Networks

Work-From-Home Whiplash

May 4, 2020

Work-From-Home Whiplash

Global pandemic is a helluva way to learn work from home. After 20+ years of working in an office, it’s been a far bigger change than I’d imagined. Especially if you’re accustomed to working in a highly collaborative role where quick teamwork keeps the infrastructure online or great ideas happen in the hallways, suddenly working remote can be a shock. I’d always wanted to explore the flexibility and productiveness some of my peers reported. Surely, it would be an easy way to better balance work and life. But it turned out to be very different in practice, and not just due to the unprecedented circumstance of COVID-19.

I’ve toyed with the idea of changing to a work-from-home role for years. I’ve done some of my best, most creative, and complex individual work on the weekends or while waiting out Austin’s notoriously awful morning rush-hour. But sustained work, especially maintaining close interconnects with the business, isn’t anything I had to think about. Human and technical resources fly in convenient formation within headquarters’ gravity well.

Surprises Come in Threes

The first big surprise is how much of the workday remote employees spend staying connected to their teams. Email and Jira are collaboration, not connection tools, separation is real, and you have to learn how to connect online. Maybe it’s generational or because I’m on camera a lot, or I’m at heart an engineer, but I prefer work conversations with an async option. It prevents blocking, and blocking is the enemy of SQL execution, processor treads, or any other kind of work. I don’t think I’m alone in thinking some meetings are productivity killers, over-provisioned into 30- or 60-minute spans by scheduling tools. There’s no drop-down for 14- or 37-minute blocks. But there’s a reason the business is built on meetings—because staying connected is really, really important.

Second, distraction is a struggle and the struggle is real. And if your partner is also in a senior tech role, right now your whole “office” is probably working harder than ever before. There’s increasing evidence you’re online earlier and working later than when you were in the office. The tweets we’re seeing about blurred weekends note a real problem. Working remote removes the demarcation of communing, lunches out, and the alternate facility universe of the office that would separate work week from after-work and weekends. Or at least helps reduce the porous tech boundary of “Hey, got a sec?” pings.

Also, under COVID-19-dictated work from home, you’re more reactive than proactive. That’s never good for IT. On top of ten or more hours of work, you’re likely also running a homeschool. You have all the challenges and interruptions of managing curriculum, resource access, and on-demand homework help normally compressed into afternoons and evenings. Of course, you’re also still doing normal learning support—lunches, snacks, and getting homework turned in online. While you stop being an Uber shuttle service to dance, scouts, soccer, robotics, etc., you’re still doing all the overlapping activity Tetris you used to, but online. And with Zoom classes, you assume much of the planning and organizing outsourced to instructors and coaches before.

The last ongoing source of distraction was a surprise—you’re running a small restaurant without the convenience of daily Sysco truck deliveries. You’re managing the supply chain because JIT inventory broke down. Meals limited to what you can scrounge up exacerbate the trapped-in-the-house blues, so you’re probably spending more time planning for meals and ensuring a leftover resiliency buffer. At least for now, this means sourcing and stocking orders from multiple vendors without assurance anything might arrive as expected. Food queue depth monitoring just wasn’t a thing before.

The third big surprise is I needed to upgrade my home technology. It seems counter-intuitive; I’m a career technologist, so you’d think I’d be a one-percenter of personal IT infrastructure. But I know plenty of other tech pros in the mode of the cobbler’s children, carpenter’s house, preacher’s kids, etc. I’m happy as long as I blow the doors of neighbors’ Wi-Fi, but not enough to buy or manage a branch office IT closet. Turns out it’s not unusual to discover we have some personal technical debt at home too. It’s the force that binds the universe together.

