We don’t have to accept the way things are

If you’ve read this week’s Newsletter Fiasco, you’ve already seen this. But I wanted to share it again because it has been weighing on my mind…

We are living in one hell of a moment. A moment where we decide if we support justice or if we are content to ignore injustice to preserve our own tranquility. Can we continue to allow our police departments to instigate violence against the very people they are sworn to serve and protect? Can we live in a society where unprovoked assault on journalists happen dozens of times in a single weekend?

Justice isn’t only about punishing wrongdoers. Justice is the active presence of equitable treatment. No state can be called just when extra-judicial killing is tolerated. We live in a society that provides military equipment to police while doctors are begging for masks.

None of this is new. The oppressed among us have lived this their whole lives. That many of us are only now getting mad is an indictment of us. The past cannot be changed, but we can act for a better future. A future where Black lives matter. A future where those who enforce the law are held accountable to it. A future that provides for the safety and well-being of everyone.

Working from home: my advice

There are as many articles about working from home as there are people who work from home. But I’ve been asked by a few people about my experiences, so looking back on the last nearly seven years, here’s what stands out.

Let’s keep a few things in mind first. Not everyone has the privilege of being able to work from home. In the midst of a pandemic, I feel for them. Also, working from home for a few weeks as an emergency is different from doing it all the time. Routine work from home you plan ahead for. It probably doesn’t involve having your partner and children around all the time while you also worry about a global pandemic and economic collapse. Just do the best you can and understand that your best now probably looks a lot different than your best a few months ago.

Your environment

Ideally, you’ll want a separate room that’s walled off from the rest of the house. This gives you the ability to focus and sets boundaries for you and others. If that’s not possible, get yourself the most secluded space you can. Make sure you have enough space for your laptop and any additional equipment you might need. Make sure there are power outlets available. I also ensure there’s space for mug of coffee or a cup of water, depending on the time of day.

When it comes to noise, you might not get much choice. If you like having chaos in the background, that’s great. With a partner, pets, or kids at home, you’ll probably get that. Noise canceling headphones are a good thing to have, but keep in mind that “noise canceling” means “the hum of your HVAC” not “the shriek of your toddler”. I personally tend to listen to podcasts. I’m generally not paying active attention, but the background talking helps. If I’m reading intently or writing, then I’ll shut it off.

Also consider what’s behind you. You’ll probably be on video calls a lot. Does the background send the message you want? Most people will understand a messy room, but if it bothers you, now’s the time to address it. Be particularly careful if someone can walk into frame unexpectedly. Years ago, I’m pretty sure I saw someone walk out of the shower in the background of a call with a coworker. That was awkward. You may consider having some kind of visual indicator: a flag or a light or something. Anything that will make it clear to those around you that you’re “on air” can help them avoid being in the meeting unexpectedly. But also consider that everyone else is going through this and a cute animal or kid can help everyone relax for a minute.

If you can help it, don’t work from a bed or couch. They’re too comfortable and I’ve found it’s really hard to maintain focus. The only time I’ve worked from bed is when I’ve felt particularly unwell but couldn’t bring myself to not work. (That is a personal failing, not an admirable trait.)

Try to find somewhere with sunlight, too. Especially in winter, having some sunshine really helps my mood. Consider where it will come in, though. You probably don’t want it directly in your face as you look at the screen, nor directly over your shoulder.

Your communication

Get ready to embrace your employer’s video platform of choice. I work in an open source community where a lot of daily communication happens through text-based chat. But video calls add an important human dimension. The in-person conversations you used to have? They happen on a webcam now!

If you have multiple monitors, put the thing you’re looking at on the one with the webcam. That might be the chat application, but it also could be a shared document that you’re looking at. But I can say from experience that it’s really disorienting to be looking at someone in profile the whole time.

On a similar note, try to find a good angle for your webcam. It’s best if it can catch you straight on. Up-nose shots are no fun and looking-down-on-your-forehead shots seem weird.

If your bandwidth isn’t up a video call, disable the video. It’s better to have the audio than nothing. If you’re not normally working from home, you might not have paid for the bandwidth you need, especially if others in the house are streaming movies or something. Also keep in mind that some providers throttle the upload bandwidth, which means that you might be receiving the call clearly, but your video or audio might be on the strugglebus. A business-class connection will generally not have that limitation, so it may be worth checking with your provider on that.

