The Slack Channel Effect

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Instead of talking in a big group we split off into separate channels which is somewhat anti-collaboration.

I realized the other day that channels in Slack (or any other group messaging platform) are both good and bad. When there are a small number of rooms it’s easier to find a conversation or to be involved in the majority of discussions. As the number of people in the rooms grows, chats become more noisy. The solution is to create another channel – ideally something subject-specific to filter out the noise. There’s a counter-effect which is somewhat unexpected – it can reduce interaction between members.

Turns out the more channels there are, the less conversations you have exposure to. This sounds stupidly obvious – but it’s not really when you’re so close to the effect. As your channel list grows it’ll reach a critical mass when information overwhelms you. Your only way to fight back is to start leaving channels.

A large room with a lot of activity is easier to mute either by shutting down the chat client or by using a muting feature. Rooms let you segment conversations by topic but then you have less interaction with teammates and less visibility of what is going on overall. The reality is neither method is sustainable. I haven’t quite figured out the solution for a balance between the two.

The Power of Five Minutes When Working Remote

Minutes can make a difference. This is something I quickly discovered early on when I started working remote.

The granularity of a usable block of time was much bigger when I worked in an office and had a 20 minute commute each way. Unconsciously I believe I felt 15 minutes was the smallest unit of time I could use to create or do something effective. Since I started working remote, I’ve discovered that unit of time has decreased to something even smaller which is closer to five minutes.

I can get a lot done with five minutes. I can wake up, let the dogs outside, get the coffee started, and then be at my desk working. I don’t have the normal rituals to adhere to in the morning – getting ready for work, driving, going up the elevator, saying hi, putting my lunch away, and then putting my mind into work mode. I end up starting on my treadmill desk right away in the morning with my coffee (when it finishes). If you’re lucky to video chat with me in my morning I’ll have bed head and workout clothes on. 😏

Once I realized how much I could actually get done in those five minutes I discovered other longer tasks were less efficient uses of my time. Driving to get a cup of coffee from Starbucks took easily 20 minutes. That’s 4 times the amount of time I need to do something useful! OMG THE HORROR!

Working remote, to me, means working more efficiently. I try to use my time wisely and keep on track with my goals for the day. It’s easy for me to get off track (especially for me dealing with ADD) so I have to break down my tasks into smaller achievable tasks. I also love checking off boxes when I finished something.

You can get a lot of things done in five minutes. Just don’t forget you can also take a five minute break.

Featured image courtesy of http://scrutiny.deviantart.com/art/Time-is-Slipping-Away-177781756

How Working Remote (Probably) Saved My Life

Before Working Remote

In July 2013 I started working remote at Automattic working on the WordPress for iOS app. I was pretty happy with my life at that time and the transition to the new job was not for reasons of disliking my previous job. In fact I loved working for Red Arrow Labs in Milwaukee and it was incredibly hard leaving them. I only left Red Arrow because it felt like Automattic was my unicorn of jobs and I had stumbled upon it by sheer luck. It turns out that I really wasn’t entirely happy with how things were going in my life at the time even though the job was great.

I don’t believe single data points like body weight can gauge happiness. It is, however, an indicator of my overall health and satisfaction with my daily life. In 2010 I had dropped to 235lb/106kg without much effort except eliminating bad foods and walking around the neighborhood a lot. Life changed a bit and within three years I was back up to the 280lb/127kg range.

I was admitted to the ER in 2011 when my heart rhythm freaked me out. I was diagnosed with Atrial Fibrillation (aFib) which is when the electrical signals around your heart freak out. The major risk associated with aFib is stroke because while your heart is beating all weird blood has the chance to pool causing a clot to form. I ended up being put on two medications and regular checkups with an electrophysiologist. Something had to change.

Weight Loss Failures

I’ve learned over time that major self change only is successful when done in super small increments. Drastic short term changes, while satisfying to the impulse buyers in us, end up failing for myself because I miss the old way. Riding my new bike to work was a great success for me and made me feel really good – but it took a lot of effort. Instead of continuing with the biking to work I dissuaded myself by convincing myself it was too cold, or I had an early meeting and couldn’t be sweaty, or my knees hurt a little. Turns out I was doing too much too fast.

I didn’t really find out how to let myself be successful until I left my office job and starting working remote at Automattic. Almost immediately I realized I really did have Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD) and couldn’t ignore it any longer. My level of success as an Automattician depended on me being able to focus and alter my environment to remove distractions. I immediately changed everything in my office and set up all these tools like using the Pomodoro Technique, notebooks, standing at my desk. I felt super successful at first but in the end none of these techniques helped because I got overwhelmed.