Independent Study Program Abroad

Pushed out the office door with my laptop, a webcam, and headset, I’m learning a lot adapting under the triple challenges of disconnection, distraction, and limited infrastructure. I still wouldn’t rate myself as good just yet, but considering the situation, I’m way better off than six weeks ago and growing more efficient every day. There’ve been a lot of adjustments and evolution by trial and error typical for technical teams. Here’s the advice I’ve been offering online, mostly in 280-character chunks with emojis:

1. Make a list of people you need to stay connected to and keep it on your desk. Thinking, “Nice. No meetings, just blissful production,” is an easy mistake. Instead, working from home you need more—not less—contact. This includes all the people you not only work with but also folks you run into in the hallways or on check-in walkabout. Make as many video calls as possible, and extra credit seems to be awarded for taking a shower once in a while. Strange. Also, you can make check marks on your contact sheet each time you chat, tracking your connectedness. (Excel is also fine if you’re into that sort of thing.) Tracking helps identify coworkers where connection might be stretched, while helping spread your catch-ups more evenly outside your regular crew.

2. Do some dream tech. If you’re like me, it can be difficult for your home network, PCs, and other gear to match the quality of enterprise infrastructure. (Or yours may be better, in which case, sorry, that stinks.) It’s not so much that troubleshooting at bedtime feels a bit like bringing work home, but I am trying to run my IT budget as lean as possible while meeting customer requirements.

My work-from-home-in-progress network core.

But when home becomes your office, you should feel as proud of your infrastructure as you do with what you’d build for your business. It becomes an extension of your business infrastructure. Do some research, go shopping online (within reason), and eliminate glaring bottlenecks. You’ll notice the effects of swapping out a 100Mbps-choked router, switch, or modem to take advantage of your telco’s newly raised minimum 200Mbps download tier. Maybe pick up better APs with 5GHz antennas. By now more than half your clients are 802.11ac (Wi-Fi 5) ready. Not only will a wireless upgrade make working feel office-familiar, your family will love it and you’ll feel less distracted. Upgrading your home network is also a skills upgrade, increasing confidence and career benefits. Budgets are real, and you don’t have to do it all day-one, but have a plan and chip away at it. You’ll notice it in the quality of your work.

Last, find a decent personal computer if you don’t have one. You may find it surprising, but in a one-PC-per-capita household with over a dozen RaspberryPis and Arduinos, I didn’t have an office-class machine of my own. Work happened on my work laptop, and for everything else I’d used whatever else was nearby. Though in my defense, this worked because I moved my home lab to the cloud nearly a decade ago. Mmmmm, IaaS, PaaS, SaaS, all the things as a Service managed by somebody else.

But a technology professional working from home needs an anchor, a rock on which to stand, always available, with root. For example, my work Dell decided it needed to PXE IPv4, IPv6, THEN eventually boot to the M.2 stick. Every boot was timeoutapalooza. Fortunately, our desktop team is super responsive and let me build them a script to securely reconfigure the admin-locked BIOS over RMM. (Seriously, the Dell PowerShell DellBIOSProvider is awesome; check it out). Still, I was without a PC for a bit and it could have gone south, requiring a face mask and a visit to the office. Having your own machine—a real axe with horsepower—ensures you have options to justify the additional device admin.

Privacy matters too, and that’s harder to maintain when your home is your office. You’re likely doing more online shopping, managing deliveries, helping with kiddo schoolwork, going to Zoom happy hours, etc. Maybe your employer doesn’t need or want to monitor all that. Most companies seem to be pretty understanding during this emergency, but still they don’t need your bank passwords or to watch you reassuring older relatives. Have a machine to keep your work computing work and your personal computing personal. You don’t need a Rainbow RGB 1337 Gamer Prime-X beast, just something yours to switch to at the end of the business day. And with a $19 HDMI switch, you can hop back and forth on that new monitor you ordered the second week at home.

3. Relentlessly minimize distractions wherever possible. I know this seems obvious, but this can be the biggest change if you’re a bit SQUIRREL!!! like me. And unlike recommendations 1 and 2, you’re never done with this effort. It’s ongoing, and if you have others at home, will require some consideration, pragmatism, and affection.

First, if you can control the security of your front porch, create “Amazon o’clock.” 4 p.m. is working great for me. With stay-home, we’re getting several packages a day, most with only one or two items. I still can’t see how it’s fair for retail to compete with $2.99 jars of garlic powder that arrive free the next day in a suitcase-sized box, but that’s another discussion. Consolidating your receiving dock not only saves time but helps define an intentional relationship with focus. Toys are cool. Retail therapy works. And people bringing stuff to your house in a pandemic is entertainment. DING-DONG, let’s go see what it is!

