Spam Resource Spotlight: Annalivia Ford

My friend Annalivia is who I want to be when I grow up. She knows her way around all things email, from building an ESP to tracking down spammers to solving the trickiest of deliverability issues. Not only is she incredible at what she does for work, she’s also one of the most delightful people I’ve ever met. She’s witty, she’s protective of her friends, she’s a champion for mental health, and she’s one of those people that you can really go to for anything and know you’ll be loved and supported. I obviously think she’s absolutely wonderful, now it’s your turn to find that out through this interview. :)

You can find her on Linkedin here.

Annalivia, thanks for taking the time to chat with me today! It seems like everyone in email falls into it accidentally. How did you land in the email industry?

The irony, Skyler -- you are who I want to be when I grow up!

Like everyone else, I arrived into the email world completely by accident. I was working at Erols Internet doing tech support for dialup on Win95, and getting annoyed by the spam I was receiving. I was friends with some of the folks in the abuse department -- Afterburner’s crew -- and they taught me how to read headers and figure out to which ISP the complaint should be directed. Back then spam complaints were pretty uncommon, were all hand crafted, and usually replied to personally by the ISP abuse desk people. “Spammer is now but an ink blot of regret” is one answer I got. It was fun!

After we all got laid off in late 2000, I struggled to find work, like everyone else. After many months of nothing, I finally got an interview at AOL! Halfway through the process, to my dismay, I discovered that I was interviewing for a Postmaster job, not the NOC job I had carefully prepared for. I knew nothing of Postmastery so NO PRESSURE! Amazingly enough, I got the job anyway and the rest just sort of happened. It was a chaotic and wild time in Internet history and we were basically making it all up as we went.

One thing that I’ve found particularly impressive throughout your career is that you’ve forged your own path: you’ve been extremely successful carving out roles that didn’t exist and doing the work to educate both internally and externally. What advice do you have for people who would want to follow in your footsteps?

For me a lot of it was luck, of course, because obviously being in the right place at the right time always helps. You gotta be brave enough to take advantage of that timing though!

If I have any advice to offer it is to pay attention to where there is an important lack, and if you can usefully fill it, go do the thing. Sometimes it will turn out to be nothing but -- sometimes you can make a job out of it! Explain what you are doing to everyone as you go. Write it all down, too. Eventually someone will ask you how and why you did it -- whether from a positive perspective or a negative one - and having good notes and supporting evidence handy will save you a lot of stress.

In my own life the moments when I struck out on my own were all prefaced by the (para)phrase: “And then I got fed up with it, and decided to try something different.” The AOL job was very much a make-it-up-as-you go thing; we were all inventing madly left and right. We were doing things that had never been done before, so we had to get creative. I pretty quickly realized that the AOL feedback loop system could be of great benefit to other networks but they did not know about it -- so I started calling people and explaining that I could either help them with their abuse issues, or ... I could make their lives 1000% more difficult. Apparently I was pretty persuasive, and slowly the job of ISP Relations was born.

I am never afraid to say “I don’t know, but I’ll find out.” I personally don’t trust people who cannot admit that they don’t know. No-one knows everything! Being willing to admit I didn’t know the answer, but would go find out -- and actually doing that -- gained me a lot of social capital. When forging my own path, having lots of people that trusted me was invaluable.

More or less the same thing happened at Spamhaus. I was hired to do spam fighting things, but realized very quickly that my skills would be far better used doing something else, and so I began the journey of modernizing the IP & domain lookup and ticketing/removals process for Spamhaus, which ultimately meant building and managing a dedicated removals team, and all of the tools they need to do their work. It’s not what I was hired to do, but that’s okay. I’m having more fun this way, I think the world generally benefits, and I still get to do some spam fighting things, too.

The most fun thing about meeting up with email people is swapping stories about off-the-wall stuff we encounter. Got any good stories?

Of course when you ask they all vanish from my mind! I think my favorite is probably from back at AOL, in the early days when everything was still chaos.

I was trying to get the Italian Telecom to talk to me, because we were seeing a metric ton of abuse from their network. They would not answer my emails, and any time I tried calling them, they would transfer me from phone to phone and eventually the call would just ring out or get dropped. I got fed up, and just blocked the whole country then settled down to wait for someone to notice. It took about a month before a guy finally contacted me with a willingness to discuss the problem, and he told me that the reason he was calling was that some Italian political bigwig had been unable to email his mistress and was Very Unhappy about it... 

I will also never forget being offered a half million dollars by a well-known spammer. He wanted me to ignore the spam complaints generated by his emails for a year. I think that was the first time I truly realized how much money there is in spamming, and why some spammers get so angry when I spike their wheels -- that half-million was chump change to that guy! It really changed my perspective of what I was doing and why.

In Al’s interview with me, we agreed that raisins ruin everything. What’s one food that you think ruins everything and why?

Mustard is the devil’s work! It automatically contaminates whatever it touches. The flavor is so strong that you might as well just eat it by the spoonful and skip the sandwich. The color is also hideous and should be banned! Would you believe I live in a region where MUSTARD SOUP is a beloved local food thing?

Excuse me while I Google mustard soup, and then ignore me adding it to the dinner rotation! Outside of food opinions, what do you do for fun? Photographing your dog (that is very much an invitation to share a pic)? Reading books?

I have gotten tremendously boring as I have gotten older, but it’s been a deliberate choice. I aspire to having a dull life; my youth was more than exciting enough! I have typical old lady hobbies now: I garden, which is a struggle in the Netherlands where everything is soggy. I really love going out with people I adore, to eat Fancy Dinner With Foams And Things, having lots of tiny bites of exquisitely prepared food, accompanied by brilliant wine pairings. I like to photograph lots of things, and also very often my dog, who is a photogenic diva and is very handsome. It would not be in keeping with tradition if I did not bore people with dog pictures, so here are two. I’m being very restrained here! 

I have also been working to befriend some of my local crows. It’s taken 3 years to get this one so close to me, and I feel very honored by her trust.

If you could wave a magic wand and make everyone in email believe one thing, what would it be and why?

That’s difficult. You’re obviously a genie, look at your hair! So, don’t we classically get three wishes?

I’d want people to:
  1. Understand and respect the concept of consent, and why “we are CAN SPAM compliant” is not something to be announced with beaming pride.
  2. Realize that closing port 25 outbound is something all networks should do by default. We spent all that time and effort 25-30 years ago closing open relays, only to have it come back in a Kaiju version in the guise of CGNAT today. This upsets me.
  3. Believe that there’s no “one weird trick” to make your email deliver to the inbox. The unpleasant work to make that happen must be done, there are no shortcuts, magic tricks, or people that can be bribed to make email arrive in the inbox. Do. The. Work.
No wait, there are more, contributed by my whole team while I was writing the rest. They think email people should believe the following:
  • HELO/DNS/rDNS/DKIM alignment is for your own good!
  • Email addresses aren’t eternal; they expire.
  • You should use COI, not verifiers.
  • Reconsider your job choices!
That last remark was made tongue-in-cheek by one of my colleagues, but there’s truth in it. If you are lacking in patience and the ability to work effectively through frustration, email and especially deliverability is not for you!

Thank you both to Annalivia for graciously allowing yourself to be interviewed and to Skyler for putting this together!

Al & Skyler -- This was fun. Thanks for asking me to come play with you.


  1. Nonsense. Raisins are delicious little bundles of sweet fruity goodness. Mustard is used to cure pain. It's horrible.


Comments policy: Al is always right. Kidding, mostly. Be polite, please and thank you.