The joyful feeling of being productive on Zulip

Alya Abbott 4 min read

Today is my three-year anniversary as the product leader for Zulip, the organized team chat product. When I left my job as a data science manager at Lyft, the career change felt like an experiment. Now, I’ve been reflecting on why it’s hard to imagine working on anything else.

I’ve never had much patience for technology that’s not doing what I need it to do. Confusing interfaces drive me crazy. (Does Git make you cry sometimes, or is it just me?) As a product leader helping dozens of projects move forward, and a parent of three young children, I’m more sensitive than ever to precious time being wasted.

When building software tools, it’s nice to imagine how excited users will be about the product. But I believe that in the ideal world, the product itself should be transparent. It should require as little direct attention as possible, letting users focus on the actual content of their task. Among physical products, the best keyboard or set of headphones is one that you hardly notice while using it.

I often ask people who use traditional team chat tools (Slack, Microsoft Teams, etc.) how it feels. “Chaotic,” “overwhelming,” and “inefficient” are common descriptions. Using these tools is like trying to have a conversation at a loud bar: the setting’s distractions make it hard to focus on the conversation itself.

The fundamental organizing principle of communication is a conversation, so a chat tool should be structured around conversations. An organized team chat tool like Zulip gives you an overview of what conversations are happening, and makes it convenient to read one conversation at a time. This is the solid foundation that makes it possible for a chat product to feel natural and transparent. From there, we’ve put thousands of hours into making Zulip support a wide range of communication needs as seamlessly as we can figure out how.

Zulip is developed by a vibrant open-source community, which uses the Zulip community chat to discuss the work (designing features, making technical decisions, etc.). I personally follow hundreds of conversations each week, and participate in dozens of them. If the Zulip product were annoying to use, my work would drive me bonkers. But when I’m immersed, tapping the N key to jump from one unread conversation to the next, the product recedes into the background.

When Zulip does snag my attention, the annoyance is lessened because I can actually do something about it. This is not just my prerogative: every day, Zulip users drop by the development community to share their experiences and suggest improvements. Many feature ideas and designs incorporate feedback from our users.

My role requires more communication than most, but a recent survey found that knowledge workers and business leaders devote over 2 1/2 hours a day to messaging and email. (Organized team chat largely replaces email, which many teams on Zulip only use for external communication.) As CTO of End Point Jon Jensen put it: “Zulip removes much of the pain that makes people not want to use team chat apps. We love it.”

I feel happiest at work when my time is dedicated to working with others to make real progress. It might sound like a given, but in past jobs, I’ve had to spend weeks creating presentations to justify project funding, instead of helping those projects move forward.

Over the past three years at Zulip, the tools, processes, and people around me have helped me spend my time more effectively than in any role before. I try my best to spread a bit of that joyful feeling of being productive to others in the Zulip development community, and to everyone who uses Zulip’s organized team chat.