The One About Charlotte

Our much delayed 42nd episode, which was recorded pre-Pandemic, we giggle a bit because we have not been giggling enough. In this episode, we discuss why Rands names his bikes and cars, which results in some helpful therapy. Also, stickers are discussed. (Recorded in February 2020)

Enjoy it now or download for later. Here’s a handy feed or subscribe via Overcast or iTunes.

Rands Facts not opinions

On Making Hard Decisions

Wildfires threatened the Rands home this last week. We’re fine, but there were a couple of sketchy days where we had the go-bag packed and the keepsakes identified.

Natural disasters bring folks together rapidly. I’m on a Messages group with a bunch of mountain folk. As word of the fire spread, this message group exploded. There were three broad categories of texts:

Category 1. “I am anxious about this development, and I want to share this worry.” I get it. I was anxious, as well. It is essential therapy to share your feelings with trusted others. A lot of first messages fell into this category.

Category 2. “I have heard or observed this development, I am sharing it, and I am speculating what it means.” Again, thanks for sharing the thing. Your speculation may or may not be valid, but it’s good to see how things are developing in a rapidly changing situation.

Category 3. “I am responding to a Category 1 or Category 2 messages with my opinion.” As the trickle of new Messages turned into a flood, there were increasing these opinion messages.

Pretty dull and clinical categorization, right? Just folks sharing random thoughts on a Messages thread. Wrong. Early in the fire, there is a distinct lack of information. Firefighters are rightly focused on getting a handle on the fire and not sharing information with the public. And what’s the rule? In the absence of information, humans make up the worst version of the story.

When you’re trying to figure out whether to evacuate your home, you don’t need opinions. You need facts. Our lovely collective set of social media tools have given the unsourced single opinion a broad platform, and that’s fine until you are trying to make an informed decision.

Frustrated and most certainly as a coping mechanism, I moved into sourced fact acquisition mode:

  • Where are the fire lines? Here.
  • Which parts of the country are evacuated? Here.
  • Where is the wind coming from? It’s coming from here.
  • What is the weather going to do? It’s going to do this.
  • Lighting is coming again. Where are the strikes? They are here.
  • What are the humans on the front lines and with the most information say? This.

I had none of the above links when the fire started. I surfed a lot of social media chatter categories to find bits of information, and then I sourced that information. Once sourced, I posted it to my Messages group. When I had an opinion, I stated it as such.

Families well outside of the evacuated areas chose to evacuate early. They were justifiably scared. The air quality by itself was often horrific. We didn’t. We defined three criteria which would cause us to evacuate:

  1. Obvious signs of a nearby fire.
  2. The fire closed a major nearby highway. (It never did. Correction: it hasn’t, yet.)
  3. We were ordered to do so.

Even with significantly constrained resources, our firefighters held the fire north of Santa Cruz, and it never significantly crossed Highway 9, protecting tens of thousands of homes. Hundreds were lost, but it could have been much worse.

A quick update from me which is most certainly therapy from stressful days. With our nearby wildfires coming under control (19% contained as of this AM!), I look forward to worrying about global pandemics and the future of democracy. I will continue to do so with an eye on the facts because sourced facts are what you use for making the hard decisions.

Management A path forward

Your Mid-Year Leadership Check-in

A satisfying aspect of the new book was I achieved the intended goal of providing actionable advice. After a brief introduction, I list the 30 specific practices you can start with today to improve different aspects of leadership. I then go onto to tell the story of how I discovered or refined that practice.

The reason this is satisfying is so much leadership advice is “it depends” advice. I’ve learned this during the Q&A sessions after a talk. I’ve just finished a 30-minute speech, and you stand up in front of 499 audience members and ask me a zinger. It’s a good synthesized question. It’s on topic. It’s specific, and about ten words in, I can tell it’s an “it depends” question.

The types of situations you’ll encounter as a leader are as varied as the humans who build them. Yes, your question strikes a familiar chord with me, but with that familiarity comes the experience that informs me that unless I understand the specifics of the situation, the value of my advice is suspect.

But I have to say something, so my advice moves to the abstract with the hope that if I describe the general problem space with equally general approaches that you’ll take those generalizations, combine them with your knowledge of the specifics of the situation, apply good judgment, and find a productive path forward.

