Because we build email clients, many people assume that all of our internal communication is funneled through email. While we do use Mail Pilot for some of our internal communication, we currently use a variety of tools and constantly search for new applications to communicate digitally.
Communication is crucial for our small, busy team. Alex and I work full-time, normally from our office in Blacksburg, VA. Nathan, our customer support manager works remotely from Orlando, FL. We consistently have part-time independent contractors and student interns who always utilize a high percentage of remote working.
HipChat is described as “Group chat and IM built for teams”; that’s exactly how and why we use it as our most common form of digital communication. HipChat is our method of communicating more informally and instantly. Quick questions, sharing a success story, posting a relevant news article, and short status updates most commonly flow through HipChat. We have multiple rooms set up and it’s incredibly useful to know who is in each room at any given time. Even when we’re communicating with others across the office, HipChat provides a means of communicating without disrupting someone’s train of thought.
We use Mail Pilot for more formal communication like sending and discussing important documents or sharing an in-depth thought or idea. A high percentage of our emails involve simply forwarding external communication to one another with internal commentary. We make a point not to use email for anything that requires a quick or instant response as we know HipChat is a more efficient means of conducting that correspondence.
While we often use email for more formal communication, we’ve also evolved a unique way of pulling the unnecessary formalities to get to the point more quickly. Our messages to one another stylistically resemble an internal memo rather than a business letter. We also pay specific attention to utilizing concise, descriptive subject lines to further streamline our communication.
While our implementation of agile methodology deserves it’s own blog post, the main reason that we use it as such a small team is because it’s more than just a method of working – it’s a process of communicating. To facilitate this process digitally, we use Pivotal Tracker. This application has grown to more than a manager of our sprints; it’s become a tool we use to communicate about tasks, projects, and stories. In our use of Pivotal Tracker, we’ve noticed a dramatic decrease in the number of distracting questions/conversations such as “What are you working on?” or “Are we going to add this feature?” because we all have access to this information in real time. This is especially helpful for customer support; Nathan can quickly and easily inform customers what features can be expected in an upcoming release or are in active development. This is the kind of openness we strive to have with our customers.
Collaboration is a major form of communicating. Our Basecamp “Projects” aren’t traditional projects in that they don’t have a start and end point. Rather they’re categories (such as products, themes, etc.) of collaboration. I didn’t fully realize this until writing this post, but we mainly us Basecamp as a method of record keeping. For example, we track our most frequent feature requests as To-Do items. This enables us to document, reorder, discuss, and complete them when we get to them. We also keep track of news and blog posts regarding Mail Pilot and document some of our favorite tweets in one of our projects. In all, we use Basecamp for communication that doesn’t require response or attention in the immediate future. We all know that these items exist in Basecamp and can update them when we think of it and reference them when necessary.
Both developers and non developers at Mindsense utilize GitHub’s Wiki and Issues communication tools. While the general topic of all communication in GitHub is development, it is not limited to technical communication. For example, rather than a more traditional shared spreadsheet for all of our test email accounts, we have a Wiki for this information. Because we track confirmed bugs in Pivotal Tracker, we use GitHub Issues to document, track, and discuss problems before we determine what bug is the root cause. In addition, we track and discuss smaller level improvements via Issues. By handling the actual tracking of confirmed bugs in a separate area, it’s much less scary for anyone on the team to add and discuss a problem in GitHub without wasting time wondering if it’s worthy of creating a report.
I know what you’re thinking. It seems archaic and bizarre to think of the phone as being a main communication tool in a startup, especially one whose flagship product is a digital communication application. However, there are some instances in which a phone call is incredibly beneficial. Most notably, I communicate with Nathan about customer support several times a week via phone. Whether we’re working through a technically complex support ticket, discussing ways to address common questions, or planning a new aspect of our online support portal, I prefer to have these conversations over the phone. With customer support, I’ve learned that the context of each situation is incredibly important, and a quick instant message or email can’t provide as much context as a phone discussion.