Featured image of post Communication Is the Key to Efficiency in a Software Engineering Organization

Communication Is the Key to Efficiency in a Software Engineering Organization

For a software engineering organization to be efficient, it is key that everyone is an efficient communicator. Everybody needs to be calibrated in what to communicate, to whom and how to ensure information spreads properly in the organization. Having smart people with a lot of knowledge results in progress only if information flows well in the veins of the organization.

This does not mean that everyone needs to communicate everything – on the contrary, it is also the responsibility of every individual to make sure there is the right amount of communication, not too much and not too little. From an individual point of view, it is also important to be a good communicator, both verbally and in writing, as that defines to a large degree how professionally others will perceive you.

Reflecting on the principles below may help both your organization and you personally to become a more efficient communicator.

Communicate Early and Exactly

Foster a culture where people share small updates early. When you introduce a change, describe it immediately. Don’t accept “I will document it later” from yourself or others. People are interested in the change when they learn about it, and should be able to immediately read up on git commit messages, ticket communications, etc. When you make a change that affects the workflow of others, announce it immediately. Don’t wait until other people run into problems and start asking questions.

When you announce a change, be exact. If the change has a commit id or a URL, or if there is a document that describes it in detail, reference it. Avoid abbreviations and spell out the names of things to avoid misunderstandings. Use the same name consistently when referencing the same thing. Don’t be vague if being exact requires just a couple seconds more of effort. If you know something, spell it out and don’t force other people to guess. In a larger organization, it might even make sense to have a written vocabulary to ensure that people understand the daily jargon and assign the same meaning to the words used.

Keep in mind that you, the announcer, are one person, but your audience consists of many people: if you take additional time and effort to be precise, you may save a great deal of repeated effort by many others to determine precisely what you were referring to. When you see other people putting effort into making easy-to-understand, brief, and crisp communication, thank them for it.

Use the Right Channels

Always keep communication in context. If a piece of code does something that needs an explanation, do it in the inline comments rather than in an external document. For example, if the user of a software application needs guidance, don’t offer it on a completely separate system that is hard to discover, but instead offer it via the user interface of the software itself, or in a man page or a README that a user is likely to come across when trying to use the software. If there is a bug that needs to be debugged and fixed, discuss it in the issue tracker about the bug itself, not in a separate communication channel elsewhere. If there is code review open on GitHub or GitLab, don’t discuss it on Slack or equivalent, but do it in the code review comments – as it was designed for. Always communicate about something as closely as possible to the subject of the message.

Prefer asynchronous channels over synchronous channels. Chat systems like Slack or Zulip are better than a phone call. A well-written email is better than scheduling a 30-minute meeting. In an async channel, people can process incoming communication and respond in their own time. Sometimes a response requires some research and is not possible in real-time anyway. Having to juggle schedules can also be a wasteful use of time compared to working through a queue of tasks. Interrupting software engineers is very costly, as it can take tens of minutes before one gets back into “flow” and back to cracking a hard engineering problem. Also, as many teams today work across many time zones, you might need to wait until the next day for the reply anyway.

When using Slack and similar chat software, try to pick the most appropriate channel. Avoid private one-on-one discussions unless the matter is personal or confidential. The discussion in a public channel is more inclusive and allows others to join spontaneously or to be pinged in the discussion to join it. In Slack and similar chat systems that have threads, use them correctly to make it easier for participants to follow up on the topic while at the same time keeping the main channel cleaner. Avoid using @here on channels with more than 20 participants. Get into the habit of using Shift+Enter to write multiple paragraphs in one message instead of multiple short ones in succession which might cause unnecessary notifications.

In chat systems, do not send people messages that only say “Hello” . Get straight to the point.

Have a chat when it is appropriate. If you feel there is miscommunication and you can’t resolve it async with well-written and thoughtful messages, a short chat 1:1 or with a small group of people can bring a lot of clarity. An in-person meeting or video chat usually works best, as both parties can read each other’s cues to see that they understand and can follow the topic.

