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Email Jail

It started off with a conversation like this:

Dave: “We are going to turn off access to your email while you are on vacation”

Me: “What?!??!! How much access? What about emergency issues?”

Dave: “Yes, your Exchange account will be turned off on the evening your vacation starts and then enabled again when you return”

Me: “What if a server goes down? What if a client needs something critical? What if there is a major disaster that needs to be fixed?”

Dave: “We will be fine for a few days, your only task is to document the process when you return”

So the journey began. I had always kept track of my email on holidays (not obsessively in my opinion) but in moderation to see if there were critical items that needed to be addresses by me. I mainly did this so that I did not have to spend one to two days digging out of a huge inbox collection that would build up while I was away. I also wanted to make sure that nothing was dropped while I was away and there would not be a huge issue awaiting for me upon my return.

As I was closing out items on my last day before holiday I went through the usual processes. I setup my out of office message informing anyone who contacted me via email that I would be unable to respond until I returned and to contact our main office if it was an emergency. I discussed with my team outstanding items and gave them my personal email address to contact me in case there was an extreme emergency. I went through my items in progress, help desk tickets and outstanding sales items. Everything was ready for the transition, except I received an emergency call from a client 20 minutes before the cutoff point. I started to work the issue and gave as much assistance as I could before rapidly writing notes to pass along to another sales engineer.

Person looking over a ledge

Into the Great Unknown

Then it happened…..

I received the personal email that my account was disabled. I immediately checked my accounts and sure enough, there was no access. Many things went through my head at this point. I could login with the admin account and simply turn my account back on with no one noticing. But in the spirit of the experiment I resisted this temptation. I did see that I still had access to my Skype and help desk accounts so I can check moderate things but overall my main email was now locked.

During the Lockout Period

Danger sign

After going through the entire night without email I awoke with a bit of panic. My usual morning routine is to clear out the email items that have collected the night before, issue responses and in general give a little maintenance to my inbox. It felt really unnatural to not start my day with an activity that I almost religiously do.

My wife was enjoying her morning coffee and in our conversation I kept bringing up the fact that I could not check in on things and did not know the status of certain items. My wife especially enjoyed seeing me squirm as she is very appreciative of the experiment. After about an hour or so, I started to do other tasks around the house and my mind slowly forgot about my earlier panic. By noon I was easing into holiday mode and things were getting easier and easier to forget.

By the time that dinner rolled around I started to feel the need to check on items. I work about an 8 hour time difference from our head office and the early afternoon to evening is when the most activity occurs for me.  Again it really felt like an out of body experience.  I actually opened my iPad and pulled my inbox down in hopes that a refresh would magically happen.  It did not.

I awoke the second day still missing my morning routine but today came with more ease.   Thoughts of checking entered and left my mind with not much distraction during my day.  Since we did not have internet at the house where we were staying, I was only reminded of checking when my wife’s sister’s kids complained about not being able to check Facebook or download the latest app for their phone or iPad.  We did go into town for dinner this evening and there was WiFi at the restaurant and made you could tell.  EVERYONE had their phones out and were taking pictures of the dinner, posting them to Facebook and other services.   Which makes me ask the question.  Is is more important to have proof you did something than actually doing it?

I did not bring my phone but forgot that I had my Skype account installed on my wife’s phone.  When she connected to the WiFi there was a message on that account.   We argued about me checking it but I defended this by saying that I was still on the hook for personal email and did not have access the majority of the time and a Skype message counted as reaching out through personal mediums for a response.   It turned out to be a client that I have a very good connection with (we had done business when he was on holiday earlier this year).   He had a simple question that needed to be answered.   I responded to him via personal email explaining my email situation and that I could get a response in the next 2 hours if he emailed me his question.   He simply responded “It’s OK, it is not urgent and we will address it next week.  Have a good vacation.”   At that point my mind was completely put at ease that if the most crucial clients accepted I was away then everyone else probably did as well.

