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Tech Columnists' Day Without Email 204

Posted by Hemos
from the oh-the-humanity dept.
Carl Bialik from the WSJ writes "When a recent power outage disrupted email service at WSJ.com, our tech columnists were plunged backwards into a time before every meeting, every little task, came with an email-program reminder, and where checking the bottom right of the screen for a new-mail envelope was futile. "Some of us quickly got a reminder that email is the lingua franca of projects that bridge different departments and involve a lot of people," Tim Hanrahan and Jason Fry write. "For all the talk of whiteboarding, it's email threads that we rely on to remember where we left certain questions and what our next moves are. Similarly, email has become our storage system for important documents and works in progress--how often do you email yourself? It's also replaced the telephone for lots of our routine touching base between colleagues, friends and families: Instant messaging is simultaneously too casual and too intrusive, and weekday phoning is reserved for more-substantive matters and emergencies. So a lot of that social lubrication went out the window.""
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Tech Columnists' Day Without Email

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  • Um, how is email hardware?
  • by Anonymous Coward on Monday June 06, 2005 @01:07PM (#12737441)
    our tech columnists were plunged backwards into a time before every meeting, every little task, came with an email-program reminder

    Ah, well that explains the recent tech rumor flurry then; the WSJ had simply been transported back in time to 1996, when Apple was dying
  • by teutonic_leech (596265) on Monday June 06, 2005 @01:07PM (#12737442)
    I was working on a development contract when our CEO decided to cut Internet access for all consultants (someone was caught bidding on eBay - not me ;-) Anyway, I was so distraught, I quit the next day...
    • For many, cutting internet access would mean a severe drop in productivity too. Internet access for me doesn't directly effect my job, but it sure does lower my stress levels a bit. :)
      • Yeah, that was actually my reasoning. Although they offered to open up access to all java related sites I still refused to stay there. At the end of the day - if you treat people like children they will act like children. Finally, I also wanted to draw a line in sand - we techies have been taking a lot of sh...t in the last few years and sometimes it's good to tell them to f...ck off when they try to cross the line. Hey, don't mess with my slashdot access, alright? ;-)
        • "if you treat people like children they will act like children."

          Durring the great belt tightening after the bubble burst, I saw this happen countless times at several jobs. Once you start restricting people's freedoms at work, geeks tend to just push back or leave.
      • I'm one of those people who gets random CS projects thrown at them all the time...no standard languages, no general theme, just get it done. Without the internet I couldn't DO my job...I need to be able to hit forums and online documentation and download app frameworks and junk like that.

        If I couldn't do that, I'd have to have a huge tech library, and some kind of dedicated Special Ops force that kept tabs on OSS developers, kept track of what their software did, then kicked down their doors and got copie
    • I was working on a development contract when our CEO decided to cut Internet access for all consultants

      I used to work at Ubisoft when they provided full internet access to employees... lately, to be coherent with the industry's concept of "let's piss our employees off as much as possible", they decided to completely cut off internet access. I'm not there anymore (left way before they cut), but I still have a couple of friends over there, and we used to MSN a whole lot on boring days (yes, they can have th

    • by Anonymous Coward on Monday June 06, 2005 @01:45PM (#12737809)
      An employee suggested to me that we install telephones in a few offices here as an evaluation. I was skeptical at first but he explained the benefits of using telephones instead of having to buy Eudora. I decided to let him install them in 5 offices to see how the employees got on. Besides, our IT manager had been using telephones at home and he hadn't reported any problems - why not try it on our employees?

      Once he'd got the employees up and running with telephones we let them try it out. It all seemed fine to start with: The telephone system was a pretty good replacement for those shitty Eudora boxes we'd used before and the employees could still do their work as normal.

      Alas it did not stay that way. After a few days, I had lost count of the number of complaints received from our employees. Users could not do things they could before (like manage their contacts). The final straw came when one employee lost several hours work when the PBX suddenly froze up, effectively destroying our communication infrastructure.

      Needless to say, the community offered no support whatsoever. I made the employee destroy the telephone system and lets just say he's not with us anymore.

