You’re probably hearing the word ChatOps more and more — at conferences, on Reddit and Hacker News, around the water cooler (or keg) — but what does it actually mean? And why and how would you implement it at your organization?

ChatOps, a term widely credited to GitHub, is all about conversation-driven development. By bringing your tools into your conversations and using a chat bot modified to work with key plugins and scripts, teams can automate tasks and collaborate, working better, cheaper and faster.

Help your teams communicate and collaborate better

Here’s the 30,000-foot view: While in a chat room, team members type commands that the chat bot is configured to execute through custom scripts and plugins. These can range from code deployments to security event responses to team member notifications. The entire team collaborates in real time as commands are executed.

Let’s break this down a little more. You probably use a chat client at work — HipChat, Slack, Flowdock, and Campfire are some commonly used tools, and if you already have one in place, you’re on the right path. Then there are the chat bots — and they’re all open-source.

  • Hubot: GitHub’s bot written in CoffeeScript and Node.js (docs)
  • Lita: Written in Ruby
  • Err: Written in Python

While chat bots do the commanding, sometimes you also have deployment servers listening for these commands, doing the heavy lifting of executing deployment tasks as background jobs.

The results?

Visibility across the board

Everyone has experienced the pain of figuring out if a particular command was run by a coworker. ChatOps helps bring that work into the foreground, by putting all of it in one place — everyone’s actions, notifications and diagnoses happen in full view. This encourages teams to be transparent. Different plugins can help expose more information to everyone (replacing opaque IP addresses with DNS names and other metadata, for example). Beyond operating more efficiently right from the get-go, it helps new hires jump right in and learn by doing. And it flattens the typical workflows teams use to deploy and diagnose. (Not to mention, it makes remote work a whole lot easier.)

Employing ChatOps even benefits non-technical teams. By having a central location for chat-based tools, teams like sales, marketing, and finance can understand what’s going on in your infrastructure — when you’re deploying code, who’s responsible for which systems and what they do — without having to walk over and interrupt. They can learn right from the bot itself.

Automate manual tasks

Tasks that used to be done manually, and often involved human error, are now automated through the chat bot. You can reduce tedious and error-prone hand-typed SQL statements, or put in place proper tests around often-repeated commands. Once a task is in chat, it’s a fast and easy way for other teams to make requests. That means no more ticket volleyball!

ChatOps can also improve your continuous-delivery process. By easily understanding where a deployment started, and who started it, you’re able to cut out extra tasks and manual follow up, and deploy code continuously throughout the day.

Want to employ ChatOps at your company? Here are some tips on how to get started.

Pick your bot

The three chat bots we listed above — Lita, Hubot, and Err — provide teams with options to best suit their workflow. Different bots have different plugins and development languages ranging from Ruby to Node to Python, so pick the ecosystem that best fits your shop.

Plug it in

Hubot, Lita, and Err offer tons of scripts and plugins each — and your team can easily use any of them today. Check some examples below:

  • Lita plugins
  • Hubot scripts — GitHub uses /explain to investigate slow MySQL queries.
  • For a simple first step, check out lita-dig — a quick DNS record lookup tool written by Eric Sigler.
  • Start small and iterate

    There are a lot of powerful ChatOps tools, plugins, and extras available, so it’s probably a good idea to start simple and get experience to find out what works best for your team. Try various bot integrations and scripts in your team chat room, and then stick with the ones you like best. There may be some trial and error, but that’s okay. it’s a part of the process.

    The more you get used to coding and executing commands with your chat bot, the more efficient you’ll become. As your team reaps the benefits of employing ChatOps, other teams, like front end and mobile, will catch on and implement it, too. With the technical and non-technical folks participating, you’re developing not only efficient processes, but also a more development-focused culture in your company.

    Eric Sigler is an operations engineer at PagerDuty, helping protect its customers from the pains of downtime. Before his current role, Eric led infrastructure teams at Minted, Expensify, and the Missouri University of Science and Technology.