High-level hard-earned advice and well-intentioned generalizations threaded through a good story were the first two books’ approach. I wanted to get you thinking about a problem space, and with that in mind, let’s pivot to your mid-year check-in.

It’s halfway through the year. We remain in unknown territory for most leaders as many of us continue our month-long work-from-home pandemic set-up. For me, I spent months thinking, “This is temporary. Don’t get used to it.”

I’m used to it. This isn’t temporary. It’s time to start thinking of how you will move forward as a leader in these strange times. To get you thinking about this problem space, I present ten questions.

  1. Are you a manager, manager of managers, or manager of directors?

  2. How long have you been in that role? The prior role?

  3. When was your last promotion, and what was your internal headline for that promotion? (Example: “Reliable manager finally gets the promotion to a senior manager after the successful release of X.”)

  4. Who are your credible sources of actionable feedback? What the most recent memorable feedback from one of these sources? Why was it memorable?

  5. What are your areas of strength? How do you know that?

  6. Where are you focusing on improving your leadership skills? Why?

  7. Have you identified your next role? If so, what is it, and what’s your current plan to get there?

  8. What’s your current most significant challenge with your direct reports? (A specific issue with one of your directs or an overall issue with all/many)

  9. What’s your current most significant challenge with your manager?

  10. What do you want to be when you grow up?

While I am intensely curious about your answers to these questions, that is not the point. These questions are designed to show you at least one essential truth about your current leadership role. What are you going to do with that truth?

It depends.

Tech Life Remember in-person meetings?

Good Meetings are Jazz

Morning. I sit down at my desk. Meeting starts in thirty seconds. Let’s run through the pre-meeting checklist:

  • Turn on the video. Am I presentable? How’s the hair? And the outfit? Right, I look like I’m working.
  • Start the call. While in the green room, make sure the camera is on and the microphone is working. Test, test.
  • What’s in frame behind me? Tidy or a mess? Ok, tidy. There is visual interest, but no distracting clutter.
  • Join the conference call. Sit up straight. Stare straight at the camera.

Hello. Meeting time.

A Standard Video Conference Set-up

Like most of you, I have a computer with a built-in camera and microphone. This works. It’s fine. With a decent internet connection, you can get the video conference job done. The video looks like this in average lighting conditions:

Relative to the camera on your favorite smartphone, your default built-in camera is… probably just ok. The cameras on relatively new iPhone or Android devices are vastly superior to that built into your desktop or portable computer.

No big deal, right? It’s not like you’re photographing precious memories that you’ll keep forever. This is just a 30-minute meeting with Aliyah, the program manager. It’s not being preserved for posterity. It’s disposable, right?

Not really, but I’m not ready to make my point, yet. Let’s keep moving.

Time for Upgrades

My first upgrade to the Logitech Brio was motivated by mild curiosity. This HD webcam is marketed to businesses as a webcam. It sits happily on the top of your display and gives you a decent video upgrade. It looks like this:

This photo was taken at precisely the same time as the one above, and the quality improvement is startling. Logitech’s Brio is their best current offering and vastly better than their C920 and C930 models which provide quality much like the image above.

My second unintentional upgrade was to an iMac Pro, which has a 1080p camera. Same lighting, same time of day and this camera produced these result:

Better, right? More detail. Richer color. Little dark.

Both of these upgrades started me thinking about lighting. The Cave (my office) is dark, and depending on where the sun is in the sky; I can either look just fine, totally blown out with bright light, or a pixelated mess when light becomes scarce. Throughout the day, I’m often getting up to adjust my curtains to tweak lighting conditions.

Time for another upgrade. The Elgato Key Light. These were in scarce supply at the beginning of the Pandemic, but I got lucky and grabbed one when they were briefly available on Amazon. The key light’s LED panel floods the room with configurable light. You control brightness and warmness. Here’s what a spectrum of warmness (from cold to warm) looks like on the iMac Pro camera now with the key light.

The Elgato improved fundamental lighting issues. I spent less time running to adjust curtains to create adequate video conference lighting. However, I was expecting more in terms of control over the quality of light. It required significant adjustments to the Elgato to change the mood of the video.

