Category Archives: Thoughts

Thoughts on Work from home. Vol 2.

More or less about a month the world is on quarantine. I’m strictly following all of the government recommendations – we are self-isolated, no random walks outside, only for supplies, all our interactions with outer world are online.. or with my walkie talkie radio for short distance talks (great fun by the way, a strange warm “analog” feeling). I’m a lucky owner of a balcony looking to the south, so I even made some tan on my skin.

I have filled my day with tons of activities like learning new stuff, flat repair and upgrades, lots of reading and movies/concerts watching. 24 hours are not enough for me to complete all the tasks I’ve planned. But.. this is quite usual for me.

In my previous post I’ve shared the idea that, working from home is a skill that should be trained. It does not come by default to the most of us. It became part of our culture that every morning except weekends we get up early, dress up and go to work. We go there, because we need to interact with our teams to do our job. For IT these days, this may be the only reason for us to go to work. So, I’ve decided to try to understand why most of us are still doing this and not interacting from home, although we have all the technical tools to do this.

Let us for now not take into consideration this quite typical excuse – at home people can’t concentrate because of the family and children issues. Let us take the case that the worker can stay calm at home and has the same setup as at the office. Thus, we isolate only the interaction difference cases.

I’ve recently read an interested post somewhere in the social networks, that with this isolation the author of this post is missing live communication which include not only chat, voice and the information delivered via this voice, but also the body language, the partners look, his/her habits, even the smells. Yes, usual live interaction is a much more complex activity than just delivering some information. And of course, any remote interaction cuts off some of our senses, blocking these non-obvious information channels described above. As many people heavily rely on those perceptions, they feel disorientated. They can’t elaborate the trust to the partner. This my point was confirmed by one phycologist I have the honor to know for many years.

But as we continued this discussion, mainly discussing my case, when I’m stuck at home most of the time, and chats, voice and video calls are my only ways of interactions, why it is comfortable for me and so uncomfortable for the others. We have tried to search for some other jobs, where “being remote” is natural.

The first thing that came to my mind: pilot and ATC (air traffic controller) communication. It is always remote, it is over voice, and it is extremely effective. There is no need the pilot first to drink some beers with the ARC, find out if he/she can trust him/her and then fly. He doesn’t have to build trust, friendship etc. They just work with each other using common domain specific language. In some very rare cases they will be ever able to see each other.

If we take another aviation case – there is no more such thing as a permanent crew. For every flight, the captain and flight officers, as well as the cabin crew are randomly selected. Thus “human factor” mistakes and “unofficial hierarchies” are eliminated. Everybody in the crew knows his/her role and does it professionally. They don’t need to go get drunk together to be able to work effectively. The captain sure, that if his first flight officer is sitting by him, he is able to apply the commands and do the job.

I’ve come to realize, that somewhere deep inside, I try to use these techniques in my developer job. I have a limited perception communication channel (mail, chat, voice, video) and I’m focused not on my partners personality, but on their professional qualities (their code and the terms of the delivery). I sincerely do not care who’s on the other side – a girl or a boy, Russian or American, Christian or Muslim etc. I start my interaction with the full trust and expect the opposite side to be mutually sincere. And I can only judge and expect to be judged for the work done and tasks completed, not for how I like the way the partner is dressed. After all we are here to do job, not politics. If I see from the metrics we establish together, that the job is not done, I say – Bye! Sorry, nothing personal!

Still there are many activities requiring this full perception via all sensor channels like theatres, performances, conferences and concerts, politics – I’ve mentioned before, sports etc. Webinars will never replace conferences, movies will never replace theatres. Watching TV will never replace travel. They use different set of sense and perception mechanisms.

But does our IT job require all of these perception levels to be completed in the most effective way? I strongly believe that no. Even now we have all the necessary tools to interact. Moreover, we can even shrink this toolset to some async chats, and with some adjustments to our interaction “protocol” we can become even more effective and expand the geography of our workers to any place of the Globe.

Is it only IT? I would say no as well. Here my father is a good example, I learned a lot from him. He is an extremely qualified nuclear engineer. And his main instrument is his brain. He has organized his work to be almost totally from home, unless he is required to go onsite for maintenance activities. You may ask how is it possible? The communication channels and the tools he has are simply enough for him to do the job. The level of perception is just ok. So why lose time in transport and go to the office, when he can save this time for some more perception intensive activities, like theatre for example (hopefully soon again)?

The ability to fully utilize the communication channels with their level of perception is one of the keys to digital transformation happening now and accelerated in an unfortunate way by this COVID-19 situation. Many global players have understood this in the right time and that actually helped them to survive.

Yesterday evening I’ve performed several virtual flights on a sophisticated simulator. I didn’t know with whom I was actually playing with. Just their nicknames. I’ve declared that on this type of aircraft I am a rookie, and I’ve received a lot of support and we’ve completed our mission. We were using same domain specific subset of English with full trust and respect to each other. I’m very grateful to those guys and gals. So flightsim or an IDE? I don’t see difference. And this is the awesome future we’re living in!

Thoughts on Work from home

Disclaimer: These are only my personal thoughts, not pro tips. It is late in the evening, I’ve just finished watching “Perfect Sense” – wonderful movie with beautiful Eva Green and brilliant Ewan McGregor. It is a bit scary that something similar to the plot is happening right now. In real world. With this COVID. Strange thing is that when I’ve posted about it in FB, they have permanently removed this post. May be this movie is considered dangerous right now..

Everybody is self-isolating, all events worldwide are cancelled, borders are closed, airlines are close to bankrupt, my cable TV provider has opened all channels just to keep me home… Toilet paper has become a new currency… Or even a new religion.