      • You may laugh, but my school recently moved to Cisco IP phones. It now takes around 2 days for voicemail to actually reach them, because the system we have installed just isn't designed for 80+ extensions, voicemail, call queueing, and the rest.
    • I was working on a development contract when our CEO decided to cut Internet access for all consultants

      I know of at least one company where consultants/contractors don't have a telephone on their desk... real life is sometimes more dilbert than dilbert.
  • ugh (Score:5, Funny)

    by Alcimedes (398213) on Monday June 06, 2005 @01:07PM (#12737444)
    Remind me not to work someplace where they promote "Social lubrication".
  • by yagu (721525) <yayagu@@@gmail...com> on Monday June 06, 2005 @01:07PM (#12737446) Journal

    Seems to me the advent of e-mail as a key role player in managing information is pretty natural evolution. In the face of all efforts to create information management systems, data mining systems, et. al., e-mail quietly assumes a central responsibility for more people than ever. And this has probably happened for a few reasons:

    • e-mail has been around for a long long time, and has finally been socialized to be as everyday common activity or vernacular as "google" (ironic).
    • e-mail is comfortable. People abstract e-mail easily from their previous snail mail universe. Interestingly I've seen people actually evolve e-mail habits to mimic their snail mail habits, e.g., checking only once a day, managing "turn around" times to the tune of days, not minutes, etc.
    • e-mail has leveraged the rest of IT technology as processors and storage have increased through the years.
    • e-mail is central, i.e., you can (once you get comfortable with this) pretty much start managing much of your data life around e-mail... why not? You have to pretty much go there all the time for communication anyway, why not send yourself reminders, links, data, etc., and use e-mail searching to retrieve.
    • e-mail is now amazing with the leverage of third party technology like Google Desktop search. I've pretty much gotten to total (okay, heavy) reliance on Google Desktop and e-mail for managing data in my Windows environment.

    Probably a lesson learned from the article is the importance of some contigency plan, but losing e-mail for a day sounds like it turned into a positive experience for the authors. Regardless, it appears once you lose e-mail access (in power outage, system outage, etc.), you've lost essentially your context of IT anyway, and contingency is pretty much old school interaction (phone calls, paper trails, MBWA, etc.)... no biggy.

    • but losing e-mail for a day sounds like it turned into a positive experience for the authors
      Similarly, accidental castration would probably make me more a more sensitive person, being wrongfully incarcerated would teach me to look after myself in all situations and getting terminal cancer would teach me the value of life. That doesn't mean I'd like any of those things to happen.
    • I hope that the natural evolution provides for changes to the email system. I'd agree with your points, but email is far from perfect for about a million reasons. Examples:

      • E-mail is not a file transfer mechanism. Don't even try it with really huge files, and it probably shouldn't be used as a file repository (Everything you've gotten over the past 5 years, including 10 iterations of the same document, etc)
      • It's lacking in metadata in many places. Headers are great, user-added headers are better, but
      • E-mail is not a file transfer mechanism. Don't even try it with really huge files, and it probably shouldn't be used as a file repository (Everything you've gotten over the past 5 years, including 10 iterations of the same document, etc)

        Why not? I use it all the time for small to medium size files. It's the most convenient way for me to send someone one or more files. For example, I'll do some data analysis, plot the results to several PDF files, and send the PDF files as attachments to an explanatory e

        • Why not? I use it all the time for small to medium size files

          Ever tried using it for large files? It's not so much that you annoy your administrator if you do this, it's more that the actual software out there is just lousy at supporting these types of actions. It does work fine for small and medium files, but unless it works well for all files, it can't really be called a good file transfer mechanism.

          It's the most convenient way for me to send someone one or more files

          That's part of my point - ther
  • Get it in email (Score:5, Interesting)

    by Austerity Empowers (669817) on Monday June 06, 2005 @01:08PM (#12737457)
    Let's not forget the chant of the manager "Get it in email". In some companies email is also used for the Wheel of Blame, everyones favorite management technique.

    Do not talk to someone on the phone. Do not talk to him face to face. Do not IM him (and hey, what IT department hasn't locked IM along with everything else down anyhow). Ask questions and expect answers in email, or do it in meetings with witnesses. Leave a paper trail and keep it documented.

    This sounds like cynicism, I think it is, but it's not mine. This is how many corporations appear to "work". Email is the ultimate accountability tool.

