Ed Wisniowski wrote a post called E-mail – the Enemy of a Scrum Master. He calls e-mail a time suck of busy work, and a poor way of conveying information to others. He makes some valid points about e-mail and how it is abused. Ed and I work together, and work together well. He and I are often receiving a lot of the same e-mails and included on the same exact chains.
I’ve seen lots of different tools tried to be used, some come and go. Others stick around longer and make traction with certain teams and that’s great. But it is specific to that team and everyone has to be involved in it and learn it. It doesn’t matter if they’re using webmail, Gmail, Outlook, Thunderbird, a Mac, or a cell phone . Everyone has an e-mail– it is the first thing that people get when they go to an organization. I had an e-mail at my current company before I had a computer!
What I’ve discovered as a developer is that e-mail is my favorite collaboration tool. Screen sharing is great, but there’s always problem with people not really paying attention, having connection issues, and being there. Trello is certainly popular, but it requires people to learn to use it, discussions about how to use it, and so on. Instant messenger is great, but then there’s different networks, versions, requiring the user to be there, and so on. E-mail on the other hand – everyone knows how to use it, e-mail isn’t dependent upon any software, and it doesn’t require both parties to be available.
But perhaps the best part of e-mail is when it requires my attention – on my time. Ed can send me an e-mail asking me for a status update, notify me that he is requiring a report for an upcoming meeting, or anything else and I don’t get interrupted. Writing software is tedious and requires undivided attention to write it efficiently. I turn off e-mail notifications because I don’t want to be interrupted. I do the same with instant messages. Every interruption anyone receives, including scrum masters, delays that task from getting done. Developer or not, flow is the hardest thing to find in the work place and it should not be destroyed.
Ed quotes the agile manifesto saying that face-to-face conversation is the most efficient way of conveying information. This is somewhat true- face to face communication is the most efficient way of getting information to people. If I’m working with a developer and we are speaking, having a hard time conveying information to each other, we can walk to a white board, sit down at a machine and look at something, look at documentation, etc. This requires developers to be in the same location. This can be a problem when half of your team is on the other side of the world. It can also be difficult because one of the parties may be elsewhere physically (like in a meeting) or mentally. Additionally, if there is something that is forgotten, or not clear, another instance of communication needs to happen again. This frequently happens with problem solving. With an e-mail, the communication is there in black and white for reference to at any time in the future.
Ed gets at least 3 times the number of e-mails I do. This comes from his role on the team, and the number of teams he's on. I frequently unsubscribe from automated e-mails. I have told people to not include me in certain subjects unless necessary. I decline meeting invites if I’m not needed. I recognize Ed’s problem of e-mail abuse and deal with it as best as I can.
E-mail needs to be used efficiently. Specific subject lines, bullet points and bold text are all great ways of making your e-mail efficient. The first lines of most of my e-mails frequently indicate what I’m trying to do and the problem I am encountering. Long e-mails are frequently ignored by readers, same thing with frequent or automated e-mails.
It takes time to develop the skill of managing e-mail, and communicating efficiently in them. I find myself taking an extra minute or two with writing and reading e-mails so that I do not waste others’ time. Our job isn’t to communicate about software development, it is to develop the software. Communication just helps us write the software as a team.