A changelog for the company?

"How to achieve Inbox Zero after the holidays" by CommitStrip. Used with permission.

“How to achieve Inbox Zero after the holidays” by CommitStrip. Used with permission.

A few weeks ago, Mathias Meyer shared an article that suggested a “Do Not Disturb” feature for Slack. At my job, Slack has become our main internal collaboration tool. It hasn’t quite killed email, but it’s pretty rare for members of the engineering team to send internal emails these days. It’s a great tool, but it can be hard to keep up with if you’re away for an extended period of time. This is particularly true when important messages get lost among jokes and gifs.

After being out of the office all of last week, I came back to several hundred emails and thousands of Slack messages. There was no way I could get through all of them, so I declared Slack bankruptcy (and deleted the emails that were for tickets someone else handled). I just have to trust that if there was anything important, my colleagues would fill me in. But is there a better way?

When I worked at McDonald’s, we had a management log book. It was a simple three-ring binder with hand-written notes. Mostly it was used by the store manager to communicate important information to shift managers and supervisors, but any of us could leave notes for things everyone on the management team needed to know. At the beginning of each shift, managers and supervisors were expected to read new entries and initial them.

I would go off to college for a semester and when I came back during breaks, the last few months of log entries were easy to catch up on. Obviously, they didn’t contain all of the changes, but at least I knew what the major changes were. It helped me come up to speed quickly, which was especially important when trying to lead teenage fast food workers.

I am a major proponent of work-life balance, both for myself, and for my team. It benefits neither the employee nor the employer to have people working all of the time. But it’s hard to fully disconnect when there’s a fear of missing out on important information. Perhaps a company changelog is in order?

This could capture important announcements, product decisions, unexpected lessons, and other things you really want team members to know. This allows people to declare bankruptcy when needed without missing key information. It doesn’t have to be anything fancy, a shared text file (in reverse chronological order) can be sufficient. Whatever works for your team.

Hillary Clinton’s email

Ed. note: I generally avoid politics on Blog Fiasco, and this post is about the technical angle more than any political implications. The comments section will be moderated accordingly.

It seems that when Hillary Clinton was secretary of state, she used a personal email address instead of a .gov. While this was apparently legal at the time she held that office, it’s not good. For one, using the same account for both personal and business email is a bad idea (full disclosure: I used to do that. More on that later.) If email records for one need to be obtained (e.g. as evidence in a court action), messages for the other will at least be examined and may find themselves caught up in the same net. It also makes it harder to stop being at work when you’re not at work. (Of course, high-ranking government officials rarely get such opportunity.)

For public office holders, there’s an additional dimension. Public records are an important part of our history and our democratic and legal processes. When records such as emails are outside the purview of the appropriate custodians, it’s much easier for them to become intentionally or accidentally lost.

Again returning to the general case, every such incident is a  indictment of the services the business offers. My first foray into using an external email service was in my first job. I had a lot of automated and non-automated email and the University’s mail system didn’t offer me much room. I created a dedicated GMail account to serve as a storage and search facility for old messages.

In a later role, I had roughly 50x as many machines, plus commit messages from our Subversion server, Nagios alerts, and the like. So, like many of my colleagues, I forwarded my work email to my personal GMail account in order to take advantage of the powerful filtering.

I didn’t have to deal with sensitive information as part of my daily work, but others on campus did. There were frequent discussions in various circles expressing concern about allowing users to forward email to arbitrary, potentially poorly-maintained mail servers (this concern never went so far as to actually disable the ability to set a forwarding address).

In most cases, people who forwarded their email off campus were doing so to overcome a perceived pain of using the campus systems. I don’t know why Hillary Clinton used a private email address, but I’m sure it was due to some perceived shortcoming  (technical, usability, or political) in what the State Department made available. When we discover shadow IT systems, the best response is to figure out what drove the user away from our service in the first place.