    • Yup, and from being optional it has become mandatory.

      Hell, companies have lost billions of dollars [slashdot.org] for not documenting their actions and lack of email accountability - so you're absolutely right.

      However, this is also a bad thing, it takes away excuses. ;)
      • I'm not sure it really takes away excuses. I find it's people who are really trying hard who get hurt by this more than the lazy "Wally" types. They will commit to the most ambitious deadline they think they can achieve, and sometimes fall short. I'd rather work this way myself, but it's more of a corporate culture issue.

        People who make a job of being lazy tend to learn how to do it really well, there's a fierce Darwinian selection process to it. Those that can't evade work well, don't stick around. I woul
    • I think its more that email has become the most consistent form of corporate long-term memory of commitments (medium-term with most companies email retention policies).
    • That's how it goes where I work, mainly for security reasons. If someone requests a report or system access, it's got to come through email.
      • Re:Get it in email (Score:2, Insightful)

        by arkanes (521690)
        ........

        Because of emails well-known resistance to impersonation and spoofing, right?

        • Yeah, tell me about it.

          As someone who admins e-mail servers, it baffles me that an e-mail is considered to be "proof" of anything in any high stakes situation.

          As an example of just how ridiculous this is, I once printed a copy of the logs on my mail server that showed that a female co-worker had checked her e-mail at 6:30 PM, so that she could "prove" to her boyfriend that she really was working late. I of course, snipped the logs down enough that he wouldn't see that she checks her e-mail at precise 5 m
          • I hope you got lucky. :)

            Seriously. I learned a long time ago to not use my position as IT guy to particpate in anything other than strictly business.

            At first management might think it's useful, but the more clueful ones then figure out you could be a liability to them too...
            • Nope, didn't get lucky. I forgot to mention that on the night in question she was, in fact, working late.

              As for the rest, I agree wholeheartedly, but this particular company was not the sort of place where there was a need to worry about such things. Extremely small company, and a very tight knit group. The typical corporate concerns just weren't an issue there.
          • Yea, I left out the part where I have to print them out and get them signed. =P

            Even beyond that, everything gets carboned to half the department, the person who gets the access, the person who requests the access, and that persons boss. It's certainly falsifiable, but I would say it's less so than a hardcopy paper trail or a phone message, and face to face just isn't practical.
    • what IT department hasn't locked IM along with everything else down anyhow

      The enlightened ones that've installed their own internal Jabber servers, for starters. Our company went from "IM is an interesting experiment" to "kill the email if you must, but keep that Jabber server running!" in a few short months.

      IM doesn't have to mean AIM or ICQ anymore. Our internal IM system is every bit as secure as our email service, so sending sensitive data is perfectly acceptable and common.

  • Good old days (Score:3, Interesting)

    by moz25 (262020) on Monday June 06, 2005 @01:09PM (#12737459) Homepage
    It amuses me to think back about arguments I've had several years ago about the merits of the internet and of using email. The other guy (management-ish type) didn't get the point and said that if he wanted to contact a person, he'd just pick up the phone and call them. Fast-forward to 2005...

    Frankly though, I've had a bit of an internet-outage at home once or twice. To my own surprise, I found it a bit refreshing to not have access for a short while.
    • I've found outages refreshing except when the weather sucks. A couple years ago, I was living on campus during Christmas break, so everyone else had gone home. Portland had a big ice storm, and since Portland isn't equipped to deal with rarities like that, doing stuff around town wasn't a good idea for several days. Comcast was being Comcast and was already 2 months behind schedule hooking up the campus with cable service after the old provider went under, so all I had was the local channels, which had canc
  • So a lot of that social lubrication went out the window.

    So long as it was only the social lubrication and not the other kind. Non-lubed is definitely not a good thing.

