Hands on: Slack gets a real-world teamwork test

Hands on: Slack gets a real-world teamwork test
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Newly arrived, Slack is already changing the way our workgroup collaborates, but the provisions for integration with other apps need help


Resistance to Slack was predictably futile, and now we are assimilated. I was not among the resisters. Nothing floats my boat like powerful team-enabling software, and I'm having a ball exploring the nooks and crannies of Slack.

How it may alter our team dynamics I can't yet say. One thing I'm curious about is search. The Google mailing list method we've been using can quite capably index and search all team communication. To route messages into a searchable archive, you simply cc: an alias. But you must cc: an alias. The default for intracompany transparency is opt in, not opt out. We'd rather push the toggle the other way, but Google doesn't enable it, so the searchable archive winds up incomplete.

There's also the question of where to search. In Google Apps there's one search interface for mail and another -- much less discoverable -- for groups. That split reinforces the tendency to park items you expect to find by search in the interpersonal space of email rather than the shared team space. Slack unifies search in a way that I hope will result in a more usefully searchable team space. We'll see how that plays out.

As a toolsmith with some gripes about the affordances for integration in Google Apps, I'm enjoying Slack's diverse and low-ceremony affordances. It's only a curl one-liner, for example, to inject a message into a Slack channel, and you can invoke the command from a script. I'm always on the lookout for simple methods like that and always grateful to find them.

Most users, of course, can't script curl commands. They can, however, choose from a long list of integrations that you configure in a Web UI à la IFTTT and Zapier. Ours so far include GitHub, PagerDuty, Sentry, Trello, and Twitter. Flowing notifications from all these services into the shared team space is easily done and hugely helpful.

There's also RSS/Atom integration, but it's been problematic. I tried a few things that didn't seem to work, checked my feeds in the Feed Validator, then pinged Slack support. The response:

Thanks for getting in touch and sorry for the bugginess there! To be honest our RSS parser isn't in the best state, but we're looking to spruce it up in a future release to make it much more robust than it is now.

In the meantime, I could suggest trying a third-party service such as Zapier to integrate that feed into Slack instead.

Parsing RSS and Atom feeds can be tricky, but it isn't rocket science, and reliable mechanisms have been around for many years. This, I suspect, is merely a matter of priorities.

Feeds were once the sine qua non for lightweight integration of Web services, but that's no longer true. The demise of Google Reader sucked most of the oxygen out of the feed ecosystem. People found other ways to follow the activities of other people. But feeds weren't only a way for people to read news items produced by other people. They were also a way for machines to produce news that people and other machines could follow.

A service might or might not offer custom integration hooks, but if it provided a standard feed you could always accomplish basic integration. That led to a virtuous cycle. Feeds enabled integration; toolsmiths used them for that purpose; services were motivated to offer feeds.

It's great that Slack, IFTTT, and Zapier offer long lists of point-to-point integrations. But simply because I can make something out of a feed doesn't mean I should have to. Of course, most users can't or won't. But those lists can't grow infinitely long. There needs to be a general-purpose fallback. In theory that's still RSS/Atom feeds. In practice I find, too often, it isn't.

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