Business Technology

How chatops are changing the way tech workers operate

7 min read

27 January 2017

Last year the tech press was obsessed with chatbots - artificial intelligence driven chat programs . It seemed to be all techies could talk about, but this year’s poised to introduce a new, more subtle shift to businesses around the world: chatops.

Chatops (an amalgamation of chat and operations) is a term which originated in software development, but has wider implications for UK plc.

Simply put, chatops allow teams to work together to complete tasks within a chat application (such as Slack or Skype) by using tools or integrations (like Microsoft Office). It has helped developer teams work in more efficient and agile ways, pioneering the concept of conversation-driven collaboration.

More traditional business leaders and entrepreneurs might be scratching their heads at this. Stories about the latest email killer and different ways of online collaboration have circulated for years, but software developers have usually led the way.

For example, we have already seen project management tools (such as JIRA) replacing much of email’s traditional functionality, but this is still confined to developer project management, rather than having a wider business use.

The latest email killer, Slack, feels different. It has become wildly popular in recent years, with its daily active user count growing by 3.5 times over the course of 12 months.

Leading a new wave of messaging apps, Slack and others like it have integrations which allow workers to link frequently used services together, allowing for greater productivity. These tools are thought of as so helpful that some companies have advertised that they use Slack in job ads to attract new employees.

Beyond communication

Software development has often been the bellwether of other industries. Developers’ obsessions with project management tools, agile processes and data-driven reporting has already begun to spread to general business management practices, and I predict that conversation-driven collaboration is the next in line.

So how does this work, for software developers, in the real world? At its core, chatops is a marriage between established devops practices and new workplace instant messaging platforms.

Devops, a way of working characterised by small and agile teams in clear, continual and transparent communication with each other, is well suited to close integration with messaging platforms. With tools like Slack, developers are now able to integrate their various systems directly into the platform, meaning that they can issue test or build commands directly within Slack.

Put simply, tell a bot in Slack to run a test script on an application and it will do just that, feeding you back the results in a Slack message.

Keeping as much work as possible within one context, be that Slack or the command line, saves everyone time and makes completing complex tasks as efficient as possible. At the core of all modern work is collaboration and conversation, so it makes sense to make the collaborative component as frictionless and time-efficient as possible.

At Wercker it’s pretty clear that developers are keen on this way of working: GitHub is credited with coining the term chatops back in 2013 when it launched Hubot, its own chatbot for helping developers. That chatbot has since been starred over 11,000 times on GitHub, with companies from Box to Lyft developing their own solutions.

We’ve also developed Walterbot, our own chatbot to help developers streamline their chatops practices, which has seen strong uptake.

Beyond code

Other businesses might not be working directly with code on a daily basis, but they can still take the essentials of chatops and apply them to their own specific work environments.

For example, an ecommerce business could install a bot for Slack which would generate Google Analytics reports on page performance via a simple command, or find out the previous week’s revenues on a specific product just by typing in the question. These small features shave minutes off workers’ days, and those time savings add up.

There are other indications that Slack is positioning itself as more than just the chat app that it’s commonly seen to be.

At the end of last year, Slack announced new integrations which integrate with Google Drive on a far deeper level than before. We expect more announcements of a similar nature to occur this year, weaving Slack’s chatbot technology more deeply into established workplace software, and in doing so changing the way that office workers interact with different services in new ways.

Developers tend to be ahead of the curve when it comes to established methods of working – they have to be.

Developers have to constantly protect their time, reporting on what they’re spending their energies on to prevent waste. In reaction to this, new means of working, such as project management solutions, agile methodologies and devops-based team management, and now chatops, have sprung up to help them.

Developers have seen where the world of work is going, and are reacting in a way that should make non-software or non-tech businesses take note.

When work is increasingly dominated by collaborations between staff members, we need to focus on making the software that enables that collaboration to be as smooth, as “invisible” and as conducive to that collaboration as possible – this should be the primary goal of chatops for business.

Micha “Mies” Hernandez van Leuffen is a hacker entrepreneur, and the founder and CEO of Wercker, where he’s building the next generation of tools for technology-driven automation

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