Teams Exist to Channel the Flow of Information in the Veins of an Organization

Team members interact mostly with others inside their team. It is not the responsibility of individual team members to know what people in other teams are doing. If something noteworthy is happening or is planned to happen, it is the responsibility of the team lead to communicate that upwards and laterally along the organizational lines. The team lead is also responsible for the inward flow of information and making team members aware of things that are relevant to the team.

The reason teams exist is to limit the flow of information. Most organizations are divided into 5–15 person teams simply because if teams were very large with 20 or more people, the overhead of everybody communicating with everybody would eat up too much time.

With this in mind, please be considerate and try to avoid approaching individual engineers in other teams too often. Channel communication through managers and architects, who are responsible for gatekeeping and prioritizing things. In a large organization, if you notice that people are reaching out to you personally all the time, just politely refer those requests to your manager.

In particular, when doing cross-org communication for large groups of people, think about the signal vs noise ratio. Free flow of information may sound like a noble principle, but a lot of information does not necessarily convert into real knowledge sharing. Write and share summaries instead of raw information. Be deliberate in selecting who should know what and when.

Make Meetings Intentionally Efficient

Principles for good meetings:

  • If you organize a meeting, make sure it has an agenda in the meeting invite so attendees know what the meeting is about, and have a chance to prepare for the meeting in advance. The agenda also allows people to make a better-informed decision if they can skip the meeting or not
  • If the meeting makes decisions, those should be written down somewhere (e.g. design doc, issue, ticket, meeting minutes). People tend to forget, so there must be some way to recall what the meeting decided.
  • Don’t invite too many people. If there are more than 5 attendees in a 30-minute meeting, there will be no genuine discussions as there would be less than 5 minutes of speaking time per participant.
  • Don’t attend all possible meetings. If dozens of people are invited to the meeting and it seems like an announcement event rather than a discussion, maybe just skip it and read the announcement documents instead.

Practice Efficient Status/Progress Communication

The purpose of progress information is to allow others to learn the state of an issue and allow them to adapt their own work in relation to that issue. Issue status information also helps the author themself to remember where and in what state they left something, essentially being communication to their future self.

Good principles to follow:

  • Avoid duplication. If an issue tracking system is in use in an organization, and an issue tracker entry has been filed, maintain it and do not disperse the information out in multiple places. Focus your energy on making sure the issue tracker is up-to-date so followers of that issue don’t need to ask about status or search for separate updates in email or old chat messages.
  • Keep status information current. There is no point in a status-tracking system if the statuses are out-of-date. On the other hand, there is no need to update the status daily. A good rule of thumb is to update important status information immediately when it happens and less important statuses perhaps bi-weekly or monthly, depending on what the normal cadence of reviewing and prioritizing work is.
  • Annotate status changes. If an issue was closed but there is no comment whatsoever on why it was closed, it will raise more questions than it answers. When updating the status of issues and in particular when closing them, add a comment on what changed and why the status changed. Use to your convenience the feature present in most issue tracking software (e.g. GitLab and GitHub) that they automatically close issues when a commit with a closing note lands on the mainline git branch, and those status updates are automatically annotated with a link to the change, including date and author.
  • No news is bad news. In the context of status information and progress communication, people tend to view a lack of communication as a sign of a lack of progress. If something is blocked and there is no progress, a quick message noting “no progress” is better than silence and letting people stare at issues with no updates. Eventually people will start to worry and will reach out for updates, so skipping status updates to save effort might not actually save any effort.
  • Remember the purpose. At the end of the day, progress is more important than communication. If a task is small and you work on it alone, issues/status reporting may be omitted completely. If you find yourself spending more effort on communication about an issue than working on the issue itself, something is wrong with the overall process and you should review it.

Give and Get Feedback

Be honest. Engineering is about building stuff that works, and a lot of effort goes into making sure stuff actually works. That requires a constant loop of testing and feedback. If you spot something that is off, report it. Don’t waste time on sugar-coating when communicating from a professional engineer to another, but just report the problem you’ve spotted and do it exactly.

Be grateful for all the feedback you get. Thank the person for taking the time to give feedback. The more you get, the better. Never scold another engineer for giving you feedback you don’t like. Stay professional and just read/listen and try to understand it.

