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I'm a web developer (who writes code -- not css/designer). I work in an office, but many managers work remotely, hence the heavy reliance on email/IM.

I am starting to notice a trend where people will email me and re-ask a question that has already been explained in detail in a previous email.

I might receive an email/IM from a higher up asking "When can we launch {insert name of new project/feature here}".

I respond to this with an email that details exactly where we are, what's blocking us, who we are waiting on, and what they need to do (or be asked to do) before we can launch. Many of these things are outside of my control and have to be initiated by the manager themselves (setting up bank account for card processing), or the manager has to ask someone else in the company (designer/copywriter/etc...) to do something. I make sure to bullet each "action item", in an attempt to ensure that even a non-technical person could check and see if it's actually done yet without any additional input.

For example (grossly oversimplified):

Q: {client} is getting antsy. When can we launch www.xyz.com?

A:

  1. I just checked the site and we're still waiting on the client to add their content. You can check this URL periodically to see if it's been done yet. {url here} )
  2. Before we can launch, we need to contact {upstream provider X} and tell them to set {service Y} to {mode Z}; We cannot accept credit cards til this has been done. You can test this by trying to send a donation; if you get an error it's still not done.
  3. I have noticed that the mobile navigation menu is cut off when screen width is less than 479px. It's not a show stopper, but {our css guy} will need to fix this.

A few days/weeks might go by, then I will get another email asking the same thing (or asking about an action item that I specifically addressed and explained how to test in a previous email.)

This makes me think they maybe didn't even read it

Another common occurrence is that I'll get a one or two line response, with a question about a single one of the action items I mentioned, and nothing about the others. This lets me know that they did at least see the email -- but often times they will still respond back two weeks later asking the same question they asked before.

This makes me think that they didn't take the time to read the whole thing

Since these people outrank me, I feel like all I can do is pretend that I haven't answered these questions before, and go through the testing process myself, then respond to the email similarly to the first time.

The problem is, I am also expected to maintain/create/deploy new sites using the very codebase that I'm answering these questions about. This is really starting to cut into my development time, especially when I am in-the-zone working on new functionality, only to be interrupted by an IM about something I've answered in a previous email.

I'm not really sure what to do in this scenario. I am trying to think of a way to put into perspective (for the managers) just how much money this costs the company in the long run, but the culture around here is very "let's just get it done!", so I'm afraid that I'll be viewed as "that lazy programmer who thinks that everything is someone else's job."

Maybe I should just stop trying to explain these things via email, and insist on a phone call when there are complex issues that can't be explained with a simple yes or no. I much prefer email/IM though, because phone calls aren't logged and aren't searchable. Although I've never been put on the spot for something falling through the cracks, it does happen (often) and I like the peace of mind of having proof that I addressed a concern with a manager (even if they ignored it).

Has anyone else had this problem? What did you do?

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    The subsequent questions that you're concerned about are coming either days or weeks later. Is there some sort of status reporting going on in the interim? Whether in the form of a daily stand-up where issues/ roadblocks are talked through or a weekly status report on the Client ABC Project that discusses what is done vs. what is not done? If you're hoping that random middle managers will save the URLs and instructions you send and retest every roadblock that has ever existed to get the status of a project, you're expecting way too much... – Justin Cave Jun 10 '15 at 20:30
  • The problem is that they will come back and ask me if something is done, when it needs to be done by somebody else. Then I go check for them, and sure enough, it hasn't been done yet. We have an internal (homebrew) project management system where managers can create "tasks" for developers/designers/copywriters. Any time that I fix something, I "reply" to the task, which in turn sends my reply (via email) to the project manager. Many managers either completely bypass this system, and just send a direct email, or ask me questions which have already been explained in a prior response to the task. – A. Programmer Jun 10 '15 at 20:37
  • OK. So there is a project management system and there are project managers. Are these project managers sending out some sort of status to the managers that are coming to you asking for status? Normally, a project manager would be doing something like sending out a weekly status to stakeholders with the list of current roadblocks and a status on the roadblocks identified the prior week (e.g. X is still an issue, Y is being worked on by Foo who expects to have an updated CSS by date). – Justin Cave Jun 10 '15 at 20:41
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    I notice in your example you don't actually answer the question. You cover what needs to be done but not when you will be finished. This sort of thing can definitely lead to questions being asked again. – Myles Jun 10 '15 at 20:56
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    Given the wall-of-text nature of this question, which discouraged me from reading it all.... perhaps keeping your e-mails short and focused would help. Before sending, edit down to only the information the other person actually needs. – keshlam Jun 13 '15 at 4:40
38

Be clear. Really clear.

tl;dr. Your question here is really long. Your example email response is still pretty long and even so doesn't really answer the question.

You need to be direct. If you can't launch, don't give a list of reasons and not say so. Say, "we can't launch yet. Here is why."

Q: {client} is getting antsy. When can we launch www.xyz.com?

