There are many good things about working in an office environment. One of them is the ability to learn from our coworkers, dropping by their desks or exchanging tips at the water cooler. Three months ago, the idea that such exchanges could be dangerous would have belonged in an episode of Black Mirror.

In the era of COVID-19, we are all remote and need to find new ways of experiencing old benefits such as knowledge transfer. The impromptu conversation is less of an option: we need more structure.

Let’s consider some options:

  1. Email: Just say no. No one wants more email.
  2. Slack or other messaging: The rise of Slack has been timely. It’s an essential tool for the new normal. We can ask questions on shared channels or DM colleagues. Both are useful, but neither is perfect. Questions in shared channels often get lost. It’s harder to tell whether someone is busy and shouldn’t be interrupted than when you can see them across an office.
  3. Shared Zoom: At Atomist, our engineers spend much of their day on Zoom. This allows the opportunity for questions but can be distracting for others for whom the topic is irrelevant.
  4. Forums and documentation: An ounce of prevention is better than a pound of cure. Anything that can be documented and easily found can head off questions. Avoiding interruptions means a big productivity win. Documentation also scales to help new joiners who may not know your organization’s subject matter experts. For widely used technologies, Stack Overflow may already offer what you need, if the answers aren’t unique to your organization.
  5. Automation: What if the documentation is executable? What if you don’t need to read about how to do X, but if X simply happens in just the right way whenever it’s needed? As technologies proliferate, it’s an impossible non-goal for everyone to know everything. For example, what if instead of reading about how you should format your code, a linting tool runs on every commit or PR merge? What if the behavior is updated as requirements change?
Automation is potentially an even bigger win than documentation, especially if the automation is available from outside your organization

Documentation and automation are hard to do but have always been the best solutions. Now there’s added impetus to get them right.

We all know we should write documentation. But it’s one of the hardest things we do, and hence is often neglected. Not only is writing clear and accurate documentation time consuming, organizing it is another challenge.

I’m most excited about automation, which I feel is the most neglected approach. This is sad because it’s the biggest potential win, eliminating error and avoiding distraction. Unfortunately, achieving automation is even harder than writing documentation, partly because there’s no platform that we can use to consistently approach a wide range of tasks across all our projects.

At Atomist, we want to change this. We are working on what we call the Skills platform. The goal is to enable everyone to capture things they know how to do (skills) and make them available to others, inside or even outside their team.

The execution of a skill is triggered by an event that matters to your team, such as a commit, build, deployment, or the creation of an issue. We are trying to lower the bar to authoring skills so that automation is easier than ever, allowing everyone to raise their organization’s productivity and head off questions that are now harder to ask and answer.

Continue to watch this space for skill examples and beta updates. Feel free to head over to the catalog of skills and view what we have already launched.

I wish you and your loved ones a safe, healthy time during this crisis.