  • by CausticPuppy (82139) on Monday June 06, 2005 @01:10PM (#12737468) Homepage
    The first step is to admit that you have a problem. [slashdot.org]
  • (a) Am I the only one who thinks it's a bit much when coworkers who sit RIGHT NEXT TO ONE ANOTHER communicate only through e-mail? It's frightening how often that happens in my corporate office - how about you guys?
    (b) So it occurred to absolutely no one in all of the Wall Street Journal that you could have asked to save a copy of your previous e-mails and Calendar information onto your own computer? Not being able to send e-mails in the present is one thing (and the phone works fine for that), but to tel
    • Maybe they are not allowed to? Default setup for MS Exchange is to save everything on the server (which makes pretty good sense). You can configure Outlook to keep a cached copy on your local machine, but many places don't or have policies forbidding it. I'm sure most other groupware systems work the same way.

      A better question is, why didn't they have a backup power solution?
    • Am I the only one who thinks it's a bit much when coworkers who sit RIGHT NEXT TO ONE ANOTHER communicate only through e-mail? It's frightening how often that happens in my corporate office - how about you guys?

      It depends on the nature of the conversation. Sometimes it's good to have a durable record -- for one thing, it makes it easier to bring other people into the conversation.

      Of course, sometimes it's best to not have a durable record...

    • At my office, we use NET SEND to talk to each other. It has nothing to do with productivity though, we're just all nerds.
    • Am I the only one who thinks it's a bit much when coworkers who sit RIGHT NEXT TO ONE ANOTHER communicate only through e-mail? It's frightening how often that happens in my corporate office - how about you guys?

      Am I the only one who gets annoyed when I'm trying to work and a coworker breaks my concentration to ask me a nonurgent and not necessarily time dependent question when they could have sent me an email?
    • Apparently all your co-workers come from the same generally area as you. However the guy who works in the cube next to me comes from Pakistan. He is a good developer, but his accent makes him hard to understand. It is often easier to use email than person to person communication with him, because I can read email. (I've had to work with some folks who I needed to read and re-read to understand, his grasp of English is good enough that I don't have to go that far)

      When my co-workers all speak with a

  • by tverbeek (457094) on Monday June 06, 2005 @01:11PM (#12737476) Homepage
    I don't use e-mail in the way described by the article, not at all. It is too full of utterly useless garbage to be of any use as a reminder or storage system. I routinely go "a day without e-mail", and the only disruption it causes me is the extra time it then takes the next time I sift through my inboxes for things I might actually want to read.
    • by MightyMartian (840721) on Monday June 06, 2005 @01:14PM (#12737509) Journal
      At work, I'm pretty much dependent upon email. So going without would mean not bothering coming into work at all.

      On my private address, I have a few friends that send infrequent correspondence, a few small mailing lists (no 300 messages a day crap) and a few writing projects I'm working on with some other people. None of these require me to look every day, and if I've got better things to do, email can wait.

  • Without reading the article and knowing precisely what the story was, I would say that they all cracked eachother's heads open and feasted on the goo inside.
  • Err, not very often. Is this how most slashdotters keep track of thoughts, or are the folk in the article unusual?
    • I frequently email files to myself, or store info in drafts. And with 2.2GB of webmail mailbox space, it's very, very convenient.

      It makes for an easy way to transport data from one locale to another without resorting to a USB pen drive, or other portable media. It also gives me a way to download a file once from a slow server, and store it on a faster one for when I need to retrieve it later.
    • Actually I do email my self once in a while. When I decide to run to a store on my lunch break I'm best off sending an email from my home account to my work account. (why make a special trip for something I don't need tonight when the store is right next to where I eat lunch) I could write a list, but if I don't put it in my pocket the next morning I won't know what I needed. (besides, it is easier for me to type list than to hand write it)

      Email doesn't forget (barring a rare system crash) until I t

  • by mbbac (568880) on Monday June 06, 2005 @01:13PM (#12737502)
    This explains how the WSJ missed Steve Jobs' e-mail saying "we're not moving to Intel, jackasses!"
  • TinyURL.com (Score:5, Funny)

    by xbrownx (459399) on Monday June 06, 2005 @01:14PM (#12737505)
    Does anyone else take a deep breath before clicking on one of these links at work?
  • in my past, I have worked as an admin. actually not that long ago I worked for a company that still ran NT 4.0 with Exchange vDinosour. The machines ran on tar from the tar pits.