One thing you won’t get working remotely is the random water cooler chatter. That can be really helpful for team bonding. In previous jobs, I’ve done things like pair people up with randomly-selected coworkers and say “schedule a 15 minute call in the next two weeks to talk about anything you want.” I have a script that will draw names out of the hat for you. If you have a chat tool like Slack, IRC, etc, have a channel devoted to chit-chat. People can pop in and shoot the breeze without worrying about bothering someone who is in the zone.

Your self

Dress for success. Or at least for work. In cold weather, I put on jeans. In the summer, I wear shorts. What I don’t wear is pajama pants. I’ve found that I just can’t motivate myself to get work done on days I stay in my pajama pants. Not everyone has that problem, so if you find it works for you, great!

You might also want to shower. Or not. I won’t say how often I shower, but I can assure you it’s not daily. A lot depends on how I feel. If I feel like I need a shower, I take one. Sometimes that’s in the morning, but it’s usually at night or occasionally midday. You may find that you need to do your whole morning routine in order to feel motivated for work. That’s fine, but don’t expect that everyone else will.

Try to get some exercise if you can. I’m really bad at this myself, especially when I’m busy or the weather is bad. But when the weather is nice, a 20 minute walk around the neighborhood is a good chance to get away and think for a few minutes. A standing desk or treadmill desk can help too, or even some hand weights that you use during a call.

You know what’s great? Naps! It’s hard to do this at an office, but one of the things I really like about working from home is that I can go lie down for 20 minutes. “But, Ben!” you say “isn’t that like stealing from the company?!” I look at it this way: I could spend 20 minutes taking a nap, or two hours sitting at my desk but just sort of mindlessly staring at my screen. Which one seems better?

At some point, you’ll want to eat. I see a lot of advice that says “don’t eat at your desk”, but I do that almost every day. I did that when I worked in an office, too. For me, it was a way to shorten the work day a bit. For you, do what works best for you. Experiment a little bit. For me, I also know that I should not keep food within arms reach because I will eat it. All of it. Having a little bit of physical separation from food goes a long way.

Perhaps the most important thing is to give yourself some slack. Being a human is hard, and being a human in the time of pandemic is harder. You have a lot on your mind, and it’s okay if you’re not always at your best. Especially if you’re working from home in a suboptimal situation.

Your boundaries

You should have them. Working from home can really blur the line between work and home. It’s okay to step away for a few minutes to load laundry or run the vacuum. It’s not okay to keep working until 11pm because suddenly your living room is now your office. This is where having a separate office space helps. If you can make it happen.

Communication boundaries with coworkers are important, too. Don’t send an IM if it could be an email or a message in a broader channel. In a previous job we set up an escalation process for help requests in Slack:

  1. Ask in a product- or customer-specific channel with no tagging names, @here, or @channel
  2. If sufficient (use your judgment, based on the urgency) time goes by and you haven’t gotten an answer, repeat the message with @here to alert folks who are available
  3. If that still doesn’t get a response, send an IM to the person you think could help

Your routine

Like I said above, some people find they need to go through the whole routine in order to get motivated for work. That might mean doing makeup and hair and getting dressed in your “grown up” clothes. I’ve even heard of some people who drive their car around the block once just to have that mental routine of a morning commute.

I, on the other hand, do none of that. The closest thing to routine I have is making coffee before I sit down at my desk. For me, I love that I can be out of bed and at work five minutes later. I am not at all a morning person. What I do miss is having a commute home. Especially if you have kids, it can be hard to go straight from work stress to kid stress with no break in between. I don’t really miss the act of commuting, just the time to switch gears. For me, I found that was a good time to do 10 minutes of meditation. It helped me calm down after work and it gave me just enough of a break to be less frazzled with the kids.

Your distractions

I love working from home, but it’s not all great. Being able to step away for 5 minutes to get house work done is a great mental relief. But it’s also possible to get carried away, especially if you’re trying to avoid a hard problem at work. Unloading the dishwasher is fine. But don’t let it snowball into then cleaning out the fridge and scrubbing the stove top and and and.

If you have roommates, spouses, children, etc, they need to know when you’re working and that you should be left alone except in emergency. Find a way to signal that, like wearing your headphones when you walk through the house.

You can do this

Whether you’re making work-from-home a permanent thing, or you’re just work-from-home-during-a-pandemic-oh-god-what-is-happening-in-this-world, I hope some of the advice here helps. If you only take away 12 words, let them be: set boundaries, do what works for you, and go easy on yourself.

