An email mistake I've made as a long-term university sysadmin

June 10, 2016

I've been a sysadmin here at the University of Toronto for quite a long time, which has enabled me to make a natural and probably common (university) mistake with my email. Namely, I have by now totally commingled my work email and my personal email by the simple mechanism of just using my normal university account for everything. I get random technical mailing lists I'm interested in sent to my address here, any number of people who correspond with me use my address here, and so on.

This is unfortunate for various reasons, including that it makes taking a break away from work email and work systems much harder. I can't just not log in, because if I do I'll miss personal email, and the moment I log in it starts being tempting to take a peek at various work things.

Some people would and could deal with this by moving their personal email to an outside provider (GMail is obviously a popular choice). This is completely possible, and in fact I got people to change the personal email they used for me once (I moved it between systems here). Unfortunately I'm very attached to how I handle my email today. The tools that I use intrinsically require a Unix system with a local mail spool, and running my own Unix system for this is (still) enough of a hassle that I haven't taken a deep breath and just got to it.

(The problem with running my own Unix system is not the basic work, it's all of the additional things I'd have to worry about and spend my limited free time on. There's backups and maintenance and monitoring and keeping track of how to rebuild everything and so on and so forth. All of this is simple at work because we've built an entire infrastructure to make it that way. And then there's the whole issue of anti-spam filtering, where I currently get to lean on a commercial package.)

I know it's less than ideal to keep my email commingled, but it's just easier to let this situation go on. Everything works today and I don't have to worry about any number of things and most of the time the commingling barely matters. Inertia is a powerful force, as is little incremental steps; they're how I've wound up in this situation in the first place. Big bang things like setting up a new mail system et al from scratch are hard, because there's so much work before you get anywhere.

(I should do it anyways. Someday.)

Sidebar: My past efforts at this

At one point I attempted to have at least a personal versus work email address split here, but that went down in flames many years ago because spammers got their hands on my then personal email address (partly because the address predated spammers so I did not take the extensive array of precautions that I do today). Today that old address lives on basically only as a way of getting information about spammer behavior (eg).

Almost ten years ago when I shifted to Computer Science I had the opportunity to (re)split personal email from work email (since I was changing my primary email address anyways), but at the time I was so busy with other aspects of the transition that I didn't really have either time or energy to even think about setting up a new Unix system with a new email setup and so on. Anyway, ten years ago one didn't have the modern wide variety of inexpensive hosting options, at least as I imperfectly remember it.

Comments on this page:

By Ewen McNeill at 2016-06-10 03:45:05:

Having BTDT, might I suggest you get another domain for personal email, and start carefully using it for personal things where you need to supply an email address. But initially just have it forwarded to your work email. At least that avoids adding to the separation hardship.

A second step would be to set up a second account to be your personal mailbox, and forward your personal email to that. Since you're a Sysadmin, I assume you can fairly easily create a second account... even if it's just on your desktop. Maybe you use the same tools for both, but in different accounts, so the distinction is more obvious (I started using different clients for the two at this point).

The third step is then to pay attention to things which should be in "the other account". And update those at source -- eg, subscribe to the mailing lists with a different address. Just as you happen to notice them, and have time.

After a while -- I think those steps took me about a year -- the work and personal are gradually separated at source. And into two mailboxes/accounts. Then you can decide if it's worth the effort to separate them further, either to different hosts, or separating the history.

Plus somewhere in the middle you can "check personal email" without checking work email.


PS: several domain registrars/DNS hosts will do some basic email forwarding at no extra cost. Eg, Gandi definitely does that.

By Ewen McNeill at 2016-06-10 03:51:51:

PPS: I read my email with MH for 10-15 years. Eventually I gave in and started using IMAP/IMAP clients, mostly to deal with modern email junk (eg, ugly HTML) and multiple clients (phone, tablet, desktop, ...). But MH separates fairly easily into two separate accounts, providing you have an easy way to tell them apart. Eg, shell prompts, window titles, colours, etc.

I had the same problem in the other direction. I was pretty good about keeping personal and work email separate until I joined a team with a few thousand servers that really liked to send email (along with the monitoring systems, etc). Now a lot of that was just that we had things set up sort of stupidly, but nobody tried to fix it because nobody saw the email. We all just set our university addresses to forward to gmail to take advantage of the storage (the university offered a tiny amount at that time) and the filtering.

I solved my problem by taking a new job. :-)

Written on 10 June 2016.
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