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December, 1993

TooBusy Alligators actually comprise a family of red-eyed uglies: VoiceMail Alligators, In-A-Meeting Alligators, and their sad cousins, Allnight Alligators. The feral TooBusies have recently become so much a part of the multimedia swamps that developers have wrongly begun to accept them as an established feature of the landscape.

Norwegian ship rats and German cockroaches have annoyed seafaring mariners for centuries. Despite rat guards, frequent fumigations, poisons, and immaculately-kept galleys, no solution or prophylaxis ever employed have provided total relief from these nuisances. Like rats and cockroaches, American TooBusy Alligators are beginning to find residence in the bilges and working areas of multimedia development, and they should be gotten under control soon lest this well-intentioned, hard-working, start-up industry be overwhelmed by the nasty vermin. Here are a few sightings that may help you identify them and their spoor.

The VoiceMail Alligator: You were up all night with your development team building a fast prototype for a bid, and discovered a major mistake in the artwork submitted by your potential client. At 9:45 a.m. you phone Pam Stone, your client contact, so you can find out how they want to handle it. Bids are due on Tuesday, next day. "Hi, this is Pam. Today is Monday the 20th, and I am in the office but either on the phone or away from my desk. Please leave your name and number so I can get back to you..." At 1:30 p.m. you call again. Same message. This time you press "0" for a live-person assistant. "I'm sorry, Pam's on her line, can I give you her voice mail?" Your team is back in the office and waiting to make changes; the tail of the PhoneMail Alligator flickers briefly in your peripheral vision. "No thanks, I've already left a message." At 2:15 p.m. you call again and get phone mail, so you dial out to the live assistant again. "I'm sorry. Pam's in a meeting now. Can I connect you to her voice mail?" Whump! The alligator's tail whacks the ground behind your feet; you feel its hot breath. At 3:10 p.m. you call again, get voice mail, dial out, and the assistant tells you Pam's busy on the phone. "Can I connect you to her voice mail?" You tell her No Thanks, you will hold. "She's on long-distance, it might be a while. Can I give you her voice mail?" No that's OK, you don't mind holding. Remain sweet and gentle.

Holding gets 'em every time. It's a function that is still part of the telephone rules and described in most manuals for complicated office switches, but tooBusy companies just aren't ready for the real thing. Receptionists have to pay attention to blinking lights and respond to automatic reminders. If you have a speaker phone, let the call sit there as long as it takes -- sometimes you will get uplifting elevator music. Nail the VoiceMail Alligator. Breach their phone defenses.

At a trade show dinner the other night, we heard management people from three different but well-known computer industry companies complaining/bragging about their voiceMail and eMail backlogs. "I had twenty-two eMail messages when I got back to the office yesterday. MY voice mail had 37 calls waiting, and quit working..." "I was standing in the damn phone booth at JFK and my pen ran out of ink half-way through," one proudly explained, "But I kept writing anyway. On the plane I was able to rub out my notes with a pencil... we used to do that on tombstones in New Hampshire..."

The unsaid sad fact missed by all of these "mine is worse than yours" commentators is that nobody can get their work done under this kind of communication pressure, and it's nothing to brag about. From the caller's end, if you don't know the person you are trying to reach, you may end up at the end of the priority list, and never receive a call-back at all. From the recipient's end of this long list, you just plain need more staff and some reorganization to do your job right. Hire them!

Returning phone calls is not only a matter of politeness, but necessary for business success. Don't let our multimedia business ettiquette degrade to the way they do it in other places, like health insurance offices, county zoning and permit departments, and at the IRS where they are mandated to provide service but don't know what service is.

The Allnight Alligator slithers into a developer's life under tooBusy circumstances. It's because there isn't enough time in the course of your normal day to do the creative or support work required of your projects. So you pick up the slack after the kids are down and your spouse is in bed, or by foregoing Friday night's dinner and dance invitation from your special friend. In most of these cases, too, work performed by you after 7 p.m. is never accounted or billable. Estimators rarely include this special time in their costing analyses.

Working late on projects or other aspects of your multimedia job seems to be a requirement in today's leading-edge environments. Stop! Fix this with better planing, scheduling, and more efficient work habits, or else you will find yourself working on Christmas Eve, preparing some company's January trade show extravangaza instead of having milk and cookies as Santa Claus. If you still can't get away from the Allnight Alligator, demand a free trip to Maui when the job is done!

The time you spend on the learning curve late at night, however, you should view as personal betterment. With the VoiceMail and eMail Alligators snapping at your backside during the nine-to-five part of your day, this may be the only time you have to relax with a new piece of software or some technical journals. At 2:00 a.m., the Allnight Alligator with its hypnotically seductive eye-to-eye stare can still freeze in place. The software is REALLY neat. You REALLY need to understand it so you can use it. You try new features, program another routine. It's TOO COOL. Then the sun is coming up and you have a 9:00 meeting.

Jump on the learning curve with glee and abandon. Learning is good, and if you do it at 4 a.m., it's OK. But schedule yourself so you get at least enough sleep to endure the coming workday again in the TooBusy swamps. If you are totally beat, the TooBusy Alligators will find you defenseless, and when they are done with you they'll spit the bones of your tired mistakes onto the wet sand.