Business cards at conferences

Paper is dead; everything is digital.

Are you done laughing? Good! Stephanie Hurlburt posted a lengthy set of thoughts on using business cards at conferences, and it inspired me to think about how I use business cards.

I happen to be at a conference right now, and I brought my box of business cards with me. I’m sure I’ll only hand out a few, if any, but I prefer having them to not having them. If someone wants my card, I should have one available for them.

When I worked in marketing, I really liked getting business cards from prospective customers and partners. It made following up after the conference much easier. Sure, we had those nifty badge scanners, but some people covered their codes to protect from sneaky scans or they used a throwaway email address to avoid spam. But even if the scan worked, typing useful notes into the scanner is a tedious process. It’s much easier to pull out my pen and jot a few notes on the back of their card.

Now that I don’t work in marketing, the above scenario isn’t as important. But it’s easy to be insulated against the scenario arising.

What about digital methods? Sending someone an email or LinkedIn connection as you stand there works: unless it doesn’t. Conference WiFi can be unreliable, and mobile networks aren’t always great inside a large metal and concrete building. Taking pictures of business cards works, but it’s still harder to take quick notes, even with the stylus on my phone. I have a QR code that is a link to my LinkedIn profile saved on my phone. I have literally never used it.

Conferences are hard places to make connections. You’re busy and you meet so many other people that by the time you get home your brain is mush. For me, business cards are an easy way to preserve data. And sometimes they’re useful for winning a free lunch at a local restaurant.

I cry at work

The new podcast “This is Uncomfortable” had an episode about crying in the workplace. I don’t have a lot to say about it, other than it’s a good story. But I wanted to go on record as saying that I cry at work.

Sometimes work is overwhelming. Sometimes my personal life leaves me on edge. Sometimes I read a moving article.

Sometimes I cry. It’s okay to feel things.

Do your best

What does it mean to do your best? I was recently talking to a friend about this. She’s a single mother of four and at the time of the conversation was working part time while she completed her bachelors degree. She was upset because she felt like she wasn’t doing the best she could on a particular paper. This bothered her because she’s someone who always tries to do her best.

I said she still was. Just because she could have, in isolation, written a better paper, she’s still doing her best in aggregate. That’s one of the most important things I learned in grad school: how to let some things slide while keeping the overall effort.

Despite what years of motivational talks (and a poem called “Good Enough is Neither” that was drilled into us in ninth grade) have told me, sometimes good enough is good enough. It’s all a balancing act. Part of being an adult is knowing how to strike the balance between all of the things you have and want to do.

For folks with a singular pursuit, perhaps they can focus all of their energy on doing their absolute best in a single thing. For most of us, life doesn’t work that way. Your job isn’t one thing, it’s a collection of things that you do. This is even more true for your family and friends. Sometimes you have to do less than your best at one thing in order to do well enough somewhere else.

I tend to view “doing my best” not as something that happens on a single task, but as a reflection of my effort in the aggregate. I think that’s a healthier approach.

A code analogy for politics

Every once in a while, someone suggests writing laws like code. Bills are pull requests. You can easily see diffs from previous versions. It’s an appealing idea.

But sometimes I think about how political structures resemble code. Specifically, the U.S. Constitution reminds me of most of the code I write: it’s mostly happy path and there’s not a lot of error checking. They both assume good actors all around.

Just as Madison et al did not consider that a presidential candidate might receive material support from a foreign power and that large portions of the Congress might choose to turn a blind eye to it, I don’t really think about how a bad actor might use code I write.

Of course, I mostly write code for my own use. And the Constitution isn’t workable if it covers great detail. But a little more exception handling and testing is probably good for both of us.

Competency degrees and the role of higher education

Several years ago, Purdue University introduced a “competency degree program”. I called it “test out of your degree”. Although the University’s website is short on detail, I gather the general idea is a focus on doing instead of study. Which sounds pretty good on its face, but actually isn’t.

“We’ve hired Purdue grads before,” said Dave Bozell, owner of CG Visions, told the Lafayette Journal & Courier, “and they have the theory, but we still have to spend time teaching them how to apply it to what they’re working on.”

Yes, Dave. That’s the point. Universities do not exist to provide vocational training for your employees. That’s your responsibility. That’s why science majors have to take some (but not enough) humanities courses. Higher education is for broad learning. Or at least it used to be.

