On "lurking"

This is a bit of a different post than what I usually write, but I feel like lurking is a significant part of my identity as an engineer - in fact, in GitHub's intranet, my role is "Chief Lurking Officer." I'm told that it helps others, and I know it helps me, so I wanted to share what I've learned.

What is lurking?

My definition is this: quietly observing other teams' conversations with the intent of following along and learning. You can think of it as treating a bunch of Slack channels as "read-only".

I lurk in a ton of channels. I don't work on GitHub's mobile apps, but I love 'em and want to see what the team is working on. I don't work on GitHub Sponsors, but I think it's a massively important project and I want to follow along.

This can only work in a culture that prioritizes openness. GitHub is good at that - we believe that if it's not written down it didn't happen, which helps the nosy people like me follow along. Paraphrasing @jeffrafter:

If there are 100 concurrent meetings in 100 separate rooms you can't participate in 99 of them.

By having a culture where people talk about their ideas and in-progress work items in the open (either in Slack or in GitHub issues), you're enabling people to learn more.

Why I lurk

It's 95% because I'm curious and nosy and it's fun, 5% because I think it's useful. At a company the size of GitHub (we're about 1500 people now) there are a ton of interesting projects going on. If you could be a fly on the wall in your favorite products' Slack, wouldn't you want to listen in? That's my primary motivation.

However, this comes with serious side-benefits. My being tapped into the company-wide deluge of information means that I know a little bit about a lot of projects. In my own work, I can say "Hey we want to implement this thing, but this other team is working on something similar. Maybe we should chat?" And it has exponentially positive effects - every channel I lurk in gives me more information to both collect and share.

It's a superpower, where you know more simply by listening more.

How to make people like you

First of all, hell if I know. But I think I'm good at building relationships, especially over Slack, by lurking selectively and being supportive. Remember my primary reason for lurking - because the work that others are doing is amazing.

Tell them that. Be supportive, react to ideas/features with 😍 emojis. When it's relevant, tell them why you're so interested in their work. Being positive is something that you can bring to every team for free, and it helps so much.

Walking the line between helpful and obtrusive

While lurking, you may be tempted to participate - part of lurking means collecting information from all over the place, which means you may have something to contribute to conversations that you're not necessarily a part of.

This is important: you were not invited to these conversations, so your participation needs to be measured and selective. You're not there to tell people what to do - you're there because you respect the expertise of the people working on these projects, so much so that you care enough to listen in.

That doesn't mean you can't be helpful, but you need to be conscious of how much of the conversation you're a part of. The wording is vital too; consider these two statements:

❌ You should make it purple, because purple is the best color.
✅ My 2 cents - I think that purple is a great color.

The difference there is in the approach. Rather than being prescriptive and asserting your opinion, you're making a suggestion that they can choose to completely ignore. And they can ignore it! Remember, no one said "we really need Jason's opinion here" - your input wasn't requested, so it doesn't need to be considered seriously.

You can't bring your ego into channels that you're not supposed to be a part of.

Always be ready to stop talking. Always be ready to leave a channel if you don't feel like they want you there. This is their space, not yours.

Who you are matters here

It doesn't make sense to ignore the biases and identity that you bring to the channels that you lurk in - it's not realistic, and can be harmful if ignored. This comes back to being a visitor in others' spaces; my opinion isn't more important than those of the people who are actually working on these projects. Steamrolling as an uninvited guest is about as rude and destructive as it gets. Respecting the position of the other people involved is paramount to being a kind lurker.

This is true for your role as well; not all companies deal with hierarchy in the same way, but your level in the company influences how your opinions are considered. Trust is key here. For example, if you're the CTO and you lurk in an engineering team's channel, think before you speak. Trust that they'll come to the best conclusion, even without your 2 cents.

Dealing with the onslaught of messages

Lurking implies that you spend a ton of time reading. There's no getting around the fact that it takes time and energy. Acknowledge that - it's a trade off to make, where sometimes you're actively listening and reading at the expense of doing real work. It can be worthwhile, but this time doesn't just magically appear. If you're busy with real work, leave some channels, quit lurking so much.

I hope this was helpful. Remember:

  • Your conduct as a lurker influences the success of your lurking
  • Do it because it's interesting, not because you need to
  • Acknowledge that it takes time, and that time comes from somewhere else
  • Use lurking for good, share what you learn
  • Be respectful of the spaces you're intruding in
  • Lurkers can't have egos