In October 2013 I realized I needed help. I ended up seeing a counselor who specializes in both substance abuse and ADD. She helped me work through some of the issues I was having with my attention and got me to realize how I was able to succeed in the past and why I was failing now. The nature of working in an office with the multitude of distractions worked in favor of the ADD. Removing those distractions made me entirely in charge of my workday and my brain spun out of control. For around four months I was on Vyvannse to help let me see how my brain could operate with the focus I was looking for. Ultimately I took myself off of the meds because of some behavioral changes that were too drastic of a change. What I discovered pretty quickly though is a daily regimen breaking things up into chunks made a big difference in my ability to do work.

Combating the Change Aversion

I started biking again mid 2012 after buying my first “real” bicycle made by Trek. I had no excuses any longer to biking – I finally had the comfortable seat, full range of gears, and a proper fit. I recorded all of my trips in RunKeeper for future analysis (like this post). I wanted to go for longer bike rides but excuses like being sweaty or its a bit chilly got in my way.

I started working out over my “lunch hour” to help break up the day. Your brain chemistry changes during exercise and I discovered it helped reset my thoughts. I found a bunch of great step aerobics videos on YouTube from Jenny Ford. A small investment in a step bench allowed me to work out right in my office with a minimal mental barrier. I can shower after I’m done and there is zero commute to the gym. Over time I went from one day a week to around three days.

As time has progressed I’ve mixed in riding my bicycle almost every day during the summer for an hour (roughly 15 miles) with exercising in my basement. On bad weather days I stick with the routine because I now consider exercise just a regular part of my day. I don’t need to overdo it to get benefits from it. For the last year I’ve been also using a treadmill under my desk walking on average of 6-10 miles a day. I absolutely love walking and working especially in the morning.

All of these changes to my exercise regimen happened super gradually. Any time I started something new I would come in at the ground level with no expectations of success. If I didn’t like something, I stopped doing it. There was no need to try to fool myself with doing something like just because it burned a lot of calories.

Automattic

Working remote is a big part of my success but the other part is specific to Automattic. A subset of us have banded together to encourage fitness routines and providing support when things go wrong. We have a Slack chat room dedicated to fitness that is full of awesome praise and discussions. RunKeeper friends from work also provide that boost of support when we have that tiny success finishing a workout. At our grand meetups every year we also encourage physical activities to connect us together doing something active and fun. Automattic even recently bought everyone a Fitbit device of their liking to let us be aware of our activity levels.

Before working at Automattic I always thought of fitness as a specific set of things – things like P90X and powdered drinks/supplements, talking about your current weight lifting levels and competition meant to boast not encourage. Turns out none of that is the truth here. We have a bunch of people doing weight lifting, Crossfit, and running but its all ego-free. We all have our own approach to fitness and no judgement is passed only encouragement. It’s super awesome.

Where I’m at Today

My weight has dropped to around 225lb/102kg and remained relatively plateaued over the past year. Recently I’ve mixed in weight/resistance every other day which I am really enjoying. My goal isn’t weight loss but rather increasing my focus with the side effect of increased stamina to do the fun things like biking or walking. With the weight loss and greatly improved active lifestyle I’ve been able to stop the aFib medications and just have biannual checkups with my electrophysiologist.

Having both the flexibility of working remote and the support of my coworkers going through similar challenges has helped a lot. I am a better person for combating the physical health issues and establishing a framework to counteract the ADD. While I don’t believe I’d really be dead today if I had continued on the path of the unchecked body weight, I do know I am healthier and much happier.

Headphones & Attention

When I worked in an office headphones were a requirement for me. I absolutely needed them to focus. I really don’t use headphones all that often anymore since I started working remote 2 1/2 years ago. Listening to music over decent speakers seemed to be enough. Lately I’m discovering I missed the power behind having the sound close to your head.

The past two weeks I’ve been using my headphones again to help with my attention & focus in the afternoons. My mornings start with using my treadmill under my desk to walk and work. Mid-day when I find my brain wandering, I stop working and do some sort of exercise. Now in the afternoons I’m finding putting on the noise-canceling headphones gives me the boost to wrap up the work for the day.

There’s something comforting with having the music close to your ears. I  usually mix between the New EDM station on Rdio, a couple electronic stations on DI.fm and sometimes BPM on SiriusXM. Most music that has too many words doesn’t work too well for focus.

I’m still amazed after 30 months of working on dealing with ADHD I am still finding things to tweak. 🙂

The Fear of Missing Out

Working for a 100% distributed company presents a number of benefits as well as challenges. One of those challenges is the fear of missing out or FoMO. It is a real thing.

The Fear of Missing Out is the emotional stress we can experience when we feel like things that should be important to us are occurring without our observance or involvement. Social media plays an important role in this as we experience other people’s involvement in activities that portray a perceived positive impact on their well-being. Even though we know that the world isn’t as rosy as is portrayed through these sites, we feel a tinge of jealous a number of times.

