The email from a U.S. Department of Homeland Security official sat in the inbox with 13,000 emails from August 22nd until August 24th, 2013. Every attempt to retrieve the message resulted in a retry prompt. Normally a customer would be in the dark about what was causing problem. In an unprecedented move the Outlook.com team did the unthinkable in customer service. They admitted they caused the problem and they apologized.
“Please accept our apology for a disruption to your email experience. We realize how critical your email is for staying in touch with your personal network and for being productive with the things you need to get done. And we are truly sorry for any issues you had in accessing Outlook.com. We want you to know that Outlook.com has earned a leading reputation as a reliable and trustworthy email experience and to that end, we deeply investigate any issue to ensure that we fully understand the root cause and can prevent a similar occurrence in the future. And we pledge to you that we are dedicated to providing the reliable and trustworthy mail experience that you expect,” said Dick Craddock, Group Program Manager, for Outlook.com.
The apology from the Outlook.com team was not just a matter of saying that they were sorry. Craddock went to great lengths to explain why email service was disrupted and delayed. “Many of you have asked and we would also like to provide a more detailed explanation of what happened last week that caused some of you to be temporarily unable to access your email. This incident was caused by a failure for some of our servers in the functionality that syncs information on some mobile devices using Exchange ActiveSync. The failure caused these devices to receive an error and continuously retry connecting with our service. This resulted in a flood of traffic that some of our servers did not handle properly, with the effect that many customers on those servers were unable to access their Outlook.com email.”
The first Microsoft Outlook Webb Access account was made available to the present writer in the 1990’s as a part of the Howard University HUNet System. Although the first exposure to email came in the late 80’s from a professor in the Ph.D program at USC, it was the Howard University ISAS Technology Center that setup the first faculty email account on August 31, 1999. To many faculty members at that time email was new. Howard University created a manual for faculty members that was titled, How to Use Howard University Email System Through your Browser.
For professors who had been teaching for a decade before email was available the new technology was both confusing and somewhat frightening. The Information System and Services email manual was a detailed account of the new world of cyberspace. The instructions were clear, “Laws that apply in the real world also apply in the virtual networked computer world including HUNet. Laws about libel, harassment, privacy, copyright, stealing, threats are not suspended for computer users, but apply to all members of society whatever medium they happen to be using: face-to face, phone, or computer. Further, law-enforcement officials are more computer-savvy than ever, and violations of the law in cyberspace are vigorously prosecuted. We look forward to providing you with the highest quality support and your productive used of the ISAS resources,” the ISAS manual stated.
As the new technology swept the nation email became a revolutionary way of communicating. Although taken for granted 20 years later at the time even the most brilliant university minds marveled over being able to send a type written message to Europe on a computer and to get a response in seconds. The HU Technology User document which was given to all professors was a concise document which included the new faculty email address, username, initial password, show name, employee id and faculty status. Each professor was told to guard the document carefully and to avoid allowing anyone to know their password. “Comply with the intended use of the Howard University HUNet System," the manual stated. The rules were clear and exact:
· Don’t violate the intended use of HUNet.
· Assure Ethical Use of the System.
· Don’t let anyone know your password.
· Don’t violate the privacy of other users.
· Don’t copy or misuse copyrighted material (including software).
· Don’t use HUNet to harass anyone in any way.
· Assure Proper Use of System Resources.
· Don’t overload the communication servers; in particular, don’t abuse electronic mail privileges.
The switch from writing letters to sending emails on August 31, 1999, was the end of an era. As one professor put it, “I studied beautiful letters to become an electronic scribe.” But there was no argument among the faculty at the time about the expediency and efficiency of sending emails. The Outlook.com interruption made it clear how dependent society is today on email. The Homeland Security document was transmitted in a matter of seconds; however the prompt was the only message getting through.
“In order to stabilize the impacted servers, we temporarily blocked access over Exchange ActiveSync for all of those servers and then worked to restore this gradually. Because of the significant backlog of traffic that had accumulated and in order to avoid another flood of traffic, we restored access slowly, meaning some of our mobile customers remained impacted for a longer period of time,” Outlook said.
The longer period of time caused a delay in publication. It also caused sources to wonder why their requests were not being answered. Online journalists depend on email exclusively to send and receive information. Working in cyberspace means faster reception and dissemination of news. However, a delay in email can cause missed deadlines and damaged relations with contacts.
“We have learned from this incident, and have made two key changes to harden our systems against future failure – the most important is in updating the way we handle Exchange ActiveSync traffic to avoid a flood of requests hitting our servers and to ensure more reliable connections and the second involves increasing network bandwidth in the affected part of the system to ensure we have a greater capacity for these requests,” Outlook said.
It was extraordinary customer service for Outlook.com to explain the situation to customers in this fashion. Having started with Microsoft Outlook Web Access nearly 20 years ago, the present writer assured the Outlook.com team that there was no fear of losing the customer. However, it was still polite and proper to give the explanation so that the Homeland Security official would understand the delay in responding to their email.
“It is our goal to provide exceptional service to every person using Outlook.com, and I hope you will give us an opportunity to restore your confidence in Outlook.com. Your support and dedication to our email service is very important to us. And so once again, on behalf of the entire Outlook.com team, I want to apologize for any inconvenience you experienced and want to thank you for any patience you have shown us as we worked through the issues,” Outlook.com said.
Howard University did an excellent job of introducing email to the faculty. What is taken for granted today was merely a dream when the present writer first arrived on the Howard campus in 1990. Although retired from university teaching today the lessons that Howard University taught its faculty when email first came to the campus has remained a valuable lesson 20 years later.
Outlook.com has served it customers well by being honest about a problem. If there is a problem fix it don't cover it up. Outlook.com has fixed the problem. The massive email flow continues.