Response hierarchy

It was really interesting to read Michael Lopp’s latest blog post showing his relative probability to respond to an incoming communication based on the medium through which it is sent:

…I realized that I had updated the prioritized hierarchy to how likely I will respond to a piece of communication. From least likely to most likely, this is the hierarchy:
Spam < LinkedIn < Facebook < Twitter < Email < Slack < Phone < SMS < Face to Face

This struck a chord with me. A while ago I wrote down a list of all of the electronic inboxes that were playing a part in my life as I needed to take a step back and see it all. Discounting the ones that are both from and to myself (namely my unprocessed Drafts entries and my Evernote inbox), my own response hierarchy today looks something like this:

Spam < Flickr comments < LinkedIn < Voicemail < Facebook Messenger < Blog comments < Personal email < Goodreads/Strava comments < Facebook mentions < School governor email < Work email < Phone < Twitter < Skype for Business < Telegram/WhatsApp < SMS < Face to Face

Maybe I am over-thinking it as the comments and mentions don’t always require a response (although the notifications do nag at me on my phone and I have a lingering guilt about not looking at them as often as I perhaps should). Anyway, let’s remove those:

Spam < LinkedIn < Voicemail < Facebook Messenger < Personal email < School governor email < Work email < Phone < Twitter < Skype for Business < Telegram/WhatsApp < SMS < Face to Face

Lopp’s analysis of each form of communication is interesting. I’m impressed that he manages to get to Inbox Zero every day both at work and home. I get there sometimes, but it isn’t as frequent as I would like.

My hierarchy isn’t always consistent. Voicemails on my mobile from strangers get much less attention than voicemails from people I know, but even then iOS doesn’t do a great job of nagging me about the ones that I have listened to but not actioned. Occasionally I’ll flick across to voicemail and find six or seven that stretch back over the past few months.

I don’t answer the phone to external numbers on my work phone as 95% of the time it is a sales call; unfortunately for those callers I have also removed my work Voicemail so I don’t need to deal with changing the security PIN every month. The value of voicemail is far outweighed by the inconvenience of accessing it — most of the time my missed calls list is sufficient for me to know who to get in contact with. People who really need to contact me in a work context from outside my company will have my email address or mobile number.

Email is fine for business type things but completely broken for ‘proper’ correspondence in that the more important a personal note is to me, the longer I’ll tend to leave it until I find the time to sit down and write a considered, meaningful response. I fully understand that this may be no more email’s fault than it is the fault of the letter-writing paper that also goes untouched in our house. Perhaps the long-form two-way personal communication is dead in the era of instant responses, or only useful when you have a lot to say to the other person and don’t want to be interrupted or get a reply.

We use Skype at work for instant messaging but it is almost completely on a 1:1 basis with barely any shared channels. It feels like a missed opportunity but multiple attempts to get it started have never caught on. Perhaps our company is too small, or we don’t have enough geeks.

Slack doesn’t feature at all as an inbox for me yet — I’m a member of three ‘teams’, none of which are directly linked to my employer. I mainly lurk and therefore don’t get many communications that way.

Twitter used to occupy a giant amount of time but my usage has tailed off significantly over the past couple of years. For a long while it felt like a real community and that I was part of something — I even organised a small handful of well-attended ‘tweetups’ in our town for everyone to meet — but over time I had subconsciously given up trying to keep up and have gone back to reading blogs and books. I get very little direct communication from it and when I do I’m pretty responsive. The main role it plays in my life now is as an aggregation source of interesting things to read via the wonderful Nuzzel app.

It’s interesting to me to write this down as it gives me a realisation of how complicated things are these days and how much of a cognitive burden it is to keep up with it all. It’s no longer sufficient to get to Inbox Zero with my three email accounts and feel that I am ‘done’; all of the others need to be checked and drained as well on a regular basis.

