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

Saturday, February 09, 2008

Nervous Breakdown by Communication Overkill

Whenever I meet IT experts in airline lounges or conference rooms they are often very busy in synchronizing their memory with the continuous information flow from their company, customers, and other sources. Typically, they are armed with a quite impressive weaponry that includes blackberries, (>= 1) mobile phones, notebooks, and PDAs. Asking them about the effectiveness and efficiency of their work, they mostly complain about the impossibility to perform real work in their office in addition to the burden of all these travels and meetings. If we did a cost/benefit analysis relating the quantity of information exchange to work effectiveness, we would certainly be (negatively) surprised.

Let me just provide a theoretical example.

  • In average, meetings will require 2 hours per day. Given the fact, how ineffective meetings are planned and performed, I assume that at least 2 thirds of the time spent is a complete waste.
  • If you receive 100 mails per day, then throwing away 50 of them, might only take 5 minutes. However, reading 30 mails will require additional 30 minutes. And answering the remaining 20 will require 60 minutes. Thus, you've spent at least 1 1/2 hours for handling email.
  • Travel might also require 1 hour in average per day.
  • From time to time, you will have some personal face to face communication with colleagues, some of them just flocking to your office.
  • Telephone calls will require at least another hour per day.

Each media break (such as the arrival of e-mail, SMS, phone calls, meetings, etc) also interrupts your work and causes continuous context switches. As you know, context switches are ineffective time durations, not only in a CPU but also in real life.

If you summarize all of this, it is not very difficult to recognize the problem.

How does this relate to software architects? As you definitely know, a software architect is in charge of designing a software architecture which requires a lot of communication activities. The more ineffective communication proves to be, the less time can be spent for the actual job.

We are all part of a vicious cycle that involves ineffective communication, unnecessary breaks and context switches. The only way to solve the problem is not to stop communicating but to spend your time much more effectively.

Personally, I consider the following means very helpful:

  • If you need to work on a document or review, use your home office, given that you can work there without any major interrupts.
  • When you feel tired, exhausted or relax, go to the gym, or do whatever you feel appropriate to improve your mood. It is simple math. If you need to spend n hours for your work, it is not necessary to spend these hours in a row. For your company, mixing work time and recreation time is much more productive and less error-prone, especially when your job requires creativity.
  • Time box all meetings. I found out that m one-hour meetings are much more effective than one m-hour meeting. Needless to mention, meetings should be effective themselves (agenda known in advance, specific and clear objectives of the meeting available, have a moderator, and so forth).
  • Prioritize mails and phone calls. Tell people and train them, that you are not able to answer all mails or phone calls all the time. Consider voice-mail and mailboxes as friends. They allow you answering whenever you are prepared, not when the callers are. Switch off mobile phones, blackberries when you are in meetings, need to relax. Not to communicate sometimes is not a luxury but a necessity. By the way, it is not rude to tell colleagues that you are not ready to talk to them but that you will come back tothem later, if you are currently busy.
  • In your spare-time or holidays don't accept any business-related communication except for emergencies.
  • Travel is important as face-to-face meetings are the most effective form of communication, but don't underestimate the impact of traveling on your effectiveness. Thus, only travel when really necessary.
  • Plan your time thoroughly (time management). And also plan sufficient spare time for recreation to keep your work/life balance and may be even your relationships healthy.
  • Diversify your work day. Three meetings or telephone conferences in a row are boring, exhausting and ineffective. The same holds for sitting in front of your PC or notebook (or TV) for several hours.   

There is the common misconception that knowledge workers such as software architects should always be available for communication and work 12 hours a day without any break. Eventually, the job of architects is to build high quality software architectures, and to do this successfully they need motivation, fun, and focus. In the end, multitasking such as communication in one thread while designing in the other is not feasible for humans. Sufficient recreation time (for example due to avoidance of communication overkill) is an essential means to do our jobs successfully.

Sometimes relaxing is more productive than working.


  • I also find it helpful to centralize as much as possible. As an example, I use a 3rd party service to deliver all my voicemails to my email inbox in mp3 format. Everything's in one nice list where I can flag and organize everything uniformly. Also doing meetings in blocks instead of spread throughout the day helps quite a bit as well.

    By Anonymous Evan, at 11:14 PM  

  • I completely agree with taking time for yourself. The human body is like a rechargable battery. You need to relaz and unwind at times. Then you can take on tasks again in a fresh mindset.


    Richard Rinyai

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 8:32 PM  

  • @Evan: Organizing mails and voice mails is another good point.
    Meetings in blocks does not always work for me. Some meetings are really exhausting. Then I definitely need a break without any further meetings.
    @Richard: The problem is that we sometimes consider others and ourselves as perpetuum mobiles without need to recharge.

    By Blogger Michael, at 9:46 PM  

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