Thursday, August 22, 2013

Communication at Khan Academy: Open By Default

I've only been at Khan Academy a few weeks now, and I'm still learning how they (we) work as a company and what makes their (our) culture tick. But, there's one thing that I can't help but notice: our communication is open by default.

I don't know how much of the openness was a conscious effort and how much was coincidence, but at this point, it's a definite part of the culture now. Here's where I've seen it:

  • Public Wiki: Khan has a Google Sites wiki, and it is actually openly viewable to anyone. Newly created pages are public by default, but can be made organization-restricted if it contains secret information. I almost thought it was a mistake at first, an accident, but it's very much on purpose. Khan works with many external volunteers, and it makes it easier if we can easily expose documentation about best practices and processes on the same wiki that we use for employees. There's a fine line between "internal" and "external" at Khan, and that blurriness is reflected in their communication.
  • Email Transparency: Khan is following Stripe's suit by trying out "email transparency", where everyone is encouraged to CC a "-blackhole" list on every email, so that anyone can find conversations later, but people can ignore the bulk of conversations (everything in the "Blackhole" filter, which we set up on our first day). So far, it's worked great for me - I've never regretted CCing blackhole, and I've also benefitted from responses by people who've found the email in the blackhole. At first, I was a little creeped out by what I saw in the blackhole, I thought "Am I really supposed to see this?" but now it's like, "Yep, we all share everything, that's how we roll." The email transparency is both a way of increasing openness and making it clear that Khan prioritizes openness in all aspects.
  • HipChat: After all that about email transparency: Khan doesn't do much human communication over email. Emails are largely for announcements and automated emails (like from Phabricator). The majority of day-to-day communication happens in HipChat, an IRC-like app. The engineering room has been my go-to room for getting started in the codebase in the last few weeks - whenever I have a question, whoever happens to be around will respond. The computer science room is filled with conversations about current projects and it's how we iterate quickly in development. When someone is working on a new feature, they'll post a screenshot of the WIP, voice any UI concerns, we'll give feedback, designers will post back mock ideas, and the cycle continues. We sometimes have 1-on-1 conversations too, but we try to funnel most conversations into the rooms, so that anyone can search through them later. Now, HipChat can also be quite distracting, so it's not a perfect solution. But then again, what is? (Besides Wave! :-)
  • Open Office: The Khan office is built in this big large space, with a few meeting rooms around the perimeter, then rows of desks, and the main meeting area is smack dab in the center of the room, with no walls. All of the all-hands and dev stand up meetings happen in that meeting area, so it's pretty hard to miss them, and anyone can pull their chair over and listen in. I think this is just an architectural artifact of the space, but the majority of meeting rooms have no ceilings, so there's not a lot of opportunity for keeping secrets. The usual objection to an open office is the high distractibility that can come from the conversations, but the office is eerily quiet for most of the day - and I think that's because all of those conversations are actually happening on HipChat. It's better that they happen on HipChat than in the physical space, since remote employees can chime in, and it's easier for others to chime out if they want to.

All in all, I'm loving how all of our communication is open by default, and it makes me feel good that I'm in an organization where everybody wants everyone to know what's going on and has built that into the culture. I'd love to hear from you about how your company culture ticks in the comments.

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