Boy that looks fun.

 

I can’t believe I didn’t go to that concert.

 

I wish I had x to do y with.

Working remote presents its own version of FoMO. The larger our company gets, the more communication channels exist. In Slack we have over 450 channels and a hoard of private blogs to communicate with. You simply cannot subscribe to every blog and channel without overloading your brain. The cost of not subscribing means you feel you’re missing out on something. How do you combat this?

We have a general rule that anything said in Slack is ephemeral. It’s searchable, yes, but unless you were pinged either directly or in a room, we can’t expect people to “catch up” on backchat when returning. More permanent things have to be documented on an internal blog if they are to be treated as such. People who should be made aware of the items that don’t belong to that team should be pinged in the post. The assumption is you should be following your team’s blog pretty closely.

This gives us the benefit to start unsubscribing to things. At some point one of these checks causes the balance to be made and information flows between barriers. You have to trust this happens. Once in a while you get surprised by a piece of information but you just roll with the punches.

The FoMO also happens when you’re in person with your coworkers. We have an annual get-together we call the Grand Meetup. We’re all at the same place at the same time for over a week. There is SO MUCH going on this week that you will miss things. You should miss things. There are so many people to meet, activities to participate in, and projects to work on that we can forget to sleep.

The fear is real. It will grip you. Remember to breathe, take a step back and trust that its okay if you don’t experience everything in life. Just don’t forget to look out your own window once in a while. 🙂

 

Featured image credit – https://www.flickr.com/photos/deathtogutenberg/15065313478/

The Downside to Treadmill Desks

Just Published

The New York Times just published an article on their Well Blog entitled “The Downside of Treadmill Desks”. It’s an interesting read.

The article mentions a study performed by two groups at the Brigham Young University in Utah and published to the PLoS One Journal in April. After studying 75 individuals it was determined that while there is a significant positive health impact on using a treadmill desk, productivity and cognition decreased.

My Thoughts

As I’ve mentioned before I’ve been using a treadmill desk since February of this year. Personally I’ve seen a huge increase in concentration and cognition when using the treadmill.

I average about three hours of use today, sometimes up to five. I tend to use the treadmill in the morning the longest, then stand midday and revisit the treadmill at the end of the work day. I’ve found in the morning the treadmill boosts my concentration more than a cup of coffee would. I almost always forget I’m even walking on the treadmill.

My experiences may differ than the study because I have ADHD. The treadmill, it seems, busies the part of my brain that likes to derail my concentration. My original goal for using the treadmill desk was not for the exercise/calorie burn but rather the assist with concentration.

Observations & Realities

I think the reality of treadmill desks at a normal office job present the following limitations:

They’re Loud

You’re going to be walking on a machine. The machine can be loud and your hooves smashing down on it are going to be loud. You’re going to want to reduce the noise as much as possible (if you’re considerate) which means slower speeds and potentially an unnatural gate.

I’ve found speeds below 2mph aren’t effective for my needs. I need to be at 2.5mph or greater for me to see a real attention benefit – and then anything over 3.2mph usually causes too much sweat.

Humans Perspire

You’re going to sweat. I don’t care if you use a fan (which adds to the noise mentioned above) you’re still going to sweat even at 1mph. Those dress pants and undershirt are going to be really pretty after walking six miles.

You can try to keep cooler by using a fan, changing clothes, taking a shower. All of these things modify how you’re going to work and walk. Worrying about not sweating too much will ultimately reduce your speed which will keep you from hitting the right speed (if your speed is anything like mine).

If your office isn’t equipped with a shower or a place to change that’s convenient, your coworkers may not want an afternoon meeting with you.

You’re Vulnerable

When you’re on a treadmill desk, you’re vulnerable. How so? You’re walking, sweating, breathing hard and wearing workout clothes in front of your coworkers. I’m sure the whole office isn’t on treadmills (huzzah if they are!). This will unavoidably single you out. Until you really get comfortable with the treadmill and the way you’re integrated into your workplace you are going to feel like a weirdo.

Weirdos can’t concentrate well. You need to realize you’re not a weirdo.

It Takes Practice

The study specifically mentions typing ability deteriorates when using the treadmill desk. This is an obvious side effect of walking while typing. But like with most things in life, it takes practice.

I was a hot ass mess trying to type and walk the first couple of weeks using the treadmill desk. I couldn’t find the right height for the monitor, keyboard, speed to walk at. All of those things will eventually gel together and you’ll find the right combination. I’m typing at my normal rate of words per minute and my accuracy is just fine.

Believe What You Want

The huge flaw in this article and the abstract of the journal article is this – it doesn’t indicate how much time the participants were given. If you don’t give someone a chance to adapt to the new situation it’s obvious they’re not going to be productive!