Bliss.   Really that is all I can say.   Things finally reached normality again and it felt like when I was a kids (when there was not or very, very, very, unbearably slow internet.  Think BBS boards).   We spent all of our time outside enjoying the weather at a nearby lake.   We created games from imaginations and surroundings as well as remembering a few old games (for those of you who don’t know CUPS [not the printing service] ours was not as polished as the video though).  Basically it felt like summer holiday should be.   We also had some of the kids mention that they had not been able to have real conversations because either they or their parents were on their phone or tablet most of the time at home.  There has been a recent video going viral on the web that I think does a very good job illustrating this point “I Forgot my Phone”.  A large family cookout that night making Hungarian Gulyás certainly washed away any thoughts of checking email.

Anxiety.  I thought I would wake up to the same euphoria that I had experienced the previous day but that was not the case.   I had an uneasy feeling of anxiety about what was going to be waiting for me upon my return.  Was there some big issue that needed my attention that had festered for a few days and was not wildly out of control?   Was there a client with an issue that was probably small but due to my holiday causing additional wait time made their mood needlessly sour upon my return.  Don’t get me wrong, my last day was still great but in the back of my mind I always had these feelings of anxiety creeping in.

First Day Back

mountain of mail graphic

As expected my inbox was stuffed full like a turkey on Thanksgiving.

How much?

Inbox count 1,186.  That may seem extreme to most but keep in mind that part of my job is systems administration and I received a lot of status emails from the various services whether they are running correctly, have a warning or an error still report via email.   All told when the service emails were weeded out I was down to about 350 meaningful messages.  I had considered the “Email Bankruptcy”technique that Wired Magazine suggested but thought that was a bit extreme.  Instead I took the time tested approach of pruning and prioritizing.

How to address them?


I was able to dig out to a relatively stable status in about 2 hours.  I am sure things could be faster when I do this process again as I was doing things for the first time but all in all it was not that bad.

Going Forward

There are a few things that I noticed that I could do to minimize the impact of the email backlog the next time I am away.  Here are some things that I will try in the future to reduce the total amount of email.

Success or Failure?

Overall I have to say that the experiment was a success.   I learned a lot about the habits I keep as well as many things I could improve in my daily processes to be a more efficient user of email.   It was not easy, that I have to say, but it was needed and in the end I became better because of it.  There are a few items to address for the next time I do this experiment of if others try it.

Potential Problems?

Tags Start & End

Tags Can Start & End Anywhere

Appendix B

.NET code for multi-page image output

Appendix A

Java code for multi-page image output

Data Bin Search

The Data Bin can now be searched to find a table, column, node or other piece of data without scrolling through it all.

Shrink to Fit

This will shrink the contents of a cell until it fits the defined cell size.

Time Zone Conversion

A new Windward macro has been added to help with converting dates and times from UTC time to the local time zone.

Image Output Format

New image output formats added.

PostScript Output Format

PostScript, commonly used with printers and printing companies, has been added as an additional output format.

New and Improved Datasets (Designer, Java Engine, .NET Engine)

Datasets have been re-written from scratch to be more powerful and easier to use.

Stored Procedure Wizard (Designer)

This works for all tag types that are connected to a SQL-based data source (Microsoft SQL Server, Oracle, MySQL, or DB2).

Boolean Conditional Wizard (Designer)

Before, conditional statements could only be written manually. Now they can also be built using our intuitive Wizard interface.

Reorganized Ribbon

The ribbon menus have been re-organized and consolidated to improve the report design workflow.

XPath 2.0 as Data Source

Adds various capabilities such as inequalities,descending sort, joins, and other functions.

SQL Select Debugger

SQL Select  Debugger

  • The look and feel was improved
  • Stored Procedure Wizard
  • Improved Exceptions pane

Tag Editor/Tag Selector

Added a Query tab as a field for typing or pasting in a select statement

  • Color Coding of Keywords
  • TypeAhead
  • Evaluate is now "Preview"

Rename a Datasource

All tags using that Data source will be automatically updated with that name.

Connecting to a Data Source

New single interface to replace 2 separate dialog boxes

Tag Tree

Displays of all the tags in the template, structured as they are placed in the template. This provides a simple & intuitive way to see the structure of your template. Also provides the capability to go to any tag and/or see the properties of any tag.

