Startup Weekend Okanagan, Remote Working Panel

On Tuesday I was part of a panel on remote working moderated by Kazia Mullin and sponsored by Sproing Creative. I’m not big on public speaking and wasn’t sure I would have much to contribute to the discussion, especially since for the last month I’ve been a regular old employee who drives into work every day, working with other developers in an office. I was given a list of questions to prepare for but only glanced over them and may not have delivered quality answers during the panel. Having 2 kids and a full time job, and a 45 minute commute to work both ways, I don’t have much free time. The questions were as follows:

  1. Why did you decide to work remotely?
  2. How did you find or create your remote position?
  3. Tell me about the culture of the company you work for? How do they facilitate having remote workers?
  4. What tools do you use to make working remotely possible?
  5. What are your biggest challenges working remotely?
  6. What networks would you like to see in place to better support remote workers?
  7. What advice do you have for someone looking for remote work?

Why did you decide to work remotely? I was previously employed to a local software development studio. A small team with only two developers (myself included) which relied largely on a government contract. That contract dried up and I found myself unemployed. I wasn’t looking for remote work, I was just looking for a job. A friend was looking to subcontract another developer and I fell into the position. Once again working with a small team with only two developers (myself included) but this time I’d get to work from home.

How did you find or create your remote position? As above, I wasn’t looking for remote work. I needed work and a friend offered me a job. But once I worked remotely I told myself I never wanted to work in an office again. Four years later, when that contract dried up, I found myself once again looking for work. Any work. And I’m once again working in an office.

Tell me about the culture of the company you work for? How do they facilitate having remote workers? The company I worked for, in the beginning, was mostly local. Everyone lived within 30-45 minutes of each other, scattered across 4 local cities, with the exception of one support personnel who lived in the Philippines. We were each responsible for our own hardware. Us two developers chose Linux while the owners/marketers, accounting/QA, and support used various versions of Windows. The only commonality was the use of Skype which we’d use for semi-frequent but usually sporadic meetings. Though we all lived relatively in the same location, we’d rarely see each other. Maybe once a month or so, a few of us might meet for wings. Later, when the company sold, a more structured management system was put in place. One with regular weekly meetings, still done over Skype. The main body of the company was shifted to Vancouver where an office was set up and employees were hired to work in the office. The remote workers started dropping, starting with the lead developer and then lead support. Eventually I was let go, due to budgetary issues, and soon after that they gave up the office. Of the people left, they began working from home again.

What tools do you use to make working remotely possible? Skype for instant messaging and one-on-one or group voice chat. Company email addresses. Free and open source software to keep costs low. And since I worked from home, a room in the house dedicated to my work space. A lock on the door is optional, but a spouse who understands that work time is work time was a definite requirement. At least for me.

What are your biggest challenges working remotely? Taxes. I was a contractor so I was responsible for keeping track of business-related taxes and making sure I was paying them on a regular basis. Another challenge was getting paid enough. I don’t think I was very good at negotiating wages on my own. One contract I was getting $50/hour but the main 4-year long contract I was averaging in the mid-$20/hour range. Another contracting-related challenge was finding work. I looked for a remote employed position after the big contract dried up for a full 8 months. Mid-May through to the end of January. When you’re looking for work locally you compete against a local workforce. When you’re looking for work remotely, on sites such as http://weworkremotely.com and http://careers.stackoverflow.com, you’re competing with a global workforce. That’s a lot of competition.

What networks would you like to see in place to better support remote workers? I’d like to see a local co-working space. Working from home has its advantages, but in a house with small children it’s often hard to get the quiet that’s often needed to get “in the zone”.  The job I’m working right now, it’s a 45 minute drive away. I’d happily trade 45 minutes for a 15 minute drive to a local co-working office. As an aside, I found that working from home, by myself, that my skills were stagnating. I find it beneficial to be able to just walk over to someone to ask them a question, or to start a conversation with someone face to face to discuss the latest trends. Especially over lunch, which wouldn’t happen in isolation.

What advice do you have for someone looking for remote work? Know someone. Not everyone has that luxury, but networking has always played an important part in my professional life. Go to http://www.meetup.com and look for a group in your area that suits your interests. You might find a WordPress meetup, or even a Telecommuter group. Where I live, there is http://startupvernon.com which has been a huge boon to my social life. And that’s saying something, since as a geek I typically only left the house once a month to have #GeekBeers with the rest of the Startup Vernon community. And if you can’t find the time to know someone (people really do want to help place you in a job), check the remote-oriented job sites on a daily, or even hourly, basis. They’re linked two paragraphs above. Also, don’t talk yourself out of a position. Let the potential employer decide whether or not you’d make a good fit. Don’t let yourself be the biggest barrier to entry. Apply to everything you think you might be capable of.

Additional thoughts follow.

Someone asked the panel about how an employer with remote employees can help keep the employees motivated. That made me think of a previous remote position I had where, when the company exchanged hands to new owners, they removed everyone’s yearly bonus. Don’t do that. It did the opposite of motivate.

Though he made many good points, Justin Jackson’s “single point of failure” really made me nod my head. When an entire staff works under a single roof, the company is dealing with a single point of failure. The power goes out? A router died or the internet is flaky that day? Everyone stops working. Today at my job, the power went out at 10:10am. We had 8 minutes of battery backup to save our work. We did what little work we could with the outage, and though the power was back on within 30 minutes, that’s 30 minutes across maybe 70 employees. That’s 35 man-hours. Compound that with the fact the network wasn’t back online for another hour and a half after that. Had the team been distributed across the valley, or even the world, the downtime could have been mitigated. Work would have continued as normal.

A big reason to work remotely? Higher rate of pay. You can live in a town with a small tech scene with average wages in the $50k/year range, but find a wealth of employed remote positions online paying big-city competitive wages in the $70k-$90k/year range. Tonight I met a guy who works remotely for a company based out of Australia. Their support positions start at a higher salary than I make as a developer who works locally. Think about that.

Companies that have embraced remote working really have their finger on the pulse. Managers do not have to mistrust remote employees because they know those employees are happier and less likely to leave their jobs, all the while doing quality work. And employees get the benefit of competitive perks. During my remote-job search, I found companies that supplied personal-use cell phones, gym memberships, 401k plans, medical and dental, 5 weeks of vacation (to start), and regular in-person meetups at exotic locations.

Why not work remotely?

2 Responses to “Startup Weekend Okanagan, Remote Working Panel”

  1. […] This post was first published on Kyle Newton‘s site. […]

  2. […] Eight of our community members came out on a Tuesday evening to share their experiences as remote workers, and to offer their insights to the full house.  There were lots of great questions asked, some answered, and some will take time for the community to find answers to.  Panelist, Kyle Newton, wrote a blog post about his experience and thoughts on the evening. […]

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