Avoiding being a remote hermit

Last week I wrote a little bit about my experience working from home. I mentioned that I sometimes work from a local coworking space to get away from the noise of my kids. What I didn’t say is that I do it to be around people — because I don’t. I like being social, but I don’t feel like I miss anything working from home.

I leave the house more often than I’d probably choose to. I think my record is eight days without leaving the house, but it’s almost always much shorter than that. Sometimes it’s as simple as taking the kids to school in the morning. Other times I actually go do things with my friends. But I can’t say I’ve ever felt the need to work from not-house just to be around people.

Part of that is that I often interact with people over text (e.g. Twitter, instant messaging, etc) anyway. In my jobs, I’ve always been able to be relatively available online, so I’m able to keep in touch when I need interaction. And I often spent time on the phone or in video calls with people, so I got that higher-bandwidth interaction, too.

But I can see how someone freelancing or otherwise not interacting with coworkers regularly can quickly become a recluse. The Trello blog recently ran an article about avoiding becoming a hermit. I read it thinking “yeah, this is good advice but I take a slightly different approach.”

For example, I don’t dress up in “work clothes”. I wear shorts and a t-shirt when it’s warm and add more clothing when it gets colder. But I do have a rule that I won’t wear pajamas unless I’m sick. I don’t need slacks and a collared shirt to feel like I’m at work, but wearing pajamas is basically an invitation to not even bother.

I also don’t watch TV during the work day, with rare exception (hello, NCAA tournament!). But I do listen to podcasts. I frequently notice that I don’t really pay attention to what’s been said; they’re really more like background noise a lot of the time. Except when I need to focus on reading, the podcasts don’t really get in the way. I can even write with a podcast playing most of the time.

Overall, not leaving the house is one of the benefits of working from home for me. Life forces me out of the house enough, and I’m just social enough, that I can still get the human interaction I need. Your mileage may vary.

Working remotely or remotely working?

It’s been almost six years since I became a full-time telecommuter. While I won’t rule out working in an office again, it’s hard to imagine at this point. Offices are a nice place to visit, drink the free coffee and soda, and then leave.

I’ve worked for an entirely remote tech startup. I’ve worked as (as far as I know) the only true remotee in a 100-plus person division of a 130 kiloperson company. Now I work on a different continent from my manager on a project where some of the people I work with aren’t even employees of my company.

Across these different experiences, I’ve had both good and bad. But working remotely has not only been personally beneficial, I think it’s made me a better employee. Oh sure, there are times that I just sit there and stare at my screen blankly. Or I’ll absentmindedly surf the Internet instead of doing work. But I did that when I worked in an office.

But working from home means that when I can’t focus on work, I can step away for a few minutes to do laundry or vacuum or read a book to my kid. These short breaks where I can truly get away mean that I can focus that much better when I get back. I was never able to do that working in an office.

When I was working in marketing at Cycle Computing, I would sometimes mow the lawn during the work day. I didn’t need to be immediately available in case of emergency, and I found that the forced isolation of mowing the lawn made it easy to focus. I could do a lot of writing in my head as I mowed and immediately type it up when I got back inside.

I haven’t found that I need to be more disciplined working from home. I have a room with a door that I use as my office, so I have some physical separation between “work” and “home”. I did a few work-from-home days when I was at Purdue and each time I noticed that I was much more productive on those days because I didn’t get involved in a bunch of conversations that I didn’t need to.

These days, I sometimes leave the confines of the house to work from the coworking space I belong to downtown. The main motivation is that my kids are bigger and louder than they used to be, so days when they’re home, they make it difficult to concentrate. And sometimes it’s nice to have a cup of coffee that I didn’t have to make for myself. And now there’s science to back up my decision to stay out of the office.

Bureaucracy survival skills

I began my professional career working for a large university. In the first three years, I worked in a small department, but I later spent three years in the central IT organization. I got a lot of exposure to the bureaucratic machinery. Then I went to work for a 25-person company for five years. When Microsoft — a company of over 130k employees — acquired my employer, I was thrown back into the bureaucratic machine. But it turns out my bureaucracy survival skills had atrophied a little bit.

It took about three months before I got my footing and was able to start navigating the bureaucracy again. I like to think that when I’m in shape, I’m pretty good at it. So I’ve collected some of the rules I’ve learned over the years.