Sidebar: Audio

If there is one aspect of your home audio-video conference you should upgrade right now, I’d spend money on audio. I’d already invested in a better audio set-up pre-Pandemic because of the podcast, but I wasn’t using this set-up for meetings because who uses a microphone during a work meeting? I do now.

One Monday, I’d forgotten to tear down the microphone set-up from the previous weekend’s recording, so I did a meeting with the microphone. The reaction was immediate and immense.

“Rands, I feel like I’m on a radio show.”

Here’s the difference between my desktop microphone and my microphone set-up:


The reaction from meeting participants to my sound quality is constant. Most everyone says something the first time they hear it, and that’s because desktop microphones (like cameras) are correctly designed for casual usage. They’re for that semi-infrequent video call check-in with your mother back in Brainerd, Minnesota. Your average desktop audio and video hardware was quite reasonably chosen for casual usage and was not chosen to support you sitting on conference calls six to eight hours a day.

Here’s my current audio set-up:

Shure BETA 87A. On top of my sound quality, my favorite feature of this microphone is it’s directional, which means it picks up the sound where it’s pointed. Do you know that human who loves clickity-clacking on the keyboard during a meeting? With this microphone, you can’t hear their typing unless that is where the microphone is pointed.

The Shure is an XLR microphone, which means you need an XLR interface and cables. Fun fact: cables often sold separately. I purchased the Tascam US-2×2 preamp, and it’s got a bunch of knobs and dials I mostly don’t use, yet, but it plugs into one of my USB ports.

Finally, I have the Shure on a swivel mount, which allows me to move anywhere in a 3-D space around my desk. It’s very well balanced and stays put when I move to a new location—highly recommended.

Next Level Video

Back to video. The reaction to my vastly higher quality audio got me wondering if there was a video equivalent. Serendipity reared its lovely head when a good friend pointed out the Blackmagic Pocket Cinema.

I’d already been on video calls where someone had set-up their DSLR as their desktop camera and was impressed. I’d investigated whether I could repurpose my slightly older Canon EOS to serve this purpose, but it doesn’t have an acceptable output mode. Combined with the necessity of also purchasing video capture hardware, I dropped the investigation.

The combination of the reaction to my audio plus the availability of the Elgato Cam Link 4k and my interest in the BlackMagicDesign camera resulted in another investment. Let’s jump to the visual punch line:

Right? The image quality plus the depth of field provided by the Canon EF 40mm lens makes for a strangely movie-like video conference experience. The Blackmagic set-up also revealed the value of Elgato Key Light. The combination of configurable lighting plus the stunning sensor on the Blackmagic provides a rich set of lighting moods. With the help of a handy clamp, the Pocket Cinema has attached the Elgato key light stand precisely above one of my monitors.

The Pocket Cinema does not have a continuous focus, which means I have to pick a spot in the depth of field of the lens and hang there lest I become out of focus. I’ve taken to anchoring the microphone at the spot I need to stay roughly near to remain in focus.

Let’s be clear. Comparing a built-it desktop camera or USB-webcam with a DSLR is not a fair comparison. They are two different hardware form factors designed for vastly different use cases. Or at least they used to be.

Good Meetings are Jazz

This lengthy (and ongoing) exploration and explanation are easy to chock up to technological nerdery. Yeah, I always need an intriguing side-project, and this is currently that project, but I have other motivation. See, I, like you, am stuck in this box on your screen—this my life now. I still have all the same meetings with all the same people, but we’re all stuck in our respective boxes, and we’ve got work to do. Together. Right now.

You will notice in all the sample shots above that I am looking at the camera. I place all of my external cameras directly over the middle top of my displays not because it’s a natural location, but it’s also a constant reminder to look at you. It’s a simple important act of connection that we’re slowly forgetting in virtual meetings because we’re alone and stuck in these boxes.

Remember in-person meetings? The audio-video quality of in-person meetings is excellent. It’s the quality bar. It allows us to see and hear subtle aspects of human interaction. It allows us to work better as a group. A well-run brainstorming meeting with a group of humans is comforting jazz. The equivalent meeting in a video conference is a master class in how technology gets in the way of humans effectively communicating, collaborating, and being creative at scale.

So, yeah, I’m investing a lot of time and money in working to make this box we’re all stuck in a little more humane, a little more connected, and a bit more fun. I consider this a critical investment.