Of project portfolios and an uncertain future

Earlier this week I was fortunate enough to attend the Gartner Project Portfolio Management (PPM) and IT Governance summit. I approached the event with some trepidation—this is my field and it would clearly be useful to be amongst peers and understand what the latest thinking is, but I expected it to be full of vendors voraciously pushing their wares and lots of attendees who were wrestling with nuances of Microsoft Project and getting ‘resources’ to work with the processes they had rolled out. Although there was indeed some of this, 80% of the content over the two days was extremely valuable. Many of the sessions had big overlaps with topics covered in Lean Enterprise, a fantastic book I read earlier this year which has really honed my thinking about the right way to approach IT and product development work within a large organisation.

The final keynote presentation of the day was extremely thought-provoking. Donna Fitzgerald and Robert Handler gave a talk called ‘Gartner Predicts the Future of PPM’ but it was so much more than just a talk about project portfolio management. The key issue is on how fast the world is changing around us and how quickly we will need to adapt. Early on, they quoted Ray Kurzweil in saying that:

“Our intuition about the future is linear. But the reality of information technology is exponential, and that makes a profound difference.”

The basic messages that I took away from the presentation were as follows:

  • Technological advances are exponential (think Moore’s Law, Metcalfe’s law etc.)
  • Anything that can be automated will be automated.
  • Things that yesterday we generally believed were impossible to automate are being automated (e.g. self-driving trucks, textual analytics etc.—this table from this paper was reproduced in the Gartner slide deck)
  • Only the very highest-level cerebral work will be left, to be done by good people who are seasoned experts.
  • Applying this to PPM, classic project management will be a generic skill, versatility of skills will be a necessity and the role of the PM will be to enable the team to get things done and shift obstacles out of the way.

As I sat there in the audience I couldn’t help but drift away from the PPM world and think back to an article I read in Wired magazine fifteen years ago. The article had such a profound effect on me that I can still remember exactly where I was as I read it—on a Northern Line tube train, heading to work one morning. It’s called Why The Future Doesn’t Need Us and is by Bill Joy, then Chief Scientist at and one of the founders of Sun Microsystems.

My main memory of the article was that humans pursue technological and scientific progress for its own sake, because it is in our nature to explore and discover. Out of this could come unintended consequences such as self-replicating nanotechnology that takes over the world in a horrendous ‘grey goo‘ scenario. Over the past fifteen years, this quest for scientific progress has become synonymous in my mind with the quest for continual ‘economic growth‘.

On my way home from the conference, with thoughts from the keynote still fresh in my mind, I decided to re-read the article. Two things surprised and struck me when I did so: (1) first part of the article focused on Joy’s meeting with Kurzweil so the keynote and the article seemed to have a common thread or root and (2) the article didn’t just focus on technology but also economic growth:

“Now, as then, we are creators of new technologies and stars of the imagined future, driven – this time by great financial rewards and global competition – despite the clear dangers, hardly evaluating what it may be like to try to live in a world that is the realistic outcome of what we are creating and imagining.”

“I believe we must find alternative outlets for our creative forces, beyond the culture of perpetual economic growth; this growth has largely been a blessing for several hundred years, but it has not brought us unalloyed happiness, and we must now choose between the pursuit of unrestricted and undirected growth through science and technology and the clear accompanying dangers.”

I tweeted that the keynote had got me “worried about our drive to automation and the unemployed masses” and a friend responded, stating that I should read about the so-called ‘lump of labour fallacy‘.

I did look into this, and found out that this basically says that the following line of thinking is fallacious:

  • There is a finite amount of work to be done.
  • Where work is automated, the overall pool of work is decreased, so the people unemployed by automation will not be able to find new jobs.

The reason it is ‘widely accepted’ as a fallacy is that historically, through technological, economic and societal change there is new work to be done and over time the labour force shifts to having these new skills. Think about the industrial revolution and the jobs that were lost because of the changes and how the population developed new skills over time for new jobs that had previously never existed.