  • There are meetings for everything. — You may even have a meeting to plan the real meeting. If your deity is particularly mad at you that day, you’ll have a post-meeting meeting, too. This happens in almost all large organizations. It becomes too large and impersonal for people to keep up on what’s going on, so they’ll have lots of meetings so everyone can stay informed. Even if the meeting could have been an email, it will still happen because that’s the safer option.
  • Meetings will always begin with 5-10 minutes of late arrivals and AV/conferencing troubleshooting. — Computers are so much easier to use than in years past. So much just works. But somehow getting the projector to join the web meeting will continue to elude even the smartest people in the room. And because everyone is invited to all the meetings, they’ll probably be a few minutes late to yours.
  • The only thing worse than being in all those meetings is not being in those meetings. — It sucks spending all your time in meetings instead of doing your job. But decisions are (sometimes) made in meetings. If you’re not included, you’ll be left out of important decisions.
  • Conway’s Law is real. — Anything your organization designs will look a lot like the org chart.
  • People will take your responsibilities when it benefits them and give you responsibilities when it doesn’t. — In a large organization, you need to be visible to get rewarded. So if someone can benefit by doing your job for you, they will do it. But if it won’t benefit them, they’ll try to pass the task on to you.
  • People are more likely to ask for volunteers than to volunteer. — This is related to the last one. It’s easy to put out a call for volunteers. It’s harder to step up and volunteer. This is in part because people will often not volunteer and if you step up every time, you’ll have way too much work on your plate. The solution here is to assign tasks instead of asking or hoping for volunteers.
  • You can say no. In fact, you should. (to travel, to working outside of business hours, etc). — It won’t hurt your performance and it will help your sanity. I wrote about this in greater length last month.
  • Everyone will agree about broken processes, but no one knows how to fix them. — Large bureaucracies will have a lot of processes that probably made sense at one point, but grew or decayed to the point where they are inarguably broken. But how do you fix them? Nobody seems to have a good answer. Sometimes there are people with a vested interest in maintaining the status quo. Other times, it’s just a really big ship to try to turn around and no one has the time to devote the necessary work to it.
  • The only way to find out how to do something is to ask. There will be no documentation, and if there is it won’t be discoverable. — Every once in a while your predecessor will be someone like me who leaves the documentation in a better state than they found it. But for the most part, people don’t even bother writing documentation because they don’t want to, they’re not required to, and it will be out of date by the time someone reads it.
  • References to products will survive a lot longer than the products themselves. — For months, I would hear people at Microsoft talk about “S+”. I figured out from context that it meant a meeting invitation, but I couldn’t figure out why. Turns out Schedule Plus was a product in the 1990s. I was there 20 years after the functionality was merged into Outlook, but I still heard references to it.
  • Interpersonal relationships are how things get done. — Make friends. Make lots of friends. Make friends with people in other departments. Keep in touch with them as they and you move around the organization. Whenever you need something done, it’s much more likely to happen if you know someone you can talk to personally. Relying on official channels will, unfortunately, result only in waiting and inaction.

Those are the lessons I’ve learned. I’m sure there are plenty more. If you have lessons for surviving bureaucracy, let me know in the comments.

What’s routine to you is interesting to others

One thing about humans is that we’re really good at habituating. It doesn’t take long for something new to become normal. This really came to mind last month when I presented a pair of talks at the DevConf.cz conference in Brno, Czech Republic.

One of my talks was a 25-minute presentation on project management in community projects. As I was putting the talk together, I started thinking “this is a nothingburger.” Twenty-five minutes isn’t enough to give any useful depth of information. So all I’m doing is giving a basic description of my job.

As it turns out, “nothingburger” was the exact hunger level of the audience. When I asked the room, only three people or so said they were professional project or program managers. An intro-level talk was exactly the right target. Doing the work every day, I forgot that it’s not everyday for other people. Even people who do related work might find something worthwhile out of it.

l should have known better. Even in my own company, I’m the only program manager who works directly in upstream projects. The rest are focused on the company’s products. Unless they served in my role previously, the people on my team don’t necessarily know how my job is different from theirs.

I left DevConf.cz feeling inspired to seize the momentum and keep moving on some things I’ve wanted to do. And it’s a good reminder to myself and others that we’re not the best judges of what others will find interesting.

Dr. King is not a marketing campaign

Last Monday was Martin Luther King, Jr. day in the United States. It’s a day to honor the life and legacy of the famed civil rights leader who was assassinated in 1968. Because it’s a national holiday, some businesses try to use Dr. King or his work as part of their marketing.

Take, for example, Snarky Tea. Snarky Tea is a retailer of herbal teas with profane names. We have several in our house, including “Get Your A** in Bed”. Which, I assume, is what they were trying to sell when they sent this email on Monday.

Screencapture of an email with the subject "He had a dream... and you can too"

Oh no. This is a very bad look. What does the rest of the email say?