I wonder sometimes if the Morrill Act — which lead to the creation of Purdue University and many other institutions — is what caused the shift from education to training. Uncharitably, it said “this fancy book learnin’ is fine and all, but we need people to have useful skills.” “Useful”, of course, has a pretty strict definition.

Purdue’s College of Technology Dean Gary Bertoline said “there are plenty of high-skill, high-wage technology jobs available, but students just don’t have the skills necessary to fill them.” You know what skills are most lacking in tech these days? It’s not coding. It’s not database optimization. It’s ethics. I doubt that’s in the competency-based degree.

I’d like to see employers doing more to train their employees in the skills needed to perform the day-to-day work. Theory is important, and that’s a good fit for the university model. If you want a more streamlined approach, embrace vocational schools. Much of the work done these days that requires a college degree doesn’t need to. In fact, it might benefit from a more focused vocational approach that leaves graduates in less debt.

But universities should be catering to the needs of the student and the society, not the employer.

Is Slack revolutionary?

No, says Betteridge’s Law. But there are some who will argue it is. For example, Ben Thompson recently wrote “Zoom is in some respects a more impressive business, but its use-case was a pre-existing one. Slack, on the other hand, introduced an entirely new way to work”.

I don’t see that Slack introduced an entirely new way to work. What it did was take existing ways to work and make them suck less. When I joined a former employer, they were using consumer Skype for instant messaging and calls. It worked fairly well from the telephony side, but as a team IM client it was…bad. Channels weren’t discoverable, there were no integrations, and search (if it even existed, I don’t remember now) was useless.

When we switched to Slack, it was so much better than the way we had been working. But none of the concepts were new, they were just better executed. Many tools have attempted to address the use cases that Slack handles well. They just didn’t succeed in the same way. Does that make Slack revolutionary? Maybe it’s splitting hairs, but I could see an argument that Slack had a revolutionary impact without being revolutionary itself.

If a thank you note is a requirement, I don’t want to work for you

Jessica Liebman wrote an article for Business Insider where she shared a hiring rule: If someone doesn’t send a thank-you email, don’t hire them. This, to be blunt, is a garbage rule. I don’t even know where to begin describing why I don’t like it, so I’ll let Twitter get us started.

When I’ve been on the hiring team, a short, sincere “thank you” email has always been nice to receive. But I’ve never held the lack of one against a candidate. It’s not like we’re doing them some huge favor. We’re trying to find a mutually beneficial fit. And employers hold most of the power, in the interview process and beyond.

You can lament it if you want, but the social norm of sending thank yous for gifts is greatly diminished. So even if it would have been appropriate in the past, it’s no longer expected. And, as noted above, it’s culture-specific anyway.

Until employers see fit to offer meaningful feedback to all applicants, they can keep their rule requiring thank you notes to themselves. And even after that. If an employer wants to use arbitrary gates that have no bearing on performing the job function, I don’t want to work for them.

Protecting the privacy interests of others

Every so often, I think about privacy. Usually because Facebook or another large company has acted stupidly again. And I’ll admit that despite the lousy track record that many companies have, I make the choice to use their services anyway because I determine the value to outweigh the negatives. But not everyone makes that choice.

When we talk about protecting privacy, we generally talk about protecting our own privacy. But our privacy impacts the privacy of others. I got on this line of thought a while back while listening to This Week in Law (RIP) episode 440. They were talking about what happens to your digital property (e.g. email and social media accounts) after you die. While I won’t particularly care about what is said about me after I’m dead — I’ll be dead after all — it’s not just my content there.

Sometimes my friends tell me things about their lives. The most convenient way happens to be email or instant messaging. Now you can argue that these sorts of things should be discussed in a more secure manner, but that ignore the way people live their actual lives. Anyway, sometimes my friends tell me things that they wouldn’t necessarily want others to know. Secrets about relationships, desires, worries, etc.

If my accounts become available to someone else after my death, then so do the messages sent in confidence to me. And just because my friend felt comfortable confiding in me, that doesn’t necessarily mean they’ll feel comfortable with my estate knowing their secrets.

It’s a tricky situation. A generation or two ago, these sorts of things would be communicated in person, over the phone, or by written letter. Only the last of these would leave a record of the content, and even then they’re likely destroyed fairly soon. The ability to cheaply store communications en masse is both a blessing and a curse. Neither law nor societal norms have yet come to terms with this new world.