10 skills to master to get things done online

I’ve recently watched a few people struggle to get things done in online projects. I’ve written and spoken on 12 tips for getting things done in the open source community but now I see that people also need to learn how to work with mailing lists and virtual teams.

Skills you should master if you plan on working in a virtual environment. I’m interested in any other skills you’d add to the list.

  1. Master your email. You will get a lot of email. There are few in person meetings and there’s a large group to coordinate, so email is the most popular method of communication. Email will become a knowledge base. You need to be able to handle hundreds of emails a day without complaining that they are too many. (You don’t want to be cut off from the knowledge base do you?)
    There are lots of ways to master managing your email. Here are a few of the most common:

    • Touch each email once. If you read it, think about what you need to do with it and do it right then. If it’s something that requires action outside of email, add an action item to your todo list and then tag the email or file it in a special folder. Get it out of your inbox.
    • Use a threaded email client. It’s much easier to catch up on conversations if you can read the whole thread easily at once.
    • Use filters. Many people filter mail from different lists or about different topics to folders. (I personally do not do this. I find I never look at them if I do this.)
    • Dedicate certain time periods to checking email. I spend the first couple hours of every day responding to email. I don’t look at it as “doing email” but rather as communicating and following up with people.
    • Research and try. There are lots of methods and tips for dealing with incoming email. Try a few of them and figure out what works for you.
  2. Learn online tools. You should know how to use mailing lists, IRC, Skype, Twitter, IM, wikis, etc. Each team will use a different set of tools, but you should know the basics of most of them. That way if someone says, let’s have an IRC meeting in a hour, you won’t be googling “IRC” to figure out how to join at the last minute. Or looking for a headset in order to join a Skype call.
  3. Know where to find things. People that work online usually deal with a lot of information. Learn how to search your email archives effectively, how to search the mailing list archives, where the project stores documents or information online and how to search. If you need to ask for information, also ask how the person found it. Often they are simply searching for it. Do not ask for information that you can find easily yourself. Above all, do not ask for the same information twice! If you asked for it and got it, you should be able to find it again. Feel free to ask someone how they found the answer to your question. I learn a lot that way.
  4. Observe how things get done. Every virtual or online team is different. Watch how things get done. Do people present ideas before they are done? Wait for consensus? Present final products for review? If nobody ever responds to your email, it’s likely you are not following the project’s culture.
  5. Be prompt. With people working in different timezones and with different priorities, it’s important to respond to emails and to finish action items promptly. Each delay seems to multiply across the project.
  6. Keep the group informed. If you have a discussion off list, be sure to let the rest of the list know. Don’t be afraid to have the discussion on the list. If you make decisions or agree to something on the group’s behalf, be sure to let the rest of the group know.
  7. Know when to take it off list. Sometimes it’s best to have a discussion offlist first and then tell the group the outcome. For example, if you think your idea is controversial or too vague, you might want to run it by a few trusted people first. But remember, to get buyin and build consensus, some of the discussion has to happen on the list – it can’t be all polished decisions!
  8. Rethink conference calls. If you have conference calls, make sure everyone has access to good technology and make sure everyone is on the phone, not just some people. I think Nat’s Everyone Dials In policy is an excellent one. Also be aware that conference calls are particularly difficult for people that have to dial an international number to join and for people who’s first language isn’t English. While you may think conference calls are the most effective way to get things done, if half the team can’t hear or communicate well, IRC may be a much better choice.
  9. Learn how to read silence. Sometimes you’ll post a great idea or a question to the mailing list and nobody responds. Does that mean nobody liked your idea? Or that they couldn’t understand it? Or that they are all busy on the release that’s going out the day after tomorrow? In the absence of body language, you will have to be more aware of everything else that is going on.
  10. Know what’s been done. When you join a project you should spend some time observing, asking questions and reading the archives. If you suggest a multitude of projects that already exist or have already been proposed, people are going to think you aren’t willing to learn the project.
  11. What else would you add?

For suggestions on how to get things done in virtual teams, see 12 tips for getting things done in the open source community.