Screencapture of an email that reads in part "We were trying to think of a way to honor the great Martin Luther King, Jr but we're a profanity-laden tea company and this is the best we could come up with. Please don't judge us — we're doing our best over here."

Somehow, I don’t think tacitly admitting you knew this was a bad idea is the right thing to do. As I said on Twitter, if you’re thinking about using Dr. King in your marketing, just fuckin’ don’t.

Despite what Boston Globe columnists think, racism is still a problem in the United States. Dr. King was perhaps the best known civil rights activist and it got him killed. To use his most iconic speech as a way of selling tea is problematic.

Fifty-one years after his death, white America is happy to celebrate the parts of Dr. King’s legacy that we are comfortable with. Even Steve “What’s so bad about being a white supremacist?” King (no relation) is quick to jump on the bandwagon. But the reality is that we have not yet reached Dr. King’s dream. To use his legacy in this context is awful. We can do better. We must do better.

Update: if you can’t take the heat, stay out of the tea kettle

SnarkyTea blocked me on Twitter because of this post. They can be snarky, but they can’t handle being told they’re wrong.

Burnout as small task paralysis

If you’re an Online Person of a certain age, you probably have seen Anne Helen Petersen’s article in Buzzfeed “How Millennials Became The Burnout Generation“. And maybe you’re like me and said “yeah, I really identify with this.” Or maybe you’re not like me and you said “this doesn’t capture my experience.” But however you connect with this article, one part stood out to me.

None of these tasks were that hard: getting knives sharpened, taking boots to the cobbler, registering my dog for a new license, sending someone a signed copy of my book, scheduling an appointment with the dermatologist, donating books to the library, vacuuming my car. A handful of emails — one from a dear friend, one from a former student asking how my life was going — festered in my personal inbox, which I use as a sort of alternative to-do list, to the point that I started calling it the “inbox of shame.”

It’s not as if I were slacking in the rest of my life. I was publishing stories, writing two books, making meals, executing a move across the country, planning trips, paying my student loans, exercising on a regular basis. But when it came to the mundane, the medium priority, the stuff that wouldn’t make my job easier or my work better, I avoided it.

A little over a year ago, when I was overwhelmed in a new job and dealing with anxiety of an intensity I’d never felt before, I noticed that I was unable to do some thing. But it wasn’t the big and important tasks that I couldn’t do. It was the small, often trivial tasks that I couldn’t bring myself to do. Especially if it was not immediately rewarding or involved doing something I hadn’t done before.

My job had the possibility of occasional foreign travel, but to do that, I’d need a passport. I’d never bothered getting one before because I didn’t need it. Now I had some incentive. But the paperwork sat on my desk for months because I couldn’t bring myself to go to the post office and submit it.

There were so many emails that I put off sending as long as I could because I was worried that they’d get a negative reply. Nevermind that they were often just telling people about something else that happened. Or that the most likely outcome would be that my recipients wouldn’t even read it.

Redesigned pitch decks? No problem. New content for the website? Easy. Planning a major conference presence? Stressful, but manageable. But the easy stuff? Couldn’t do it.

When I first started experiencing this, I was really surprised. Why isn’t the easy stuff easy for me to do? Why can I do the hard stuff without too much worry?

For all the criticisms of it’s general applicability, Petersen’s article gave me a framework to understand this. And I felt seen.

Say “no” to advance your career

A few months ago, Bridget Gelms shared the worst professional advice she has heard:

Early-career people in particular are encouraged to take on all tasks in order to prove themselves and — to a lesser extent — discover what they do and don’t like to do. I suspect this is more true for women. I understand why people give that advice, and I understand even more why people take it. But it turns out, saying “no” can do more to advance your career than saying yes.

One thing I’ve observed is that over time, people who say “yes” to every request get a bunch of requests dropped on them. Some of them are good, but many are a waste of their talents. Being able to say “no” when the situation warrants can establish that your time — and thus you — are valuable.

Consider this: you’re asked at the last minute to fly to another continent to be in a meeting with a potential customer for a couple of hours. The potential customer is pretty unlikely to actually sign up, or they represent a small and not-strategic gain. You could go. Or you could find another way for the customer to get the 5 minutes worth of information that you’d end up providing. By not going, you save your company a few thousand dollars in airfare and you don’t lose two days to travel. What else more valuable can you do in that time?

The example above isn’t contrived. I’ve seen it play out, and the person who said no established themselves as someone of value in the company. Of course, you can’t say “no” to everything. Sometimes a task has to be done and you’re the one that will do it, whether you like it or not. But knowing when to say “no” is a valuable skill for improving your career.

