For about 6 months now I’ve been working for Canonical on the Soyuz component of Launchpad. Like most other engineers at Canonical I don’t work at the office but from a desk at home, as our nearest office is in London, not really a distance that is feasible for a commute. I do work at regular hours during work days and stay in touch with my colleagues using IRC and voice over IP.
I did have some experience working on contracts and study assignments from home previously, but working a fulltime regular job has turned out to be a bigger challenge. It seems easy enough. No travel time, every day is casual Friday, being able to listen to obscure death metal all day without driving coworkers crazy. Awesome, right?
Well, not entirely. I can’t say I wasn’t warned beforehand (I was) but I still ran head-first into some of the common mistakes.
I can work well by myself and I appreciate the occasional solitude, but it does get kinda lonely when you’re physically sitting by yourself for 8 hours a day, five days a week.
Fortunately we regularly have sprints at different locations around the world and, apart from appealing to the travel junkie in me, that brings some essential face time with coworkers. Electronic communication mechanisms such as mailing lists, IRC, Skype and, more recently, mumble also help make the rest of the company feel closer, but it’s still very different from being able to talk to people at the water cooler (the point of which, btw, still escapes me. What’s wrong with proper cold tap water?).
What also seems to help is going into the city and meeting up with others for lunch, or even just to get groceries.
Concentration, work times
One of the nice things about working at home is that you’re quite flexible in planning your days; it’s possible to interrupt work to run an errand if necessary. The downside of it is that it is also really easy to get distracted, and there’s something I do very well: procrastinating. I initially ended up getting distracted quite often and then would end up working into the evening to make up for that lost time. The result being that, while only spending 8 hours doing actual work, it felt like having been at work for 12 hours in the end and having lost all spare time. Or as a friend summarized it accurately: working at home is all about boundaries.
This is at least partially related to the fact that I am a compulsive multi-tasker; I always do several things at once and context-switch every minute or so (prompted by e.g. having to wait for code to compile), including checking email and responding to conversations on IRC and Google Talk. This, among other things, has the effect that I respond quite slowly in IRC/IM conversations; if you’ve ever chatted with me you’ve probably noticed it. Multi-tasking has always worked well for me - despite research suggesting otherwise - because software development always involves a lot of waiting (for vcses, compilers, testsuites, …).
Recently I’ve tried to eliminate some of the other distractions by signing out off Skype, Empathy (Google Talk, MSN, etc) and Google reader completely and only checking email a couple of times per day.
What has perhaps surprised me most of all was how essential the satisfaction of getting something done is. After spending about a day staring at Python code it’s important for your mood to have accomplished something. This appears to be a vicious circle, as lack of progress kills the fun of work, which kills motivation, which causes a lack of progress.
I am hard core, so during my first months I used my lunch breaks and evenings to hack on other free software projects, triaging bug reports that had come in or reviewing patches. Despite the fact that this is indeed technically a break from Launchpad, it didn’t (surprise!) seem to work as well as stepping away from the computer completely. Also, it turns out that spending 14 hours a day programming doesn’t make you all that much more productive than working a couple of hours less.
What I’ve discovered recently is that getting at least one branch done by the end of each day, even if it’s just by fixing a trivial bug, helps tremendously in giving me some sense of accomplishment. Julian also wrote a blog post with some useful hints on feeling productive a while ago.
What is your experience working from home? Any good tips?
Currently Playing: Sieges Even - Unbreakable