In which we discuss our ideas about software development & technology consulting.

Fundamentals: Mandatory Communication

This is the first in a many part series where we'll cover some core ideas we use here at Back Forty to ensure the success of our projects. First up, we'll discuss one of our most important practices: mandatory communication. We'll discuss what we mean by mandatory communication, what we think it accomplishes, and in doing so the types of issues you can avoid with it.

What We're Talking About

While the term "mandatory communication" is pretty self explanatory, we have found a few specific practices to increase the quality of our communication with clients, and thus the success of our projects.

Scheduled Regular Standups

As soon as we start a new project, we setup a schedule for regular standup meetings. Sometimes that schedule is daily, but we often go with a Monday, Wednesday, Friday lineup.

Our standups include going over what we've accomplished since the last meeting, what we're working on next, and any issues that have cropped up in current work. Pretty simple stuff, and it rarely takes more than 10 minutes. Because it's so simple, sometimes it feels silly or unnecessary.

Could some of this communication be done via email? Maybe, but I'd argue that using email for these sort of things is much less effective. What might take piles of time and many emails to explain and understand can usually be dispatched with a quick conversation at standup and maybe a screen share.

What's that you say? "I can't possibly meet with my client in person every day, that's crazy". Well, thankfully we live in a world where the internet makes video chat a not-completely-unpleasant experience. We happen to use Skype but we also know lots of folks who use Google Hangouts (too crash-prone for us). What really matters is the real-time person-to-person communication. The bandwidth on that communication, even without video, is much higher than email. You're just more likely to catch silly miscommunications and mismatches in understanding when communicating with voice rather than email.

What happens when it feels like there's nothing to discuss at standup? In our experience, this can be an important project management indicator. Have we stalled out on a task for some reason? Has the stakeholder disengaged?

Constant Asynchronous Communication

To compliment standups, we also setup a chat room that we share with stakeholders. If we're working on a project then we're in the room. Finished a feature but not quite sure how something should look? No problem, drop a screenshot in the chat room and we can get immediate feedback and move on instead of wasting time.

Let the Sunshine In

As developers, sometimes we resist communication because it feels safer and easier to stay in our code cave and get things done. This mentality makes it easier to veer off track and go down rabbit holes that don't necessarily deliver value to the client. If you let hours, days, or even weeks pass with no communication when everyone comes up for air, you may discover that you spent much of that time on work that is either wrong or not important to the client. By making the communication predictable and scheduled, we take a lot of the stress developers feel about it away. Great client communication is like any other skill, in that the more we do it the better we get at it and the easier it becomes.

Wrapping Up

For developers: If you're working on a software development team and you've experienced some of the issues described above, I'd strongly encourage you to start scheduling some mandatory stakeholder communication. Save yourself from yourself, do better work, do more focused work.

For stakeholders: If you've got a development team working for you and you feel like you're just along for the ride, maybe it's time to get together every morning for standup. Yep, there will probably be initial resistance to the idea, but if done right the whole team will see improved results after only a couple weeks of practice.

Next Time

So that covers mandatory communication. Coming up next we'll dive into issue tracking tools. We'll share some keys to using them effectively and some specific tips and tricks for our preferred tool.

Have something to add? Join the conversation on Hacker News.


Ed Schmalzle

Ed is a principal and lead developer at Back Forty.