Close to the Machine

The Computer Industry – specifically Software Development – is not at all a nostalgic profession; we regularly rebuild entire cities ignoring the lessons of past builders because the types of bricks have changed.

As part of a personal challenge to read a book a week this year I stumbled upon Ellen Ullman and Close to the Machine and found myself nodding my head with every page. The book was published in 1997 which was an age ago in my industry and her insight on working from home as a consultant rings quite true to my experience.

First, life as a remote worker:

In the afternoons, I see us virtuals emerge blinking into the sunlight. In the dead hours after 3 PM, we haunt cafes and local restaurants. We run into each other at the FedEx drop-box or the copy shop. They, like me, have a freshly laundered look, just come out of pajamas or sweat pants, just showered and dressed.

I recognize my virtual colleagues by their overattention to little interactions with waiters and cashiers, a supersensitivity that has come from too much time spent alone. We’ve been in a machine-mediated world—computers and e-mail, phones and faxes—and suddenly we’re in a world where people lumber up and down the steps of buses, walk in and out of stores, have actual in-person conversations. All this has been going on while I was in another universe: that’s what comes to us with a force like the too-bright sun or a stiff wind off the bay. We do our business, drop off the overnight packet, clip together the xeroxes, and hurry home.

On the day to day life of working alone:

Living a virtual life is an art. Like all arts, virtuality is neither consistent nor reliable. It takes a certain firmness of will, and a measure of inspiration, to get up each and every day and make up your existence from scratch. As every artist knows, every writer and homebound mother, if you are not careful, your day—without boundaries as it is—can just leak away. Sundown can find all your efforts puddled around you, everything underway, nothing accomplished.

And finally on the role of the programmer class in overall society:

In this sense, we virtual workers are everyone’s future. We wander from job to job, and now it’s hard for anyone to stay put anymore. Our job commitments are contractual, contingent, impermanent, and this model of insecure life is spreading outward from us. I may be wrong, but I have this idea that we programmers the world’s canaries. We spend our time alone in front of monitors; no look up at any office building, look into living-room windows at night: so many people sitting alone in front of monitors. We lead machine-centered lives; now everyone’s life is full of automated tellers, portable phones, pagers, keyboards, mice. We live in a contest of the fittest, where the most knowledgeable and skillful win and the rest are discarded; and this is the working life that waits for everybody. Everyone agrees: be a knowledge worker or be left behind. Technical people, consultants, contract programmers: we are going first. We fly down and down, closer and closer to the virtualized life, and where we go the world follows.

If the above sounds interesting I’d recommend Close to the Machine, but I believe that her true masterpiece is The Bug which is a wonderfully insightful look at the horror of debugging. and the darkest sides of team dynamics.

You Need a Don’t Do List

Most people agree that a “to do list” is a great way to track work tasks whether it be shopping lists or work lists or people that you need to tickle this week. But for most workers, especially those that work from home, you also need a Don’t Do List.

This is a simple list of behaviors that you know can ruin your workday. In addition to the obvious things like ‘Watch TV’ or ‘Open up YouTube.com without a plan’ there are some more subtle ‘don’t do’ items that you need to identify and make a plan to avoid.

But first let’s list the relatively obvious ones for a telecommuter:

Don’t Do:

  • Watch TV during the workday (even at lunch)
  • Play video games.
  • Browse reddit, espn.com, velonews.com, youtube.com, whatever-your-addiction-is.com
  • Snack when you aren’t hungry.
  • Check your email. (Stop and acknowledge that checking email is essentially saying “I want more work and stress now”)

Now the more subtle emotional ones:

Don’t Do:

  • Get discouraged.
  • Prefer fake work.
  • Avoid the really hard important tasks.
  • Respond too quickly to an email that frustrated you.
  • Panic.

Everyone’s personal don’t do list is different and will shift over time. There was a time when I could work and listen to podcasts but then I realized it got to be too distracting, so it moved from my bag of tricks into my don’t do list.

Some items you can’t avoid doing altogether but have to manage as ongoing tensions. One of these for me is distractions caused by my family. I know that each day at least once I will be taken away from my normal level of concentration (that of a tiger watching the zookeeper put the string on a piece of raw beef) by some noise of a kid picking the lock to my office to use my printer or a kid throwing mud at my office window.

So my “don’t do” list is simply to not let this stuff bother me. I mitigate this risk with my attitude.  All other items I simply put in a box to do be done later; I don’t do them so that I can get the real work done consistently.

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I’m writing a book about successfully working from home; click here if you want to know when it is complete.