Rands This is a different forever situation


Up at 7am. Check the outfit, the professional outfit, on the floor to make sure it still fits my mood. Adjust as necessary. Shower and put on the outfit. Consider wearing shoes, but don’t. My shoes are lonely.

Upstairs. Coffee (black) and a glance at the view. Santa Cruz Mountains. No fog today. Walk into the office and appreciate the lights are already on. A prior WFH project involved office automation. I never turn lights on or off during the work week. Sit down at the desk and spend five minutes on a tidy. This daily tidy keeps the desk a wide-open space save for a Zebra Sarasa .5 black gel pen, a Mile Marker Fields Notes, a box of Altoids, and a bright yellow cloth to clean my glasses.

Close to 7:30am now. Office is well-lit and tidy. Most days, meetings don’t start until 9am, but on Mondays, I give myself a ramp. Today is a Monday. No meetings until 11am so that I can cache the entire week. Examine the calendar for the entire week. Determine:

  • Meetings to decline (No agenda, no specified role for me, or historically low signal).
  • When preparation is necessary. Specifically, note said preparation in Field Notes.
  • WTF? Ask a human a question about the nature of the meeting in Slack. If they don’t respond in 24 hours, decline.

A sip of coffee. Another glance out the window. I purchased a bird feeder on Amazon to hang on the office window, but the birds haven’t found it yet.

Slack now, but music first. A playlist I’ve likely played before because it can’t be novel – it’s background noise — Thompson Twins for some reason. Slack triage is fast. Determine:

  • For direct messages, which need a response now or which can wait? Respond to critical messages and then move messages sans response to the correct sidebar (Fires, Hiring, Planning, and Grab Bag).
  • Once initial responses are done, scan sidebar for pre-existing messages that need a response. Respond. If it’s been there more than a day, reflect on why.

Three significant Slacks (Rands, Work, and Destiny) can be scrubbed in 15 minutes. Ok, mail now. The very achievable goal is inbox zero. Monday is 2x the inbox because most of the world has been sipping their Monday coffee longer than I and are fired up to send some mails. Determine whether to:

  • Respond now.
  • Flag to respond later – set a reminder, so the mail is no longer in the inbox.
  • Research why this unwanted mail is in my inbox and then act accordingly immediately (Spam filter, mail rules, mailing list unsubscribe).

Repeat the mail process for work mail. Capture this week’s relevant work notes in Field Notes. Smile at all the blank screens and take another sip of coffee. It’s 8:15am now.

Stand up and tidy the room now. Small piles of stuff have emerged over the past week, and these are devious piles. They claim they are important clutter, but they are just clutter. Disassemble the piles into their constituent parts and place them in the proper place. If a proper place does not exist, reflect on a strategy for developing a proper place, and either create the place or note proper place creation thoughts in Field Notes. Likely a weekend project.

Stare at the timepieces on the left side of the desk. Like the outfit, the watch complements my mental mood. Serious? Playful? Colorful? All business? They are called timepieces, not watches because they are objects I’ve taken care of in finding, they are a reflection of design I care about, and the act of selecting one is comfortably deliberate. Omega Speedmaster today. The moon watch. A classic.

A blue jay is on the deck railing now. I suspect he can smell and/or see the birdseed. He’s bouncing around. He can see me and doesn’t give a shit about my thoughtful outfit nor my classic timepiece.

8:30am. The hard part of Monday. Caching the entire week. Determine what data do I need at my fingertips to answer hard questions? Run bug queries, read presentations, scroll around in Slack channels, send clarifying DMs, and review agendas. The prior week calendar review has illuminated most of the critical questions, but the caching process creates more.

The blue jay is still bouncing around on the railing. Sunflower seeds are in his future.

The hard part of the weekly caching process is focus.

Caching and the resulting research fills the hour and drains the first cup of coffee. Before I stand up for cup two, review the day now and mentally note which meetings can occur outside via audio. During these meetings, I will walk the property, pull weeds, admire redwoods and oaks, and discuss important work topics of the day, but these meetings are mostly defined by being outside of the office. Two a day – minimum. Critical mental health investment.

