Josef “Jeff” Sipek


TL;DR: Just because email is decades old doesn’t mean that it cannot serve a vital role in modern project management, research, development, and support.

Ultimately, working on a project requires communication—and lots of it. Communication with peers, with managers, with other departments within the company, and even with customers. It is tempting to grab the Tool du Jour and add it to your ever-growing arsenal of tools believing it will make communication easier. Often, it does not.

For example, let’s consider these tools: Jira, Confluence, Slack, Zoom, GitHub/GitLab, phone, and email.

Does your company use these tools or their equivalents? Isn’t it a bit overkill to have 7 different channels of communication? Sure, often one tool is better at a particular mode of communication than the others but there is a significant overlap.

Do you want a video chat? Do you use Slack or Zoom?

Voice chat? Slack, Zoom, or phone?

Do you want to ask a question related to a bug? Do you use Jira, Slack, or just set up a call? Voice or video? Or would email be best?

Do you keep track of your project via high-level Jira issues? Or do you use a set of Confluence pages where you include various semi-autogenerated plots?

Wikipedia article: Decision fatigue is real. Do you want your (rather expensive) employees to waste their cognitive capacity deciding which tool to use? Or do you want them to make the product better?

It is painful how many times over the past ten years I’ve witnessed conversations that went much like this:

A: Can you answer the question I left in Jira?
B: <B reads Jira question> Oh, that is answered on the ABC123 Confluence page.
A: Ah. Can you make a note of that in Jira? Thanks.

This example involves three communication channels—Jira, Confluence, and some chat system.

This sort of communication fragmentation is really bad. Not only does it waste a lot of time with exchanges like this example, it also makes searching for information essentially impossible. Who in their right mind would search half a dozen tools (with various degrees of search capability) for something? It is simply easier to just ask your coworkers. After all, their time is less valuable to you than your own time and sanity.

So, what can be done to improve things?

Well, if at all possible do not use tools that have duplicate functionality. If you have to, hopefully you can disable the duplicate functionality. If there is no way to disable it, then you must make it painfully clear where such communication should go. Hopefully this can be done via automated hooks that somehow notify the user. For example, automatically closing issues opened in the wrong bug tracker (e.g., opened in GitHub instead of Jira), or automatically responding to wiki commenters directing them to the proper medium for wiki discussion. Finally, if all else fails, have someone (ideally manager or team lead so the notification has some weight to it) manually make sure that anyone that uses the functionality is told not to.

This reduction in the number of tools should also help with responsiveness. It is no secret that Wikipedia article: the average human can hold only about 7 things in working memory at the same time. How many of those do you want to dedicate to tooling? If I have to remember to check 7 different tools periodically, one of two things happens: either I manage to check them all but accomplish nothing else, or I get things done but only remember about 2 or 3 tools.

That should help with quite a bit of the fragmentation. Now “all” that’s left to do is decide which communication channel is used for what.

I have concluded that there are four major levels of communication:

  1. important, synchronous
  2. important, asynchronous
  3. unimportant, synchronous
  4. unimportant, asynchronous

I’m using the terms “synchronous” to mean that you want the back-and-forth latency to be low, and “important” to mean that that you must have an answer. Note that “unimportant” does not mean off-topic, but rather lower priority.

Why make the synchronous/asynchronous distinction? For multiple reasons. First of all, being interrupted in the middle of something is costly. It takes a significant amount of time to get back “into the zone” but only a fraction of a minute to get out of it. Would you rather pay your employees to try to work or to actually work? And second, asynchrony makes communication across time zones easier. Not easy, but easier.

So, let me go through the four major levels of communication one by one and share my opinion about what works and why.

important, synchronous
If you want to have a (relatively) rapid back-and-forth, you pretty much have to use an in-person meeting or a voice/video call. A one-to-one (i.e., non-group) chat can also possibly work, but there will be temptation to multi-task. This desire to multi-task implies that the chat isn’t actually that important.
important, asynchronous
When you don’t require having the answers immediately or when it simply isn’t possible to get everyone in the same “room” at the same time for a meeting (in person, voice, or video), email is probably the best communication method. Each person can read it and possibly reply at a the most convenient time for them.
unimportant, synchronous
This is the form of communication that includes various chit-chat, sanity checking polls (e.g., “would anyone object if I tried xyz?”), and so on. It lets you quickly get bits of information, but in a way it is unreliable. Not everyone is reading the chat when you say something and when it scrolls off the screen it is as if you never said it. In other words, do not expect anyone to read the group chat messages from when they were away. If you want someone specific or even everyone to see a particular message, it is not an unimportant message. One-to-one chat is a little different since it is more “reliable”, but usually anything substantial that is important will end up with a call instead.
unimportant, asynchronous
Finally, all the things you’d like others to see at some point in the future should be sent as an email. The recipients will read it when they get to it, and since it isn’t important it probably doesn’t even require a reply.

These four levels are, of course, not set in stone. It is possible (and I’d even encourage it) to upgrade or downgrade your communication as needed. For example, it is perfectly reasonable to ask in chat if there are objections or obvious issues with a particular approach, function, or workload. Then, if the responses don’t make it obviously a terrible idea but a more definitive discussion is desired, a similar (but more detailed) version can be sent via email. In essence, upgrading it from “unimportant synchronous” to “important asynchronous”. (Caution: don’t overdo these upgrades/downgrades.)

As you can see, I think that email is a good choice for any asynchronous communication. That’s for good reasons. Everyone has an email address, everyone knows how to use it (at least a little), and the free-form format allows you to use the most appropriate content type to get your point across—be it ASCII art, images, or even Excel spreadsheets. In other words:

Email is ubiquitous.

Email works remarkably well.

Email is extremely flexible.

As a real world example, consider that pretty much every company-wide announcement (important or not) has been made either in a huge meeting or via email. Often the meeting-time announcements are followed up by an email anyway! It’s not a chat message. It’s not a Confluence page. It’s not a Jira issue. It’s an email.

Before I conclude, I’d like to address two slightly more specific cases.

First, what about issue tracking? How does that tie into my email-centric world? Well, you can keep your issue tracker, but in my opinion, the comments feature should not be used. If a ticket needs to be discussed, send an email, set up a conference call, whatever works for your—just don’t use the comments on the issue. If you look at any issue in your issue tracker, the comments will fall into one of two categories. Either there are none or there are many, and it is painfully clear that people don’t read them and ask the same questions over and over. Instead of burying progress reports or updates to the understanding of the issue in a comment that nobody will ever read, that information should be used to reword the issue description. The same largely applies to other tools’ comments sections as well.

Second is a concern that people will not read all those emails. I think this is only a problem if there are too many tools and email isn’t viewed as an important one. If (unrealistically) all communication happens through email, then right after communicating with someone, the person is already in the right tool to handle the next communication. If code reviews, support requests, and everything else were to go to the same place, there is nearly zero context switching cost. Even if the person goes to use a different tool (e.g., a text editor or an IDE), when that work is done, they’ll return to their email client. In other words, if you make the email communication channel important, your emails will get read. If you don’t make it important, then you (individually) are better off using a channel the recipient considers important. In an environment with too many tools, each recipient may have a different preference.

Just to make it painfully clear, I am not advocating killing off everything except email. Instead, I’m advocating killing off tools that duplicate functionality, and shifting all asynchronous communication to a single medium. In my experience, the most efficient (and least disruptive) asynchronous communication medium is email. And therefore it should not only be one of the tools that survives the culling, but it also should be the one that is embraced afterwards.

That’s it for today. In the next post, I’ll talk about what I consider the ideal code review workflow.