Archive for August, 2006

The beta excuse (part 1)

Thursday, August 24th, 2006

I’ve been meaning to start writing more about startup-related stuff – how we get product out, sales and marketing idea/issues/challenges, funding stuff, etc. – in addition to the email-related articles.  Oh, and also toss in some fun stuff about living in the Bay Area like how to eat at Gary Danko last minute or where to get an excellent lunch for under $3.  I’ll get back to the food stuff soon, but right now I’d like to kick off the startup posting with some thoughts on "Beta" as we are beginning our ClearContext IMS 3.0 Beta program.

Back in my enterprise software days, beta was pretty clear.  We’d develop stuff internally, test it, then get everything ready to release and before officially announcing the release, we’d have a small group of customers deploy the software.  In this process, we’d generally find a few bugs and maybe clean up some APIs, expose a couple more things, etc.

At ClearContext we follow a pretty similar path.  Once a new version is more-or-less working, we start using it internally.  At a certain point, we lock down the feature set, stop doing development on new features and start doing formalized testing and bug-fixing on the feature-freeze version of the software.  Once we’ve tested on a number of platforms and fixed all the major bugs we can find,
we move to an "alpha" which we give to a small group of people.  At this point, there are a number of minor bugs left in the software, the occassional major bug, and a lot of usability and fit/finish things to tune.  We use this period to figure out what fine tuning needs to be done to the product to move to a released "GA" (general availability) production release.  After making these changes, we release a "beta" version of the software.  This is more or less the final release, but by putting it in the hands of a wide range of users with all sorts of different environments who use the product in all sorts of different ways, we generally find a few more bugs here as well as some UI/usability suggestions.  We address those issues, then put out a final "release candidate" as a final check prior to marking it our "production release."

This type of progression was for many years more or less standard in the software industry.  People generally had a good idea of what level of stability/polish/etc. to expect from "alpha" "beta" and other such pre-release products.  However, with the advent of web-based software and services, everything has changed.  Beta now can mean anything from "we’re tossing out some crap we threw together yesterday, not sure if it works" to "this service has been running for a very large user base and is really production software, but we haven’t decided on our pricing/revenue model yet or our final feature set, so we’re just calling it beta until we figure all that stuff out."

And this is where things start to become a potential problem as I see a lot of this trend spilling over into non-web based software products as well.  Because now all of a sudden, "beta" can become an excuse to put out shoddy, bug-ridden product that is really more an ad-hoc market test than anything else.  For companies like ours that still deal in real product that we sell to people on a traditional software basis (as opposed to an ad click revenue model or something), this is an important step in the product development process, and the blurring of "beta" lines definitely makes things more confusing to a lot of users out there.

In my next entry, I’ll talk in more detail about how we run our beta process at ClearContext and some of the things I see in "beta excuse" programs out there that I think do nothing but confuse and irritate users.

In the meantime, here are a couple of interesting reads on the topic:

a blog entry from 2004

a WSJ article from 2005

My personal email and task management strategy

Monday, August 14th, 2006

Or, more simply, how I manage my day.

There’s a lot of information out there about email and task management strategies, but many (if not most) of this info is pretty general and focused on high-level strategies and techniques.  I’m going to get much more specific and simply describe how on a daily basis I manage all of my incoming email and associated tasks that get generated.  On a typical day I receive between 100-200 emails.   I usually have 30-50 emails in my inbox when I start the day.  Probably 50 or so of my emails throughout the day are important and require some sort of response/action.  I use a set of techniques that draw from GTD, Total Workday Control, functionality provided by ClearContext IMS, techniques from tons of blogger posts, and tips I’ve come up with over the years to keep my day under control.  With that said, on to the routine:

1. Check the calendar.  This sort of structures the day in my head.  I use a calendar view from Michael Linenberger’s TWC that also displays my current and overdue tasks.  So, at a glance, I have a quick idea of what my day is going to be like.  Sounds silly and simple, but I find this to be a helpful thing to do first thing.

2. I have a handful of newsletters that I review every day (VentureWire, Ferris Research news, a few other daily/weekly ones).  ClearContext AutoAssign rules tags them with a topic name.  I take a quick glance at them and then hit either File (and ClearContext automatically files them to the appropriate folder) or Delete.  I generally spend less than 5 minutes total on this step.

3. I then have a variety of sales reports, sales activity, and support threads that I’m copied on.  All of these are automatically tagged with topics as well.   These are generally just for review and don’t require any action by me.  I take a quick scan of these and see if there’s anything I want to actually jump into, then hit File Topic to file all of them into the appropriate folders.  This takes about 5-15 minutes depending on the nature of the emails that day.

4. Next I review all the stuff at the bottom of new email that ClearContext has colored black or grey.  Most spam is already filtered out, this stuff generally consists of a couple of spam messages that snuck in plus random crap from companies like Dell, United, AA, etc.  It takes all of about 1 minute to take a quick scan of all this stuff and hit delete.

5. I next look at the remaining emails and spend 10-15 minutes responding to everything I know I will be able to provide a quick response to.  90+% of the time I know from the sender/subject which emails will be like this and which ones will require more time.

6. Now I move into what I really like about the GTD system.  I hit the ClearContext Task button and create tasks for all emails that require some real action besides a simple response.  Also I can hit the ClearContext Schedule button to create appointments.  The benefit of ClearContext IMS here is that these tasks/appointments are automatically linked to the email threads, so when I get around to doing these things, I can look at the ClearContext RelatedView to see all related messages and tasks/appointments.  The GTD technique of creating tasks and moving these emails out of the inbox definitely helps me stay more organized and have an accurate idea of what my workload is really like.

