September 04, 2018

Some thoughts on remote work

It has been almost six years since I last worked in an office and I have been working remotely for about the past three years. I have decided to take an office job again and wanted to share some of my thoughts on this.

But first, a bit of history.

Some history

I left my last job back in South Africa in November 2012, and in early 2013 I set off on what was supposed to be an around-the-world trip.

Initially, I thought I would explore other career options. Maybe a photographer or a travel blogger. After a few months, neither of those appealed to me and I found my way back into coding. I started working on an app for Windows 8 (I was delusional and thought the Windows 8 App Store would take off 😜) and once I got into it, I found the moving around every few weeks to be too distracting.

So, in May 2013 I decided to settle down in a little town in Northern Thailand called Chiang Mai for a while, and work on my Windows 8 app that was going to make me big money. The Windows Store never took off, and although the app was getting good reviews, I would never be able to make a living off of it.

The app did, however, introduce me to the world of OAuth, and led to me writing a Google+ OAuth provider for ASP.NET MVC5. This then led to me creating providers for Yahoo and LinkedIn which eventually led to the OWIN OAuth Providers. After a few years, I handed that project over to the stewardship of Tommy Parnell.

At the same time, I created a lot of other content around OAuth for ASP.NET. I created an entire website called OAuth for ASP.NET which showed developers how to integrate various OAuth providers into the applications. I eventually abandoned this project as keeping all the guides up to date was too much work.

All of this eventually led me to hear about this company called Auth0, and in October 2015 I started doing remote freelance work for them, working on their .NET SDK. I eventually joined them full-time in January 2016. I resigned from Auth0 in October 2017, but still did freelance work for them until the end of August 2018.

I am taking this month off working on personal projects, and, God willing, I will start a permanent position with a local company here in Bangkok in October.

My thoughts on remote work

With the history lesson out of the way, I want to share some of my thoughts on remote work. I have about three years experience of this as both a freelance developer and full-time employee.

There are many advantages to remote work. The flexibility to work when and where you want is fantastic. In this blog post, however, I want to focus on two of the negative aspects which contributed to me heading back to the office again.

This is my experience. Yours will be different.

To you, neither of these may not be an issue. But, over time they wore me down.

It gets lonely

Loneliness is the number one complaint I often see from remote workers. And it was a real issue for me.

I always thought that I was a bit of a loner, but not having people around me became a real issue for me. I think this was exacerbated by the fact that I live in a foreign country and do not have that many friends here. Because language is an issue, you tend to make friends with other expats or nomads, and all of them eventually moves on. So the friendships never last that long.

I have always made most of my friends at work, and I enjoy the banter and laughs that come with an office environment. So not having this left a major hole for me.

Auth0 has a company retreat once a year when everyone flies in from around the world and hang out together for a week. This is usually a great time, but it is fleeting and a stop-gap. It does not make up for the personal interaction which is missing the other 51 weeks of the year. Also, flying to a time-zone 12 hours away means that by the time I recovered from the jet-lag, the party was over and everyone had to head home again.

During the retreat in 2016, I decided to hang around in Bellevue for a while after the retreat and head to the office every day. One day I went for drinks after work with my colleagues, and I had a great time. At that time I realised how I miss that. The crowd in the Bellevue office has socials quite often, and I think that is great - if you live there.

Another thing was that I worked pretty much solo. I was part of a team, but I worked very much in isolation most of the time. My team was responsible for the documentation, but I worked a lot of the time of the .NET SDKs, Quickstarts and samples, so there was little daily interaction with my teammates. We had a weekly team meeting and often that was the only interaction I had with my teammates.

You never switch off

Because Auth0 was a company that spans the globe, there are always people working 24 hours of the day. This made it hard to switch off because you want to be available to help your colleagues when they have an issue with the work you are responsible for.

In practice, this meant that I would always check in on Slack first thing in the morning because that was when I have overlap with most of the people who were located in the Americas. Same thing at night. I would check in a few times on Slack in the evening so I could assist if there were any issues and not have my colleagues wait until the next day.

Maybe this was wrong of me. I should not have set the expectations that I am always available, but I know for sure that I was not the only one. It was very common to see colleagues online and responding to issues when it is very late at night or early morning their local time.

Even when on holiday people are regularly checking in and responding on Slack. This is not healthy.

Also, because I am in Asia and the rest of my team was mostly in the Americas, it meant that at least once a week I had an online meeting which could easily carry on past midnight.

Even if I go to bed immediately after the meeting I would easily struggle for an hour or more to fall asleep because my brain was still lit up from staring at the computer monitor the whole time. Being an early riser, this would mean only about 4 to 5 hours of sleep on those days and left me grumpy the following day.

The future

I think there is a balance to be struck. I think that it would be nice to have an office to go to but still have the flexibility to work from home some days of the week. Or maybe go travel for a few weeks while still being able to work.

For now, however, my immediate future is in an office again. I am looking forward to having people around me. I am looking forward to being able to go home after work and switch off.

One other major contributing factor for me was that I could have people around me to challenge me again. Like I said earlier, I worked pretty much in isolation and never had any real feedback on the code I wrote. I was the only real .NET developer at Auth0. I want other .NET developers around me who can challenge me and who I can learn from.

I do not know if I will still feel this way in a year or two - I cannot predict the future. But, for now, this is what I think will work for me.