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The Tyranny of Email

Ole Eichhorn:

I couldn't agree more. I hate it when someone uses email as a real time communication tool.  If you can  make a business case (bottom line financial justification) for interrupting me, then by all means, CALL me or WALK ON OVER. DON'T send an email. 98% of all interruptions are unjustified. And I'll check my email when I'm good and ready thank you. EMail is not a yet another tool for you to poke me  everytime a thought pops into your head.

Let it grow
let it grow

Let it blossom
let it flow


That's LET it flow, not MAKE it flow.

fool for python
Monday, March 10, 2003

A lot of times these short emails end up requiring a phone call anyway.  Why not simply call the person in the first place.

You are right email is not an IM service, or shouldn't be used as one.

Crusty Admin
Monday, March 10, 2003

The other side of the coin, however, is that when somebody sends you an email, they are not in fact interupting you at all. You have made the decision to read your emails, so email is in actual fact far more polite than IM which is a complete nuisance.

Any idiot knows not to send you an email if they would like you to do something NOW.

Tuesday, March 11, 2003

Turning off automatic email notification makes sense; I'll do that when I get to work tomorrow.

Several times I day, I have to decide whether to use email, IM, or face-to-face conversation to communicate with a coworker. I'm wary of interrupting others, but an immediate conversation sometimes helps me stay in the flow and is quicker than sending email. Of course, who I'm talking to and the content being discussed are important considerations.

Tuesday, March 11, 2003

Most companies don't have IM. So an email will have to do the trick.

Personally it seems to me to be the least intrusive form of communication. It puts the ball in the recipient's court. He can then decide on what to do next.

I have some comments on the other points the article raises but to answer them now would spoil my concentration so I'll leave it till later :)

Stephen Jones
Tuesday, March 11, 2003

I hate it when people ring up for someone who's not around and then say "Never mind, I'll send them an e-mail instead." Arghhh!

John Topley
Tuesday, March 11, 2003

I've been working in a virtual team for the last 18 months with no idea how to go about it. In fact, I thought I had coined the phrase 'tyranny of email'! A very practical article, which I've just emailed to the team ;-)

I finally got the hang of using the phone instead of email. Costs have gone up but communication has improved immeasurably.

Tuesday, March 11, 2003

John, what's worse than that is when you get a phone call or visit from somebody checking to see if you have received their email.

Tuesday, March 11, 2003

One aspect of that article that I definitely disagree with is the contention that technical debates cannot occur over email (or similarly via corporate or group newsgroups). While I will absolutely agree that technical debates can get very heated, and many egos have been bruised, I would take an email debate on technology over a "let's meet about it" any day of the week. Why? In email conversation it is the facts that do the talking: Anyone has the ability, and indeed the responsibility, to research the positions taken at their leisure, and interject if they find fault, as ultimately the truth and correct course of action is the paramount concern. In a meeting, on the other hand, it is sales skills that win the day: Extroverts with overwhelming self-confidence invariably convince the crowd, while the technically proficient, who generally are more aware of the limits of their knowledge and hence don't exude the sludge of unfounded-confidence, stay quiet. I've witnessed this happen quite a few times, and it leads to short term buy-in that just leads to non-resolution after non-resolution.

An adversity to email debates on technical merits is often based in all the wrong reasons: Giving "equal voice" to the technically less capable. Protecting ignorance. Protecting unfounded pride.

Jimmy Chonga
Tuesday, March 11, 2003

I've been a heads-down programmer for 20 years, and this is my biggest area of dissatisfaction.  It would be nice to be able to do my work and hang out with "the gang", but experience has taught me that if I do that, people will start coming by my cube every 15 minutes, all day long.  When that happens, I get no work done.

So, I sit with my back to the cube door, with headphones on.  My phone is on do-not-disturb.  I run my email client a few times per day.  My cell phone is on, and only my wife has the number, and she is learning to only call it for emergencies.  (As a metric of how hard "The Zone" is to understand, even well-intentioned spouses have trouble with the concept.  It's just for a second, after all...)

