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The Right Tool for the Right Job!


The plaque above was my father’s. I saw it almost every day of my life when I lived with my parents, and it’s now in my home. (I also have a version that my father made for me hanging at work, but I haven’t seen it in over a year due to COVID-19).


I was not able to confirm the origin of the quote, but what I found suggests an interesting story. Wikiquote notes it as being misattributed to Alan Greenspan (https://en.wikiquote.org/wiki/Alan_Greenspan - former Chairman of the US Federal reserve) in 2003, and states that in 1984, the quote was attributed to Robert McCloskey of the US State Department, in an unspecified press briefing during the Vietnam war. Other notes suggest Richard Nixon and Jerry Lewis, but all I know for certain is that it originated before the mid-1970’s as I remember it that far back, so the late 1960’s seems plausible.


If there is a single skill that everyone needs, particularly in the current day, that skill is communication. Human interaction is based on getting ideas from one brain to another, and language is our primary medium for doing so.


Communication (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Communication) is a term which most people assume they understand, but turns out to be vastly more complex the moment you start looking into it. I find the Wikipedia introduction to be quite good: “Communication is the act of developing meaning among entities or groups through the use of sufficiently mutually understood signs, symbols, and semiotic conventions.”


Wow! What does that even mean? I actually find the fact that it’s necessary to define all of the terms before you can even begin to define the concept wonderfully entertaining. It’s reminiscent of the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Hitchhiker%27s_Guide_to_the_Galaxy) bit I’ve mentioned before where an alien race spends 7.5 million years figuring out the answer to the ultimate question of life, the universe, and everything. After they get the answer, they need to spend another 10 million years trying to figure out the question.


When it comes to communication, you could start chasing down the definitions of the words used in the definition, most of which are entire fields of study in their own rights. For example, the word “meaning” in the definition above leads to the field of semantics, which is the “study of meaning, reference, or truth” – er, do we want to look at that from the perspective of linguistics? Philosophy? Computer Science?


Alternatively, you could look at the scientific study of communication, which includes things like information theory, communication studies, biosemiotics, and biocommunication. All of these, of course, are fields of study on which people spend entire careers.


Or, maybe we should look at something more practical, like communication as public speaking, rhetoric, literature, language, philosophy... Right.


“It’s complicated” doesn’t even begin to scratch the surface.


How about making things simpler, and just look at how humans communicate?


Sure. Verbal? Non-verbal? How about the social and cultural frameworks we use to...


WAIT! Let’s trim that down a bit more, and focus on electronic communication in a work context, and discuss the relative merits of a few of the tools we use...


I guess that’s a bit better. Probably only a few hundred books worth of content there, right?


So, to really drill down, let’s talk about messaging tools, email, and documents as distinct entities. Some of the distinctions will be artificial, as many platforms now include features of all of these (and more), which will certainly evolve over time. It’s interesting to wonder about the degree to which we will change the communication tools and the degree to which the communication tools will change us. There’s a fascinating collection of rabbit-holes in the discipline of Media Studies (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Media_studies), including the famous quote by the Canadian philosopher Marshall McLuhan (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Marshall_McLuhan) that “the medium is the message.”

For now, though, let’s define “messaging” as tools which are the online equivalent of hallway chats, setting aside the enormous value of actual voice and face-to-face communications for another time. Messaging is generally best suited to small-scale back-and-forth collaboration around working through the details of something.


“Email” can be defined as a bit more formal, and works best as a way of communicating slightly larger-scale items, or helping to document the decisions made at the more detailed levels. Depending on the size/scope of an issue, email might be the only “documentation” required.

“Documents” are used to (more or less) formally record decisions and policy positions. They can (and should) be edited and refined over time, and it’s sometimes useful (or required) to track changes as they are made.

So, let’s say we are building a specification for the next “killer app”, a personal Kanban board (https://www.til-technology.com/post/kanban-poc), and we have a small team working on it, consisting of our friends Alice and Bob (who we first met when we discussed hashing - https://www.til-technology.com/post/infosec-basics-hashing). While we may start off very informally, we’ll eventually want to build a document describing the features and functionality of the tool. This could be in a variety of file formats, or documented on a wiki, or other shared environment. The details are not relevant – the main point is that this is an enduring document intended to provide the “official” position.


Alice and Bob get together in person to build the first draft of the document and then post it. It’s wonderful, but will require updates over time, and Alice and Bob will probably not be able to meet in person for quite a while.

Everything is going well, until Alice realizes that they haven’t documented how to handle multi-factor authentication (https://www.til-technology.com/post/infosec-basics-multi-factor-authentication) for the tool in enough detail. Of course the tool will need to support MFA, and the preference is for a soft-token (eg, Google Authenticator, Authy, or Okta), but the question is whether the tool should support the use of “SMS” (ie, sending a text-message to a registered phone number) as an option. SMS is no longer considered secure, both due to “SIM-swapping” attacks, and to more recent spoofing attacks, but it’s still better than nothing... or should we just not allow it?


Scenario 1:

Alice writes a ten-paragraph email to Bob, outlining why SMS is no longer secure and should not be used. Bob doesn’t follow all of the details, so asks for clarifications on several items. Alice then -

No! Stop! Multiple back-and-forth emails explaining things is a huge waste of time – and that’s just with two people. If you have a larger team, it gets even worse.

Scenario 2:

Alice wants to get a quick answer so the documentation can be updated, and sends a “one-liner” email to Bob asking whether the tool should support SMS MFA. Bob doesn’t respond immediately, so Alice sends a follow-up a few hours later, to which Bob responds: “What’s SMS MFA?” After a dozen more emails, Eve (who has been cc’d on all of this) responds to both of them: “GET ON A CALL AND FIGURE IT OUT!!!”

Key point (and one of my long-standing pet-peeves). There is NO reasonable expectation that people will respond to an email within minutes (or even hours) of receiving it. Email is NOT the same as messaging!

Scenario 3:

Alice wants a quick answer, so reaches out to Bob via messaging app:

A: Hey! SMS MFA?
B: LOL, who dat?
A: RLY? U know
A: Second code, after you enter password
A: TLDR: Text message (SMS) not secure, but better than nothing?
B: OIC If we don’t support, will it cost more $?
A: No, Maybe a bit less
B: Will we lose users?
A: Prob not, AFAIK
A: Lots using Google, Authy, Okta now
B: Ok - don’t support it
A: Thx! Email to confirm. Cya!
B: Ciao!

Alice then sends a brief email to summarize their discussion and get a confirmation from Bob (or possibly Eve). Bob replies “Confirmed. No SMS MFA.”, and Alice updates the document.

This is a reasonably “happy path”, where Alice and Bob get a quick resolution via messaging, document/confirm understanding via email (for any other parties who may have an opinion or need to approve), then update the formal documentation.

TLDR: Use the right tool for the right job! Just like the old Night Court (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Night_Court) episode where there is a cardboard box (contents not visible to the audience) supposedly containing the “props” for an illegal “live sex show”. The prosecutor (Dan Fielding, who is well-known for his sexual endeavours) looks in the box, scoffs, and reaches in, saying something like: “Amateurs! When will people learn? The right tool for the right job!” as he pulls out an egg beater.

Cheers!

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