Slacking Off

A Candlestick Phone (image courtesy of WIkipedia)

A Candlestick Phone (image courtesy of WIkipedia)

There’s a great piece today on how Slack is causing disruption in people’s work habits. Slack is a program that has dedicated itself to getting rid of email, yet we now find ourselves mired in Slack team after Slack team. I believe the real issue isn’t with Slack but instead with the way that our brains are wired to handle communication.

Interrupt Driven

People get interrupted all the time. It’s a fact of life if you work in business, not just IT. Even if you have your head down typing away at a keyboard and you’ve closed out all other forms of distraction, a pop up from an email or a ringing or vibrating phone will jar your concentration out of the groove and force your brain to deal with this new intruder into your solitude.

That’s evolution working against you. When we were hunters and gatherers our brain had to learn how to deal with external threats when we were focused on a task like stalking a mammoth or looking for sprouts on the forest floor. Our eyes are even developed to take advantage of this. Your peripheral vision will pick up movement first, followed by color, then finally it can discern the shape of an object. So when your email notifier slides out from the system tray or notification window it triggers your primitive need to address the situation.

In the modern world we don’t hunt mammoths or forage for shoots any longer. Instead, our survival instinct has been replaced by the need to answer communications as fast as possible. At first it was returning phone calls before the end of the day. Then it became answering emails expediently. That changed into sending an immediate email response that you had seen the email and were working on a response. Then came instant messaging for corporate environments and the idea of “presence”, which allows everyone to know what you’re doing and when you’re doing it. Which has led us to ever presence – the idea that we’re never really not available.

Think about the last time you saw someone was marked unavailable in a chat window and you sent the message anyway. Perhaps you thought they would see the message the next time they logged in or returned to their terminal. Or perhaps you guessed that they had set their status as away to avoid distraction. Either way, the first thought you had was that this person wasn’t really gone and was available.

Instant messaging programs like Slack bridge the gap because synchronous communications channels like phone calls and asynchronous channels like email. In the past, we could deal with phone calls because it required the attention of both parties involved. A single channel was opened and it was very apparent that you were holding a conversation, at least until the invention of call waiting. On the other hand, email is asynchronous by nature because we can put all of our thoughts down in a single message over the course of minutes or even hours and send it into the void. Reliable delivery ensures that it will make it to the destination but we don’t know when it will be read. We don’t know when the response will come or in what form. The receiving party may not even read your message!

The Need to Please

Think back to the last time you responded to an email. How often did you start your response with “Sorry for the delay” or some version of that phrase? In today’s society, we’ve become accustomed to instant responses to things. Amy Lewis (@CommsNinja) is famous for having an escalation process for reaching her:

  1. Text message
  2. Twitter DM
  3. Email
  4. Phone Call
  5. Anything else
  6. Voice mail

She prefers instant communication and rapid response. In a lot of cases, this is very crucial. If you need an answer to a question quickly there are ways to reach people for immediate reply. But the desire to have immediate response for all forms of communication is a bit much.

Our brains don’t help us in this matter. When we get an email or a communication from someone, we feel compelled to respond to it. It’s like a checkbox that needs to be checked. And so we will drop everything else to work on a reply even if it means we’re displeasing someone for a short time to please someone immediately.

Many of the time management systems that have been created to deal with massive email flows, such as GTD are centered on the idea of dealing with things as the come in and pigeonholing them until they can be dealt with appropriately. By treating everything the same you disappoint everyone equally until everything can evaluated. There are cutouts for high priority communications, but the methods themselves tell you to keep those exceptions small and rare so as not to disrupt the flow of things.

The key to having coherent and meaningful conversations with other people is the same online as it is in person. Rather than speaking before you think, you should take the time to consider your thoughts and respond with appropriately measured words. It’s easier to do this via email since there is built-in delay but it works just the same in instant message conversations as well. An extra minute of thought won’t make someone angry with you, but not taking that extra minute could make someone very cross with you down the road.

Tom’s Take

I agree with people that say Slack is great for small teams spread everywhere to help categorize thoughts and keep projects on track. It takes away the need for a lot of status update emails and digests of communications. It won’t entirely replace email for communications and it shouldn’t be seen that way. Instead, the important thing to realize about programs like Slack is that they will start pushing your response style more toward quick replies with little information. You will need to make a conscious decision to push back a bit to make measured responses to things with more information and less response for the sake of responding. When you do you’ll find that instant messaging tools augment your communications instead of complicating them.

CCIE Loses Its Voice

ccievThe world we live in is constantly adapting and changing to new communications methods.  I can still remember having a party line telephone when I was a kid.  I’ve graduated to using landlines, cellular phones, email, instant messaging, text messaging, and even the occasional video call.  There are more methods to contact people than I can count on both hands.  This change is also being reflected in the workforce as well.  People who just a few years ago felt comfortable having a desk phone and simple voice mail are now embracing instant messaging with presence integration and unified voice mail as well as single number reach to their mobile devices.  It’s a brave new world that a voice engineer is going to need to understand in depth.