Fake Work

We have all been there – you are busy all day but as the day ends you still haven’t done The One Thing that you really should have finished today. What were you doing all day? Fake work. You fell into the trap of fake work.

From Paul Graham’s post on Self Indulgence:

And yet I’ve definitely had days when I might as well have sat in front of a TV all day—days at the end of which, if I asked myself what I got done that day, the answer would have been: basically, nothing. I feel bad after these days too, but nothing like as bad as I’d feel if I spent the whole day on the sofa watching TV. If I spent a whole day watching TV I’d feel like I was descending into perdition. But the same alarms don’t go off on the days when I get nothing done, because I’m doing stuff that seems, superficially, like real work. Dealing with email, for example. You do it sitting at a desk. It’s not fun. So it must be work.

Characteristics of Fake Work

  • Its easier than real work (this is why we prefer it)
  • It isn’t obvious to people that you are doing it (fake work is rarely publishable / shippable)
  • It doesn’t pass the following gauntlet of tests:
    1. If I did this all day how would I feel at the end of the day? Does it feel good in the short-term only?
    2. Can I justify it to a coworker? (“Well these files need to be organized by color name in Spanish so that we can get to them rapidamente next time”)
    3. Is this defensive or offensive?

Some examples

  • Your computer says it needs to restart, and you restart it shortly after. “When it restarts I might as well see if any apps need updating as well on my phone”.
  • You know the hotkey for your “get new email” in your email client. (I mean really)
  • Organizing your todo list.
  • Refactoring code is non complex ways.
  • Trying out a new writing application or messing around with new fonts.
  • Organizing your email.
  • Reading blog posts, especially those mildly related to The Important Task That Must Be Done.
  • Over-formatting presentations, spreadsheets, etc.
  • Cleaning your office.

Reality

There are times that you need to read blog posts or clean your office. In fact one of my favorite productivity hacks is to do *something* when I’m feeling procrastination creeping up on me. I will intentionally clean my office as a break with the intention of returning to full strength afterwards. The trick is to not let doing *something* ruin doing the *one most important thing* that must be done.

Final Note

The main issue with fake work is that you could be working on the right things in the wrong place. Do you care about the problem? Are you digging in the right place? This is a complex personal question, but make sure you have an answer.

I’m writing a book about successfully working from home; click here if you want to know when it is complete.

What I’ve Learned about Business

Relationships

  • Drink coffee – don’t fall in love.
  • Nothing says teamwork like a group of people getting together everyday to create a hostile work environment for Gary.

Working Together

  • Halloween really brings into focus who is happy and who is just flippin’ nuts.
  • When you have a fire drill and everyone is standing around outside its a great time to talk about Jesus.
  • Making nicknames for your coworkers is a great way to accidentally get Larry-The-Bed-Wetter to resign.

Gender Equality

  • A good conversation starter for a mother returning to the workforce is all the changes her vagina has gone through.
  • If somebody says that their daughter is selling Girl Scout cookies demand an in-person sales negotiation.
  • Bringing your dog to work is a really bad joke to make on bring your daughter to work day, but if you are committed fully to it why not.

Moving up

  • Focus on your career and not your job.  Your job is super-hard and your career is imaginary.
  • When you are in an elevator with the CEO try to get a tickle fight going.

Meetings

  • To entertain yourself during the company-wide meeting give yourself a quota of claps and don’t go over it.
  • Your daily standup meeting is a great time to tell stories of your life journey from boy to man.
  • Closing your eyes for two seconds when someone asks you a question then responding slowly is a good way to be considered smarter than everyone else.
  • Sliding across the conference table like its home plate is a great way to enter a meeting and create a memory but you can only do it like seven times before Ralph starts organizing people against you.

Personal Productivity

  • Attitude isn’t everything but it is the thing that people without ideas talk about a lot.
  • People who work from home are technically not people.
  • Everyone expects you to have prepared a song for your performance review.

Management

  • Put the saddest person in the office in charge of all the parties.
  • When you aren’t sure what to get your Comptroller on Comptroller Day because you aren’t sure what a Comptroller does just get them a cake and sing the Comptroller Theme Song.

Work / Life Balance

  • Keep a picture of your family at your desk to remember why you are working anyway: to get a break from them.
  • Career Day at school really brings all of your life decisions into focus.
I’m writing a book about successfully working from home; signup if you want to know when it is complete.