I also wear a baseball cap.  It keeps the glare down, and has a further "isolating" effect.  Of course, everyone thinks I'm going bald, but that's a small price to pay.

Finally, I have several printouts on my wall (one of which I copied from the link supplied by the original poster, thanks!) which explain what I'm doing and why.

Now if could just find out where to get a set of "blinders"...

So now I'm essentially a friendly, anti-social guy.  I'm not a kid anymore, and my feeling is, I'm here to do a job, not to make friends, as harsh as that sounds.  The bottom line is that (as a contractor) I'm here to be successful, both for my client and myself.  I can best do that by protecting myself from interruptions.

And in my opionion, 99% of interruptions are either pointless or avoidable.  They virtually all fall into one of the following categories:

1).  Pointless.  "Hey, d'ja see the big game?"

2).  Avoidable.  Unless the building is fire, send me an email.  Virtually everything else can wait.

Oh yes, I know.  "Emergencies" happen, and these require *immediate* attention.  Oh really?  A software development "emergency"?  What would such a beast look like?  Isn't the truth that it could have been sent in an email, or waited until a weekly (or daily, whatever) meeting?

Tuesday, March 11, 2003

I prefer the tyranny of email to the tyranny of voicemail.  It's easier to go through 10 emails than it is to go through 10 voicemail messages.

Also, imho, if you are the lead developer in your group then you can increase group productivity by mentoring other developers and sharing knowledge... as opposed to sequestering yourself the full 100% of your working time.

Tuesday, March 11, 2003

"Any idiot knows not to send you an email if they would like you to do something NOW."

Then there are millions of sub-idiots out ther using EMail. My complaint is that that's exactly what they do because they are instantly aware of their own Email (notification) and they repsond to everything upon arrival.  They expect that everyone else does the same.

And as for the fact that they are not interrupting by sending an email, yes, that's the point. That's why Ole is telling all the clue-free people to turn off the email notification and check EMail at appropriate (non flow) times.

I once was involved in a fiasco where an exec secretary cost the company several person days of productivity because her email notification wasn't loud enough. She couldn;'t function without it. I've had people get an email notification during a face to face conversation and immediately turn to read the email and then respond.  How incredibley rude. I've come to expect this with the telephone from people who were never informed that you don't have to answer it. but that's another story.

Anyhow, has anyone ever been subjected to mandatory email response times? I've heard about it but never been abused by it.  If it were less than Ole's three hour flow window, the effect would be opposite of intent.

For jobs and business functions that are primarily social, customer facing or don't require much flow, shorter time frmes are appropriate.  The shorter it gets, the more IM should be considered.

fool for python
Tuesday, March 11, 2003

I hate it when people try and communicate with me. I mean the gull of these people, these losers that waste my precious time with their so called important issues. How dare they interrupt my zen state as I wax poetical in the code like the great artist I am. THIS IS IMPORTANT GODDAMIT! I care not about your crisis. So the application I just wrote is broke and you need a hot fix now. TOO BAD! You wait for me because I have a huge fucking chip on my shoulder and this company revolves around me. Get it straight ok, I am the hot shit and you are cold piss. Your phone calls will not be answered, your emails will be disregarded, your interruption will cease when I turn my back.

Tuesday, March 11, 2003

Nice troll.

Of course the hilarity is the paradox of messages of that sort: They almost always cast the developer seeking productive time as inconsiderate and self-aggrandizing, yet they never think "Well what am _I_ for thinking that I can interrupt the flow of work of my coworkers at my liesure day in and day out, and everyone one of _my_ issues needs to be the number one issue for everyone else". The people decrying developers as "thinking they're hot stuff" usually ironically think they themselves are so bloody important that anyone else putting up barriers to their person crusades is an outrage.

Jimmy Chonga
Tuesday, March 11, 2003

A phone call for a hot fix is welcome. If the fix is really that hot, Email is the wrong tool. Just call or run over and jump up and down or IM.

If the customer is unhappy and needs something now, by all means, interrupt whoever can make it right.

