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Wednesday 11 November 2015

An Atlassian story

A little while back I was talking with two Daves.
  • Dave #1 is the CIO of a college / micro-university
  • Dave #2 is on the board of a small airline. 
Because I tend to get involved in non-traditional projects, they often ask me what I'm working on, probably out of amusement more than anything else. At the time I was building a service catalog for Atlassian (and now I have an awesome plug-in on their marketplace).

Neither had any idea of who Atlassian is or what it does, which was no surprise to me. I don't quite understand why an Australian company with $200m+ in revenue and a market cap in the billions which isn't a miner, telco or bank isn't memorable.

Still, the tools Atlassian makes are mostly used by software developers, and my circle of friends and acquaintances doesn't include many coders so "Atlassian makes the software to help people make software" isn't a good way of describing what they do.

Other than a brief stint at Google, I haven't been a full-time employee or even long-term contractor in any normal company this century, so instead I talked about what's unusual and different at Atlassian based on all the other organisations I've worked with. I talked about how the very common assumptions about the technologies to co-ordinate a business are quite different here.

Type of communication Corporate default
(aka "what most companies do")
What is generally done at Atlassian
Individual-to-individual Email or talk over coffee. HipChat @ the individual in a room related to the topic
Individual-to-group Teleconference / webinar, for all matters big or small. A comment in the HipChat room. Or sometimes Google Hangouts and HipChat video conference if it's something long and important.
Reporting (project status, financials) Excel document or similar Confluence status page or JIRA board
Proposal Word document or Powerpoint presentation Confluence page
Feedback on proposals Private conversation with the person who proposed it, or maybe on another forum page somewhere else on their sharepoint portal. The discussion in the comments section of the confluence page.

And yeah, my secret superpower is to be able to narrate HTML tables in speakable form. There was a lot of "on the one hand... on the other hand at Atlassian..."

Note that the Atlassian column is all public and searchable (in line with being an open company), and the "default corporate column" is not. Also, in the Atlassian column, you opt-in to the information source; in the "traditional company" column, the sender of the information chooses who to share it with.

Why is this interesting? Because the Atlassian technologies and the Atlassian way of doing things is an immune system against office politics.

In order to get really nasty office politics, you really need an information asymmetry: managers need to be able to withhold information from other managers in order to get pet projects and favourite people promoted, and for others to be dragged down by releasing information at the worst possible moment when the other party can't prepare for it. (Experience and being middle-aged: you see far too much which you wish you hadn't.) When information is shared only with the people you choose to share it with, that's easy to do.

At Atlassian, it's not quite like that. Sure, there are still arguments and disagreements. Sometimes there is jostling for position and disagreements about direction and there are people and projects we want to see happen. And not every bad idea dies as quickly as it should. But because other interested parties can opt-in as required for their needs it's a very level playing field and ---

And that's where Dave #1 cut me off, shook my hand and said, "Wow. Thank you. That's exactly it. That's EXACTLY it."

Dave #2 just nodded sagely. "Yes," he said, and then again more slowly: "yes."

Summary: Atlassian sell office-politics treatments.

Greg Baker ( a consultant, author, developer and start-up advisor. His recent projects include a plug-in for Jira Service Desk which lets helpdesk staff tell their users how long a task will take and a wet-weather information system for school sports.

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