Stand-up, walk to the kitchen and pour coffee number two. The dogs are sitting in the living room looking at me expectantly, and I tell them as I tell them most mornings, “I don’t feed you. Claire does.” They mistake the spoken word for a food commitment and get excited, but droop when I walk back to the office. Sorry, Marleau. Sorry, Gracie Lou.

9:45am now. I understand the week now. I am amply prepared for obvious hard questions, moderately prepared for curveball questions, and have queries to smart people where I don’t know answers. Glance again at the calendar: Is it stocked with useful and productive meetings? Yes? Good.1

Ok, cache the world now. Let’s start with the markets. Up a lot. Why? Optimism. Everyone desperately wants to return to normality. I am a professional optimist, but we are not returning to normal. Ever. This is a different forever situation, and the sooner we realize that and start to plan accordingly, the sooner we will feel unstuck.

Scan the news. Anyone talking about facts rather than feelings? Nope. Keeping scanning. BBC and NPR tend to be the highest signal. Ok, now Feedly. Writings of cherished friends. Treasured time. A section for entertainment because I miss movies. I skip the news section but spend a good amount of time on video game developments. Articles are never flagged for reading later – if they don’t make the cut this morning, they are gone forever.

That was about an hour. Glance again outside. It’s still sunny, but there is a thick blanket of fog hiding the valley. Across the way, the top of a small mountain pokes out the fog like an island. I’ve always wondered why this happens at this time of day. I suspect the growing heat of the nearby central valley is sucking marine air inland, but I have no facts save for the fact the blue jay is nowhere to be seen.

Getting close to my first meeting of the day. Delightfully, it’s outside. Go downstairs and walk to the sliding door on the side of the house facing the forest. My slippers are here on the floor from the last meeting of last week. This what I wear when I walk around the forest. Slippers.

My shoes are lonely.2

  1. Remain deeply worried that I don’t think we know how to do brainstorming or other crucial creative meetings in this new context. 
  2. Thanks to Ben Stewart for asking me about my WFH routine on the #ask-rands-anything channel on the Rands Leadership Slack. I started typing the answer when I discovered there was a blog post there. 
Management A useless productivity tax

Management via Worry and Crisis

Your manager has a default management mantra. You see it when they are not paying attention and a problem – large or small – presents itself. It’s the sound and shape of their first reaction. Their default reaction. And after a few months, everyone knows their mantra.

Here are a couple of my least favorite mantras. I’m going to first explain the worst-case scenario for each of these mantras. I’ll follow-up with an explanation of why I believe this manager ended up with his approach. Then I’ll explain with empathy the best-case scenario for this practice and why you should squint your eyes when you get the rage and consider, “Ok, how are they trying to help?”

I’m going to use the word manager a lot here, and I’ll tell you why later.1

Management via Worry

This manager can smell disaster brewing. Their spidey-sense is tingling about… something. Their questions are often perceptive, slightly alarming, but not always headed in a consistent direction.

The Degenerate Case Your manager likely (hopefully?) has more experience than you. One of the reasons they got the gig is that they’ve successfully managed through a variety of complicated situations. That experience has given them a useful playbook, and it’s that playbook that’s backing their seemingly random questions about your project.

But are they?

Are their questions heading anywhere?

Or are they just asking worrisome questions because they know that is their role in this meeting?

Ask questions, manager. Ask lots of questions because I know you have the playbook, and I don’t. However, if your questions are hazily framed pointless worry rather than a slowly refined somewhat opaque journey, then I am suspect. I worry that you believe your job is to worry pointlessly, to assume the worst without facts, because that’s worked for you in the past. This teaches me nothing, this does not move the project forward, and your worry is a useless productivity tax on the team.

There is a particularly virulent strain of Worry Management that I think of as Got’cha Management. This manager isn’t as worried as they are motivated to find errors in your product, strategy, or thinking. They search for weakness in logical reasoning, and when they find it, there is an omnipresent silence in the room where you silently wonder, “Am I any good at this?”

The Empathetic Case: The empathetic version of Management via Worry is one of my favorite parts of the job: Tasting the Soup. As I wrote in the original article:

In a meeting where an individual or team is presenting a complex idea or project, my job as the leader is soup tasting. It’s sampling critical parts of the idea to get a sense of how this soup was made. Who are the critical people? What are the critical parts? Which decisions matter? I don’t know. I do believe that a pre-requisite for leadership is that you have experience. You’ve had trials that have resulted in both impressive successes and majestic failures. These aggregate lessons define your metaphoric soup tasting ability. When your team brings you a topic to review, it is this experience you apply to ask the critical soup questions.