Not all feedback is valid, and as a professional you choose what feedback you act on. If you don’t understand the feedback, ask for clarification. Engineering is, and should be, full of debate about what is the wrong or right solution, so that the chances of landing on the actually right solution are maximized. Be professional and don’t take those discussions emotionally. Engage in them, and make sure all data points are analyzed. Intentionally challenge your own bias and preconceptions, and try to reach the best conclusion you can.

Less Is More

Delete stuff that is outdated or obsolete. Remove weasel words and duplicate texts. If you come across some documentation that is clearly outdated but might be needed for archival purposes, then add a banner to it stating that it is no longer up-to-date and kept only for archival purposes (in particular in a wiki where anybody can contribute to maintaining the contents). False information may cause more harm than no information.

Avoid link rot. If a document is moved from one place to another, delete the old version and replace it with a link to the new one.

Always shorten and simplify code when you can do so without sacrificing other desirable qualities: correctness, readability, maintainability, and consistency with the rest of the codebase. For example, if you are writing or maintaining 10 unit tests which are 20 lines of code each, but differ only in a couple of inputs and outputs, then combine them into a single parameterized test.

Layering and abstractions are valuable techniques for writing reusable and correct code. However, too much abstraction can make code difficult to understand and reason about. An integrated development environment (IDE) can be a useful tool for quickly navigating a code base. However, if you have to use an IDE to follow the code’s logic, it is a telltale sign that the code is way too abstracted.

A Good Coder Is Also Good at Writing in Human Languages

The primary goal for code is to be easy to understand and follow. Optimize for readability and maintainability. Do not optimize for speed or build layers of abstractions upfront. Instead, do such things only later on if and when you really need to.

Principles to make code easy to understand:

  • Start with good naming: Files, functions, variables should all be named in such a way that one can guess from the name what they do or contain. Don’t be afraid of changing a name if you realize that something else would describe it much better. Functionality and contents evolve – so should the naming.
  • Use the project’s coding conventions. A suboptimal but consistent convention is better than mixing multiple conventions in one code base. Use correct indentation, line length, white space, etc. to enhance the readability of your code. Keep the flow easy to follow.
  • Add inline comments in places that require some additional explanation of what the code does or why the code was written in a particular way. Good inline comments prevent the code from being deleted or refactored by somebody else, or by yourself a year later when you can no longer recall the details.
  • Longer or higher-level documentation should go into README files. The convention of using README files in code repositories is a great application of coupling code and documentation. A README is easy to discover in a code repository, and very likely to get updated by the same commits that update the code itself. If a code repository completely lacks a README file, the code is most likely not intended to be long-lived and should be avoided.

Software Engineers Need to Excel at Making Git Commits

Last but not least - remember that good software engineers write both great code as well as brilliant git commit messages. The more senior the engineer, the more they value both the code and the description of it, and the whole feedback cycle that eventually leads to making the world a better place – or at least one piece of software better. Practice this skill even if it requires a bit of extra effort initially.

If You Are Not a Native Speaker, Invest in Improving Your English Skills

Most of the world’s population are not native English speakers – including myself. Yet, as English is the lingua franca of the software profession world, we all need to put effort into becoming more fluent in English. The best way to become fluent is to simply force yourself to read, write, listen, and speak English, and to do it in a way where you intentionally try to improve your English. Personally, I, for example, watch YouTube videos in well-articulated English, such as the British comedy panel show QI, or listen to podcasts attentively, trying to pick up new expressions that help articulate ideas and opinions more accurately, and in general to expand my vocabulary.

High-Quality Communication Facilitates High-Quality Engineering

From an organizational point of view, it doesn’t matter how many amazingly smart engineers you hire if there are not proper mechanisms in place to ensure that the right amount of relevant information flows between the experts. Efficient communication is vital also for growing junior engineers quickly. You don’t want to have any engineers wasting time trying to solve problems that have already been solved. The whole organization will be vastly more productive if everyone is able to find information, easily and quickly at the time they need it.

Achieving it is not hard nor expensive – it just requires setting a couple of ground rules, reflecting on their meaning, and executing them consistently. Managers play a vital role in achieving a strong communication culture by leading with their example and showing that good communication is valued across the organization.

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