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Random thoughts about life, ops, dev, and management

A Year Remote

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In early December of last year, I hired on at Demand Media to be an 80% remote employee. While, in general, the culture at Demand around being in the office is strong, there are actually a fair number of remote employees at Demand. For me personally, I live about 90 miles from our office in Santa Monica and usually come in on Tuesdays.

The journey has definitely had its ups and downs but it has been amazingly positive and enjoyable. When I first considered the idea of working for Demand, I reached out to a few friends I knew that were also remote. The interesting thing about this is that they all advised against me taking the position because not only was it partially remote, but because I was going to be “the remote guy” on a team that was in the office. After having spent a year in that world, I can definitely see why they had concerns and how quickly those situations could turn sour.

Because I am a little on the crazy side, I took the job. It was a chance to get some experience working remote and the team seemed like a good fit. Needless to say, I made the right decision. I feel like I have been super successful working at Demand and owe a huge part of that to the team I work with. While tools help a lot, it is the culture of my team and the other teams I work with that allow me to be effective.

My team, the Media Infrastructure group, takes an active role in making sure I am not left out of things. They always make sure the conference calls are setup and I am there via video chat when possible. Not only that, there is an active effort to make sure conversations are had over IM so that I can be a part of them and am not left out. On the occasions where I am not able to be a part of whatever was going on in the office, they make a concerted effort to follow up with me and make sure I am aware of what is going on.

In addition, the teams I interact with have adapted to the fact that I am remote and do a great job keeping me in the loop. There are plenty of screenshots of the teams being on a video chat with me as we launched a new site, or you can walk into one of the weekly lunch meetings to see my gigantic head on the video display. Most of the developers I work with have made a point to make sure they have Jabber up so I can reach out to them when there are issues.

The impact of tools in this space cannot be understated. The conference bridges, Jabber and the Vidyo system are what allow all of this to be possible. I want to take a second to thank the amazing teams in my IT group that made the Vidyo system happen and keep things like Jabber up and running. While tools like Google Hangouts and other instant messaging systems exist, the tools that IT provide work better and have allowed for a much more seamless environment. In particular, when we were in a previous office location, I used to dread meetings where I had to call in on the conference phone. Half the time I couldn’t hear what was being said and the other half the time I couldn’t chime in when I needed to. The Vidyo systems that are now in the big conference rooms have made that problem go away almost completely, and I am now one of the loudest people in the room.

It is interesting to look at some of the benefits of being remote. Most people focus on what the remote employee gets out of it, but I think the employer gets the most benefit, especially with the industry we are in. As a result of being remote, my team regularly practices the same techniques we use during incident response. We all know how to get on the conference bridges and are comfortable working and IMing at the same time. (Ok so that is a bit of a stretch… I suck at multi-tasking.) Even more interesting, when I get a call in the middle of the night about a problem, I generally walk into my normal work environment so there is less of a need to adapt to the new situation. I turn on the display I have setup as an information radiator that displays dashboards and logs and am able to quickly start getting a feel for what is wrong, even if I still have to setup my laptop.

Another interesting thing that has happened on a few occasions is that because I am in a different location, I am not affected by local issues. There was a situation recently where the power had failed in the office and because I was remote and one of my teammates was still at home we were able to address issues that couldn’t be handled by the rest of our team in the office. It means that I am occasionally able to route around problems or see things differently because I am not in the office.

I would be doing a disservice if I didn’t talk a little about the challenges that I have faced over the last year. Most of the problems I have faced are not ones that can be overcome by my team or the company, they are the reason that remote work isn’t for everyone.

To start, 90 miles is a long way. Without stopping and without traffic I can do the drive in approximately 1hr and 20 mins. For those that have ever been to LA, the “without traffic” part is, by and large, hard to achieve. To help with that I have adjusted my schedule a bit and try to be out of the house by 4:00 am on days I am in the office, resulting in about 1hr, 30 minute drive to the office. And, because traffic in the evening is bad, I don’t head for home any earlier than 6:00 pm and it is usually closer to 7:00 pm by the time I leave resulting in about a 2hr drive home. While I do come in twice a week on a very rare occasion, it is obvious by Friday that I have done so by the toll it takes on my body.

To add to the theme of long days, I tend to spend a lot of time working. This is partially because I just love what I do so much and partially because I really don’t ever leave work. I try to be good about getting up from the computer no later than 6:00 pm, but that doesn’t always happen and it isn’t out of the ordinary for me to sit down to dinner with the family and then be right back at it. My wife had been amazingly understanding and has done a great job in helping me to set those boundaries and not get sucked too far into the work I enjoy so much.

While my team does a great job at keeping me included, there are still plenty of things I miss out on because I am remote. I don’t get to participate in a lot of the things like the Monthly Birthday and Anniversary goodies most months, and I am almost never in the office for lunch on Friday.

Additionally, there have been a few occasions here and there where there has been a major incident or something going on and lots of brainstorming and discussion was going on in the office and I sat at my computer wondering what was happening because everyone had stopped responding. This has more or less gone away because of Vidyo, but it is a horrible feeling when you are sitting at your computer, the site is down or heavily impacted and you feel helpless, not knowing what to do next.

All and all, it has been an amazing experience. My team, the teams I interact with and everyone at Demand has always been supportive. While the drive is a bit crazy and the day is long, I love my one day a week in the office and am looking forward to the next few years at Demand.

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