Life as a developer

The Week with My Shades On

The title refers to Scott Berkun’s book The Year Without Pants. Berkun is a business writer with management experience. For years, he was employed as a remote worker at Automattic (best known for WordPress). In his book, he shares his experience as a remote worker and describes the culture of a company with remote workers. I am always looking for ways to be more productive, and I have had great experiences from working from home. I also tried going abroad on a working trip. A few years ago, I went to Sicily for a week, and I thought that it was a great opportunity for me to test remote working.

This blog post has been on my to-do list for a while. I started on it shortly after the trip, and after reading Remote: Office Not Required by Jason Fried and The 4-Hour Workweek by Timothy Ferriss, I brought it back to life. Both books present several potential benefits of remote working not only for the employee but also for the employer. Executed correctly, you can expect to see increased productivity and happiness while costs go down.

Remote shows the reader how you can achieve this. It is a good read for both those eager to try working remotely and executives considering letting workers work from home.

The 4-Hour Workweek is more focused how you can free yourself from the corporate life. It opens up the mind to alternatives to sitting in front of a computer eight hours a day to earn a living.

There are good arguments for and against working remotely. Personally, I have objections against working remotely fulltime. I enjoy working with others not only for the social aspect but I also learn better by observing others and having a low barrier for asking questions. But there are times when you do not seem to get any work done at the office. Meetings, discussions, and frequent interruptions disrupt your flow and destroys your productivity.

Offices have become interruption factories.

– Jason Fried, Remote

Enter Sicily

I was looking forward to spending some time in the sun, a welcome shift in scenery while also getting some work done. I packed my bags, flew to Sicily and checked in to a beautiful hotel in Taormina, where previous residents included a pope and kings.

The project I was working on at the time was exciting, and I enjoyed every moment I spent on it. So my motivation to do some work was high. My working days were split in two. First, I worked three to four hours by the pool (by then, my battery was gone and I was sunburned). Then, I worked two to three hours on the evening sitting in the hotel bed, exhausted after walking around in Sicily.


Constraints: A Good Thing?

Working with some constraints can sometimes be a good thing. Not having Stack Overflow a few keystrokes away forces you to dig deeper. It can even give you a better understanding when you finally figure out the issue. In my experience it also gives you better memory retention, as copying and pasting from the internet rarely gives a lasting impression. No internet also means less distractions. Your brain gets distracted if you are constantly checking the latest post on hacker news or the latest tweets. We might have the restraint to maintain focus while coding, but when we are waiting on the computer (i.e., compiling), we get bored and go hunting for exciting articles.

Flow

I needed to do 24 hours of work over 8 days, but I enjoyed working by the pool so much that by the time I was ready to go home, I had worked almost twice the amount I had needed to. The best part was that it didn’t feel like work; I only sat down to work when my brain was ready and I wanted to get things done. No interruptions meant working in a more continuous flow, resulting in code of a higher quality. There was no need to stop what I was working on to go into a meeting or for lunch. I went to lunch when I was done with the user story that I worked on. If you have a complicated problem, no one will look at you funny if you step away from the computer to lay down to activate the alpha mode.

Letting people work remotely is about promoting quality of life.

– Jason Fried, Remote

Break Out of the Office

The biggest obstacle is getting permission or acceptance from the boss or your manager to work from home. From the point of view to a manager, this is understandable, especially if your manager is a “chair manager.” Managers of software projects do not always have a background as developers. What we produce can be hard to measure, but checking if we occupy our chair from 8 am to 4 pm is easy and measurable.

Many managers think that a body in a chair in an office equals productivity.

– Jason Fried, Remote

Tim Ferriss suggests that you send a work remotely proposal to your manager. It should contain a list of your responsibilities and what your manager can expect from you. Not only will this help your manager make the decision, but it can also reassure him/her that you will fulfill your responsibilities.

I find that if you have shown that you are a responsible employee that delivers value, managers will trust you to manage your own work. Being upfront about when you take days off helps as well as telling what work you did and when during standup (i.e., “Yesterday I did x, and last night I did y”). It can surprise you how much work you will do over a couple of hours alone compared to seven hours at work.

The task is to learn how to enjoy everyday life without diminishing other people’s chances to enjoy theirs.

– Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, Flow

Management might have issues trusting employees to do their jobs from home, but if they only hire motivated people that get the job done, they should have nothing to worry about. After all, it should be in the interest of the company that their employees work under conditions where they are most productive.

The Setup

Anti glare Screen
This is a must-have in the sun. You also want to turn up the brightness to max, which will drain you battery, which leads to the next part.

Extra Battery
Running a powerful IDE with the brightness set to max and the fans working like crazy due to the heat will impact your battery life. If you expect to get in a full day of work by the pool, you will need an extra battery. Not every laptop has exchangeable batteries, so you might consider an external battery, like Intocircuit’s Power Castle.

White Decal
I use my Surface Pro 2 as a pool PC. It is light, powerful (enough) and it has an okay battery life, but it can heat up pretty quickly. I tried using my PC while on a trip to Thailand, and I could get about 20 minutes of work done before it overheated and shut down. So before the trip to Italy, I decided to give white decals a shot. It actually worked better than expected. DecalGirl

Scott Hanselman, a remote worker for Microsoft, has blogged about working remotely and offers practical tips on his blog: https://www.hanselman.com

Final Thoughts

In my personal experience, I get more work done when I am alone at night or away from the office. But meeting your team members regularly is vital for communication, learning, discussions and team spirit. That’s why I prefer what I call a hybrid remote. Load up on tasks that need focus, take a few days away from the office and see how it works for you. Talk to your manager and ask to work from home, bring your laptop and find a place with new scenery. It can be a park close to your home or a nice hotel with good WiFi in a faraway country.

Links:

goldnarms

Arnstein Johansen is a .NET Developer with a speciality in web development, but he also dabbles in mobile development and everything new and exciting. Arnstein works for Itema AS, a mid-size consultant agency in Trondheim. Itema has 25 consultants and recently won the prize for Norway's best workplace. He likes to share his knowledge by holding talks for others, either it is clients, colleagues or likeminded developers in user groups. He has hands-on experience from large projects, the latest from Urørt where he leads a team of developers creating a music service used by around 100000 users.

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