On the other hand, I’m just sitting home and doing my job. As always. I’m coding, committing, drawing architectures, attending conf  calls, chatting, doing some extreme programming via shared desktop.. yes, I’m a software developer. I’ve been doing this for 13 years so far, and almost always from home. I have a reason for this – after a ski accident I’m using wheelchair for mobility. I simply can’t go to the office every day, due to tons of medical reasons, even though the office may be adopted. Every day I get up at 6 am to do my 3h exercises and medical procedures to be able to start work at 9 am. And in the evening, I have to do them again. Going to the office every day will simply kill my body.

Nevertheless, most of my career I’m employed, with few periods of freelance/startup activities.

How did work from home changed for all of these years. Actually, not much. Back in 2007 we had almost the same tools as today, may be slightly less powerful, and the Internet was a bit slower. When I started, we already had: VPN/extranet, voip/confcalls, various development and collaboration tools for distributed teams.. everything! Instead of slack we had icq, instead of zoom/jitsi/hangout we had webex… Many of those tools went to the browser and in the clouds, requiring no setup and allow instant usage.

The only thing that was different was the attitude. Most of my managers considered remote position as something extraordinary, a kind of a huge benefit for the employee. They did not trust the remote worker. They thought (and still many of them think) that “remotee” just plays games and does nothing. And only in the office, where there is full control, workers are pushed to their limits to deliver. Only if the team is collocated in an open space the team is able to be productive and efficient! The team shares ideas, can hear somebody asking someone for support, and join conversation to help. Theoretically this sounds awesome.. but in reality, this just leads to permanent distraction, constant search for meeting rooms, inability to concentrate on real work. There are a lot of scientific researches on the topic. Yes, programming is a tough brain activity. To write our code, most of the time we need to think and imagine! Well, if the company culture measures the quality of its work in “manageability”, not in “product deliverability” then yes – open space is the best option. Marissa Mayer even believed that getting all workers in the office could save Yahoo, but, you know this did not help at all.

As I already mentioned, not much has changed in technology. Back in those days we already had the toolset which was quite enough. Although nowadays we have much more remote workers, most of the IT positions still require full time office presence. Even though the worker will do absolutely the same stuff using absolutely the same laptop, still preferring asynchronous communication with his team mates via chat, trying to keep it quite in the open space. Why? To keep everything “manageable” or even “micromanageable”. It is still considered ok to burn tons of kerosene to fly to another country for a 40 min meeting. It is still considered ok to lose several hours every day just transport the body to the office and back.

But fortunately, not everywhere. I see two polar approaches: companies, that do not bind their workers to a specific collocated desk in the office, and those who do it. In some companies, employees can work from every spot of the office, or from every office worldwide. And there are many others (not so well known) which put their employees in a cubicle or just a desk and monitor their presence. Unfortunately, the last ones are still the majority.

But suddenly this COVID has arrived. Definitely a bad situation. Putting all of the workers in open space workers became a great risk. But let us leave the medical stuff to professionals. It is just bad to be collocated right now.

So, what do I observe: nothing has change actually for me. I still my job as usual, still connected, still delivering. But most of my “bound” employed friends and employees are experiencing some huge stress right now! They are both technically and mentally not prepared for what one of them has named – “the big separation”. All of a sudden, managers can’t micromanage and employees can’t be micromanaged! Most of them don’t even have the vpn/extranet and confcall set up. As a result, most of the employees are even forced to go to the office (something I consider as a crime during this dangerous period), or the delivery is just stopped, causing a lot of business losses.

On the other hand, the “not bound” employers (hey, I’ve invented my own vocabulary) have quite easily transformed their work to be “home office” based only. They are still able to deliver in a predictable manner; all of the communication and decision-making processes stay almost the same. It is only the physical location of the worker that has changed. Virtually all of them are there and do deliver!

What was a bit surprising for me is that my twitter has filled up with yammers like “Oh, I can’t work from home! It’s not the same experience!”, “I miss smalltalks by the cooler”, “I want my long dinners back! Where is my free food?”, “I want to play ping pong!”. Looks like the most of the developers are too much used to go to the office and are unable to organize their own self-discipline. As they were forced to move to home office many of them said – “Damn, I have a feeling a work a lot more now..”.

Work from home is not just a benefit, it is also is a developed skill. In my medical case I had no other option! But with this COVID situation, many of us will have to learn that. Will have to elaborate their code of conduct with people surrounding them, allowing and respecting their isolation. Will have to learn how to self-organize and gain discipline.

Fortunately or unfortunately the WFH skill may be more and more demanded by the market. Just because it is economically more effective – no need to pay office space, no need for enormous transportation expenses etc. This does not mean this will totally replace the offline job. It is like saying that television will replace theatres. This won’t happen. But this change in culture is happening right now, and this unfortunate COVID will accelerate it.

We’ve got a lot of examples of how people utilize this way of interaction for many years so far. Most of the open source projects are developed by distributed individuals in an asynchronous way. Gaming has almost totally gone online, allowing huge cooperative scenarios happening synchronously with people spread around the globe. Funny thing is that most of them won’t even meet offline, they don’t know their real names, whether it is a boy or a girl on the other side, the color of their skin, their religion, nationality etc.. But they work together as a team. Their “usefulness” is measured by their commitment to the common goal, not by their location and ability to gather in one room.

By the way, this situation may be a driver for many other professions to go online. Surgeons and even Air Traffic Controllers are already able to do their jobs remotely.

As for now, all of my previous employers, which some time ago have denied my participation in many projects because of my inability to be present at various offline meetings (meeting driven development) have filled up the Internet with great pro tips for how to work from home! I hope they really have changed, not just following the hype.

But.. I’m pretty much sure, after this COVID craziness is gone.. everything will go to the previous(ish) state.

And I’m now listening to Eurythmics song “sweet dreams”.