Written August 13, 2015

Know What's Worse Than E-Mail? ... Nothing.

As is not uncommon, I went on a pretty hard Twitter rant the other night. Aimed at the industry in general, I hit squarely on a few of the trappings of current software/technology business practices. The problem was that my approach was overwhelmingly negative, and while negativity serves to provoke and stir up controversy, it more often exacerbates the problems at hand as the targets of criticism simply entrench themselves deeper. Additionally, I was missing heaps of context that, in hindsight, makes my point complete. So, the series of blog posts that follow are simply a flushing out of my prior rant. For the sake of accountability I will start each post with my original thought, tear it down and then reshape it into the proper thesis it should have been.

Tweet #3

Controversial Statement: “Your communication techniques inhibit collaboration and open exchange of ideas. Try open by default, closed by necessity.”

What it should have said: “Your communication techniques inhibit collaboration and open exchange of ideas. Try open by default, closed by necessity.”

This one I won’t apologize for. If there is one thing that I hate/loath/fear, it’s email. Even the terminology makes me flushed - “I’m ‘doing’ email”, like it’s trimming the cat’s nails or cleaning crayon off your flat screen. Know what? Most of what I ‘do’ is ‘delete email’. In fact just last week I purged 25,000 messages from my “deleted but not quite deleted” folder. Those 25,000 (I’m putting the 0s there for effect) had accrued since I last performed the cleansing roughly 6 months ago.

But I’m not done! How about this one …

(the florescent lights snap on) (a smartly dressed developer is revealed, fingers moving about a keyboard like a pianist knocking out Tchaikovsky’s No1 in B-flat minor) (the phone rings) BRINGG BRINGG (the phone rings again slightly advancing it staccato as if to emphasize the urgency of the caller) BRINGG BRINGG Julie: Hello. Sam: Hey Julie, got a min? Julie (slightly perturbed): Sure. What’s up? Sam: Hey so can you respond to Flint’s email? Julie: I responded over an hour ago Sam, (clicking from the mouse scrolling) I sent it at 12:48. (silence) (then frantic scrolling as Sam sifts through her inbox searching for what can’t be found) Julie: Sam? 12:48. Sam: Julie,(awkward pause) was I on the response email to the client? Julie: Awe CRAP, NO! Frank dropped you from the distribution when he forwarded it to me. (Scene)

At least once every week, I bury my face in my hands to weep as this scene plays out like clockwork. What’s wrong here is not the asynchronicity of email; that part is great. It’s the fact that as a method of communication it’s closed by default and then opened by choice. In our story above, the only recourse for Sam, when she has not heard back form Julie, is an embarrassing phone call or nagging follow-up email that only yields further frustration. Sam has no way on her own to opt back into this communication loop after being passively excluded. So what are we to do?

Tooling to the rescue!

The last half decade has brought major advancements in the office communication tool chain. Platforms like HipChat and Slack have slipped through the gates of the enterprise often in spite of vigilant IT departments; and the reason is simple, they are low friction and enhance transparency.

Slack, for example, uses the concepts of ‘channels’, ‘direct messages’ and ‘private groups’. Channels are an opt-in element where anyone without a restricted account can, on their own accord, join or leave. This means that information that is typically locked up in email threads is available to a wider audience for participation. Subject matter experts can be brought into a channel, read and orient to historical context, make recommendations and then leave the channel, all at their own discretion. The benefits of enhanced transparency brought forward with tools like this can enable an organization to respond faster and with richer, more detailed information than ever before.

I have heard on several occasions, people talk of the consequences of this level of transparency; they are often concerned about embarrassment, appearing foolish or say something they shouldn’t. While it’s certainly true that these tools lower the barriers to communication, I would argue that because the expectation is one of open communication, employees are actually less likely to fall into the trap of thinking their communications are secure and will not be forwarded to unintended audiences.

So can we admit defeat and stop with the constant stream of emails that say “Adding Foo to the chain”. Can we support transparent communication that’s open by default and private when needed? In the end, it will make ourselves and our organizations more effective, responsive and most importantly, collaborative.

In case you missed the beginning, you can find Part 1 here: Valuing Developers Over Intellectual Property