7. I typically next have one or two lengthy responses that I need to get to.  By going through the prior steps, I manage to very quickly get through a lot of small tasks rather than get caught up in any longer tasks at the start of my day, which can lead to a lot of things getting backed up.

8. After going through these steps, I’m generally left with only a couple of new unhandled emails in my inbox that I’ll need to do something with later in the day.

9. Throughout the day, on about an hourly basis (ok, every 20-30 minutes), I check my email.  I have Outlook set up so I need to hit send/receive to get new email.  By doing that, when I’m involved in a very focused task, I get to concentrate on that without my email indicator popping up and tempting me to get distracted.  When I do check email, I only pay attention to the email that ClearContext has prioritized as "Normal" or higher and ignore all lower priority email until later.  This week’s TicketWeb and Independent concert lists can probably wait until later.

10. Every few hours I’ll take a quick scan of all my email including the lower priority stuff and file/delete/process as appropriate.

11. At the end of the day, I review all pending tasks and either complete them or reprioritize them. I try to stay pretty on top of this and try to be realistic about when I’m really going to have time to address something.

12. The next end of day task I do is look at how many messages are in my inbox.  If my inbox has grown from the day before, I make myself handle a few more emails before calling it a day.  RIght now this means that my Inbox stays between 20-25 emails.  Hopefully I’ll get that to zero soon.

13. Finally, once (ok, three times) in the evening/night I check my email and respond to some late emails, sort of a head start on the next day’s processing.

I’ve been using this specific process for a number of months now, and for one of the first times in a long time I feel like I’m really on top of what I need to get done, am very responsive to others, and don’t feel constantly behind or overwhelmed.  Hopefully some of these techniques will be helpful for your specific day-to-day email and task management needs, and perhaps some of you will share some of your own personal strategies.

What your inbox says about you

Friday, August 11th, 2006

Interesting WSJ article on how your email management techniques say a lot about you.  A few interesting quotes:

discovering that the disorder in our inboxes mirrors the disorder in
our homes, marriages and checkbooks."

"When you’re quick to respond with
offers of help, ‘people use email to turn their crisis into your
emergency,’ she says."

"If you have 1,000 emails
in your inbox, it may mean you don’t want to miss an opportunity, but
there are things you can’t pull the trigger on," Dr. Greenfield says.
"If you have only 10 emails in your inbox, you may be pulling the
trigger too fast and missing the richness of life."

The article is definitely worth reading and a lot of it rings true.  For those of you who fit somewhere in the middle of the two extremes, I hope you’ll give my 10-a-day suggestion a try.

Inbox Survival Tip #1 : Ten a day

Monday, August 7th, 2006

Alright, I guess this implies more tips to come, so hopefully I can figure some out.  And sometime in the near future I’m going to write a lengthy description of my personal email management techniques.

But, in the meantime, here’s a simple tip I used to help get my email life under control.  I just looked at my inbox a while back (at the time it had about 400 emails in it that required some type of action – a response, a task, filing, followup, whatever) and gave myself a simple goal: I would end every day with ten less emails in my inbox than the day before.

I actually beat that goal by a bit, and after a month my Inbox was down to about 20 and lately has been floating between 20 and 30.  I do have intentions of getting it down to empty, but the difference in stress reduction and time savings already is amazing to me.  I’m not sure how much is real improvement and how much is psychological, but my workday is just so much smoother with an inbox like this.

Now, some of you have 10,000 emails sitting in your inbox and will have to wait until I write a much broader scope email management post.  But for those of you who have 100-1000 emails in your inbox, I hope you give this simple task a try.  It’s very easy to stick to and the benefits are amazing.

Email work is real work

Thursday, August 3rd, 2006

Danyel asked me for some clarification on one of the points I made in my Email Overload Scale blog entry.  I wrote "But, more importantly, businesses need to understand the impact that
excessive use of email can have on overall productivity and create an
overall corporate email usage strategy that takes that into account.

His question was what it was I thought they should actually do then to communicate tasks – send less email?  Have less tasks (YESYESYES!!!)? What?

Here’s what I replied:

What I was referring to here was that companies often do not seem to recognize somewhat ad-hoc work generated within email as “real work.”  I see this in many situations where a company will be working on a project off a project plan (in my case, this is generally in the context of software development companies or consulting firms) and schedule the activities of a team based on the “assigned” tasks they have from that plan.  The reality, however, is that most people have two sets of things eating up their time – a set of “real” project tasks (customer work, development work, sales leads, marketing collateral, etc) that is the core, and a parallel set of tasks that are generated in a more ad-hoc fashion via email.  Not recognizing that second set of tasks when running a business is imo a large reason for projects running behind schedule and people feeling overwhelmed and overworked.

So, when I speak of businesses recognizing this, I’m talking about treating email as another resource usage mechanism and managing it just like all other aspects of a project plan.

To do this means incorporating a level of metrics and measurement into email and integrating this into broader business planning, definitely incorporating some concept of scoping as you allude to regarding sizes of tasks.

Which brings up the interesting topic of metrics and measurement and how much awareness we really have about where our time is spent (besides the fact that we know it just disappears).  I’ll give some initial thoughts on this in my next post. 

BTW, since we’re in alpha mode and I’m supposed to be helping out with a lot of testing (which I love SO MUCH), I suspect my blogging frequency will increase dramatically over the next few weeks.