Behavior

How Reply All wasted $282,000 in 73 minutes

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Just a short article today, as I’m getting ready to spend a week on a mountain island. Why so isolated? Because of Reply All.

The story starts at 11:31 AM on Monday August 3, 2020. That was the timestamp when Cedric made his simple but devastating mistake.

Cedric—a coworker I’ve never met at our 50,000+ employee mega-corporation—replied to an email with a simple request: “Unsubscribe.” Cedric, you see, didn’t want to get spammed with unwarranted emails on that particular email list. Ironic.

But Cedric didn’t realize he was replying all. And that email list had 10,664 people on it. Cedric made a simple boo-boo. But he set off a ripple of human shortcomings that likely cost hundreds of thousands of dollars in damage.

The Reply All Timeline

Cedric’s initial email was at 11:31 AM.

That first email didn’t even have body text. Just a subject line of “Unsubscribe.” Within 9 minutes, four more people Replied All with similar requests. Ughspam! Take me off this list, they asked.

And then, at 11:40 AM, the first “Please Stop” email arrived. It said,

“To those replying to this email to be removed, you need to submit an IT Service Now ticket. It doesn’t work to simply reply ‘unsubscribe.'”

Not only did Cedric and others reply to 10,000+ people, but their requests (to Unsubscribe) were misplaced. Nobody on the email list could help them.

But this sixth email provided all 10,000+ people with a solution! Cedric (and four others) made a mistake, but this sixth coworker identified that mistake and provided corrective action. Woohoo! Issue closed, right?

Yet the emails kept coming. There would be 20 more emails in the next 5 minutes. Confusion, frustration, spam. More people asking to Unsubscribe and more people (mostly angry) begging to stop replying all!

At 11:45 AM, a new category of email cropped up: the joke. It was inevitable. Some people make innocent mistakes. Some reply with misguided frustration or helpful corrective action. Others make a joke of it all.

Out of all the jokes that would follow, this one was my favorite (you might have to be a Star Trek fan to know the reference).

A full-on Reply All avalanche

We were all humorously frustrated with the avalanche that Cedric triggered.

By noon, there were 20 “Unsubscribe” emails, 28 “Please Stop Replying All” emails, and 10 joke emails. Everyone around me was talking about it, laughing about it, asking each other how to set-up Outlook rules to divert new emails straight to the Spam box.

By the end, there would be 24 “Unsubscribe” emails, 38 “Please Stop Replying All” emails, and 32 joke emails. 94 in total.

The last 20 minutes of the deluge was IT and software guys cracking jokes to one another…and to the other 10,000 people on the list.

Another sarcastic coworker went ahead and applied some Best Interest thinking to the situation. Assuming that most people on the list were reading the emails as they came in, each Reply All was costing the company thousands of dollars.

Note: $100/hour cost is significantly different than an employee’s wage/salary. Cost includes stuff like keeping the lights on and paying for general/administrative charges.

“Please remove me from this blog post”

Why? Why did this happen? There are hundreds of reasons, most dealing with human shortcomings.

We…

  • …don’t read enough.
  • …want to help and think we know how.
  • …want control.
  • …are in hurry.
  • …don’t understand how other people think.
  • …are blindly struggling in the dark.

A senior engineer who sits close to me lamented, “I’m losing faith in our ability to be a technology company.” I thought his scope was too narrow! I’m more worried about our species on the whole.

But then again, maybe I should be hopeful. After all, out of 10,664 people on the list, 10,570 of them knew that the best action was to keep quiet and let the thing burn-out. That’s over 99% compliance!

And even then, I think my Reply All coworkers really were doing what they thought would help. They were innocently asking to Unsubscribe. They were pleading, “STOP!” in order to save themselves and others some time. They were cracking jokes to bring levity to a frustrating situation. One or two were pretty trollish, but that’s to be expected.

I see the same thing out in the real world on more important topics. The problem (usually) isn’t people choosing to take knowingly evil actions. The problem is confusion and misguided intentions at what good vs. evil actually looks like.

It’s easy to misconstrue or metamorphose poor education into a broken moral compass. We’ve got to be increase our desire to learn and desire to teach. The truth is out there, if only we’d improve at seeking it.

Or maybe I’m just another misguided spammer adding to the cacophony.

Detaching from humanity

At the end of the day, the 94-email thread was a little vexing, eventually funny, and wasted an estimated $282,000 in company time.

Did I Reply All? No. I just took notes on what I thought would become an amusing blog post.

If you have any thoughts, I hope you’ll leave a Reply—or Reply All—in the comments section below. I probably won’t respond for a while as I (understandably) detach to that mountain island.

Thanks for reading the Best Interest.


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About Jesse Cramer

I’m Jesse. I’m an engineer, a new owner of an old home, and an avid reader/writer. If you’d like to comment, ask a question, or simply say hi, leave me a message here, on Twitter (@BestInterest_JC) or on Reddit (u/BestInterestDotBlog). Many of my posts have been directly influenced by my readers. It’s the most fun part of writing this blog. And as always, thanks for reading the Best Interest.
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4 thoughts on “How Reply All wasted $282,000 in 73 minutes

  1. $4,000 trip to the mountain island…you could be using that time to read 14,400 emails. Are you sure that’s in your…best interest?

  2. I wouldn’t be surprised if that episode actually saved the company money. The idea that time spent on this would have been spent productively had it not happened, that’s quite an assumption considering that productivity studies show the average worker spends a lot of time on unproductive activities. I would guess that the camaraderie and shared humor from this probably improved morale and alignment and made the company money.

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