Reductio ad absurdum of LinkedIn endorsements

John Lewis endorsed you for Inventory Management and Leadership

John Lewis endorsed you for Being Able to Help His Career and Always Being Nice to Him in the Breakroom When You Used to Work Together

John Lewis endorsed you for Wise Hiring Decisions and Giving People a Chance Even Though They Have Little Experience

John Lewis endorsed you for Seeing Him in Person at Build-a-Bear and Being Pleasant

John Lewis endorsed you for Pretending To Not Get Notifications from LinkedIn

John Lewis endorsed you for Ignoring Social Cues

John Lewis endorsed you for Passive Aggressiveness and Endorsing Him for Persistence

I’m writing a book about successfully working from home; signup if you want to know when it is complete.

Resume of the Future

TLDR: You should totally hire me.

Objective

As a self-oriented detail starter I seek a dynamic company that can use me, abuse me, because I am not you’re average high school graduate. #nailedit.

Accomplishments

  • Made a trick shot video where I threw pennies into toilets at the mall in super hard ways – got like a ton of hits.
  • 3K Instagram followers – only been on site for like a year.
  • Started the hashtags #putyourbuttonit and #grandmadontcare
  • Compiled 500K in virtual currency in NBA 2KLive in one weekend.
  • Lead Redditor of /r/gnomesdoingweirdstuff and /r/glittertrivia
  • Ran the airbrush stand at the mall for like two years – we had like a ton of celebrities come in there and I hooked them up.
  • Built a Minecraft replica of your mom’s house down to every detail (ya burnt).

Technical Skills

  • Adobe Acrobat, Microsoft Word. I can guess the Wifi password of most yogurt shops.
  • I can get you, like, whatever software you need.
  • Super good at googling stuff; I find videos that nobody has even heard of.

Education

  • Went to like most of my classes even Ms. Smith she was a total boozer you could smell it
  • WOLVERINES RULE

Review of Ghost of my Father By Scott Berkun

I wasn’t sure I wanted to read The Ghost Of My Father after I bought it.

When I follow authors blindly I tend to read a series of very similar books so I’ve shied away from it recently. But I read Making Things Happen, The Myths of Innovation, and The Year Without Pants and loved the way his clear thinking came through on such diverse topics. I was also interested to see how he would handle something as messy as relationships and family dynamics.  I have a direct interest in writer’s that go deeply personal as well; it is courageous to me.

So I backed his Kickstarter at the minimum level but not without fear that I’d never actually read it.

My fears were:

  • Reading the book would be sad so I would never read it; much like you are never in the “mood” to watch Schindler’s List.
  • It would be like reading someone’s personal journal; memoirs sometimes feel like they are written for people close by and not for you.
  • That it would be irrelevant to me as I don’t have the same type of relationship with my father (no family is perfect of course).
  • That the book was about actual ghosts and the whole thing was a big pump fake; I hate horror stories.

I was pleasantly surprised that the ghosts were not real. There were certainly moments in the book that were quite sad; to watch a family tear apart from old settled tensions is painful even if you don’t know them. The timeline and writing was crisp and easy to follow as a reader (this is quite an accomplishment with this type of book in my view – the book jumped back and forth through time but built to a conclusion steadily).

Even though they might be obvious the book provided lessons for me as a father of four:

  • Fathers are important and the confidence (even interest) of a father in his children is crucial.
  • Keep communication open and honest; it will be painful but is the only way to move forward.
  • ‘Checking out’ or starting a feud is not really possible in a family; they will always be there and it causes pain on all sides as long as it lasts.
  • People’s weaknesses depend on others weaknesses.
  • Sarcasm’s effects on children is hit or miss; it tends to hurt more so deploy it carefully.
  • Stay away from Australia. (Not really)

I am quite glad that I read The Ghost Of My Father and feel like it will be a book that makes an impact; I will continue digesting it over time I am sure.

I’m writing a book about successfully working from home; click here if you want to know when it is complete.

Beginner’s Guide to Working from Home

Here is my quick and dirty guide for someone who has just started working from home (or remotely or telecommute, etc.). These tips are in order of importance; first up:

Give yourself a month before making big changes

I’d suggest giving yourself a month-long trial period in which you carefully note how it is going and don’t make huge changes to your normal workflow. If you get dressed up for work I’d do that the first week at home. If you don’t have a TV in your office at work then don’t put one in your home office; if you don’t typically work standing up I wouldn’t jump into this hardcore at first, etc. Just working from home will be change enough and you can play with the increased flexibility and extra time once you prove that you can still be effective. One of the benefits of working from home is that you can do crazy things that aren’t socially acceptable at some offices that actually increase your effectiveness (naps, listen to music loudly, working outside, wearing what you want to wear, exercising at odd times, not shaving, wearing an eye patch, etc.). Save these for later.

