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Developer Productivity Tools You Might Like

Staying productive in a modern software firm can be a challenge. You might be physically remote, in a different timezone or maybe you just have an excitingly active user community. Whatever your situation, we each have productivity tools, techniques and coping mechanisms for maintaining momentum in the modern world.  I often learn from others on this topic so here is very quick overview of my own thinking.

Slack

Slack is one of the most useful developer productivity tools available to me today. Slack’s modern grown-up take on IRC makes traditional corporate IM completely obsolete. I could not function without live group comms with all my colleagues and our user community. Our founder and CTO George Schlossnagle says this and more here.

I also can’t imagine, due to Slack, how many fewer hours of meetings, memos, dry papers and otherwise slow-boat conversations we now have, but it’s alot.

an alot developer productivity tools blog Image c/o: an alot

My home within SparkPost is the Developer Relations group. We’re spread over 8 time zone hours and some of us move around quite a bit. Slack’s backscroll, the body of messages sent while I was away, lets me catch up when travelling, eating, asleep or whatever else. There is no substitute for backscroll to stay connected and in sync with the team.

So much of the work we do is visible in backscroll and it’s searchable too! I sound a little like an advert but Slack is an unprecedented new capability for me. I can now answer a great many of my own questions with Slack search – thats huge win for group productivity. I’ll touch on that a little more in the anti-patterns section later.

Of course Slack is not a replacement for deliberate documentation but it certainly raises the knowledge floor, does it not?

Calendar

Ok, yes of course we all have calendars. We use Google Apps at SparkPost and Google Calendar helps my productivity in a few specific ways. I like to put solo tasks in my calendar. This lets me block out my days and remind “future me” (read: confused and lazy me) to do things on time. For example, I have a calendar entry entitled “Draft blog post” for writing this article with a couple of hours allocated. I leave the calendar notification on screen while I work (I use Chrome) so I can see it right beside my clock.

calendar reminder to draft blog post developer productivity tools

I reschedule tasks as needed but I try to work as dictated by my calendar. “Past me” had a plan to make progress on multiple fronts and keep things rolling along.  I can also reduce my cognitive load by separating the planning from the doing. In an convenient twist, Google Calendar’s “find a time” feature also meshes my tasks with actual meetings.

Anti-Patterns

Alright. So far, so obvious. I have also identified a few productivity anti-patterns (behaviors that negatively affect my performance) which I try to avoid or at least manage. Here they are now.

Slack (again)

I know. I just advertised Slack like I was getting paid for it but I also feel it’s possible to be too connected. In larger teams, Slack lets you watch the whole organization function in real-time. That can feel a little like staring directly up the Niagara Falls and it’s as alluring as it is unproductive.

In response, I have learned to limit my channel membership, to make liberal use of channel muting and to re-think things when I’m reading backscroll for longer than a few minutes at a time.

Twitch Culture

Have you ever heard: “Can you just quickly do X for me? It’ll only take a moment.”?

Our lives are made up of moments and they’re all precious. Technology can also exert unwanted pressure to be ever available and responsive throughout the working day. For tasks in engineering, education, research and writing, this “twitch culture” impacts our performance because interruptions affect our flow. They can be jarring and difficult to recover from.

As a coping mechanism, I tend to just be less available during intensive task periods (like now). It takes a little getting used to but it works. I also try to answer my own questions (Slack search, lmgtfy, …) before interrupting others. It’s a balance so I’m sure everyone’s is different.

We live in a time of explosive growth in information availability. With a little awareness and more of these excellent developer productivity tools, I hope we can all continue to have rich, productive, interesting and happy lives.

Productivity is an extremely important, ever changing and yet very personal topic. We’ve been writing about it throughout July and frankly we’re exhausted. Leave us a comment or tweet about your own developer productivity tools, tips and techniques.

– Ewan

Howdy there! You and I have talked before about how we build Slack bots at SparkPost, but I didn’t say much about how we use them. We use bots at SparkPost to do all sorts of things. We’ve learned a lot and I thought now would be a good time to share some of that with you. I love bots, you love bots, so let’s turn the lights down, light a few candles and have a nice glass of your favorite beverage over some bot talk.

How we use slack bots to stay productive people connected via slack

How We’re Using Slack Bots to Maximize Productivity

Like I said, we use Slack bots for a lot of things. We run our standups with bots, we use them to get links to our docs, to post sample data from our endpoints, and to encourage each other. We do internal reporting and monitoring from bots. We track the status of our deploys along with any new PRs and issues on our Github repos all from Slack.

Why do we use bots for all these things? I mean, there are other tools that do almost each one of the things we use bots for. Well, that’s the thing: there’s at least one tool for each of those things. Our Slack bots consolidate everything into one place and one interface.

There are some advantages to using Slack as that central platform for us at SparkPost. First, since we’re a distributed team, Slack has become lingua franca – it’s our primary communication tool – so everyone is comfortable with it. Slack access doesn’t require any special VPN connections (though you should set up two-factor auth for safety). It’s accessible on mobile devices so we can make API calls from just about anywhere. We make our Slack bots easy to use for non-technical people so they don’t have to use developer tools like cURL or Postman.

Basically, since we’re already in Slack on a regular basis, it’s easier and faster to simply perform as many of our everyday tasks from there as possible. Not only does it mean fewer steps to complete something, but we also don’t have to leave the interface where we’re already spending a lot of time. Just repeat this over and over with me:

NEVER LEAVE SLACK. NEVER LEAVE SLACK. NEVERLEAVESLACK. NEVERLEAVESLACK. It’s probably fine.

Botify All the Things!

So how do you choose what to add to your bot? Be on the lookout for things that are inconvenient or painful. Start with the things you do a lot. For example, in our community Slack team we found we spent a lot of time tracking down links to our docs: we’d open a browser, go to the docs page, search for the right resource, copy the link, go back to Slack… It was just awkward. And in that time the conversation would often have moved on. Now we have a single command that will give us a link to the resource our users need when they need it.

Do you have something that only you can do because you’re the only one technical enough? Bam! Slack bot! Or do you want to empower your team to do things on their own? Botify it! Want to let new users know what’s up when they join your Slack team? Bot time! You get the picture. It’s open-ended, the only limits are your creativity and a few pesky natural laws.

How to Succeed at Bots Without Really Trying

Ok, you have this awesome idea for this bot that is going to save you time and frustration and probably the world. You set up a repo and a sweet continuous deployment pipeline for easy deployments. You’ve got 100% test coverage, the build is green. But nobody is using it. Nobody? Seriously? Yep, nobody.

Remember, bots are an interface, just like a web page. And just like any web site they can be hard to use or unintuitive or just plain off-putting. Bots have the extra challenge of being a pure text interface to your code and code is rigid and brittle. But human language is fluid and nuanced and weird. So when you build your bot be creative, funny, and offbeat. Find that unique voice inside of you and channel it into your bot. That helps offset your bot’s rigidity (and even make it endearing!).

Making your bot enjoyable goes a long way to getting users to engage with them. We’ve also found a lot of success by including help text for every command. The skellington library we use for our bots makes help text a first-class citizen and makes it easy to add help messages. The easier and more fun you make the bot to use, the more people will use it!

If you use Slack or some other chat program, bots are a great way to empower your team and make rote tasks easier. Make your bots useful, interesting, and entertaining (in that order) and before you know it your bots will take over the world! Ok, not the world but at least the hearts of your users.

– Cole Furfaro-Strode

We’d love to hear how you’re using bots! Either post a comment below, or come find us in our Community Slack channel.

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