Hitchhiker's Guide to Software Architecture and Everything Else - by Michael Stal

Thursday, March 30, 2006

Making Noise

Yesterday, I addressed the issue of meeting overkill in this blog. This was a first example how productivity can decrease in any software engineering project. Another point of trouble from my viewpoint is e-mail. Do you remember those days when an incoming e-mail was a seldom and happy event? Neither regular spam nor internal spam? Sure, that time the number of e-mail accounts was significantly lower. On the other site, I remember that more people followed the netiquette. Today, in a regular project, especially when it happens to be multi-site, there are tons of e-mails daily (many of them related to unnecessary meetings :-). Add to this company-internal mails and all those spam mails and marketing mails and mail distribution list mails, you name it. How would you ever be able to handle this amount of mail? Sure, you can use spam filters and organize incoming mails in folders, as well as prioritize the mails. All these things are really helpful. Nonetheless, the number of high-prioritized mails is still much too high if you ask me. One of the worst things are those mails that ask you to decide for one of several options and send back your decision until a specific date. If you don't reply the sender will just assume that you have decided for one specific option. Tom DeMarco calls this kind of mail "Corporate SPAM". I consider corporate spam extremely offending.

What does that mean for our life as software engineers? How can we survive our daily professional work without being flooded by information overkill? Getting completely rid of e-mail? Sounds nice to some people but is completely infeasible. The only way is to organize e-mail, filter them, prioritize them, and come up with netiquettes in project teams to use e-mail efficiently in order to reduce noise and make everyone feel comfortable and productive.


to be continued ...

4 Comments:

  • Your feelings are shared by many. There is a reason that email has evolved the way it has though. Here are some questions for you.

    What would the alternative be to your "corporate spam" where you are asked for an opinion of one of several choices? A meeting?

    What is the alternative to those communications emails sent out to keep team members up to speed and eventually has led to information overload? What would happen if they weren't sent?

    Whose responsibility should it be to filter what communications are suitable for broadcast to groups and by what criteria?

    By Anonymous Philip Nelson, at 6:10 PM  

  • Dear Philip,

    I prefer personal face-to-face communication. For unimportant decisions I can live with "corporate spam". For important decisions I prefer meetings or being asked personally. I made the experience that in hot phases of a project it is quite reasonable and typical to temporarily ignore or miss mails. My example is: suppose you receive a mail from a woman asking to marry you and this mail contains the sentence "if no answer is given until ..., the aswer is 'yes'". Would you accept this?

    Communication e-mails are fine for me if they contain only required recipients. Thus, a first step could be to limit recipient lists. How often do I receive e-mail communication between two persons that include several other persons in their "noisy" mail exchange. Another issue is when specific news are distributed that are not that relevant and could be easily placed on a news page in the intranet. Thus you should always ask: does the content of this e-mail require immediate reaction from recipients.
    A further point is location constraints. I've seen people sending mails to their colleagues although the other team members were sitting in the same room. I also consider aggregation of content a possibility. Instead of sending ten little mails, send one big mail containing everything. Sending such mail only once a day is also a good idea.
    Next issue is when people start discussions per e-mail. For discussions short team meetings or personal communication are much more effective. A telephone can be a very useful tool in this context.

    To conclude, I'd not ask a person to filter. I'd rather would like to set up some rules like the aforementioned ones that are agreed by all team members. I don't want to control communication but just make sure that people are happy and effective with whatever communication style is being used.

    By Blogger Michael, at 8:11 PM  

  • OK, face to face. Then to answer a question, a meeting needs to be put together and somebody has to summarize the actions from the meeting and then let people know about the decisions. Based on your previous entry, isn't that a problem too?

    I don't know the "right" answer to this, but email does accomplish an important goal that meetings cannot. They allow individuals to best single thread their attention where meetings force groups together at a blocking point. The reference to threading and blocking is intended ;-) Is the real problem to solve scheduling and prioritization and not information overflow?

    By Anonymous Philip Nelson, at 9:14 PM  

  • Hi Philip,

    just one word beforemy answer. I don't say that e-mail should vanish but only that it should be used with care. I have to spend at least 2 hours per day just to filter, delete , read and process mails. Multiply this by several employees of a big company and calculate the costs.
    If you want to make a decision, then an meeting is inevitable. Mails can never be that informative and verbose. Mails tend to contain a fraction of all necessary information. People tend to misunderstand mail authors as they can't see emotions. I made this experience very often when I sent mails to my team and people assumed a completely different motivation that what I really was thinking. If high-grade social interaction is necessary then e-mail definitely is the wrong solution. By meetings I also mean personal face-to-face communication in this context. And meetings could also be telephone calls. They don't necessarily always require a room. In such spontaneous meetings also the required participants and agenda are clear a priori. Thus, most of the ineffective meeting preparation activities are not required. For most other communication necessities meetings are blocking points as you pointed out correctly. Again: meetings and mails have their value but can be abused if no one cares.

    By Blogger Michael, at 9:41 PM  

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