The Low Tech of High Technology

By Jeff Gainer

(Authorís note: This essay appeared in the 14 March 2000 issue of the Cutter IT Journal E-Mail Advisor.) 



Like most consultants, I spend an uncommon amount of time on airplanes. Iíll admit to sometimes actually enjoying the quiet time away from email and telephones to work or read. On a recent flight to a client site, I was poring over the February issue of The Atlantic Monthly. In this issue, James Fallows portrayed his six-month stint as a consultant to Microsoft with ďInside the Leviathan.Ē (The full text of the article is available online at While readers of Cutter publications would not be surprised by most of Fallows observations of the corporate culture of Microsoft and the larger world of software development, I was struck, and later, puzzled, by one paradox. As an industry, we have created a sea change in the way the world works, particularly with telecommuting and the resultant changes in tax and employment law. Yet in the heart of the company where much of the technology to enable these changes was developed, people go to the campus every day, not dialing in from a remote site, but day after day they go to the office for face-to-face meetings to debate about the products they are developing. But the high-tech industry has not embraced the capabilities of remote working that the larger business world has.


But what of email, you ask? Fallows notes journalism and publishing have been dramatically transformed by email in the last half-dozen years. I, for one, have not mailed a hard-copy manuscript to a publisher for five years. The last time I did so, I got a phone call from an editor asking me to email the manuscript instead. In the publishing world, email and Microsoft Word attachments have replaced conversation, debate, and meetings. Conversely, in the software world, email is used to schedule meetings.


What is the lesson of this paradox? I visit up to a dozen companies each year, and my observation is that this meeting-centric culture in central to nearly all of them. And more than once, I have flown cross-country for a single one-hour meeting, which probably could have been handled more conveniently by videoconferencing, or even the telephone. But, in the world that creates high-tech, itís still good old fashioned face-to-face discussion and debates that rule, with low-tech things like whiteboards and colored markers the tools of choice. And until technology finally, if ever, can truly replace in-person meetings, I will continue to accumulate thousands of frequent-flier miles, and every gate agent at the airport in my small Colorado town will continue to know me by name.

-- Jeff Gainer


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(c)1999 Cutter Information Corp. All rights reserved. This article has been reprinted with the permission of the publisher, Cutter Information Corp., provider information resources for IT professionals worldwide.

This article originally appeared in the Cutter IT E-Mail Advisor, March 14, 2000, a supplement to Cutter IT Journal.

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