    Anyway, my job was to keep those damn things from extinction - it was a near impossible task.
    On a couple of occasions the email server would get completely full (how's a total of 16GB for a 200+ person International company grab ya?) and email would stop. I would have to jump through hoops to get space back - force users to
    • everyone would scream and bitch about loosing money and can't operate without email... My point was always ... why not spend ~$20K and get a stable email system

      No offense, but it sounds like you need to polish up your cost benefit presentation skills. You can't just bark out a nice round number like $20k and expect a signed PO for that amount. A fifteen minute powerpoint presentation with at least one three color bar graph on productivity lost versus to-the-penny costs of a new system should have gotte
  • The first case, email. The second case usenet or other group forums. Email is too high priority for this kind of communication, or at least it should be, you end up sorting and filtering like mad to regain some control of the junk that is thrown at you.

  • Asimov knew it (Score:5, Interesting)

    by RealProgrammer (723725) on Monday June 06, 2005 @01:18PM (#12737541) Homepage Journal

    In the Foundation trilogy (*), Isaac Asmimov portrayed a stilted society full of academic "scientists" who never ventured into a lab, but did their scientific work by critiquing the work of others.

    While he was mostly lampooning the way academic scholarship can replace actual research, I think he would have smiled knowingly. A news organization whose workers are lost without the ability to have news delivered to them would have fit perfectly into the pre-Mule galaxy.

    Or maybe I'm just reading more into the story than the WSJ folkd deserve. Maybe it's just a sign of the times that email has so thoroughly penetrated business operations.


    ---
    (*) I haven't read Asimov in 20 years, so I apologize for my hazy memory and the arrogance to expound on it.
    • This is probably offtopic, but I remember the part in the trilogy where an ambassador from another planet visited for 3 days. After he went home, the hosts ran everything he had said thru an analyzer and found that everything cancelled out; he'd effectively said nothing for three days.

      Reminds me of many a meeting or sales call.

      Same 20 year disclaimer applies here. I should probably reread it!
      • he'd effectively said nothing for three days.

        Ever watch CSPAN when Alan Greenspan is testifying before the banking subcommittee? Nobody can say nothing that sounds like something like that guy!
    • Or maybe I'm just reading more into the story than the WSJ folkd deserve.

      On the other hand if we were talking about the New York Times...ahem.

  • by rsax (603351) on Monday June 06, 2005 @01:19PM (#12737550)
    Similarly, email has become our storage system for important documents and works in progress

    If I had a penny for each time I have repeated this to users frustrated with their email account quotas: "Our mail server does not exist to fulfill your file storage needs." The file server is where people can store their important.......wait for it........FILES!

    • If I had a penny for each time I have repeated this to users frustrated with their email account quotas: "Our mail server does not exist to fulfill your file storage needs." The file server is where people can store their important.......wait for it........FILES!

      And here is the fundamental problem with IT departments. IT departments do not exist for the sake of IT although they sure do act like it a whole lot. IT departments exist for the sake of users, you know the people that it's so fashionable to arro
      • I suggest that if a great number of your users are using email as a file storage system that you as a diligent IT guy should spend some time figuring out ways to make it work for them.

        Every new employee gets trained how to make efficient use of the services that are offered to them. They have access to email, small FTP quotas and larger Samba shares. They are shown how to archive any important emails or attachments and store them in the appropriate file shares. They are also notified that emails will be d

      • I suggest that if a great number of your users are using email as a file storage system that you as a diligent IT guy should spend some time figuring out ways to make it work for them.

        Shouting "You're doing it wrong!" does not count as making it work.


        You could say:

        "I suggest that if a great number of your users are scheduling appointments by writing them on the wall clock with a big black magic marker rather than using their calendar book, that you as a diligent secretary should spend some time figurin
    • As one of those people who use an email program as a filing cabinet, let me explain it for you. I've been a system administrator, programmer and now I'm a project manager. Therefore, I've become gradually evil, but don't hold that against me for the time being. I used to say the same stuff as you are saying now, but here's the real rub... inbox.mbx is a file.

      I know it takes up resources, but my email message contains a lot of context. I can search for any number of mental cues (who sent the email, part
    • "Our mail server does not exist to fulfill your file storage needs."

      But they'll never use the file server. They'll just set Outlook to download emails older than a couple weeks to local folders. And then they'll have a huge honking archive on the machine *most* likely to fail in the scheme of things. Most users are barely comfortable with email.

