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Migrant's look at Telecommuting
By Chuck Loughry
Many developers associate this word with "Nirvana", or "The Gifted Place". The thought of telecommuting brings an enlightened feeling to any developer who sits cramped in his or her cubicle waiting for their print job to spool. Or maybe they are waiting for the next available copy of a programming manual that has been checked out by somebody named "Anonymous".
You've been there before. We all have. And we wonder if the grass is truly greener on the other side. If only we could work from our home. In the back of your mind you may also be asking another question that is even more important - do I have the discipline to work independently? If you have never thought about this question, then you are not ready to telecommute. Telecommuting takes discipline - a great deal of discipline. You are working unsupervised - no managers, no co-workers, no restraints found in the typical work place. This is the first challenge of a telecommuter - understanding the disciplinary requirements. Are you a self-starter? Have you worked as a Project Manager or Team Leader? How are your communication skills and effective listening skills? All of these skills and more will be required if you decide to take the telecommuting plunge.
Show your stuff!
Demonstrating these skills to your supervisors and peers is the next step in telecommuting success. Your superiors and your peers need to feel confident that you are capable of holding up your end of the workload under varying conditions. This will make your request to telecommute easier and more attainable.
You may also need to justify your telecommuting request. Document your "downtime" at the office and estimate what you could have accomplished if you were working "virtually". This will help you determine your "virtual effectiveness". Can you produce better and faster virtually? You may find your results a little disappointing. If so, how do you improve them? The next step focuses on maximizing your "virtual effectiveness".
Building the "Virtual Office" - Communication
The Virtual Office must allow you to perform your duties just as you did at the office. This is more complicated than it seems. Think about your office surroundings and responsibilities. Think about the communication that takes place between you and your co-workers. How will you maintain that communication? How will you communicate with the systems at work? How will you get your work to the office? - onto the systems? - into the hands of co-workers? This is the first priority of the Virtual Office - COMMUNICATION. Does your company have a Virtual Private Network? Can you access the network from your own personal Internet Service Provider? What type of security measures are in place that will allow you to work remotely? What about email? What about faxes? What about phone lines? Building the Virtual Office requires an investment in equipment. Who is going to pay for this investment? Think very carefully before you answer this question. Are you going to ask your company to pay for equipment so you can work at home? If so, you better have some hard data showing their gains from such an investment. Who knows, it could be part of your sign-on package you have with a company. In any case, if you are going to ask your company to "pony-up" some cash for your office be prepared to discuss ownership and liability issues around the equipment. The company may ask you to purchase additional home owner's insurance to protect their investment - something you should do in any case.
One more note on communication - Your pipeline to the company's network can also be important depending upon your responsibilities. You may need a faster connection than the traditional 56k modem. Broadband cable modems and xDSL are becoming widely available so it may be wise to invest in a bigger pipe.
Building the "Virtual Office" - The Home Office
OK, so you've ordered a second phone line, bought a fax/copier, ordered a cable modem subscription, and even invested in a USB camera for videoconferencing! Where are you going to put all of this stuff? Let's talk about the office itself. You may have a home complete with an office or studio room, or you may need to set up a room in your home. In either case, the room should allow you to work quietly - privacy is important, especially during conference calls. You don't want the company listening to the kids running around the house, right? The room should accommodate your office resources and still leave room for guests - you may bring people over for demonstrations or face-to-face meetings. What about lighting? What about power requirements? Heating and cooling requirements? Filing cabinets? Book shelves? There are many other requirements that may be necessary based upon your individual needs.
A Personal Example of Telecommuting
My first experience with telecommuting started over three years ago. I am a technical solutions architect for a large international IT consulting firm. I was asked to help architect an Intranet framework using technology that was still in its infancy. The development environment we were using was as secure as the production environment, which caused some bottlenecks when we had to test various parts of the system. We were testing "bleeding-edge" products, which brought the system down many times during the day. The constant paging of the System Administrator became frustrating for both the SA and myself.
I had an old Pentium 166mhz motherboard lying around at home so I decided to purchase a few parts and load NT Server. I created a small development environment that mimicked the development environment we were using at the client site. The development environment was not identical since the client's development environment was also connected via SNA Server to a series of AS/400 systems.
I spent a few evenings and weekends perfecting the environment and eventually began bringing some of my work home. The client was surprised when I delivered solutions to a problem we had on Friday without having access to the development environment all weekend. As the client added SQL Server to their solution, I added a second box to my development environment and purchased SQL Server as well. I also began purchasing a large selection of books, which I added to a library I began building.
Over time, the client realized the value this "development environment" was bringing him. I began leaving at lunchtime to work out problems on the "other" development environment. My systems became the guinea pigs for their bleeding-edge testing. Eventually, I was working mostly on my own equipment and showing up once or twice a week to deliver my work. This was necessary since I didn't have a connection to their AS/400 from my "home office".
My "home office" evolved over the 18 months I was on that project. In that time I had developed a framework for their Intranet development and helped identify technologies in ways that I couldn't have done while at the client site. I could "kick the tires" in my environment. I could crash the systems if necessary - test the limits of the technologies, without disrupting the client's development environment, which supported many other developers. The client recognized these gains and accepted my absence from the office in return for a "virtual development environment".
My next assignment allowed me to continue using my office. I added more disk to the boxes, increased the processor size and increased the memory. I added a hub, connected a couple of workstations, and added another printer. I spent almost two years on that project and here I am today - I have added two additional boxes with removable drives in order to support multiple configurations like Solaris 8 and Linux.
Not all clients accept telecommuting. As a consultant, you are challenged with the responsibility to educate as well as deliver. This cannot be done from a home office unless the client has the technology to "communicate" effectively between the home office and their working environment. It is important to recognize whether a client is willing to accept telecommuting. They have the final say in the matter. Telecommuting will always involve "face-time" - as it should. I also believe it will become more of a normal process as more and more people start taking advantage of the technology and effectiveness telecommuting can provide.
I have also found challenges with telecommuting. My wife and I have three children between the ages of 4 and 10. When I started telecommuting the family had to adjust to "Dad" working at home. This adjustment is not sudden. It takes time and patience but after everyone has adjusted the benefits are rewarding. I also had to realize that I am not only an Technical Architect, I am also a Systems Administrator, Network Administrator, Security Administrator, Office Supplies Administrator, etc. I have to repair and maintain the equipment, backup the data, and keep abreast of the latest patches, fixes, bugs, etc.
Some people fail to realize the added responsibilities brought on through telecommuting. These additional responsibilities can stretch your development day into the evening hours. In fact, it is currently 10:30pm EST as I write this article! You have to be careful how much of this burden you place back on the client since the client's expectations may not include this burden. This may be seen as your personal investment into telecommuting.
In the future, telecommuting could be as common as going to the office is today. The burden of telecommuting could be shared by both the employee and employer - utilities expenses, hardware and software expenses, office supplies, etc. The issue around telecommuting will not be whether the hardware and software capabilities exist. It will be centered around the disciplinary abilities of the individual - whether they can perform their duties well enough on their own without the need for supervision.
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