Monday, June 21, 2010

Why I Love Email

This has been on my mind for...a long time. It was accelerated by John Piwowar's sharing of this article on Coding Horror about voice recognition.

Mr. Famous Piwowar

I could really care less about voice recognition, the thing that I got from the article, is that most people understand the written word better than the spoken word. In particular, this passage hit home:

In my experience, speech is one of the least effective, inefficient forms of communicating with other human beings. By that, I mean...
  • typical spoken communication tends to be off-the-cuff and ad-hoc. Unless you're extremely disciplined, on average you will be unclear, rambling, and excessively verbose.
  • people tend to hear about half of what you say at any given time. If you're lucky.
  • spoken communication puts a highly disproportionate burden on the listener. Compare the time it takes to process a voicemail versus the time it takes to read an email.
Say it again!

One of my colleagues is super-bright, Ivy league educated...but I don't understand a word he's saying sometimes. We do joke back and forth that it's my measly state school education holding me back, but it is a real problem, for me. I've been working with him so that we can meet somewhere in between, but it's difficult. He uses a lot of 3 syllable words and my brain just can't handle that.

When he writes, it's better...but there's still a gap. I won't blame him for all of it. :)

I've had the problem in the of my former Arch Nemesis(es?) sat right next to me, but could barely speak a word of English (no, it's not what you think). The running joke in the company was that this person had their own special brand of English (not American English either). The writing however, was slightly better.

It's not just limited to email either, IM will suffice since you can save that stuff and read it again later.

It's also not a CYA (cover your ass)'s just that, well, people don't communicate very well. I'm probably guilty of this as well. I am not extremely disciplined (in spoken word) and I have a tendency to go (way) off topic (like telling dirty jokes). Email/IM are perfect.

There's also the added (CYA) bonus of having it there to digest later, perhaps multiple times, which I often do. I'll flag a particular important email and reread it 10s of times.

Is this unacceptable to you? Should you be able to come up to me and just say, hey Chet, I need such and such, and assume you are done with it?


Anonymous said...

I'm with you on this one. My boss, unfortunately, wants everything done, er, orally, and is scarily capable of quoting some offhand comment I made years ago out of context.

So now I have this project that includes cleaning up some data, and I realized I had already evaluated it two years ago and sent an email with a listing to the person responsible. Which gave me enough clues to find the code, so I can do it again and send another email. It was kinda funny when I went to the person and asked whatever happened, casually mentioning the email from two years ago.

In the business environment, especially one spread geographically, people blab and blab and nothing ever gets resolved until there's a big motivator.

(wondering why google doesn't think I'm logged in)

Unknown said... an email:
"Chet, please change the global format of this single field. It can be found in the following directory...yada yada yada. Thanks. Feel free to call me if you have any questions."

Chet to me, via email:
"Michael, I'm gone and changed the formatting of ever field in the repository. I know it's not what you asked for, but someone who just recently took over the project, who hasn't been involved in requirements gathering and didn't consult with the business mentioned to me, in passing, a few months ago, that he'd like it in a different way, so I totally changed everything. Doesn't it look good?"

oraclenerd said...


I about spit up my beer all over the monitor!

I'm a mischievous one aren't I? :)

jpiwowar said...

Man, again with you and the prejudice against big words. ;-)

Interesting. I shared that article for two reasons:
1) That scene from ST IV is hilarious; I still say "Hellooo, computer" when a machine isn't responding quickly enough for my liking.
2) I used to work for a voice recognition solutions company. The point in the article that resonated for me was the need for a limited vocabulary (and user/device training) to get reliable recognition. Hard problem, lots of math, and lots of effort to write code that wouldn't kill the battery on a mobile device in an hour.

While I can see where Jeff A is coming from WRT to the relative efficiency of text vs. speech for communication, I think his point is oversimplified. I'm fully onboard if the example is email vs. voicemail, because speech works best as a communications medium when it's coupled with all those annoying non-verbal cues that socially-stunted nerds like me tend to miss anyway. Still, for every "dude just left a 5-minute voicemail for something that could've been a 5-line email" story, there's a counterbalancing "for the love of god, I'm choking on this email thread, somebody call a meeting already" story.

I'm with you on this part, though:
"Should you be able to come up to me and just say, hey Chet, I need such and such, and assume you are done with it?"
Answer: no. Email (better yet, the work order/trouble ticketing system), or the request didn't happen. If you fly by my desk with a request, there is absolutely no chance that I'm going to be able to be 100% receptive to what's being asked, because I'm guaranteed to be thinking about/working on something else. I probably won't even register that you're asking for something until you're at least halfway done. ;) Even if I *do* manage to mentally extract myself so I can consider this new thing, I'm likely to be mentally displaced enough by the new distraction that I won't be able to give the issue the sort of attention it deserves.

LewisC said...

I've gotten in trouble at work for using email too much. Actually had that as a negative on my review once. Boss said I should spend less time writing email and more time communicating. Um, ok?


John T said...

I'm not a huge fan of email. Its often over used and abused. Plus its relatively slow in communicating a something complex. Far easier to go talk to the person.

A major pitfall of email, is it being mis-interpreted. Spoken English is incredibly complex. Face to face, you have the words, the inflection, body language, etc. So much of the intended message is often lost in the written word. Consider this classic example:

I didn't say Chet stole my money.

I didn't say Chet stole my money.

Same sentence, different meanings.

oraclenerd said...


I hear you...perhaps I should have specified talking about technical content. Lord knows I've gotten myself into trouble because my sarcasm doesn't always come through. I have taken to using hundreds and hundreds of emoticons, which seems to help a little. :) (see...I think that helped)

oraclenerd said...


I don't think it's ever gone that far for me (getting dinged in a review), but people have complained.

Which is funny...because I am your pretty typical IT guy, you know, shy, quiet, introverted.

oraclenerd said...


So now i have JT and JP commenting in a single post. I need a JR.

You guys would break the voice recognition service yourself (I don't know what that all)

I did notice in the article that the study (or the original developers?) were located in the town you used to occupy...and wondered if you, and all your big words, may have worked on it or something similar.

I can't say I know anything about Voice Recognition. Sounds interesting, just never crossed my path. I do believe JA (hah!) over-simplified it, but I can't say I care...I stole what I needed and walked away. :)

As to the fly-bys...I really love to encourage people to talk to me and share their specific problems. I hate making them create a ticket. But when you become the central point for so many people, you have to do something. I hate ticketing systems, but I don't know of a better way.

jpiwowar said...

Good eye; I hadn't noticed the originally cited study was out of Carnegie Mellon. My former employer did have some large CMU brains working on their voice rec software, but that wasn't me. I just did the back-office ERP database stuff, which was quite-enough-thank-you-very-much.

It took me a long time to evolve my attitude about fly-bys. My instinct is to want to help everybody, but after having my attention subdivided 30 ways a few too many times, I finally had to make adjustments to stay sane.

Didn't work, of course. ;-)