You’re going to have to find out if a treadmill desk works for you. Don’t believe everything you read and don’t assume the variables apply to you. Don’t assume I’m right either. A lot of the reasons the treadmill desk works for me has to do with working remote at home and my brain’s specific issues with ADHD.

All I can suggest is give it a whirl!

 

Using Screenhero for Pair Programming Remotely

Before coming to work for Automattic, I pair programmed a lot.  Developers who pair learn from each other in a symbiotic sort of manner.  It’s definitely a good way to get a project off to a fast start and to come to consensus on design and intent.  Once I started working at Automattic, I realized pair programming is less of a reality since we’re all in disparate locations across the globe.  We tend to use code reviews as our way of pairing together on code and making sure the design we discussed in chat came through properly.  We’ve also done screen sharing but never really felt it was effective.

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I recently discovered Screenhero and it’s not much different than screen sharing with Skype or Hangouts except for some simple, but significant differences.

  1. I can see the remote cursor.
  2. The remote can see my cursor and in addition the direction I’m scrolling.
  3. Dead simple to install and connect with people.

The HD video and audio also add to the awesomeness of Screenhero.  I’ve only used it a handful of times and I can already tell you it’s in my arsenal of tools.

The price for individuals is free but there are some team-based features coming like group calls.  Prices aren’t set yet but they’ve mentioned $20/user/month.  Can’t say it’s worth it yet for that price – team sharing might indeed be worth it.

Working at Automattic

Some people have asked me what it’s like working for Automattic.  Every employee of Automattic has a different perspective on what it means to work here.  Here are a few things I feel are important to me.

Work Wherever, Whenever

Automattic is a completely distributed company.  We have a headquarters in San Francisco, CA USA but only a small percentage of us work out that office.  Most of us work from home, some of us work on the road, others work from a coworking space.  Sometimes it’s nice being able to change your location once in a while – I pretty much like working from my home office.  I like working a regular day, usually 7am – 4pm my local time and I fit some sort of exercise routine in there half way through.  We have flexibility to make our own hours and take the time off we need to.  We’re adults and we’re treated as such.

Equipment for your Job

First thing asked of any employee starting is to order their computer.  You’re allowed to order the equipment you need for your job – usually a Mac laptop and a large display.  You’re also given a budget amount for your home office furniture – desk, chair, lighting, monitor arms, etc.  I got a really nice standing desk from UpDesk and a Herman Miller Aeron chair.  I love standing during the day!

Your Team

Everyone at Automattic is on a primary team, sometimes on a secondary one as well.  We work virtually using IRC, Skype, and private blogs to communicate.  Sometimes we even do a Google Hangout when we want to see face to face:

Group Hangout
The Automattic Mobile team Hangout this past week

 

One every 3-4 months you meet up with your team in real life.  In January our team met up in Tokyo, Japan.  We spent seven days coworking and having fun at night.  It’s a team-building exercise as well as a chance to get some high-velocity work accomplished.  It’s a great way to recharge your team dynamic and to meet the new people!  Once a year Automattic hosts a Grand Meetup when we all converge in a single place.  We like to create special teams for the GM and either ship new real features within that week or do code training teams.  It’s a great way to meet people outside of your normal team and fun to boot!

Culture

It takes the right person to work at Automattic.  You have to be a self-starter and have the ability to stay focused on your work.  I’ve discovered more about myself than I thought I would almost immediately and working here has made me a better person.  Every position, regardless of it being technical or not, goes through a multistep process for hiring.  Matt Mullenweg, the founder and CEO, reviews every application submitted to Automattic.  If an application passes his muster, it’s forwarded onto the team or teams responsible for hiring.  The hiring lead reviews the application and scheduled a text-based Skype chat to see if they’d be a good fit for the position and company.  One or more people from the destination team may be involved, too.  If that goes well, the applicant is directed to complete a pre-trial project.  This small unit of work will show the applicant’s domain knowledge and ability to communicate.  After the pretrial work, if the team agrees to move forward, the applicant enters into a trial period.  You are paid to work on a part time basis with your team on a real piece of work.  This is your chance to integrate with Automattic and immerse yourself in the culture.  Take it all in – the process is a trial for Automattic to hire you and also a trial to see if you’re going to like working here.  If the trial is a success for both sides, then Matt makes the final call on hiring.

It’s not the fastest hiring process, but it’s definitely the most straightforward and transparent hiring process I’ve ever been involved in.  It takes about a year, so I’m told, to get a real grasp on all of the moving parts at Automattic.  I’m still learning every day and continue to work on how I want to accomplish my work every day.  It’s a lot of fun and rewarding!

 

We’re Hiring!

We’re always looking for more people to join Automattic.  Take a look at the open positions and apply if you see something you’re interested in!