Leadership, University of Michigan

What Is It Like To Manage a 65,000-Person Slack Channel?

Jeffrey Sica, ARC-TS, database administrator, Ann Arbor research, Ann Arbor tech, Kubernetes, Slack, containers
Jeff Sica sits down with Cronicle on Liberty across from the Michigan Theater.

Legend has it that if you sit still long enough in the ITHAKA/JSTOR kitchen attending Orchestructure meetings, every person you ever wanted to meet will walk through the door. Okay, well, maybe almost every person. Jeff Sica is a senior database administrator at the University of Michigan through Advanced Research Computing Technology Services or ARC-TS near campus on Maynard. He’s a big fan of open source, and he’s been hanging out at Orchestructure meeting great people for a couple of years now, many of whom have turned into colleagues. His love for containers and all things open source is also why he also helps manage the Kubernetes Slack channel that has ballooned to one of the largest channels on the platform at 65,000 users across the globe. What’s it like managing a community that size on a platform not originally designed to be handled like social media?

Sica says he found out. Not long ago, the Kubernetes Slack had to deal with an onslaught of harassment and other spam. Administrators weren’t equipped with the tools to report posts or ban users, so after a big switchup of who was managing the channel (the old admins wanted out after this), the Kubernetes Slack admin team that now included Sica started implementing policies for spam, and creating channels for reporting issues and removing users who violated terms. It was a massive project. “We onboarded 3 Slack admins for every major region, including the EU, Eastern, Pacific, and APAC zones,” Sica says. “We’re up to 22 or 23 now.” To give you a sense of the scope of the issue, there are 250 Slack channels within the Kubernetes space.

“Slack has no real moderation abilities,” Sica tells us. “In IRC you can have not just a server admin but a channel moderator. They can ban people. Slack doesn’t have any real concept of that, because it started out as ‘let’s do chat for work.’ Now everyone’s treating it as IRC, but they don’t have moderation capabilities. My fellow admin Katharine on her journey to make Slack better almost singlehandedly built out the concept of reporting a message in Slack. In Kubernetes we have the ability to report a message now and it’s open source, but not implemented to other Slack channels.” The tool will ask if you want to report anonymously or as yourself, taking into consideration that some users on Slack for professional purposes may not want their account associated with offensive posts they’re reporting.

“My fellow admin Katharine on her journey to make Slack better almost singlehandedly built out the concept of reporting a message in Slack.”

Jeff Sica, Kubernetes Slack Admin and Univ. of Michigan Database Administrator

“With the reporting tool, it can detect if someone’s an admin or not,” Sica says. “You can now click report a message as an admin or delete a user’s message for a period of time.” In the incident that happened in Kubernetes Slack, people were not only spamming offensive messages but were impersonating moderators. “In the background there is a unique ID for every Slack user,” says Sica. “We could delete messages between 5 minutes and 48 hours old. We can say remove them from the community, and inactivate their account from the whole workspace. We can remove people from a channel, but there’s no ban so they can join back in. We’ve never gotten as far as legal issues or proving people were violating terms.”

In the incident that happened in Kubernetes Slack, people were not only spamming offensive messages but were impersonating moderators.

Slack abides by the CNCF Code of Conduct: “If there are violations, we take action to safeguard community and refer to our steering committee to see if there’s anything else we can do. We’re the police, not the lawyers,” Sica says. About 900 active users currently contribute enough to the Kubernetes Slack to be considered for the committee.

Sica says that the key in managing a community online like this is being clear about communication. “When dealing with issues, I will state the issue clearly and then state what I’m going to do to resolve it. When we onboarded admins I had already moderated other communities. I don’t think many others are as comfortable jumping to act or fix something.”

Sica’s work for the University of Michigan involves making improvements on the efficiency and automation of the current system in which researchers at the university request information about their data useage. “U-Mich CIO Ravi wants us to build an introvert’s paradise,” Sica jokes. “I enjoy one-on-one interactions but dread having to call Comcast. I imagine people having to contact us have similar issues.” 

ARC-TS manages most of the computing resources for the university. “When a researcher wants to find utilization information such as how much [data] am I using, they have to create a ticket and wait for us to compile the info. There’s no reason for us not to have the equivalent of an AWS dashboard, [where users] get stats services, log in, and make a simple request for storage or their quota. It would let them manage their permissions.” Right now requests are pretty fast turnaround as long as it’s a clear-cut request–less than 24 hours. But Sica knows they can improve the system.

“Right now we’re building out storage use case because that’s the easiest,” Sica tells us. “Often we have two people working in storage and they’ll get 2 tickets a week asking, ‘What’s my storage utilization? Why is it so high?’ This new automated system could give them a view over time they don’t have right now. It’s all about empowering the users.” 

“I’ve been thinking about how can we make open-source development sustainable,” Sica says. “ARC-TS is supportive of my work [on the side], but there is no good way for people to do open source and have a full time job [at it] unless they work for a large Silicon Valley company and they happen to do open source. I’m passionate about open source software, though it has its quirks, and think it does eventually make a better product.”

“I’ve been thinking about how can we make open-source development sustainable.”

Jeff Sica, Kubernetes Slack Admin and Univ. of Michigan Database Administrator

What’s next for making open source the best it can be? Sica again says that he’s concerned about harassment and making tech in general a safe place for minorities and women in particular. “Including diverse groups will help open source grow,” Sica says, “if we can give people a place where they feel at home. How can we make them feel safe and be the best person they can be and still deal with troublemakers?” 

You can reach Jeff Sica to chat all things open source here. Or walk through the ITHAKA kitchen for Orchestructure.

May 16, 2019

About Author

laurakcowan Laura K. Cowan is a tech editor and journalist whose work has focused on promoting sustainability initiatives for automotive, green tech, and conscious living media outlets. A deep study of narrative journalism, storytelling and sustainable technology allows Ms. Cowan to draw out the meaningful stories of best practices from diverse professionals in an exploration of the culture and trends in emerging industries. She is currently Co-Founder and Executive Editor of Midwest tech news blog Cronicle Press. Ms. Cowan’s writing and speaking have appeared with Automobile Quarterly, Writer Unboxed, Inhabitat, CNBC, The Ann Arbor Observer, and The National Society of Newspaper Columnists.

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