Of the various excellent articles I have read on this, three things make me think that this historically has been a fallacy but may not be in the future:
  1. The speed of technological change. As per the Kurzweil quote at the top of this post, progress is not linear and it is getting faster. The speed of progress means that people may not have time to re-skill within their own lifetime.
  2. If it is true that “Only the very highest-level cerebral work will be left, to be done by good people who are seasoned experts” then how do you become a seasoned expert if there are no lower-level tasks to be done that allow you can learn the ropes? Will your field still be un-automated by the time you get to be a seasoned expert with a couple of decades of experience behind you?
  3. The work to be done may shift and new jobs may be invented, but who is going to do that work? Will it be automated from the get-go?

I think there are genuine reasons to be concerned. Personally, I do not understand how we blindly accept ‘economic growth’ through capitalism as a singular goal that is commonly agreed on as being an aim for a company, a society, a country or humanity. Expanding populations and finite resources surely mean that there are limits to continual ‘growth’. I know that many people much smarter than me must have examined this question and that people can point me towards countless texts where this is considered. What I do understand is that even through something as gigantic as the recent financial crisis we did not come up with anything better than what we have today—even though many great minds were questioning it and reasoning as to where we should go from here—and that while our current configuration is still in place, it is not an option for an organisation to avoid seeking growth in the form of increased revenues and lower costs through technological innovation, automation etc. If you are participating in capitalism and not striving to be the best that you can be then someone else will take your customers and you will be out of business. The pace at which this is happening is accelerating. 50 years ago, the average life expectancy of a Fortune 500 company was 75 years; as of 2014 it was less than 15 years.

I don’t have any conclusions right now. I know that as an individual with a family to look after, a mortgage to pay etc. I am very much an active participant in this process. But as per Bill Joy’s article that I read all those years ago:

“My continuing professional work is on improving the reliability of software. Software is a tool, and as a toolbuilder I must struggle with the uses to which the tools I make are put. I have always believed that making software more reliable, given its many uses, will make the world a safer and better place; if I were to come to believe the opposite, then I would be morally obligated to stop this work. I can now imagine such a day may come.

This all leaves me not angry but at least a bit melancholic. Henceforth, for me, progress will be somewhat bittersweet.”

Final year project


Mat has generously given me some space on his web server to host a copy of the project I completed in the final year of my degree about ten years ago.  It’s called An Implementation of Donald Knuth’s MIX and is a Java applet version of a mythical computer that Knuth wrote about in The Art of Computer Programming Vol 1.  I’ve added the source code to the page which has never been out in the big wide world before.  Hopefully someone will find it interesting!

UPDATE – 29 October 2014: I now have my own web space and am hosting this directly.

How to stop being nagged by autoupdate in Windows

I installed IE7 this morning. Even though I don’t really intend to use it, I like to keep my computer up-to-date with the latest software. The problem with the Windows update mechanism is that once it’s done the business and installed whatever security fix, software or patch that you required, Mr Naggy-Pants doesn’t stop nagging you to reboot. Why can’t you just silence it and reboot when you really do feel like it? Well, now you can.

Sony Ericsson W800i – not all it’s cracked up to be

Sony Ericsson W800iI’ve had my new phone for quite a long time now and although in general it’s a pretty good mobile, there is a little thing that’s been niggling me since I got it and a major fault that has developed in the past week.

First of all, the niggle. My old T610 had a great feature whereby you could ‘reply and delete’ to a text message so that you didn’t have to worry about your inbox filling up. It’s a little thing, but why oh why does this phone not have the same feature? I thought that the W800i was a logical progression from the K750i which itself was bourne out of the T610, so I don’t see why any of the features should regress. Disappointing.

The major fault is to do with the camera lens cover switch on the back of the phone. It’s a tiny little thing that sometimes gets caught when you pull it out of your pocket, turning the camera on. Not the biggest deal when the phone’s working okay, but the switch has recently developed a fault whereby it is as sensitive as a bad tooth. This means that the camera switches on at any given opportunity – when you pick it up, when you put it down, when the alarm rings, when you go to make a call, and even when you’re doing absolutely nothing and the phone is a hundred paces from the closest moving thing but it has just decided that the lens cover is now open. This would just be a big annoyance if it wasn’t for the fact that the lens cover being open also means that they keypad is then unlocked – if the phone is sitting in your pocket it can then decide, seemingly randomly, to do other things. For example, over the past week it has sent a photo message to somebody that I haven’t spoken to in a long while (sorry, Tijen!) and tried sending two massive video files so somebody else. So now I’m looking forward to a lovely big data bill from O2. I’ve now blu-tacked and sellotaped the button so it’s permanently open and the phone has gone from looking like a sophisticated and sleek orange machine to Jack Duckworth’s glasses. Great.

