Chippewa Herald * October 22, 2003

How do I love email? Let me count the ways

by Tom Arneberg, Community Columnist

At work, I am sandwiched between the offices of Tony Laundrie and Vern Swanson. I like those guys a lot -- they're both sharp engineers and interesting guys to spend time with. So it might surprise you that, despite our proximity, I communicate with them much more by email than by walking into their offices!

Sure, there is sometimes a need for RTIVC (Real-Time Interactive Voice Communications, or "talking"), especially while brainstorming a new idea or trying to explain some complex subject. Indeed, one of Seymour Cray's legacies is a white board in every office -- stroll down the halls of SGI or Cray, and you'll see boards crammed with hastily drawn equations, tables, schematics, and flow charts. (Some of the white boards also feature children's art in the lower 12 inches; these are found in the offices of overly sentimental engineer-dads who can't bear to erase these impromptu dry-erase masterpieces.) (Guilty as charged.)

But for every live interaction needed, there are ten other times when a simple exchange of information suffices. And for that, email rules.

Why is email such a great way to communicate, even with the guy in the next office? Let me count the ways:

  1. Including others -- You can include many others in the conversation. The majority of email I send is to "mailing aliases," where email sent to one address gets forwarded to many people. This results in over-communication in a lot of cases, but that is always preferable to leaving someone in the dark. You can pay attention to a "thread" (email discussion on a given topic) or not, as you have need or interest. I can't count the number of times when someone "listening in" on an email alias jumps into the discussion with a solution or crucial insight from their past experience.

  2. Searching archives -- You can easily search through archives of past discussions. If someone sent me some fact by email last month or last year, I can go back into my archives to dig up that info again. This is better than bothering that person with something he already told me. (Besides, he might not even remember.)

  3. Including facts -- You can include lots of supporting facts and figures in an email message. For example, you would never read off a long list of numbers, let alone try to describe a table of data verbally. But your eyes can quickly make sense of written material that your ears would struggle with interpreting.

  4. Avoiding phone tag -- Don't you hate it when you're caught in an infinite loop with someone, leaving short phone messages for each other? Email communication, by definition, is received (read) only when the other person is there, so you don't have to worry about coordinating schedules.

  5. Forwarding to others -- You can forward the exact email message to others, preventing the "telephone game" effect. Rather than telling Tony what I remember of what I think Vern told me, with a couple keystrokes I can simply forward Vern's exact message to Tony. Nothing is lost in the translation.

  6. Preserving flow -- In "Peopleware," their excellent book on managing high tech workers, authors Tom DeMarco and Timothy Lister talk about the importance of uninterrupted thought time for anyone whose job requires periods of mental concentration, such as programming, writing, designing. "Flow" is "a condition of deep, nearly meditative involvement, where one is largely unaware of the passage of time." Unfortunately, you can't turn it on instantly; it requires a time of re-immersion. When flow is interrupted by a phone call or a visit, the lost productivity is far longer than the time of the actual interruption.

    When the authors wrote that book in 1987, they didn't have a good solution to preserve flow other than to shut your door and not answer your phone. (Seymour Cray was known to unplug his phone for days at a time.) It's clear now, though, that email is the answer! You can easily ignore incoming email messages while you're in the flow, and when you get interrupted or need a break, then you can go and answer ten emails in a few minutes. That's much better than fielding ten phone calls in real-time, a jarring few minutes apart.

These are just a few of the reasons I've loved using email at work for the past 15 years. And since the explosion of the Internet to home users in the mid-1990s, these same advantages now also apply to churches, hobby groups, sports clubs, and even extended-family communications.

I'd love to write more, but I have to go now -- my wife just sent me an email from the other room to tell me that dinner is ready.

You can reach Tom by phone at, by email at

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