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Thursday, May 05, 2022

Review: A World Without Email

 I wasn't very impressed by Deep Work, so I skipped a few Cal Newport books but checked out A World Without Email when I heard his interview with Ezra Klein. I will note that even though I didn't recommend Deep Work, I do have a lot of sympathy for his idea that Slack and other contrivances of the modern world are the tool of the devil, and in many cases we'd all be better off without them.

A World Without Email has an incorrect title. Since most of the evils that used to plague email has now moved on to Slack and other instant messaging platforms.  The biggest contribution Newport made in this book is his coining of the phrase "Hyperactive Hive-Mind" to describe the default behavior of interrupt-driven slack-addicted employees and managers.

 The start of the book  is promising, since it points out that even managers/leaders in the hyperactive hive-mind suffer:

As the number of these messages increases, the manager becomes more likely to fall back on “tactical” behaviors to maintain a feeling of short-term productivity—tackling small tasks and responding to queries—while avoiding the bigger picture, George Marshall–style “leadership” behaviors that help an organization make progress toward its goals. As the paper concludes: “Our research suggests the pitfalls of e-mail demands may have been underestimated—in addition to its impact on leaders’ own behavior, the reductions in effective leader behaviors likely trickle down to adversely affect unwitting followers.” (kindle loc 528)

It even points out a particularly nice policy, which I thought was great:

 when Arianna Huffington’s company Thrive Global explored how to free its employees from this anxiety while on vacation (when the knowledge of piling messages becomes particularly acute), it ended up deploying an extreme solution known as Thrive Away: if you send an email to a colleague who’s on vacation, you receive a note informing you that your message has been automatically deleted—you can resend it when they return. (kindle loc 830)

 The disappointing part of the book is when Cal Newport suggests alternative to the hyperactive hive mind. The solution turns out to be... Kanban Boards! Agile/Scrum/Kanban workflows are well known in Software Engineering for years. In a small team of 3-4 people, I've successfully used Kanban boards and daily standups to organize and continually make progress. They are great. Similarly, his description of XP are also familiar, and in previous jobs I've frequently had to exhort team-mates to stop the infinite thread of doom on github/gitlab reviews and dive into pair programming sessions together. Async might be the epitome of remote work, but I've frequently found that synchronous meetings/pair programming/shared screen debugging sessions to be far more useful. In fact, I'd go so far as to say that even in a remote work environment, having everyone on the same time zone so that synchronous meetings/development/discussion can happen is too frequently under-rated as an important factor in team success.

I did, however, enjoy the discussions about various non-electronic mechanisms for implementing kanban and other agile workflows. At the end of the book, I realized that Cal Newport has answered the IT productivity paradox. There's nothing that modern electronic tooling that could not have been implemented with paper and pencil (and a little bit of walking around), which explains why all that investment in computer technology has not paid off whatsoever (and even gone negative --- my Ubuntu laptop crashes far more often than my Windows box, for instance).

This is a good book, however, for trying to get people to understand why we should change the default "Hyperactive Hive-Mind" workflow. All managers and tech leads should read this book.

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