A: We cannot. Before we launch, we need:

  1. Client A has not added information (URL)
  2. Client B needs to update payment information (link here)
  3. There are minor CSS bugs which CSSDevName is working on.

Be proactive

Note that even with the above, if I'm reading, I still have no idea:

  1. When this will be done
  2. Who is responsible

My assumption is soon and you are, so I ask again shortly.

Let's try again:

A: We cannot until 5/6/15. Currently:

  1. Client A has not added information (URL)
    • PersonA is following up with them by 5/2/15.
  2. Client B needs to update payment information (link here)
    • This should be done by 5/4/15.
  3. There are minor CSS bugs which CSSDevName is working on
    • This is in progress by CSSDevName and estimated 5/6/15

I will followup on 5/6/15 with the status of these items.

What are your managers thinking?

You need to answer what your questions really care about. When asked, "when can we launch?" you have to actually address, "when can we launch?"

Most also want to know "are issues being resolved" and "when will the task(s) be complete."

but often times they will still respond back two weeks later asking the same question they asked before.

This is because they never got an answer which was meaningful.

Where's the project management?

If you can't put a name for each remaining action item you need to figure that problem out.

Likewise, if you have no working system for incoming tasks, you need to define that too.

Proper project management means someone is responsible for managing the project. That person can be involved, dedicated PM, or otherwise responsible. Someone needs to be owning the process of identifying, prioritizing, and tasking the remaining things.

This is especially important in a virtual team. You don't have the "luxury" of bumping into coworkers and having impromptu discussions about "did you do X?" "nope! sorry! I'll do that ASAP!" types of things.

Without a proper process you will frequently have things slip through the cracks. As well as general chaos..

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    I'd like to upvote this several times. They're asking again because he's not answering their questions! – thursdaysgeek Jun 10 '15 at 22:53
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    The OP is a programmer not a project manager. OP states the organization has project managers. Just because project management is not being performed does not mean that is a task the programmer needs to figure out. "Many of these things are outside of my control and have to be initiated by the manager themselves" – paparazzo Jun 11 '15 at 9:48
  • They MIGHT be asking again because he's not answering. Or they MIGHT be asking again because the answer is on line four of the email body instead of in the subject line. – WGroleau Mar 17 '18 at 4:51
  • "Most also want to know "are issues being resolved"" - this one is a big one IMO. If you tell somebody it'll be done in 2 weeks, and then don't update them afterwards - expect to be interrupted mid week-1 to check that things ARE actually on track. Even if you're personally very accurate with estimates - everybody has been burned by a department who aren't, and not knowing something's coming late is often worse than the actual delay. – user81330 Feb 13 at 11:02
5

I might receive an email/IM from a higher up asking "When can we launch {insert name of new project/feature here}".

I respond to this with an email that details exactly where we are, what's blocking us, who we are waiting on, and what they need to do (or be asked to do) before we can launch. Many of these things are outside of my control and have to be initiated by the manager themselves (setting up bank account for card processing), or the manager has to ask someone else in the company (designer/copywriter/etc...) to do something. I make sure to bullet each "action item", in an attempt to ensure that even a non-technical person could check and see if it's actually done yet without any additional input.

I think these paragraphs point to something you might consider.

Communications are a two-way street. You have to gear your response to the needs of the reader. You have to answer their question, without overwhelming them with other information that may be important to you, and less important to them.

Here, someone asked "When can we launch?" Your answer seems to include a lot of information that may or may not be useful - but doesn't actually contain the answer to the question!

You indicate that your company has a high reliance on IMs and Emails. So presumably, everyone has a lot of reading to do. In those situations, details can get jumbled, and the answers to specific questions can get lost.

Consider being far more direct when asked simple questions, but offer to follow up with details.

Something like:

Q: "When can we launch?"

A: "It looks like we can launch in July. If you like, I can send you the details behind my estimate."

That way, the reader's eyes won't gloss over hunting through a bunch of details and bullet points to find the answer to "When?". And if the reader does want more, you can send it to them.

Consider giving that a try and see if it makes communications clearer.

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4

I struggled with a very similar problem a while back, and I found some techniques that helped. I too love to write extremely detailed and thoughtful e-mails that cover every possible aspect of the issue at hand. Unfortunately, everyone else prefers to talk these things out instead of read my e-mail, think about it, and write me an equally detailed and thoughtful response. I blame their lack of typing ability :)

Ask most questions verbally, or in IM, then document the answer afterwards in an e-mail if necessary. This was difficult for me, because I do better with visual, not aural, input. Writing it out after the conversation was a good compromise and helped me sort through the information without forcing other folks into my mode.

If something needs to be discussed with a group of people, but doesn't need a stand-up, highlight the key points in your e-mail so that someone can quickly skim without needing to digest all of the detail. Yes, bolding incomplete sentences looks weird and makes my inner copy editor cringe, but it was effective.