If you’re thinking of getting one of these phones – and if when it’s working well it is pretty good despite all of the above – go for the K750i, which is the same phone but with slightly older software (the Walkman functionality is crap anyway) and a much better camera lens cover switch.

Bringing an old Pocket PC back to life

My iPaq 3870I’ve had my iPaq for a few years now and for most of the time I’ve been disappointed with it. Many moons ago I used to use a Psion 5mx which, although it had a monochrome display, was a fantastic piece of kit – a ‘proper’ keyboard, applications that worked and a slot for AA batteries so that if you ever ran out of power you could just pop to the shop and buy more. The iPaq is colour but it slows down for no reason, used to crash on occasion (until I upgraded the firmware), is in portrait mode (which isn’t so great for reading PDF files) and has a crappy battery life – when the battery goes you actually lose all of the information and have to restore from the last backup! At the time I bought it I thought it was the way forward, with its colour screen, bluetooth connection and the fact that it was supported at work so I could sync all of my business appointments. Syncing things up was never straightfoward, however, as I wanted to sync both at home and at work and home computer kept telling me that it had found a new device and wanted to sync everything every time – not great. When my Pocket Outlook started to retain ghost messages that no longer existed and my bluetooth connectivity failed to work with my new phone I kind of gave up on it. I had searched Google far and wide for solutions for both problems but couldn’t find anything.

That was, until I read David Allen’s Getting Things Done book last week. The book is fantastic, but more on that in another post. I wanted to get my iPaq back up and running so that I could get my task lists in order and start to get them done. I made a ‘final push’ on Google and came up with the following two gems…
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New mobile

Sony Ericsson W800iI picked up a new mobile phone today, courtesy of my wonderful brother – a Sony Ericsson W800i. Until two days ago I had never heard of it; I’m not really one for keeping up with the latest in phones, although I do like mine to have a lot of functionality – Bluetooth, tri-band etc. My T610 has been fantastic for the past two years but has developed an annoying problem with the navigation joystick in that every time I pressed ‘down’ it thought I meant ‘select’. I’ve sent far too many text messages by accident with that phone. Thanks to my brother I now have the latest incarnation of this range.

I’ve spent a little time today getting myself set up and am pleased to say that it has been extremely easy and I haven’t had to look at the manual once. The phone itself is aesthetically pleasing, if a little garish with it’s orange theme, and has some great features such as a loudspeaker, MP3 playback, 550Mb (yes, half a gigabyte!) of storage and a 2 megapixel camera with a light. I’ve taken a couple of photos and uploaded them to Flickr – see for yourself how good it is.

I’ve had loads of phones over the years, but the series of camera phones from the T68i, T610, T630 (owned by my wife) and now my W800i must be the best series of phones that I’ve seen. I used to swear by Nokias with (what I thought was) their very friendly user interface but their software started to get buggy right around the time they released the 7110. I didn’t fancy paying for my phone software to be upgraded when I felt it should have been tried and tested in the first place. Sony Ericsson phones seem to be relatively bug-free as well as extremely easy to use; since switching I haven’t looked back.

The main ‘selling point’ of the phone is its Walkman functionality, but as I already have an iPod I think that I’ll be making most use of the camera, especially for mobile photo blogging!

Amusing printer messages

Here’s a great webpage that offers a program that will change the message displayed on your LaserJet printer. I haven’t tried this out at work for fear of something going wrong, but it did make me smile to think of one of our expensive colour HP printers with ‘Insert coin’ written on the display!