Try not to do that. Let outside interruptions accumulate and at take-a-break-o’clock, get your box-cutter and clear whatever’s out there in one batch. And as long as you’re going to be washing your hands after, grab the mail while you’re at it. Amazon o’clock, laundry o’clock, change the oil o’clock all become welcome breaks. It’s a gating milestone to encourage wrapping up tasks to enjoy your afternoon. And that’s huge in this work from home game. You’ll be happier with clear task completion because it helps shut down and return to the life you work for. An advanced trick is shifting more atomic projects later in the day when you won’t have to worry about dependencies dragging them out. But clear completion also means you can hand off back to your team, making everyone more productive and giving them time back too.

But there’s one last and less obvious challenge: anti-distraction. It’s possible to have too much attention on task. Creating a nirvana of productivity can create room to get lost in interesting work. When interruption and distraction is under control, you’ll need to keep an eye toward maintaining proportional project investment. Staying connected—and therefore aligned—with your team can help.

Perhaps one of the best aspects of being in the office is you have your finger on the pulse of operations and strategy and know where to stop. You’re not accepting “good enough,” but you can read the room for an accurate measure of the fitness for purpose of what you’re working on. You know, engineering. But as I’ve discovered when you’re at home, thrilled with undistracted focus, it’s easy to want to perfect things. Why stop with X? Let’s fix all the things! It’s a seductive, easily rationalizable, impulse. But it’s a siren’s song. You can get lost in a passion project when you’d normally meet a need, stop, and shift your effort to the next thing your team is counting on.

Make sure requirements are clear, stay in contact with stakeholders, assess progress to goal, and then let go when the work meets the objective. Complete can be nebulous at a distance.

IT Corps: Improvise. Adapt. Overcome

Amid all the re-opening talk, as a planet we’re trying not to talk about the real unknown in the room. We may be working from home—at least on and off—for years. SARS-CoV-2, the virus behind COVID-19, is in the same family as SARS. Despite billions of dollars and decades of research, there’s still no vaccine for its coronaviral cousin, the common cold. And fifteen years later, researchers have essentially given up creating one for SARS. B–cells are like users who need a little help resetting their password every now and then—they’re notoriously hard to teach to recognize coronavirus antigens. And after all the effort, there’s reason to be skeptical this fire will be decisively extinguished soon. We’ll likely navigate shifting policies of office, home, office, home, just like in the first wave of COVID-19.

It might be time to accept that working from home is no longer a special, short-term solution. It’s now simply work. Work from home is another required skill, just like time and task management, written and verbal communication, team management, or anything else. It’s skills development we need to keep the world and our businesses moving forward.

Who knows, we just might find it even helps solves the impossible Rubik’s Cube of work, commuting, family, and finding a little restorative free time. Despite the overarching awfulness that overnight transitioned the world to work-from-home, there’s a lot to be said for this adventure in flexible officing. I hug my girls more, have focus for some of my best deep technical work, and know more than ever what I do on the keyboard matters. We’re all in this thing working together, even from home.


Patrick Hubbard is a Head Geek and technical product marketing director at SolarWinds. With over 20 years of IT experience spanning network management, data center, storage networks, VoIP, virtualization, and more, Hubbard's broad knowledge and hands-on expertise affirm his IT generalist authority. Hubbard’s initial interest in technology began with a grade school dive into Assembly on the Apple II, and eventually to a half-decade of technogenesis in skunkworks IT at American Airlines. Since then, Hubbard’s career has involved product management and strategy, technical evangelism, sales engineering and software development, all with a focus on application and service delivery for startups and Fortune 500 companies alike that span high tech, transportation, financial services and telecom industries. Since joining SolarWinds in 2007, Hubbard has combined his technical expertise with his IT customer perspective to develop SolarWinds’ online demo platform, launch the Head Geek program and create helpful content that speaks to fellow networking and systems professionals. He runs SolarWinds’ customer education and training program to empower IT Pros to resolve their IT management problems quickly and easily with SolarWinds software. Hubbard is also a Cisco® NetVet and a regular speaker at technology conferences for Ethernet, IPv6 and SDN.