How IBM is using Slack to persuade software engineers to socialize

Alex Godin
Mar 14, 2017 · 3 min read

Todd Kaplinger has been at IBM as a software engineer for more than 15 years. In that time, he’s been a part of radical re-imagining of the business.

First, he helped shepherd the mainframe pioneer into the cloud. Now, Todd is using Slack to transform the way his team works together. He’s leveraging the communication tool to bring together teams of disparate software engineers.

IBM, the 15th largest employer in the world, is using Slack to make work more collaborative and transparent. Todd explained to us that his team “is in different locations and time zones and using Slack gives [them] an opportunity to be more inclusive in [their] communications”

They use Slack to stay connected.

Making a big office feel small

Todd installed the Donut bot to foster community within his lab. Every week, Donut automatically pairs two team members that don’t know each other for a coffee date.

Kaplinger explains that at a global corporation like IBM, teams can be spread across many locations and time zones. Even when two people are in the same location, they don’t necessarily have opportunities to interact.

On top of that, he admitted that, “Software engineers aren’t necessarily the most social people.” Donut pulls engineers out of their bubbles and encourages them to meet new people.

Todd explained that after five weeks, “every single date [he’s] done so far was with someone [he] didn’t really know. [He] got to learn a lot in a thirty minute period.”

On one of these coffee dates, Todd and his companion realized they were working on components of the same project. Together, they decided to do an end-to-end demo that highlighted the work the two teams were doing. It was a big hit, and it wouldn’t have happened without Donut.

Democratizing DevOps

DevOps, the practice of managing of servers in the cloud, isn’t traditionally a collaborative process. Engineers spend all day in solitary terminal windows talking to computers. Todd and his team have turned the entire field on its head with a bot that lets them manage servers from within Slack channels.

When something goes wrong with a server, the key staff are immediately notified within Slack. At most companies, the engineers would coordinate a plan of attack in Slack and then work separately to deal with the issue. At IBM, they issue commands to the servers together within Slack.

Todd’s Slack bot makes the process social and straightforward thanks to an integration with IBM Watson. When someone wants to issue a command, they do it right in Slack and all their colleagues can see it. This builds transparency, helps new team members learn and creates a clear audit trail.

Standing up sitting down

Most agile teams stay on the same page with a “stand-up meeting”. They get together for a few minutes every morning to discuss their progress.

Kaplinger has flipped the script. His team does their stand-ups in Slack. This lets them work across the globe without worrying about time-zones or cell phone connections.

It also creates a written record of the work. When Todd needs to report up to the executives about progress he told us that, “[he] can go back and look at Slack.”

“Anytime [I] can give our broader team visibility into what other people are doing, especially in a written format, there’s tremendous value.”

Slack is changing what it means to walk into work every day at IBM. Employees are more social, understand what’s going on and create clear written records of their work.

This doesn’t happen on its own. Champions like Todd are crucial. They model productive behaviors and help teams navigate the pitfalls that come with any new software installation.

Slash-hyphen is the independent Slack consulting firm dedicated to helping organizations get the most out of Slack. We post here on medium regularly and share links in our email newsletter.

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Alex Godin

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Founder @ Lemontree. Building a new kind of non-profit.

letters from slash-hyphen

Insights into how smart teams are deploying Slack from slash-hyphen, an independent Slack consulting firm.