Professionally Speaking

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This month, our columnists discuss what's good (and bad) about the advancement in communication.

We’re going to talk this month about communication tools. How much do you use the telephone? How do you use the telephone? The telephone is an informal medium for communication: Rarely do you present a report or submit an inventory listing by phone. The telephone is primarily used for short information exchanges when the lack of a permanent record is offset by the fact that the information exchange is in real time. Of course, the phone is also used for chatting, making appointments and so on; but the critical thing to remember about talking to someone by phone is that it’s a one-time shot—you can’t retract your words or edit them after some reflection.

The same is true of voicemail. I think voicemail is one of the greatest inventions of the 20th century because it enables you to accomplish the task of communicating information to someone on your schedule, not only when he or she is available. Many hours were wasted using the phone before e-mail came along, as people got busy signals or, at best, were able to leave cryptic messages with a receptionist. And then you had to be at your phone and available when they called back. Even now, I hate getting voicemails that just say, “Please call me.” At least tell me why you want me to call you!

Voicemail also frees us from what one author called, “The tyranny of the ringing telephone.” Have you ever been talking with someone when the person’s phone rings, and he or she interrupts your conversation to answer it? Worse yet, have you ever done this? This is one of my major aggravations. Unless you have caller ID, you have no way of knowing who that phone call is from, its purpose or its level of importance. Yet, because the phone is ringing, the person calling gets immediate priority over whatever you were doing or whoever you were talking with. Do you do that with e-mails? “Oh, excuse me, I have an incoming e-mail that I need to check. It’s probably spam but you never know, and I’m more interested in that than in you.” The great thing about voicemail is that whoever is calling can leave a message that you can get to when your current task is done.

Talking about tyranny: Does your employer make you wear a pager and/or a cell phone? I know there are certain instances where you really need to be reached immediately, such as if you’re the on-call support person for a major hospital. But does your employer expect too much? Or worse, do you react to calls mindlessly? Yes, I’ve heard cell phone calls answered in the men’s room and other inappropriate places. Your cell phone probably has voicemail—use it. One more thing about cell phones: People seem to talk louder when they’re using cell phones, either because of the design or the static. Also, in many cases, users are in public places. Make sure you’re not giving away confidential or competitive information during your train ride into work or your lunch at the food court.

Readers Write In About How They Spend Their Down Time


Here are my picks for technology entertainment:
1. Best book about technology and people: Business At The Speed of Thought, by Bill Gates. Not great on entertainment value but great in showing how technology can positively affect your business and the economy.
2. Best movie about technology: Jurassic Park series. That’s some wicked technology: to be able to synthesize DNA into real creatures. As a life lesson, it shows you the importance of using technology responsibly. Another pick for best movie(s) about technology are the Terminator series. And again, they demonstrate the importance of responsibility when developing technology.
3. Best game about technology: Though I’m not a fan of this game, I think it demonstrates the importance of technology: “Command and Conquer.” You need to have plenty of engineers in order to build your weapons to conquer the world.
4. Best TV show about technology: “Mr. Wizard.” Using ordinary household materials, Mr. Wizard taught us principles of science and technology, and how things work (all very important to us geeks).
—Aaron, MCSA, MCSE
Orion, Michigan

Spare time, eh? I have to admit that most people wouldn’t consider me a techie when they learn how I spend my free time. I play in two hockey leagues, which keeps me busy three nights a week. Sometimes the games start as late as 11pm, which is nice if you got stuck installing MS03-007 the second it came out because someone upstairs doesn’t want to get bit by another “slammer” and doesn’t understand the not all patches need to be installed immediately. One night a week a bunch of us married guys get together to gorge ourselves on gargantuan burgers and beer, usually followed by a quality 80’s flick (the last few weeks we went through the Back to the Future series), or if it is nice out we’ll shoot some hoops or just hang out outside. Lately my wife has talked me in to working out a few times a week (the burgers must be showing) so we will head out to 24 Hour Fitness or ride our bicycles around the lake. On the weekends I like to work out in the garage on any one of my projects like finding and fixing all 67 oil leaks on my motorcycle or riding my mountain bike on one of the local trails.
—Douglas Thomsen, MCSE, ASE
Omaha, Nebraska

The last communications medium discussed here is e-mail. We’ve all heard stories of severely career-limiting e-mails being sent to the wrong people. Sometimes I think there should be some sort of cover over the “send” button—you know, like those plastic shields over the “missile launch” buttons in the movies. Here’s a suggestion for the software people: Because sending the wrong e-mail to the wrong people can be more hazardous than deleting a file, maybe we should get a second chance to send a message. “Are you sure you want to send this e-mail to the entire distribution list of your organization?”

E-mail is somewhere between the informality of a telephone call and the formality of a letter. Because e-mail tends to be spontaneous, we write them as if we were speaking, without regard to the fact that the recipient gets only cold words, without voice tone or facial expressions, to convey the message. I’m not suggesting that you use those silly “emoticons” throughout your e-mails, but I am recommending that you take the time to re-read your messages before you send them—and do it from the recipient’s perspective. You’ll find that a lot of misunderstandings can be avoided.

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