Before working at Atlassian, I had worked at a 60-person company with offices in Boston and San Francisco. Communication was terrible. Talk about being dysfunctional! (1) People on both coasts had no idea what the others were doing. (2) Email was a terrible way to collaborate on anything, but it’s what we relied on. That, and “Track Changes” in Word.
Those communication challenges pale in comparison with the challenge of working in a global company like Atlassian. Our offices are in Sydney and San Francisco, a 17-hour and 7,400 mile gulf. And, we’re opening not one, but (possibly) two offices in Europe in 2008.
And yet, in my humble opinion, communication at Atlassian is 10-times better than the last company.
This is the first in a 2-part series to talk about why I think that is. In this first part, I’ll talk about the tools we use — wikis, issue and task tracking, IM, blogging, etc. In part 2, I talk more about the company culture.
Part 1. Collaboration Tools
Confluence: We basically run our business and communicate internally with Confluence, our enterprise wiki. If any employee wants to know what’s going on at the company, s/he need only login into this web-based tool.
There are spaces on product specifications for each product, human resources and internal training, marketing and PR projects, documenting goals, sample emails, sharing results and metrics. We have pages that display real-time SQL charts on business metrics, such as license counts.This only begins to touch on our use of the wiki. Charles wrote a post about how we use Confluence, too, that gives you more of an idea of the output.
Actually we have two Atlassian wikis: an internal, employee-only wiki, and an external one with some public and some private spaces. We use them a lot — here are some stats.
Jira: We use two instances of Jira to track work, bugs, and customer feature requests. The external one with public and private projects is here. While Jira is used more by the developers and support engineers than by other teams, it’s by no-means only used for technical projects and has applicability for a wide range of tasks.
For example, anytime I need our UI design team in Sydney to create a graphic for the website, I log it in Jira. All the graphic specs — description, any text, size, use, etc.— are logged in the system where they’re centrally available from anywhere (batteries not included, Internet access required). Most of the time, 99% of the communication about that task is in Jira. Likewise, anyone that need help from Steve, our IT Sys Admin wunderkind, needs to log it in Jira.
In short, Confluence is a knowledge base, Jira is a task and project management tool.
Email: Instead of trying to collaborate in email, we use the wiki. Need someone’s opinion about a project you’re working on? Don’t send the details in email. Instead, put it in the wiki, then send an email with the URL. All collaboration and comments go there. Email is still used for 1-to-1 communication and infrequent all-hands broadcasts.
IM: We use the Jabber protocol for quick chats between offices and desks. We also do all-hands broadcasts when IT has to take an internal system offline for a few minutes.
Blogging: Atlassian has a hyperblogging culture. This topic deserves an entire blog series of its own, but I’ll try to be succinct. We produce a sh***oad of blogs. Pretty succinct, no?
There are external ones (like this one), others on developer topics, plus many employees have personal blogs, and lastly we blog internally.
To date, we have produced over 3,000 internal blog posts by 130 unique authors with 5,700 comments. That’s a LOT of communication between people, departments, and offices.
The internal blogging (on Confluence) keeps employees up-to-date on… what people and teams are working on, individual and team goals, issues that customers or evaluators bring up, awards we’ve won, press mentions, policies, hot debates in software engineering, Agile development techniques, parties we’ve been to, parties we’re hosting, and the none too rare weird/funny thing. (Confluence’s wiki pages are used for documentation, project collaboration, policies, and more, while Confluence’s blog pages are used for time-sensitive communication.*)
In short, blogging creates conversations with customers and colleagues. It keeps us informed and on our toes.
del.icio.us: The popular bookmarking tool, del.icio.us, has been our tool of choice for sharing stuff on the Web. If someone comes across a great article (about our competitors or customers, Agile development practices, software development best practices, successful strategies employed by other businesses, or even just a funny YouTube video), we bookmark it. Employees subscribe to the bookmarks in their RSS readers. Jonathan blogged about it in more detail.
We started using del.icio.us more than 2 years ago. It now contains well over 2,000 bookmarks that have been collectively tagged by Atlassian employees. Now that Confluence has a social bookmarking feature, we may discontinue using del.icio.us.
Flickr: There are 2,600 photos of Atlassian picnics, parties, and miscellany on Flickr. If a picture is worth a thousand words, that means there over over 2,600,000 words that we communicate between the Sydney and SF offices of our respective (tho’ not necessarily respectable) lives.
With so many ways to communicate and so much information to absorb, information overload is one problem we contend with. We’ve addressed it systematically in some cases, and in others it’s a work in progress. I’ll cover the topic of information overload, along with a discussion of the company culture, in part 2.
* * *
UPDATE: I didn’t discuss development collaboration tools (e.g., our use of Subversion, or even our use of our other dev tools like Bamboo, Crucible, etc.). That stuff is covered in much more depth on our Developer blog.
* There was a lot of internal and some external debate about eating our own dog food when it comes to using Confluence for external blogging. Or for that matter, why not switch to WordPress? Ultimately, we’ve stuck with MoveableType, which we had been using for many years. Why? For one thing, it would entail a lot of work to migrate everything into a new system and customize it as we’ve done with MT.
Is MoveableType the best blogging platform? That depends on how you define best. What features you need, what you look for. I have some issues with Movable Type 3.x, maybe 4.0 is better. I use WordPress on my personal blog, and as a company we blog internally extensively using Confluence.