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Communication

How do you like to communicate with others?  Do you like going to work and have people coming up to you, or do you prefer emails?  Or a shade in between?

I personally like it when people communicate exclusively through email/IM/web whenever possible.  I think this is an innovation from the opensource communities, and it helps people scale to their limits.  But it puts me in conflict with the other developers at my company.  They like to talk, and my reactions are either:
* Why don't I do research and get back to you?
* (in my head) Why didn't you email me, I think faster than you talk.

This does not happen only 90% of the time.  It happens more like 100%.  If this sounds condescending, it isn't.  There are many good technologies for communication, which also leave a written and searchable log, so no one has to forget anything.

Is there a case for communicating often in person during work, when there aren't any emergencies?  Maybe my company is different from others.

Greg Neumann
Thursday, April 04, 2002

I agree with writing: when communicating between strangers; when there's any chance that a 3rd person might subsequently want a log of what you talked about; when you're in different time zones; when it needs to go into long-term memory. Store-and-forward email also helps you to "batch" your conversations; but, communication isn't only for *your* own convenience.

Four problems with writing:

On some subject I can think and talk faster than I can write.

Conversation is iterative; you can interrupt someone; have a Q&A session; watch their eyes; ask for play-back to see if they got it.

Conversation is social! I can't be bothered to tell you in writing what that might mean <g>... but even some people who telecommute occasionally put in "face time".

Some people (managers, customers) are more comfortable with face to face than (in their eyes, "impersonally") writing.

So IMO your "100%" is too high.

Christopher Wells
Thursday, April 04, 2002

100% electronic communication who be dull, dull, dull in my opinion.  While I do prefer to kick off a quick email to ask a question or even use IM, there is no way I could go a whole day without some kind of human interaction. 

Also if you want to be truly creative or innovative, you have to get out there and talk, use hand motions, draw pictures, watch peoples' reactions, slap each other around, have fun, etc...

Chris Rickwood
Thursday, April 04, 2002

I used to email everything, even to the guy in the same cube. It caused problems. I did it because I didnt want to interupt the "flow" of the people who received the email and because I wanted to keep a track of discussions.

Dont go for emails 100% of the time.

Talk to people, then send them an email with what you believe the outcome of the talk was. This way you have a record of the conversation.

Be personable !

Talking more to the people and emailing less has changed my work life for the better !!  I hope yours can change too.

James Ladd
Thursday, April 04, 2002

Email/IM is great for some things, like passing very specific data, like a URL or an account number, or listing a set of well-defined steps to perform a task, or listing a set of tasks.  It's also very good as a log of activity ("about to do X"..."X is done").

However, email tends to be a bad way to explain something, esp. something fairly abstract.  If I reflexively go to a white board to discuss something, that's a bad candidate for email or chat.  Face to face is simply higher bandwidth for anything that might require give and take.
Face to face is also ALWAYS better when giving someone news that could in any way be perceived as "sensitive".  If I have to dress someone down, it's far better to do that in person.  Ditto if I want to reward someone.  In both cases, face to face is simply more effective, as well as more human.

James Montebello
Thursday, April 04, 2002

Whenever possible, I prefer to make decisions through face-to-face conversation and then have someone summarize them in a follow-up email or other written format so that there's something to refer to later.

But being in favor of conversation doesn't mean not respecting other people's work habits. If someone is giving out non-verbal signals that say "don't disturb me now", I'll send an e-mail instead of tapping them on the shoulder. If it's a simple question, I'll just send the question. For something more complicated, I'll ask them to stop by my desk so we can discuss it at their convenience.

Beth Linker
Thursday, April 04, 2002

I wrote a couple paragraphs responding to everyone's posts, but maybe it's just my workplace that's strange.  Everything is done by gunslinging, and we take some of the bad parts of XP without the good ones.  Internet Time and everything.

On average I get three company emails a day (one's often a joke), and am the only one who constently writes specs.  And some weeks I get bombed with people who suddenly want long meetings with me where I probably nod half the time.  I must be congenial, since people meet with me so much.  And people kill productivity by walking up stairs to ask me half-minute questions.

But the way I look at it, I'm getting paid decently for nodding a lot.  I remember working for companies where this wasn't a problem, so I guess I've hit my company's pathology.

Greg Neumann
Thursday, April 04, 2002

You can also go beyond non-verbal signals. Try setting off a portion of your day by putting up an "e-mail only please" sign. Of course you'll have to explain this to people first, so they understand your rationale. Then at least you'll have some uninterrupted time. As a side-effect, maybe it will train folks to use e-mail a little more effectively.

Malcolm
Thursday, April 04, 2002

Greg, where I work, you'd be regarded as unfriendly and you wouldn't get far if you acted like you didn't want to talk to people in person. 

We use Instant Messenger and e-mail all day long, of course, but there are also constant face-to-face interactions.

I'm not saying your attitude is wrong, just that it would rub people the wrong way in work environments like mine, where we are prized for our "people skills" as much as we are for our tech skills.

It might be that, if my office mates and I had less tolerance for interruptions by co-workers, we might be more productive in terms of how much code we produce.

But would that be a pleasant place to work?  Would you want to work among a lot of prickly programmers whose faces twist into expressions of annoyance when someone asks for a little help?

James
Friday, April 05, 2002

What happened to the good old telephone?

I just noticed, that most of you only mention either e-mail or face to face communication.

