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ChatOps essential guide: The basics, benefits, and challenges

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Jason Hand DevOps Evangelist, VictorOps
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Popular Group Chat tools like Slack and HipChat are now commonplace in organizations across every industry. Moving to a more efficient and extensible method of communicating not only opens the doors to highly collaborative companies, but it is often the first step in their DevOps journey. With ChatOps, you can bring teams together in ways email and instant messaging apps never could, it's astonishing to see the evolution of communication.

According to  a Slack user survey, teams using its ChatOps tool have increased productivity by an average of 32 percent, reduced internal email by 48.6 percent, reduced meetings by 25.1 percent. Another key metric: It has increased team transparency by 80.4 percent. Regardless of the chat tool, your organization chooses to implement, the results are hard to ignore.

As DevOps continues its transition from buzzword to "the new model," IT professionals are looking for ways to begin their own journey. Companies are placing a strong focus on creating a culture of increased collaboration, shortened feedback loops, and task automation. As a result, high-performing cross-functional teams are the new norm. ChatOps is how many are pulling it off.

However, ChatOps isn't merely about moving conversations away from e-mail and into business chat tools. That's step one. ChatOps means using those tools to go beyond basic conversation. By juxtaposing conversation with context and actions, teams create a unified interface to everything that takes place throughout the day. This includes how tasks are accomplished, who took action, and what the results were.

Organizations using ChatOps report many benefits, but how do you know that it's right for yours? To answer this question, here's a guide to understanding the basics, the benefits, and the challenges of ChatOps.


Why integrations are key

ChatOps starts by moving more of the internal communication out of email and into a group chat tool, so it's no surprise that choosing a tool that everyone will embrace is an important early step. A proof of concept exercise can help  teams evaluate and come to a decision as to which tool to use.  Slack and HipChat currently lead the business chat tool market, edging out Slack in terms of  daily active users (DUA), with nearly 3 million

Both tools have similar features, as well as an active community, and marketplace of third-party services that you can easily integrate. And it's through these integrations that ChatOps truly begins to provide powerful results.

Microsoft recently announced its new business group chat tool, Microsoft Teams, which is aimed squarely at people who are just catching on to this new way of communicating at work. It will be interesting to see adoption rates in organizations of different sizes and levels of maturity. As long as Microsoft embraces the growing third-party tools and services ecosystem on which companies rely, many in the enterprise business community may begin to cut their teeth on ChatOps.

Plug your teams into ChatOps

Many people rely heavily on tools and services such as GitHub, VictorOps, Salesforce, and others every day. You can easily integrate any of them with a group chat tool to provide engineers with a deeper awareness of software and infrastructure. Support teams can use it to provide faster response times to customer requests. Sales and marketing can use it as a pulse on metrics and customer data like never before. And it's all the result of shortening feedback loops.

Real-time context within a single, simple, and secure interface to systems, means teams and individuals are empowered to become highly collaborative, transparent, and efficient. They begin to share more domain knowledge, increase visibility and awareness, continuously learn, and most importantly, build empathy. 

Once teams have jumped in with ChatOps with third-party integrations, however, they will likely soon discover the limitations in the usefulness of native plugins.

Beyond the chatter: Enter the chatbot

A number of open-source chatbots are popular among companies looking to extend the functionality of their ChatOps efforts. By hosting a chatbot that can interact with the team from within a group chat tool, you can accomplish even more. You can use custom scripts to not only push or retrieve additional context, but to allow for a deeper interaction with other tools and services. This creates an environment where the group chat tool becomes a single user interface to business intelligence, automation, and conversations.  

Some of the most well-known chat bots used today include Hubot, Errbot, Lita, Yetibot
and Cog.

What ChatOps can do for your organization

So why are so many organizations looking to ChatOps? The technology offers process benefits that help improve efficiencies and systems health, as well as social benefits that can improve your company culture. Regardless of what industry you are in, both process and social improvements are necessary to create a high-performing, cross-functional team.

Social benefits

  • Increased collaboration
  • Increased sharing of domain knowledge
  • Increased visibility and awareness
  • Enhanced learning
  • Improved empathy

Process and technical benefits

  • Increased automation
  • Increased speed of actions and executed commands
  • Improved security and safety
  • Automatic logging of conversations and actions
  • Synchronous communication
  • Reduction in email


The challenges with ChatOps

Despite how nice ChatOps sounds initially, you'll eventually face several challenges. For example, access control and security are extremely important in many organizations. Understanding your own situation is important for everyone, but it's a requirement for many organizations.

As teams begin to see the value of ChatOps, more individuals within an organization will join the party. A fear of missing out may be one reason for some to engage more with chat tools. For others, it's just the way they communicate now. Rather than extend the feedback loop and total time of a conversation through old-fashioned email, they follow this new model, which makes getting work done as natural as a conversation. ChatOps is nothing more than the next step in the evolution of communication.

With this increase in members, an increase in conversations and updates from various services may turn out to be quite noisy. A timeline full of important information is great, but when attempts to consume all of the conversations feels a bit like drinking from a fire hose, the technology is no longer valuable to anyone.  A focus on continuous improvement will help you make adjustments to integrations, bots, rooms, and so on. Managing the signal-to-noise ratio is critical to successful ChatOps adoption, and you should expect it to be an ongoing exercise.

Old habits die hard

One area that has been a tough challenge for me personally is breaking my old habits. SMS and instant messaging has made one-on-one conversations the standard way of communicating with everyone. But these types of conversations are flawed in many ways when compared to the ChatOps approach. Something that resembles a social media feed provides much more value.

First, conversations are essentially contained in a black box that's separate from the rest of the organization. This is counter to the DevOps principles from which ChatOps was born. Instead of putting conversations in silos, you should be looking for ways to be more transparent, and to encourage discussions among larger groups.

Second, conversations aren't persistent. As a result, awareness across the entire organization is reduced. Individuals can't lean in and out of the dialog. Once the temporary conversation concludes, the artifact of that exchange is lost forever.

The percentage of direct messages when using ChatOps for many organizations falls between 50 percent and 62 percent. This means that at least half of the conversations that take place in a group chat tool actually only occur between two people, which runs counter to the purpose of these tools. Why is this? I believe it's due in large part to nothing more than our own bad habits.

Adding ChatOps to your DevOps toolkit

Adopting DevOps principles isn't an overnight effort. It requires a focus on continuously improving every aspect of the way you build, deploy, and support systems. ChatOps was born out of DevOps principle, so  teams must realize that it’s important to use business objectives to prioritize efforts, even with ChatOps.

Considering the benefits and challenges is an important early step, but you must first ask yourself and your team: “What is it we are trying to accomplish with ChatOps?” The answer to that question will evolve over time, but be sure you understand how it brings value to the business.

For a deeper dive into ChatOps, download the new O'Reilly Report, "ChatOps: Managing Operations from Group Chat".


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