Posted On: Thursday, 12 November 2009 by Rajiv Popat

During my stay at Multiplitaxion Inc; I am asked to oversee a project that folks in the management team think is not shipping as effectively as it should. I am given access to the project repository and the mailing list. By the time I close my outlook on the very first day; I see project members communicate using very different medium of communications than the ones I am used to. Somewhere; a connection seems to be missing and they don't seem to be 'talking'.

Emails --- rule how project communication happens; how tasks are assigned; how task completion announcements are made.

On the very first day in the project; I quite literally; get spammed with over a hundred emails.

Emails providing details about mundane; irrelevant facts like:

  1. A programmer just checked in a couple of code file.
  2. A tester is taking the local development database down for five minutes.
  3. A tester is taking SVN update.
  4. The local database is back up again.
  5. Bug IDs of bugs that have been assigned to a particular developer.
  6. Bug IDs of bugs that have been fixed and assigned to a particular tester.

People in this project; had a tendency to paste SVN logs into emails and send those out for every check-in that they did. For every piece of work that you did; for every minor assignment you completed; it was expected that you to write an email; and send it out. When you send the email you were expected to  copy the entire team.

Now; to be honest; there was nothing wrong with me getting over a hundred emails. I would have been happy deleting the emails and moving on with my life; but then a hundred plus emails in my inbox meant that:

  1. People on the project were wasting a lot of time writing these emails.
  2. People on the project were wasting a lot of time reading these emails and dealing with random redundant noise.
  3. People on the project were doing some level of CYA.

It was generally believed that if a programmer sent out a cryptic email with a SVN log of a check-in; he basically passed the responsibility of testing the code over to a tester; who was supposed to grab that email; get an update; understand what changed by looking at the log; and test the newly built functionality.

Shivers of chill ran down my spine as I saw the hundred plus emails get downloaded into my mailbox; emails with cryptic signals that you had to monitor like a hawk to see what was getting done or for that matter; what was not getting done. Terror struck with the number of emails I was getting just from this project team; I decided to investigate and find out what started the whole CYA exercise of emailing the entire team every time you did anything.

Turns out; the team had once been told to send out regular email updates on every SVN commit they did. Being the introverts and un-social creatures we as programmers are; every single programmer in the team; even the best of the builders; started following the rule; and in some little perverted corners of their geeky-brains started somewhat enjoying the rule.

When I was asked in a management meeting what it would take to get the team to become fully productive; my response was simple; direct and straight forward. The team was already productive. All you had to do to get things done was cut off their email accounts from them and you would have a golden team that not just flocked well; but communicated and connected with each other.

That dear reader; was of-course easier said than done. After days of trying to convince people to walk up to person in the next cubical and talk; if there was one thing that I learnt it was this: if you want your programmers to succeed; keep them as far away from meetings and emails. Get them white-boards; get them markers and more than anything else get them to talk to each.

So the next time you find yourself writing an email to your colleague; stop. Think. Can you use better forms of communication than a random haphazardly written email? If you must use email; can you limit your audience to people who really need to act on your emails rather than randomly emailing the entire team? Take some time and indulge in some serious soul searching before you press that send button.

After all; you might be spamming your whole team; and you might not even know it.

What is worse; is that you might be spending hours of your day pretending to yourself that you are indulging in an act that is professional when all you are doing is indulging in a CYA excursive; wasting your time and the time of those who work with you.

Facing a problem fixing that code you are working on?

Don't send an email yet; go talk to the person sitting in the cubical next to you; ask for help and try to strike a meaningful one on one conversation.

I wish you good luck.

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