Bonding with local TV personalities

Growing up, we were a WHAS house. I’m not sure why, and maybe my parents didn’t know either, but when it came to local coverage, that’s where we tuned. The pull of WHAS was so strong that when it swapped network affiliations with WLKY in 1990, we said goodbye to Dan Rather and hello to Peter Jennings for our network news.

For most of my childhood, we had one television with only over-the-air service, so I spent a lot of time watching the news with my parents. The newscasters became familiar parts of my life. When meteorologist Chuck Taylor died in 1997, I sat in the bathtub and cried. When Gary Roedemeier ran in the same road race I did, I fanboyed a little bit. Melissa Swan’s hats are still the first thing that comes to mind when I think of the Kentucky Derby.

It’s been fifteen years since I last lived in the Falls Cities, but I can still rattle off the names of people who I never met but they appeared in my living room every night: Fred Wiche, Chuck Olmstead, Doug Proffitt. Rachel Platt, Ken Schulz, Gary Rizzo. When severe weather threatened, as often happens in the Ohio Valley, we trusted Taylor, Schulz, and Rizzo to keep us safe. And on Christmas Eve, I always wanted to watch the 5:00 news because I knew they’d catch Santa on the radar as he headed out to start his deliveries.

As I was driving back to the Falls Cities area over Thanksgiving, I thought about all of those TV personalities. It occurred to me that my kids will never have that experience. Watching the evening news is not a thing that happens in this house. I can get the same news and so much more on-demand. And we don’t need the local TV meteorologist to give us severe weather information because I have RadarScope and a meteorology degree.

I often think about how much of a different world my kids inhabit. Even seemingly trivial things might not be as trivial as I think. How much did my one-way relationship with the folks at WHAS shape my upbringing? How will not having that relationship affect my kids? What will the media landscape look like when they’re my age?

Thought Leaders™ versus thought leaders

My friend Tom wrote a Twitter thread last week about how thought leaders are often derided in the tech industry.

I agree with Tom’s point that people — both in an out of the tech sector — value doing over thinking. It’s why we differentiate “talking the talk” and “walking the walk”. But I think it’s important to distinguish between people who are advancing the state of the field by visionary work and people who are trying to draw attention to their expertise. “Thought leaders” versus “Thought Leaders™”.

I’m of the mind that there’s a list of attributes where if you have to tell people you are that, then you aren’t. Someone who is always talking about how honest they are? Probably not trustworthy. Similarly, someone who describes themselves as a thought leader is probably not as influential as they’d like to think. (Full disclosure: I sometimes refer to myself as a thought leader, but I do it ironically.)

James Cuff gave me a certificate for being a “total thought leader” when he was still an Assistant Dean at Harvard.

I would argue that true thought leadership is an act of doing in itself. It’s taking experience gained from being a practitioner in the field and using that to inform a vision of the future. Thought leaders lead not by saying what the future is, but by showing what the future is. They don’t have to tell people that they’re thought leaders because the evidence is plain to see.

Most people can probably name at least a handful of people in their field that they think are always on the cutting edge. And they probably think highly of those people. It’s not being a thought leader they object to, just the self-applied label.

Why subscribe to a newsletter you don’t read?

Why would you subscribe to a newsletter that you don’t read? I mean, maybe you intend to. Maybe it’s sitting there in your inbox unread just waiting for you to get around to it Real Soon Now. Or maybe you filter it off to some folder where email does to die. I get that. I do that all the time.

No, what I’m thinking about is the case where an obvious spam account signs up for a newsletter. As of this writing, my newsletter has 283 subscribers — a number that has grown 27% in the past month. But only 40 people at most have ever opened it. The number of opens has stayed relatively constant even as the subscriber count has gone up.

So why do I think the accounts are spam? For one, there’s the fact that most of them haven’t opened any newsletters. Sure, maybe there’s a reason for that. But also they look…spammy. The addresses are often yahoo or other domains that have fallen out of favor. The names represented by the addresses don’t look like the names of people I know. I can’t imagine why people I do know read my newsletter, nevermind why strangers would. Taken all together, I feel safe calling many of these accounts spam.

But to what end? I understand spam accounts on Twitter liking random posts in the hopes that someone will look at the profile and click a link to whatever thing someone’s trying to peddle. Or maybe follow the account and get clicks that way. That makes sense to me. But what can a spammer do with a newsletter subscription? Is it a really crappy denial of service attack? Do they hope that after a few years my subscriber list will exceed Mailchimp’s free tier? Maybe it’s done to hide nefarious activity in a flood of confirmation emails. That seems like the most likely answer, but it doesn’t seem very efficient. Then again, I’m not a spammer, so what do I know?