To that end, Cisco has decided to retire the CCIE Voice in favor of an updated track that will be christened the CCIE Collaboration.  Note that they aren’t merely changing the blueprint like they have in the past with the CCIE SP or the CCIE R&S.  This is like the CCIE Storage being moved aside for the CCIE Data Center.  The radical shift in content of the exam should be a tip-off to the candidates that this isn’t going to be the same old voice stuff with a few new bells and whistles.

Name That Tune

The lab equipment and software list (CCO account required) includes a bump to CUCM 9.1 for the call processor, as well as various 9.x versions of Unity Connection, Presence, and CUCME.  There’s also a UCS C460, which isn’t too surprising with CUCM being a virtualized product now.  The hardware is rounded out with 2921 and 3925 routers as well as a 3750-X switch.  The most curious inclusion is the Cisco Jabber Video for Telepresence.  That right there is the key to the whole “collaboration” focus on this exam.  There is a 9971 phone listed as an item.  I can almost guarantee you’re going to have to make a video call from the 9971 to the video soft client in Cisco Jabber.  That’s all made possible thanks to Cisco’s integration of video in CUCM in 9.1.  This has been their strategy all along.

The CCIE Voice is considered one of the hardest certifications to get, even among the CCIE family.  It’s not that there is any one specific task to configure that just wrecks candidates.  The real issue is the amount of tasks that must be configured.  Especially when you consider that a simple 3-point task to get the remote site dial plan up and running could take a couple of hours of configuration.  Add in the integrated troubleshooting section that requires you to find a problem after you’ve already configured it incorrectly and you can see why this monster is such a hard test.  One has to wonder what adding video and other advanced topics like presence integration into the lab is going to do to the amount of time the candidate has to configure things.  It was already hard to get done in 8 hours.  I’m going to guess it’s downright impossible to do it in the CCIE Collaboration.  My best guess is that you are going to see versions of the test that are video-centric as well as ones that are voice-centric.  There’s going to be a lot of overlap between the two, but you can’t go into the lab thinking you’re guaranteed to get a video lab.

Hitting the Wrong Notes

There also seems to have been a lot of discussion about the retirement of the CCIE Voice track as opposed to creating a CCIE Voice version 4 track with added video.  In fact, there are some documents out there related to the CCIE Collaboration that reference a CCIE Voice v4.  The majority of discussion seems to be around the CCIE Voice folks getting “grandfathered” into a CCIE Collaboration title.  While I realize that the change in the name was mostly driven about the marketing of the greater collaboration story, I still don’t think that there should be any automatic granting of the Collaboration title.

The CCIE Collaboration is a different test.  While the blueprint may be 75% the same, there’s still the added video component to take into account (as well as cluster configuration for multiple CUCM servers).  People want an upgrade test to let the CCIE Voice become a CCIE Collaboration.  They have one already: the CCIE Collaboration lab exam.  If the title is that important, you should take that lab exam and pass it to earn your new credential.  The fact that there is precedent for this with the migration of the Storage track to Data Center shows that Cisco wants to keep the certifications current and fresh.  While Routing & Switching and Security see content refreshes, they are still largely the same at the core.  I would argue that the CCIE Collaboration will be a different exam in feel, even if not in blueprint or technology.  The focus on IM, presence and video means that there’s going to be an entirely different tone.  Cisco wants to be sure that the folks displaying the credential are really certified to work on it according to the test objectives.  I can tell you that there was serious consideration around allowing Storage candidates to take some sort of upgrade exam to get to the CCIE Data Center, but it looks like that was ultimately dropped in favor of making everyone go through the curriculum.  The retirement of the CCIE Voice doesn’t make you any less of a CCIE.  Like it or not, it looks like the only way to earn the CCIE Collaboration is going to be in the trenches.

It Ain’t Over Until…

The sunsetting officially starts on November 20th, 2013.  That’s the last day to take the CCIE Voice written.  Starting the next day (the 21st) you can only take the Collaboration written exam.  Thankfully, you can use either the Voice written or the Collaboration written exam to qualify for either lab.  That’s good until February 13, 2014.  That’s the last day to take the CCIE Voice lab.  Starting the next day (Valentine’s Day 2014), you will only be able to take the Collaboration lab exam.  If you want to get an idea of what is going to be tested on the lab exam, check out the document on the Cisco Learning Network (CCO account required).

If you’d like to read more about the changes from professional CCIE trainers, check out Vik  Malhi (@vikmalhi) on IPExpert’s blog.  You can also read Mark Snow’s (@highspeedsnow) take on things at INE’s blog.

Tom’s Take

Nothing lasts forever, especially in the technology world.  New gadgets and methods come out all the time to supplant the old guard.  In the world of communications and collaboration, Cisco is trying to blaze a trail towards business video as well as showing the industry that collaboration is more than just a desk phone and a voice mailbox.  That vision has seen some bumps along the way but Cisco seems to have finally decided on a course.  That means that the CCIE Voice has reached the apex of potential.  It is high time for something new and different to come along and push the collaboration agenda to the logical end.  Cisco has already created a new CCIE to support their data center ambitions.  I’m surprised it took them this long to bring business video and non-voice communications to the forefront.  While I am sad to see the CCIE Voice fade away, I’m sure the CCIE Collaboration is going to be a whole new barrel of fun.