The key with proper Soup Tasting is collective learning. As you taste, you explain to the team, “This taste… I’ve tasted this before, and this is what I learned from that particular soup.” This practice both gives you signal and explains to the team what you are learning. The sharing of your experiences as lessons is what changes their perception from being critiqued to being supported.

Management via Crisis

This manager appears hugely motivated when the sky is falling. They thrive on the thrill of disaster. They love stopping everyone in their tracks and throwing them into a war room where they personally manage the crisis into a predictable calm.

The Degenerate Case The Crisis Manager loves the crisis because they get feel like they are actually doing something measurably valuable. It appears that since the sky just fell that their Crisis Services are required.

Are they?

Really, did the sky fall?

Or is your manager just bored? Or uninformed about the actual situation?

The degenerate case of the Crisis Manager is that Crisis Management becomes their only strategy for affecting change quickly. When they detect even a hint of crisis, they rush to press the big red STOP button, invite everyone to the Crisis Slack Channel, fire up the war room video conference, and begin, “This is the only thing we’re working on until further notice.”

The Empathetic Case: Process is documented culture. How a team gets a familiar thing done should be broadly understood by the team. This is how we fix a bug. This is how we do a code check-in. This is how a feature is designed. This is how executive sign-off occurs.

Process comfortably and efficiently describes the common path. Process does not define what to do when the indescribable occurs. A crisis or a disaster does not neatly fit into the common path; it’s when you need someone to swoop in, break the glass, and put out the fire.

Can confirm. It’s a thrill to have everyone’s attention. Can confirm. Disasters are often the best way to burn down and reinvent old dusty process. Can confirm. Reputations are built when the sky falls.

A Coping Mechanism

We done? Good. That was a hard article to write. Partially because I’ve first hand seen all of these mantras in play, but, worse, I can pinpoint moments in my management career where I’ve fallen back on Gotcha management or when I’ve thought Worry management was just what this meeting needed from me. Once I created a Crisis because I believed I had specialized knowledge of the situation, but really I was just bored.

All of these mantras are habits developed as a coping mechanism for the increasing loss of control managers feel over their growing organizations. It’s the hardest part of becoming a manager, the giving away of your legos to allows others to do the actual satisfying building combined with the necessity to guide that building at an increasingly hazy distance.

There is a reason I used the word management throughout this article. These mantras, these defaults ways of managing in their degenerate cases, aren’t leading; they are managing. They are getting by with the strategic move that worked for you years ago but has now developed into a boring, predictable tactic.

  1. Good to remind you of the clause that has been on the About page for a couple of decades: my stories are fabrications and never about real people except when it’s about me. 
Writing We learn from stories

Small Things, Done Well

The promotional site for Managing Humans still makes me smile. The photos were from a part of the property we call the Fairy Meadow. It’s a horse chestnut tree surrounded by a stream that only runs during the rainy season.

We return to the Fairy Meadow for the third book.

Thanks to my good friend Paul Campbell, we’re doing an online launch of the book Monday, June 8th at 11am Pacific. This is a live virtual event where we’ll be talking about the book as well as doing a moderated online Q&A. This is also done via the magic of Vito, a new live-streaming and community platform that Paul has been working on for the last few months. You can sign-up for the event here.

Yes, you can pre-order the book right now. Some folks have already received their pre-orders and more copies are arriving imminently. I’ll be writing more about the book here and elsewhere in the time leading up the launch.

My preference would’ve been cracking open a bottle with y’all, but… reasons.

Be safe.

The Important Thing Find Your Voice

The One About Writing a Book, Pt. 2

In our 41st episode, we continue the discussion regarding how to write a book. Start with a clever name, find a publisher… and then write a lot. That’s about it. Ok, it’s harder than that. (Recorded on February 24th, 2020)

Enjoy it now or download for later. Here’s a handy feed or subscribe via Overcast or iTunes.