Added Javelin into the RESTful Engine

Support for Google Application Engine Integration

The ability to integrate the Windward Engine into Google’s cloud computing platform for developing and hosting web applications dubbed Google Applications Engine (GAE).

Additional Refinement for HTML Output

  • Improved indentation for ordered and unordered lists
  • Better handling of template header and footer images
  • Better handling for background images and colors

Redesigned PDF Output Support

This new  integration will allow for processing of complex scripts and bi-directional  text such as Arabic.  Your PDF output  will be much tighter and more closely match your template, and we’ll be able  to respond rapidly to PDF requests and fixes.

PowerPoint Support

Includes support for new ForEach and slide break handling, table header row repeat across slide breaks, and native Microsoft support for charts and images.

Tags are Color Coded

Tags are color coded in the template by type, making it easy to visually identify them.

Increased Performance

Version 13’s core code has been reworked and optimized to offer a reduced memory footprint, faster PDF generation and full documentation of supported features and limitations in the specifications for DOCX, XLSX and PPTX.

Advanced Image Properties

Documents can include advanced Word image properties such as shadows, borders, and styles.

Improved HTML Output

Windward has updated HTML output to reflect changing HTML standards.

Version 13 New Data Sources

Windward now works with a slew of new datasources: MongoDB, JSON, Cassandra, OData, Salesforce.com

Generate Code

The Generate Code tool in the designer allows you to open an existing template and, with a click of a button, automatically create a window with the code needed to run your current template with all data sources and variables. Simply copy this code and paste into your application's code in the appropriate place. You now have Windward integrated into your application.

You only need to do this once. You do not do this for each template. Instead, where it has explicit files for the template and output, change that to parameters you pass to this code. Same for the parameters passed to Windward. This example uses explicit values to show you what to substitute in where.

Pivot Tables Adjusted in Output

Any pivot tables in an XLSX template are carried over to the XLSX output. The ranges in the pivot ranges are adjusted to match the generated output. So your final XLSX will have pivot tables set as expected in the generated file.

This makes creating an XLSX workbook with pivot tables trivial.

Imported Template Can be Set to Match the Parent Styles

In an imported sub-template, if its properties for a style (ex. Normal) differ from the parent template's properties for the style, the use in the sub-template can be set to either use the properties in the sub-template, or the properties in the parent.

You set to retain when you don't want the child template's styling to change when imported. You set to use the parent when you want the styling of the imported template to match the styling in the parent.

Any explicit styling is always retained. This only impacts styling set by styles.

Tags can be Placed in Text Boxes

Tags can be placed in text boxes. Including linked text boxes. This gives you the ability to set the text in a textbox from your data.

Tags can be Placed in Shapes & Smart Art

Tags can be placed in shapes & smart art. This gives you the ability to set the text in a shape from your data.

HTML Output Supports Embedded Images

When generating HTML output, the engine can either write bitmaps as distinct files the generate HTML references, or it can embed the images in the HTML providing a single file for the output.

Footnotes & Endnotes can Have Tags

You can place tags in pretty much any part of a template, including in footnotes & endnotes.

Document Locking Supported in DOCX & XLSX

Any parts of a DOCX or XLSX (PowerPoint does not support this) file that are locked in the template, will be locked the same in the output.

Specify Font Substitution

If a font used in the template does not exist on the server generating a report, the font to substitute can be specified.
In addition, if a glyph to be rendered does not exist in the font specified, you can specify the replacement font. This can be set distinctly for European, Bi-Directional, and Far East fonts.

Process Multiple Datasources Simultaneously

If you need this - it's essential. And if you don't need it, it's irrelevant.

Windward enables you to build a document by applying multiple datasources to the template simultaneously. When Windward is merging the data into a template, it processes the template by handling each tag in order, and each tag pulls from different datasources. (As opposed to processing all of one datasource, then processing the next.)

This allows the select tag to use data from another datasource in its select. For example, if you are pulling customer information from one data source, you can then pull data from the sales datasource using the customer ID of the customer presently processing to pull the sales information for that customer. If you're interested in patching together your data from multiple datasources, read this post on our blog.

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