Life Imitates Code. Essays by Ka Wai CheungEssays by Ka Wai Cheung from around the web.

Business & Work ● March 2014

Quiet please: The benefits of online chat

On any particular Tuesday morning, a stock trading pit of yesteryear roared under the calamitous din of raspy vocal cords. In emergency rooms you’ll hear the sounds of shrill cries intermixed with the mundanity of machine beeps and cart wheel squeaks. In a restaurant kitchen, there is something searing, something clanking, someone yelling.

In a normal office full of programmers, you’ll hear...nothing. Well, not exactly nothing. Tune your ears a bit closer and you’ll hear the muffled beats of someone’s ambient music track, or sound-dampening white noise loops, or raindrops. That, and a steady pit-pat of keyboard strokes.

Those who don’t work in the industry are often surprised at the library-like hush of the archetypal web development studio. Particularly those that come from places of work where oral communication is either critical—like a restaurant kitchen or operating room—or where noisiness has just always been part of the culture. But, in a development shop, don’t talk during working hours please.

Our shop is much the same. Guests walk into the large vault-like office of We Are Mammoth and see a half-dozen 20 or 30-somethings seated along one of three walls, headphones on, doing whatever it is we do. In fact, only the absence of the distinctive smell of dusty books keeps a web shop from actually becoming a library. Routine communication—something that, as I understand, normal people refer to as “talking”—occurs online, via group chatting tools like HipChat or Campfire. There are many benefits to this type of conversing.

First, chatting solely over the internet makes for a more seamless work experience. Writing a piece of code is a kind of communication. It is the act of explaining a concept to a machine through a written language. When humans interrupt us with a shoulder tap, we must stop conversing with the computer through our fingertips and start conversing with a human being through our vocal cords. So, the absence of physical talking—the kind that uses air and muscular tissue and tension to create vibration—means that a developer can go about his daily work largely uninterrupted.

The would-be disruptiveness of physical talking in an office would be akin to sparking up a conversation with a new attraction at a cocktail party, only to be constantly interrupted by your friend’s text message. It would be easier to have your friend right there in front of you, conversing lock-step with the girl you’re trying to woo. Unless your friend is also trying to woo her. But, I digress.

That is why we developers, by far, prefer communication via a piece of software. No, it isn’t some mandatory obsession we have for infusing as much technology as possible into our work. More simply, email or instant messaging keeps us focused on the same medium as our work. And even better, we don’t have to instantly respond to an email or message. We can let it sit for a minute or ten. We can even let our colleagues know we’re busy by a simple status change. The culture of speaking through fingertips lends itself to keeping us from constant disruption while still maintaining some semblance of a normal conversation. While this kind of discourse feels disjoined to the outsider, instead, it weaves its way through our normal course of working. Just like the cocktail party, people and code are speaking in the same room.

Secondly, chatting through fingers has a way of dissolving shyness. I first experienced this phenomenon in 1997, as a senior in high school. Mr. Cadwell, my English teacher, gave us the exercise of discussing the book The Lord of the Flies through a chat program in the school’s computer lab. Back then, this wasn’t technically “online”—we quite literally sat, as a class, in the same room, and discussed between computers connected to an internal network. But the outcomes, the same ones I notice in the workplace today, were noticeable. Some particularly shy students typed a lot more than they spoke. The difference in word frequency between the quietest and most vocal student in class was a lot smaller when conversations took place on computer.

I think this is because there is no decibel level baked into the written word. A soft-spoken person’s voice is read as loudly on a screen as the most gregarious of voices, assuming your caps lock is disabled. Words have equal weight when typed. Emotiveness is removed—which is particularly effective for technical discussions.

I think we can also attribute this phenomenon to the fact that writing—even in the conversational manner of this medium—gives us an opportunity to “think out loud” without confusing the audience. Rather than blurt, we can type, erase, and adjust quickly before hitting Enter. There’s a thin, protective layer of self-vetting that’s available when we write things out and have a chance to read them once over before pushing it up to the public. Hence, this form of communication is particularly effective for programmers. Yes, it's true. Programmers are generally introverted, pensive, and quiet folk. But, don't mistake that for passiveness. We have strong opinions about the way things should be. Online chat is a medium that utilizes more of our strengths and less of our weaknesses.

The third, often-overlooked benefit of online communication is that conversations are not only stored, but can be categorized and searched. At We Are Mammoth, we create chat rooms for each project and invite only the people necessary on each project. We also can communicate with each other sans room, one-on-one. We even have general rooms for water-cooler talk and viral cat meme posting.

I cannot overstate the importance of this advantage. It is frequent that I will remember a conversation I had with a fellow developer a few weeks ago. It may be a site they had referred me to that contained some bit of info I knew I’d need later. Or, a key decision we had made about a new feature that I need to revisit. Rather than do what I’d do in other avenues of my life, which is to ask someone what we had talked about two weeks ago, I can simply toggle to the chat room and search for some distinct bit of text. In this way, though online communication might lose a bit of the human interaction some of us naturally crave, communication is far more organized and effective over the internet than it is over air.

And besides, who needs real human interaction when you have your own dedicated cat meme room?

Originally published Mar 19, 2014 at We Are Mammoth. Go to the next essay in Business & Work, “Thinking through your problem”.