Tech Life Do it now

Channels Are Free

There’s a lot of Slacking on the planet right now. The essential practices of shelter-in-place are forcing us to rethink how we get work done especially when that work is dependent on a vast amount of interconnected humans. Pre-Pandemic, one of my opening pitches to current and future customers as the VP of Engineering for Slack1 was, “How often do you get a chance to reimagine how you work?”

Our work habits are precious. We’ve developed these habits over the years to bring calm predictability to the work chaos. They are personal, they are dependable, they are habits. These habits mustn’t change while everything around us – because of the industry we work in – continually changes. Turns out, it’s that nutritious chaos often results in evolutions to products and services that could improve our habits. Still, our resolute focus on our hard-earned habits to encourage productivity can blind us to these improvements.

As we collectively learn what it means to work from home, I’ve been giving a lot of advice regarding my Slack habits, and I want to focus on what I consider to be the most important advice: Channels are free.

Channel Guidelines

Before I explain why channels are free, I want to walk through my guidelines and decisions regarding how and when I create a channel.

Default to public. There are a great many justifiable reasons to make a channel private. There are a large amount of unjustifiable political and power trippy reasons to keep your channel private. Information wants to be free. You never know what value is created by a random piece of useful information landing in the brain of a person unknown to you.

Ask yourself as you stare at that PRIVATE or PUBLIC switch in channel creation. Why is my instinct to make this public? Is it company confidential information? PRIVATE. Are we going to discuss personnel topics? PRIVATE. Those are obvious ones, but after that, there is a lot of a grey area. There are corporate human habits here that run deep. This is my project. Or my idea. And I want only known people to see it. I get it, but what’s the risk of letting that idea be shared with others. Ideas get better with eyeballs.

A channel name should make sense to a random someone who is looking for it. #hgt-sla-qa? It’s a QA something. You’re not just making the channel readable to future members, but making it memorable to current members. This is related to…

A channel name should aspire to channel naming conventions, but not be beholden to them. The consistency police will have an issue with this guideline. If there are clear channel naming guidelines, I would greatly encourage you to follow said guidelines. Your channel will be easier to find and grok. However, the idea that the folks who set-up your Slack channel naming guidelines thought of every channel use case is flawed. There are emergent guidelines that are going to help channel name legibility and discoverability. Here are two I’ve been riffing on:

  • #tmp-channel-name – indicate to everyone this channel is going away when it’s purpose is served.
  • #priv-channel-channel – An obvious reminder to channel denizens that this channel is private for a reason and to keep that in mind.

My default attitude when creating a channel is consistency. Still, I also believe that part of the joy of moving over to Slack is reimagining better ways for the team to communicate and collaborate. Channel names effectively curate the content within a Slack workspace. They need to be useful, and channel naming conventions most certainly help, but they aren’t the complete answer.

Group DM or Channel? This feels more like a personal preference, but I almost always default to a channel versus a group DM. The primary reason is the recurring them in this piece: discoverability. It’s a genuinely short-lived topic-less conversation (It never is – why’d the channel get created? That’s the topic), then perhaps a group DM is the answer. Still, the moment that short-lived topic-less conversation goes on for three hours without resolution, I convert it to a channel with a proper name.

Should I Create a Channel?

For the new Slack user, a lot is going on. Workspaces, users, channels, emoji, threads, along with a slew of names and conventions to learn. After a few weeks of learning the ropes, there’s a moment when a new user will ask themselves, “Well, I have this thing I want to get done. It involves several people. It’s not just a conversation; it’s a project. Should I create a channel?”

Yes. Create a channel. Do it now. Don’t worry about the name. Don’t worry about inviting the right people. Just create the channel. Stop thinking. Click on the “+” and create that channel.

Done? Great. I want you to think about what you’ve just done. You’ve created a small virtual long-lasting focused place on the Internet for work to get done. It’s likely not the actual work but is the conversation, debate, and fact-finding that can improve the eventual quality of the work.

That’s the most important lesson I want to convey. There is very little negative consequence to the act of creating a channel2 and a channel created is a meeting that no longer needs to occur. It’s a mail that doesn’t need to be sent. It’s a mailing list – never created.

Don’t think. Just create the channel.

  1. I don’t work there anymore. 
  2. Ok, not totally free. Channel proliferation is a by-product of channels-are-free stylings, but guess what: channel deletion is free, too!