The problem is not the hot fix, it's the cool and warm stuff that does not need anyone's focus in the next three hours. Send an email. The recipient will get to it soon enough without breaking focus.

Email, Voice mail, phone, face to face, IM, HAM radio..... All can be used effectively or abused.  Again, EMail is not a good tool to poke people for an immediate response. The phone and IM are better for that.

fool for python
Tuesday, March 11, 2003

If it is that important...walk on over.

Face to Face will solve most problems quicker, esp. if you can use a white board.

Face to Face means that you care enough to get up off your duff, walk over, and get as commited to the conversation as the other person.

Obviously this does not work in a distributed development environment.

Look at the XP setup.  Pair programming, Adjustable Office Space.  Constant Communication.  I know a some programmers like to get in the Flow Solo, and they should be allowed.  People who are good a getting into the flow in a pair are much less likely to be disturbed.  Facce it, all issues on a large programming project should go through the project manager if they are going to adjust the priorities of the developers.  The coders should be working on the highest priority items at any given point.  But the business owners should be deciding what those are (with input from the coders, yes.)

So, if you have something and you just need to have it done Right now, talk to the manager first, find out who is availalbe and when, then go talk to them.  They will be a hell of a lot more receptive with their boss standing right behind you.  And this will keep you from asking whenever is convinient for you, not them.

Adam Young
Tuesday, March 11, 2003

[Nice troll.]

I try. I just meant it tongue in cheek for a good laugh not really to bring out the flames.

Tuesday, March 11, 2003

What amazes me about both this discussion and the original article is the presumption that everybody is a developer. Are you so wrapped up in "the zone" that you thiink all other tasks are done by robots?

The truth is that coders are almost alone in the world of work in that they need to be uninterrupted for long periods every day. Even in IT most people are interacting with customers or co-workers a large part of the time and availibility is important.

Sure managers sometimes need to avoid interuptions but that is what they have secretaries for (and why nobody has borrowed my first headmasters trick of having three lights on his door, red, amber and green to let you know how weldcome an interruption would be I don't know - though possibly if your're not a manager then the green could be misinterpreted as "not having enough work"). Mathematical geniuses, Booker prize winners and nutty professors normally work from home and don't collaborate anyway.

The thing you must remember is that you desire to be undisturbed is quirky - you need to persuade people that it is a requirement of your work and hot a personal choice.

Stephen Jones
Tuesday, March 11, 2003

The worst thing I've ever encountered is the PA system.  The first place I worked had a PA, and this was before pagers & cell phones.  The custodial dispatcher lady would use the PA to get the workmen's attention.  I can still hear it in my head:

"Ernie Corvito call 5153, Ernie Corvito, 5153"

About every 15 minutes.  That was 20 years ago, and I can still remember her extension.

Eventually, we moved out of that building, and the lady and Ernie didn't make the move.  However, during the shuffle, some secretary decides that she will page factory support people, and include our area in the page (the PA was segmented, so it was possible for her to not page using our zone, but she did anyhow).  So, even though we've got beautiful new cube space, we're still bugged with this crappy PA paging all the time.  After about a week, I pull out the speaker (in a recessed ceiling tile) and clip the wire.  Problem solved.

Well, someone complains that when they are in the R&D area they cannot hear their page.  Some guy shows up with a sound level meter on a cart...  "huh, low sound here".  He pulls out the speaker to inspect it, and finds that the wire has been cut.  I'm laying low...  So there was a little brew-haha about that.  Finally, they get the factory support guys pagers and the PA system quits being abused.

A few years pass, and our engineering director, an old Scott named MacDonald is getting ready to retire  We're talking, and he always likes to talk about his early engineering career after the war (WW2).  While he's talking the PA blares out, which is at least rare.  And he says something like "when I was a lad, I clipped the wires on the speaker that used to be above my desk".

Anyhow, maybe you just had to be there...  I hope that was funny.