In our company communication is rather evenly done via email, telephone or direct communication. Normally, a topic is first introduced with an email and the receiver of the mail then writes back or phones for an answer or more information. If matters prove to be more complicated, some kind of "meeting" is set up. This can be pretty informal by just walking into someone elses office, or include an invitation via the outlook calender. All of the above is only true for inter department communication or communication with other developers who work abroad. If I want to ask one of my colleagues from software development, I normally just walk over to their office.  We have a disturbance free time of two hours in the morning, though, when no one is supposed to phone or interrupt other colleagues personally.

Have fun,

Jutta Jordans
Friday, April 05, 2002

James, you've pegged me wrong.  I've been the "office guru" for quite a while.  But every single night I would come home to my friends as a robot, and need serious time for decompression.  The problem was that I didn't have time to research things, I'd have to gunsling, and while a person can do this, the stress & fear that they're not doing what they think right becomes bad for the personal life.

I want to obsess over bugs, wondering what's wrong with me.  The alternative is to believe that bugs are a statistical occurence, and I don't want my job to just become that.

I'm now noticably more unfriendly to people who monopolize my time, I admit.  I explain my situation to them as carefully as possible, but once they come up to me ignoring what I've said to them three times, I just can't put on a mask.  My productivity and homelife is far better for it.

What hasn't changed is that I will answer anyone's problem to the best of my abilities, and smile and tell them to go back to their seats while I spend an hour researching their problem for them.  But part of being social is people understanding I have certain needs, and I just want to do a better job, and the work is changing for me. 

You think I'm unfriendly.  I'm not.  I just come to work very late now because I don't want to start being angry and unfriendly.  So I come to learn about this problem here.

Greg Neumann
Friday, April 05, 2002

Jutta, I've noticed you work in the same country as I, and was curious if you'd respond. ;-)  I was wondering if it was a cultural thing that a dumb American like me wouldn't understand.  One thing that actually disturbed me was when management rolled out phones to everyone.  We have a War Room environment, and from Peopleware I know that the combination of phones and no offices = deadly.

But your company seems to have offices and rules that are silence-aware.  And I know people from this country who have empathized with me, so I think while there's some cultural differences (especially with the strong "work culture"), it's not only a matter of this.

When talking outside of work with people from other countries, I find that people from certain Eastern European countries empathize most strongly with me.  However, an Indian colleague explained that the atmosphere here was too distant and individual.

Argh, the unending battle.  I do like the company, just when things don't fit like a glove, you can't help but be irritated.  I play politics now, but I just want to understand the Other Side.  I sense there is some error in my approach.

Greg Neumann
Friday, April 05, 2002

Greg.  I think your problem isn't people asking you for help, but that they don't respect the help you give.  Back a few jobs ago, I worked with a guy who handled it like this...  He only gave an answer once.  And he kept track of it.  If he'd told you something and you asked again, he'd say "Sorry, I answered that question for you in February."  Sometimes he'd point you to someone else.  "Go talk to Fred.  I taught him how to do that last week."  Man, you went to him, you brought pencil and paper and took notes.  The boss didn't mind.  In fact, he was quite amused.  Of course, this may not work for you.

Mary
Sunday, April 07, 2002

>Face to face is simply higher bandwidth

Woah. dude.

Mark W
Tuesday, April 09, 2002

Thanks for the responses!  I do understand that the bandwidth of being in person is formidable, but I no longer believe it's higher like I once did.  It depends on the skill of the communicator, the energy of the recipient, and it's not persistent.  Plus, it doesn't scale when you have 5 people wanting to talk with you while you're writing code.

Tomorrow I'm going to have a meeting (face to face!) with those involved, about this topic.  My position will be that I like talking, but I'll keep a blog where I write about what I'm doing, and if it would be better to email that day.  Maybe I will write articles too, with my subversive thoughts about the development process.

I made a big mistake by saying "100%" because that sounds pretty exaggerated.  But that week I was in the crossfire of 3 fundamentally different projects, and it just seemed then that I'd never remember what everyone said to me.  Maybe the bandwidth of face-to-face is better, but it doesn't SCALE.

Greg Neumann
Tuesday, April 09, 2002

> Maybe the bandwidth of face-to-face is better, but it doesn't SCALE.

Fwiw, delegating (even face to face) may scale somewhat: if the person you're facing and to whom you're delegating can add value to what you say (you paint a thumbnail, he writes the specs); but maybe that's your job (getting the thumb-nail, writing the specs). In which case, the people to whom you're delegating (specs) might be able to themselves add value (give them fewer specs, let them work it out) ... but for THAT to be successful, they might then need access (face to face, or written) to some thumbnail-painter if they have successfully filled in for themselves some 95% but not 100% of the missing detals: i.e., a feedback loop. If you are a scarce resource much in demand, then you might prefer the higher bandwidth medium.

Christopher Wells
Tuesday, April 09, 2002

> But that week I was in the crossfire of 3 fundamentally different projects, and it just seemed then that I'd never remember what everyone said to me.

That's why people carry bound, paper "engineering logbooks": to take their own minutes during meetings.

Christopher Wells
Tuesday, April 09, 2002

You're entitled to have time to think. Given the environment you describe, it sounds like you should negotiate tracts of time to work at home.

Also, another way to wall off your time is to don headsets when you're concentrating.

Hugh Wells
Thursday, April 11, 2002

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