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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.