Nat Ersoz
Tuesday, March 11, 2003

Speaking of Intercoms Nat, A few years ago I worked at a place that had an intercom. Bad idea. Apparently one of the geeks hacked the system (prolly just simply asked for the pin # for the intercom from the admin) and would randomly use it with his recordings. Imagine walking through the hallway with a client and all of a sudden Dr. Evil comes out of the intercom "Why must I be surrounded by idiots?" or Arnold Schwarzenegger asking "Who is your daddy and what does he do?".

Ian Stallings
Tuesday, March 11, 2003

At least you don't have the call for prayer coming over the intercom in the middle of a listening exam.

Stephen Jones
Tuesday, March 11, 2003

We've got a PA system here, and it's used heavily to get people into meetings.

Should've been the first sign, really. [see my rants on various other threads]


PS - I clipped the wire on the intercom in my first office. Six weeks of blessed silence.

Tuesday, March 11, 2003

Soon we'll have the GPS beannie with headphones and electric shock. Your boss will have a joystick to move you around and  everyone will be be on one big conference call all day long.  If you are not responding, a few volts between the ears will do. We can all flow together.

And yes, most job types require flow. These issues are not the exclusive misery of porgrammers.  People who don't grok flow can't grok flow and never will.  Their ability to poke other people according to their own self-centered agenda must be kept to a minimum. Every company should have a solitary confinement chamber. Put the flow folks in it and threaten the flow-challenged with a whole day in it. Problem solved.

fool for python
Tuesday, March 11, 2003

I think some people take themselves too seriously.

Tuesday, March 11, 2003

One of the recommendations in that article is for cubicled programmers to use headphones to drown out office noise.

My experience has been that this is a bad idea. 

When I was stuck in a cubicle trying to be productive, I tried the headphones thing.  It didn't work very well---music that's worth playing distracts me.  The headphones went in the drawer.  Then I had a discussion with a middle manager who slammed someone ELSE he didn't like on the headphones issue.  Then I read Joel's article on having to get into "the zone".

After that I used ear plugs.  Next best thing to a private office.  Highly, highly recommended.  Get a big jar of the cheap disposable foam kind with the highest sound attenuation rating you can find.

Not running one's email client all the time sounds like a good idea though, I plan to try it for the next while.

Wednesday, March 12, 2003

Don't forget a some managers have massive egos, so they don't like being ignored by people who are doing trivial stuff like actually working.

With this kind of boss, your headphones, earplugs, phones on voicemail and closed e-mail clients are completely out of the question. He wants to speak to you NOW because his time is important and yours is not.

Wednesday, March 12, 2003

Funny, I guess I've been wearing headphones at work so long that I can completely tune out the music.

The disposable earplugs are *okay*, but for true noiseless heaven, go to your ear doctor.  For about $100 you can get custom-fitted earplugs (swimmers use them), in a wide variety of colors.  Nothing like a waterproof seal to keep out the distractions!

(Someone said we're taking ourselves too seriously.  Yes, I take my ability to do excellent work, and thereby feed my children, very seriously.)

Wednesday, March 12, 2003

We go by guidelines adopted from Debugging the Development Process (Steve Maguire)

1.  Check and respond to your your e-mail 3 times a day--when you come in, before lunch, and before you leave. Other than that, your e-mail client should be closed.

2.  If you're working and don't want to be interrupted, close your door. For those in a cubicle, the rule is that they're not to be interrupted if the code editor or the is on the screen or they're running the product (that we're building).

3.  If you need something from someone, send them an e-mail or enter a bug in FogBugz. The only reason you should go and talk to someone is if you're completely stuck and can't continue without further input.

Wednesday, March 12, 2003


fool for python
Wednesday, March 12, 2003

I just set my email's "check for new messages" to 120 minutes, that way I get them only 4 times a day.

Matthew Lock
Wednesday, March 12, 2003

I'm the author of "Tyranny of Email".

I received tremendous feedback in response to this article (thanks everyone!), and have posted a summary of the most interesting observations and comments as "Tyranny Revisited" at  in case you are interested...

Ole Eichhorn
Saturday, March 22, 2003

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