Originally published on Wired.com. 16 January 2012
When Luis Suarez decided to live in a world without e-mail, some of his colleagues thought he was making a mistake. After all, he works for IBM, one of the world’s top vendors of e-mail software.
|IBM's Luis Suarez dumped e-mail four years ago. So far, he's shrunk his inbox by 98 percent. (Photo: Luis Suarez)|
But Suarez was ready to cut the cord. Like any other 21st century white-collar worker, he was bombarded daily with around 40 e-mail messages. More than he wanted to answer.
Suarez — who cut his teeth in the 1990s at IBM’s mainframe tech support center in the Netherlands — is an affable guy. Four years ago, he was working on IBM’s BlueIQ social media team, helping IBM’s salesforce understand social media. It was a hot area, and people wanted to know more. Suarez had developed a reputation as one of IBM’s social media stars, and he was spending more time answering questions and delegating work via e-mail than he wanted. The questions kept coming, and privately, he was getting burned out. “I was getting tired of doing everyone else’s work instead of mine,” he says.
So in February 2008, he all but stopped sending e-mail. He didn’t wipe out his inbox. In fact, he still checks e-mail daily — it takes him about two minutes per day; most messages are internal meeting notifications — and he still uses it for sensitive one-on-one conversations. But for the most part, when people write him, he answers via social media and suggests that they’d be better off chatting via Twitter, Google+, or on Connections, IBM’s internal social network. The idea is that if more of his communication is in the open, he’ll spend less time communicating.
Luis Suarez is an extreme case. But he nicely represents the tech world’s gradual migration away from e-mail and onto social networks and other services. For many, services such as Facebook and Twitter have replaced e-mail, at least in part. Facebook has introduced e-mail addresses to encourage its more than 800 million users to keep their communication on its site, and even an old school tech giant like IBM is moving in this same direction.
Suarez may be the most famous IBMer to drop off the e-mail treadmill, but he isn’t the only one. He reckons that there are still several dozen colleagues who have done the same thing.
Juliana Leong is one of them. Like Suarez, she hasn’t totally done away with e-mail. But when coworkers send her a message, she replies with Connections. It’s more efficient, says Leong, a project manager with IBM’s Office of the CIO. Often, people who ask her questions in public get answers from Leong’s colleagues before she even gets a chance to read them. And those answers remain public, for others to see. That means there are fewer questions for Leong.
She says that her fellow IBMers are paying attention to Suarez.
“He’s a very prominent person in the social community in IBM, so a lot of people like to follow his example,” she says. Exactly how effective they’ve been, Leong doesn’t know, but her office has made reducing e-mail a focus for 2012.
So four years into his brave experiment, Suarez is looking less like a crazy man on an island. (He literally lives on an island: Grand Canary Island, which he moved to a few years ago. He loves the “beaches, sun, and mountains.”) He’s looking more like a visionary.
Carbon Copy? Are You Kidding Me?
Last year, European technology services giant Atos said that it wants to get rid of e-mail by 2014 and a few weeks ago Volkswagen said it was going to turn off BlackBerry e-mail access to some staffers during non-work hours.
When IBM’s new CEO Ginni Rometty released her first message to company employees earlier this month, she posted a video to Connections, rather than sending out a corporate e-mail blast.
Facebook is trying to move users to its own messaging service, something that goes beyond e-mail and instant messages. E-mail alone is too slow, and archaic, according to Molly Graham, who works with Facebook’s mobile group. “Look at that line that we use every day called CC. What does CC even stand for? It stands for carbon copy, which is insane,” she said in November at the Enterprise 2.0 Conference in Santa Clara. “What does that even mean in today’s world’
“When we were doing research for our messaging product, we actually looked at what subject lines people used. And like 80 percent of subject lines are “hey,” “hi,” or left blank. The subject line is outdated. The truth is, e-mail is outdated.”
Though he’s IBM’s poster boy for dropping out of e-mail, even Suarez admits that the inbox and carbon-copy will probably never completely go away. But four years into his experiment, he feels more productive, and almost all of his work is done in the open.
For Suarez, it’s not just more efficient. It’s a nicer way to communicate. There’s a “Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy” kind of passive-aggressiveness to the way many people use corporate e-mail, with the strategic bcc and the cover-your-ass e-mail message. “If you have been using e-mail in a corporate environment, you know that plenty of people use e-mail as a weapon against their own colleagues,” he says. “This was also creating a new way of working where you wouldn't need to justify the work you did. You earned trust from your colleagues by being a lot more public, a lot more open and a lot more transparent in what you do.”
And there’s one more thing. Suarez has lost about 50 pounds since 2008, a feat he at least partially credits to his e-mail aversion. “Since I’m no longer spending much time on e-mail during the day I’ve come up with other things to do,” he says.