When I was at IBM I went through an evolution in my approach to email and postings to the internal fora. Initially I was quite chatty (probably too chatty) and informal. The fora were organized as semi-threaded dialogues on various topics. You could carry on multiple discussions in multiple fora with various people from all over the world. It was incredibly intoxicating, and though I often learned something new, it had absolutely nothing to do with my job in most cases.

My first shift was to separate my professional participation from everything else. I’d read fora related to my job during the day, perhaps 30-45 minutes max throughout the day. In the evening, at lunch, on the weekend, I’d read and participate in the other discussions, the ones on OS/2 and the Internet and everything else I was interested in.

This worked for several years until my job shifted dramatically and I became IBM’s alleged webmaster (alleged because IBM officially didn’t have a webmaster). Suddenly what I wrote, and had been writing informally in the internet related fora, had meaning, purpose, intent, weight. I couldn’t just spout off, though I frequently did in my first 12-18 months. When I did spout off, and it inevitably upset someone (IBM had surgically removed irony, humor, and common sense), I’d inevitably receive a friendly call from some muckety-muck, occasionally even The Chairman’s Office (please read that with a hushed, serious tone).

This was not fun. More importantly, it was a complete and utter waste of time to spend an hour explaining what I meant in a two line append to a forum.

So I began to withdraw from the various discussions. First I eliminated the ones which were truly outside the scope of what I was responsible for or working on. I mean, it was so bad that if I posted a question in the WINDOWS forum about using Mosaic or the early version of Internet Explorer, I’d be flamed for even contemplating using a Microsoft product when OS/2 was so much better (never mind that my question didn’t state that we were switching, setting a standard, anything like that at all).

I pretty quickly found that I could not write anything publically, inside IBM, that was not intended to be an official statement about something or another. So I withdrew even further, keeping to the main web related fora, ceasing participation in most other fora. It wasn’t worth my time or energy to debate petty points with people or answer to yet-another inquest from some minor executive.

This was bad for several reasons. First, I stopped reading the other forums. It was hard to hold off on posting or replying if I was still reading the fora. Second, I stopped getting input from the wider IBM community. Instead of getting intoxicated off the myriad interactions and ideas flying around, I got dulled and numbed by the daily escalations and confrontations.

Finally, I found (as I think everyone I worked with at ibm.com) that we couldn’t write anything down that wasn’t intended to be set in stone. Our mantra was Do not write anything in email that you do not want on the front page of the Wall Street Journal (I’m not sure why we picked the WSJ as our object of terror, perhaps it was Kalis’ influence).

The overall impact was devastating, in retrospect. The only constant input and interaction we had was with people who, frankly, wanted us to fail, desperately wanted us to fail. We got no new ideas, no new solutions to problems. We were terrified to let loose with any email or forum posts that might imply we didn’t know the exact answer to the question we were posing or faced with. Our innvoations stopped. Dead in the tracks. Sure, there was product development going on, but we had no interaction with the developers. Other people were running into problems with their websites, but we could not help them less someone strt into a flame/escalation war over our solution.

We couldn’t share what we were doing with the wider community since that would open us up to the people who had nothing better to do than to complain, escalate, bitterly block whatever activity were were doing simply because that was their only contribution. Sure, we might get valid criticism and commentary, but it would be overwhelmed by destructive criticism. It just wasn’t worth the effort.

These days I have the advantage of not working at IBM.

I keep my emails brief, concise, to the point. Things I want to be made public, I post here to my weblog/journal. I still put nothing into email I don’t want reappearing on the WSJ (perhaps I should write MetaFilter instead?). It is too easy people to forward something outside the circle of people I’d feel comfortable sending the original message to.

«You’re invited to attend a | Main | 892.5 miles, 19 hours driving, four tanks-o-gas»

Slightly acerbic and eccentric dog walker who masquerades as a web developer and occasional CTO.

Spent five years running the technology side of the circus known as www.ibm.com.

More about me here.


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