      If the file shares aren't mounted on login, you should look into that. And then configure Outlook/whatever to download all mail and store it there on all new inst
  • by Nyhm (645982) *
    The focus of email-as-life-manager within this article concerns me. To me, this article is a cry for help: WSJ is in desperate need of a software system engineered to meet their actual work environment. It sounds like they need some type of dynamic workflow and collaboration tool. Discovering and documenting their work environment would be very challenging and interesting. Further, deriving software requirements and architecting a software system to aid in their daily jobs would be a very valuable undertaki
    • All the effort you describe would no doubt be rewarding to you, but the client, WSJ, would be better served by having more robust email with larger storage capacity, ubiquitous user access, and appropriate security. Far better to use a pencil you already understand than have someone come build you a fancy pantograph with optional 3-handled family gradunzas attached, just to do the same thing you happily accomplished with a pencil.
  • slashdot (Score:5, Funny)

    by 3770 (560838) on Monday June 06, 2005 @01:26PM (#12737628) Homepage
    How would productivity be affected if /. was down for a day?
  • ..is reserved for more-substantive matters and emergencies"

    I think I missed this new trend: so basically you supposed to call people on weekly basis to summarize all the heart attacks and child births that happened?

    ;-)

  • Document storage? (Score:4, Insightful)

    by Ars Dilbert (852117) on Monday June 06, 2005 @01:29PM (#12737645) Homepage
    email has become our storage system for important documents

    No yuo! E-mail should be used only for collaboration. Documents belong on a file server or some kind of a Web based document management system.

    How big is your mail store? How long does it take to backup? How long would it take to restore in case of a failure? Half a day? I'm guessing that 95% of your mail store are file attachments that shouldn't even be there...

    How do you share those documents with others? Forward them via e-mail of course. Thus compounding your document versioning problem, and increasing the mail store size. (Single instance storage can only do so much.)

    • Yeah, but...

      Storing your documents in the email system means you can access them from anywhere and any machine. I store three of my most important documents in encrypted form in email. This also provides a simple offsite backup method that also helps protect against loss and outages.

      (and the encryption program I use and highly recommend is this one [sourceforge.net]...
    • Documents belong on a file server or some kind of a Web based document management system.

      Perhaps, but this is a great a example of technology being bent to serve the needs of its users. It may be ultimately more productive to modify a mail server to more easily handle this form of folk file storage, than to force users to adapt themselves to the IT department. I expect that a huge market is waiting for the first group to elegantly merge file storage and mail accessibility in this way.

  • Your emails account have been suspended for improper activity. Please see the enclose attachment for instruct.
  • When a recent power outage disrupted email service at WSJ.com, our tech columnists were plunged backwards into a time before every meeting, every little task, came with an email-program reminder

    Bill: Ted we are about to embark on a most
    excellent journey through time!
    Ted: Where are we going?
    Bill: 1984 or so should do the trick!
  • ...How social skills that are so downplayed today (I'm talking about those you need for face-to-face communication, writing a real letter, conducting yourself on a live phone call) suddenly become of critical importance when E-mail suddenly becomes unavailable, for whatever reason?

    I think many have become TOO dependent on being 'wired' for their own good, and it's not just adults. I've seen all too many kids walking with their parents at the mall, bus stop, or wherever, eyes and attention riveted solidly t
  • by CGP314 (672613)
    From the WSJ:

    So how'd we fare this time around? Well, we're glad to report that the removal of cold, impersonal email from our workplace reminded us of the value of getting up and talking with each other, reforging lasting connections that will do far more for us than any fancy software system could ever do. Yeah right. And then we went out and planted a tree.
  • you could get an email account with, say, a 2GB quota and you basically just "archived" emails instead of deleting them?

    Maybe one of the big tech companies could come up with something like this!
  • A content management system, such as this one [plone.org], I find to be a better repository of information.

    For one thing additional meta-data about the items can be stored in the CMS. Secondly, the built-in search capability beats the pants off what I have to deal with in MS Outlook (100 times faster). Finally, it has the flexibility for me to extend its functionality beyond what I find out-of-the-box (e.g. to manage appointments, and link related information to those appointments).

    I get so much cruft in Email, and

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