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Jason Chen
10/18/2018

How Slab Helped Carrot Build a Culture of Documentation

Documentation is often an afterthought, a way to write down what happened in a meeting or one-off conversation that is never looked at again. But when you disregard the benefits of obsessive documentation, your team will never be as successful as it can be.

When Pat Cullen joined fertility benefits solution Carrot as Head of Engineering, he found a company that was just starting to build out the first drafts of all kinds of internal processes.

In just three months, he was able to take an engineering team that mostly relied on ad-hoc, non-standardized procedures and tribal knowledge and turn it on to a culture of rigorous and comprehensive documentation.

Introducing a new discipline to a team takes time. People tend to settle on the tool they're most familiar with, which is usually the first and only one they've used. Slab gave us a way to great documentation that grew with the team without having to spend the time up front to decide out how each piece would fit together.

— Patrick Cullen, Carrot's Head of Engineering

Using Slab, Pat was able to help the engineering team at Carrot take their existing content, most of which lived in Google Docs, and streamline both its consumption and its production. He decreased the time it took for members of the team to create new documentation and the cognitive effort required to find and use it, making it a real living document that could scale with Carrot's fast-growing team.

pat

These documents informed Carrot's ability to collaborate asynchronously. The whole team could contribute to each document, which gave every engineer the opportunity to make their voices heard and made Slab the de facto collaboration tool for any engineering project at Carrot.

Decrease cognitive effort by standardizing documentation processes

Whenever you roll out new processes to a team, it's important to keep in mind that changing behavior isn't easy. Pat came from a company with more established documentation habits, so he knew that changing the culture of the team would first require making those new behaviors easy to execute.

He started by using Slab to create a repeatable template for each piece of documentation the engineering team would go on to create.

Creating standardized templates gave the team one less thing for their brain to figure out when reading through a document.

— Patrick Cullen, Carrot's Head of Engineering

These templates ensured that similar documents would share a cohesive format as well. This decreased the effort it would take for any team member to create new documentation and made each document immediately recognizable to anyone at Carrot.

Standardized document templates also helped ease the team into a new process by taking away the brunt of the work. Carrot's engineers did not have to make a radical change in their behavior to create a new document. They could make small changes to an existing template and still be successful.

small wins

Small wins = long-term growth, which is more sustainable than a radical change to behavior.

Carrot's engineers could adopt the new process without taking time out of their day to wade through explanations of how their information should be structured.

Templates laid the groundwork for building out Carrot's system of documentation processes. Once the team decided on a standard format, they could easily share information with the rest of the company. Everyone at Carrot knows that Slab docs are how the engineering team communicates complex ideas with each other. Each different team at Carrot can connect with engineering by commenting on an existing Slab document or creating one of their own.

Build living documents that scale as the company grows

Technical documentation doesn't get the best rep. It is known to become unwieldy and confusing very quickly. Carrot found that Slab's version history gave them a way to keep documentations as up-to-date as possible without duplication or confusion. The documents would evolve alongside a project, which helped the team buy into the process as it was built.

When an engineer makes changes to a document, they can be referenced by anyone who has access to that document:

history

Example of documentation with recent changes highlighted in green.

Carrot found that their weekly planning benefited greatly from this feature. Each week, their team creates a new document that is updated with the work that is planned for that week. As the week progresses, that document is updated and commented on by different members of the team. As a work-from-home friendly team, the ability to track changes to this document keeps the team up-to-date and accountable. Whenever new information arises, it can easily be seen by any member of the team.

Slab has become our primary means of working together. Whenever conversations happen there's always someone there taking notes to document what's being discussed.

— Patrick Cullen, Carrot's Head of Engineering

As projects grew, Carrot found that their documents could be linked internally to create a more cohesive overview of how each component fit together. This created a hierarchy for every project:

project

Carrot could easily track which tasks made up the separate components of a project and get a more high-level view of the progress of their work. Each document is tied back to mock-ups, KPIs, user-testing notes, etc. Any information pertaining to a project could be referenced at any time to make sure everyone on the team is on track.

Building these hierarchies was something that Cullen was excited about with Slab, especially since he had previously worked with Confluence—which required a lot of work at the beginning to set up. With Slab, they could start out with a simple document and watch it grow along with their team and process without needing to solve every permissions and hierarchy problem before starting out.

Use asynchronous collaboration to give every employee a voice

Fostering a culture of documentation means getting buy-in from every single member of the team, not just those in a leadership or product management position. Carrot was able to accomplish this by giving every member of the team the ability to comment and update internal Slab documents.

Wiki-style documentation is better for collaboration than Google Docs.

— Patrick Cullen, Carrot's Head of Engineering

Collaborating on these documents gave every engineer a way to feel like they were a part of the process from the start. But it's not just about freedom—for this kind of collaboration to be effective, each member of the team needs to be accountable for reviewing and updating documents.

Carrot knew they wanted to document virtually every conversation that had an impact on the product. They also knew this had the potential to be grossly inefficient without the right kind of communication, but they used the example of other companies like Basecamp and embraced asynchronous communication to get it done:

We’re big believers in asynchronous communication — write it down now and other people can absorb it later when they’re ready. Real-time communication in person or virtually forces synchronization of schedules which is highly inefficient.

— Jason Fried, CEO of Basecamp

If a member of the team was not in the meeting, working from home, or heads down on another important task, they could still participate in the conversation through Slab. This was the most efficient route for Carrot.

Equal input from every team member also helps build a more cohesive team. When employees know that their voice is being heard, it helps them buy into the project as well as recognize the value of their contribution to it.

planning

Example weekly planning template in Slab.

Take the weekly planning template as an example. It provides an accurate overview of individual work and can be referenced by any team member directly. It also highlights dependencies in the work and can surface blockers before they occur.

When each engineer is invested in the process, it's easier to ensure that everyone is following best practices. Growing a culture of documentation takes discipline, so giving each member of the team a voice shows them the trust that leadership has in their contribution.

Slab helped Carrot make documentation a crucial part of their development process

Maintaining documentation isn't glamorous, but it's a vital aspect of the process for any growing business. Carrot used Slab to make it easy for their team to adopt a culture of documentation quickly.

Slab has become an indispensable tool for the engineering team at Carrot and helped them standardize their content in a way that fosters better and more active collaboration.

By streamlining the way documents were created, working asynchronously to update them in real time, and making sure that processes evolved alongside their team, Carrot gave their team the tools they needed to integrate this additional step into their development process.

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