Separate work from home

Keep set hours that work for you to prevent checking email at 8PM and other forms of sad insanity.  Build a separate office space. Take time in the morning and the afternoon to perform silly little routines that remind your body and mind that you are switching modes (like changing shoes Mr. Rogers style or moon-walking from your home office into your living room):

Proper Re-entry: How To End Your Day

Set expectations with your family (or anybody you live with)

Working from home puts a bit of stress on others if they are home at all during the day. Let them know what to expect:

Managing Your Significant Other When Working from Home

Realize that you need structure

Even if your role has a lot of creative alone time you will find you need more structure to your day as the natural bookends of in-person conversations and your commute leave a vacuum. Try different techniques to track what you are doing until you find some system that gets you moving and keeps you there even if you are a bit more disconnected physically. I recommend starting with the Pomodoro Technique and also tracking what you did each day with iDoneThis.

Keep from going insane

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Try to work some from your office, a co-working spot, or at a coffeeshop where you know a few people. Generally track your level of insanity; take breaks; talk to people; go eat lunch, and have fun.

How to work from home without going insane (purple monkey dishwasher)

Good Luck.

I’m writing a book about successfully working from home; click here if you want to know when it is complete.

Thought Experiment: How working from home might change the world (a little bit)

Bv-HqX0IgAARocQIn 2010 only 4.3% of the US workforce worked at home the majority of the time; that number is now up between 47% and 180% depending on which survey you read (and whether you include the self-employed, government workers, or cats)

Let’s just imagine for a few moments that 25% of the current US workforce started working from home full-time. How would that change the things?

  • People who work from home drive significantly less. (I have been trying for years to get rid of our second car and we are almost able to – if we had about 80 less kids I would be able to)  Effects: less gas usage, better environment, less Hyundais.
  • People who work from home wear the clothes they want to wear and shoes that are comfortable and do little dry cleaning. (Apart from my mariachi outfit I haven’t been in a dry cleaners for years)  Effects: I’m not sure what is going to be on the end of every sad shopping mall if there aren’t any dry cleaners.
  • People who work from home are more involved in their children’s day-to-day lives. (The “mystery reader” isn’t as much of a mystery sometimes at school – its one of the “work from home” losers who stumble in having just taking a shower for the first time in this daylight savings period)  Effect: better kids, more showers.
  • People who work from home stay within their communities more which can lead to great things like more volunteering, less hollow suburbs, more active local government involvement as well as scary things like a desire to run for HOA president or letter-writing campaigns about how there isn’t a Whole Foods nearby)(On a personal level this has caused me to shop at more local businesses and move away from chains [not gold chains – I will wear those 4 life])  Effect: all sorts of great things.
  • People who work from home commit (less) workplace harassment and workplace violence.
  • People who work from home do not use “business level” office supplies but use their personal computers, phones, printers, pens, toilet paper, coffee, etc. (We do not need those Cisco phones that look like they cost $800 each and handle 8-way calling, have 5 active lines, and look like they were designed by someone with a grey-tone fetish)  Effects: people who sell expensive toilet paper go out of business.
  • People who work from home do look for “offsite” locations to work and thus frequent coffeeshops, restaurants, and essentially any place with a table, a chair, and free wifi to the point of direct absurdity. (Note to funeral homes: please never offer free Wifi)  Effect: More Dunkin’ Donuts.

My daughter designed my perfect home office in Minecraft

Children notice more than you think. It has been a difficult two weeks with the kids out of school  due to “snow” and a winter break so the work/life harmony is a bit more chaotic than normal. I have gotten frustrated with them at times (especially yesterday when I found all four in my office looting it slowly).

My (middle) daughter (who is 5) must have picked up on this because last night showed me a home office that she made for me in Minecraft so I can “get quiet when you talk to people and type and read stuff”.  So it turns out she knows the nature of my work (which is just typing and reading I guess).  She also knows that I need:

  • Quiet.
  • Space close to but far away from the family.

Its in a flat world and the office is at the top of a tower with a lobby that you enter first:

tower_from_far_away

 

You then “say your name to the guard and they let you in or kick you out” (when she showed it to me the guard had a large sword just in case there was trouble):

 

guard

 

If you are granted entrance you have to climb (she says you aren’t allowed to fly there) to get to the office itself:

mid_way_up

Its quite a climb to the top:

overlook_inside

Up in the office I have some bookshelves:

bookshelf

A computer with plenty of light nearby:

computer

And a great view:

outside_view

outsideIt is amazing to me that she was perceptive enough to realize what I wanted and took the time to build it.

I’m writing a book about successfully working from home; signup if you want to know when it is complete.

One man trying to bring high fashion back into computer programming.