Start your e-mails with a summary of why you're writing them and use a descriptive subject line. I try to summarize what I would like to happen as a result of my e-mail in the subject. For example, "Need help getting a copy of the A-side OTCBB raw recordings from data center X". I can explain why I need them in the e-mail, but putting the request in the subject lets folks who don't know or care about those recordings filter it out without even opening the e-mail.

If your e-mail includes something specific people need to know or act on, A. Programmer - highlight the item with their names.

Post your status publically so that other folks can find it without asking you. I use a white board in my office with a line for each project, the deadline, the most important thing about it currently, and some indication if it's on-track or in trouble. I've been told by a couple of our PMs that they really like it, because they don't have to track me down to know what's going on. I purposefully didn't do it in a document online. My little whiteboard forces me to be concise. Besides it's right in my face every morning, so it helps me get oriented at the start of the day.

You're concerned about how your time is impacted because people don't read your e-mails, but I don't think you realize the impact that this style of communicating is having on other people's time and how much time you're wasting writing stuff that doesn't get used. You need to accept that you will never be able to write down everything that needs to be communicated in a way that everyone who needs to know it will understand/remember it. We all love being in the zone, but you don't want to live there. Trying to fix things so that you can spend as much time as possible in the zone is counter-productive in my opinion, and some folks agree with me.

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  • People who respond to messages without actually reading them don't read status boards either. Catering to them by verbal updates results in "Joe said, '....'" when he did not actually say that. If Joe cannot then say, "No, what I said (in my e-mail of 1 April 1899) was '....'" he suddenly has a bigger problem. – WGroleau Mar 17 '18 at 4:53
  • One other thing I would suggest about this sort of thing is that one can take extra time to ensure that their message is as terse as possible without losing clarity. It's more work to do this, but it will often yield results closer to what was wanted. – Andrew Sep 26 '18 at 13:58
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First, you need a gatekeeper.

All inquires about a project's status or timeline needs to go through this gatekeeper. Ideally, this would be your manager. You should begin deflecting all questions to this person. Eventually, they'll all get the hint.

Next, you need to make absolutely certain that this person has the data to respond available to them. A simple shared document would suffice, but you could even start using a bug tracker, or JIRA or something more full-featured. Point being - this manager should know exactly where the information is, and that the information is current.

Finally, you need to make it clear to everyone that bypassing this system will only cause delays. Most should get clued in with the first two steps. You can follow it up with a few assertive phrases, such as: "I can work, or I can talk about work. Which do you think will get us done faster?" I usually reserve that level of snarkiness for sales and marketing, only.

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Maybe I should just stop trying to explain these things via email, and insist on a phone call when there are complex issues that can't be explained with a simple yes or no. I much prefer email/IM though, because phone calls aren't logged and aren't searchable.

This is an excellent point. After all internetworking is text based, yes? You are totally justified in having this worldview. However, you are making an error by thinking that more explanation, in person, or over the phone, will solve your issue. It won't.

Why?

Your superiors probably are older than you. This means eye problems are coming soon. Hopefully you can ride the black screens with the 8px fonts all the way to the end of the line. Probably not though.

Reading glasses are not ideal, bifocals are slightly more convenient, but more limiting. It also takes a while before you realize what is happening. Text gets fuzzy, often logic does too. It's irritating, but you can't put your finger on why. Reducing this unconscious dissonance with brevity is a win-win situation.

Talking to people blows you right out of the headspace you want for code. Writing email with your headphones is much better. The solution to the big problem is very likely to come during that time. Far less so if you are engaged in synchronous conversation. Save talking time for the day when you have to set the font size to 16. ( It's a sad day. )

If you don't like people skimming your epic emails, you'll hate them for glazing over, right in front of you, and then still sending the same email to you four days later. Or maybe they understood perfectly when you told them, but got distracted. It happens.

Why tell them what you think they need to know when they can tell you what they think they need to know?

Stakeholders talk to a lot of domain specific talent. The accountant, the sales staff, the designers, investors, HR, etc. That's a lot of conversations, and IM + Email means a lot of scrolling to find what got said, and when. Ugh. Texting too. That's a lot of chatter. Why add even more if you don't have to?

Will you increase understanding? Probably not, since your aptitude for conceptualizing and processing complex heterogeneous blocks of information is probably why you gravitate to programming. It's not a common trait.

The solution? Brevity. Spacious, grammatically sound emails. Answer each point with a concise paragraph, surrounded by whitespace. The questions will go into that space. Less is more. This should sound familiar, it's how the Valley tech companies do documentation. Go to Apple's support site. Easy to read, lots of whitespace, and if people are puzzled, why they pour their bafflement into the whitespace, and Apple adds a paragraph or two. Google is the same. It works. It'll work for you. You'll see things you always say, to certain people, see if you can automate, or template some of it. Make your stuff concise, professional and easy to consume. Quote yourself if they ask you to repeat something, which, they certainly will.

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