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Saturday, 23 April 2016

My 2016 Spring Tour and every kind of office.

Something unusual happened to me recently. I was asked to deliver a talk to a meet-up in Sheffield.

This is odd for a number of reasons; while I occasionally speak at conferences, I'm a the level where that typically happens only because I work hard putting myself forward for the role. Like most speakers, I submit talks to a large number of Calls for Proposals (CFPs) each year, and like most speakers, most of these are rejected. Because of this process of proposal and rejection, I was genuinely flattered that, on the strength of a couple of lightning talks, I was invited to present.

Another unusual thing about this is that Sheffield is over a hundred and eighty miles from my home. Meet-ups are small community events, and they are there to serve the local area (thus, why they're typically named after the area where they take place). For this reason a meet-up usually takes up one evening, travel, event, pub and all. It was clear that to speak at the other end of the country, this was going to have to be a heavier undertaking.

When Eve, organiser of the Sheffield Ruby User Group (ShRUG), approached me to speak, at this years Bath Ruby conference, I was very quick to point out this issue. One thing you quickly learn about Eve is that she is extraordinarily good at organising things. Tekin, organiser of the North West Ruby User Group (NWRUG), was contacted, and the bare-bones of a tour of the North of England was set out.

This was pretty much all one corridor conversation during the Bath conference, I was intrigued by the idea of a speaking tour, and flattered to be asked, but I'll admit that I wasn't convinced, at that stage, that it was going to happen.

Needless to say, the tour happened, and it happened at very short notice. Within two weeks I had been booked for talks as ShRUG and NWRUG, and Eve (Super Organiser of Shrug), had found a sponsor, in the form of Sky Technology in Leeds (who, by the way, are hiring). In order to justify expenses from Sky Technology, I was asked to present the same talk to them, at their offices, for a lunch time slot.

So there it was, Monday in Sheffield, Tuesday in Leeds, and Manchester on Thursday.

Given that it was all put together with 2 weeks notice, I was unable to take the week out of work, so working remotely was a necessity. This means that as I travelled about the country, working space had to be found, unusually, this means that this week I've worked in most of the environments where developers commonly work (except the type I usually work in).

So this post is about my tour, but it's also about these different ways to work, and how I found working in them. So, as a control in this experiment in working environments, lets talk about how I've been working for the last half-decade.

Office 0: My company, our office.

I've been working in the same offices since September 2011, it's a simple office unit in Guildford, Surrey, and each day I meet the same people (this is beneficial, as I do get on with the rest of my company, it's a pretty friendly team). It's made up of rooms which are shared by small groups, as opposed to an open hall or individual offices. It's usually nice and quiet, with up to 4 developers in the room we're in, it's understood (partly through a few years of making this issue known) that a conversation in this space can disrupt the concentration of developers, and sets our work back by some time.

We do a lot of our communication online; work is doled out via a ticketing system (we currently use JIRA), our morning meetings take place over Google Hangouts, and a lot of our work-related chit-chat takes place via an instant messaging client (Currently Hipchat, formerly Skype). This facilitates working in multiple rooms (we're spread across two floors), but also remote workers. Some developers are in the office some days, but not others, we have contractors abroad and in other parts of the country.

(This habit for working in teams with remote workers made the tour possible, I already had all the tools to work remotely, and people in the office who might need to talk to me knew how to get in touch remotely.)

Working in the local team, there are some perks. We make tea and coffee in batches, and announce that it's ready over Hipchat, creating a social bond over hot beverage. From time to time we go out for a drink, or a meal in the evening (covered by the company).

Office 1: Co-working space

So, on arrival to Sheffield I was reminded of two places I've spent a lot of my life; Darwen, in Lancashire, where I grew up and Manchester, where I was living and working when I first learned to code. It's got a slightly grimy "grim Up North" feel to it, the buildings are pretty run down, and the community speaks with a broad accent, all their own, and the whole place has a kind of rough and ready feel. Once you get past the grime, you realise that there's some beautiful buildings, from an earlier age, when the steel industry brought an unprecedented prosperity to this area of the North East.

Of course, having grown up in Darwen, which follows a similar pattern, I know that once you get used to the residents, you'll see they're all hidden gems of their own, with a local wit, community and sense of humour that comes from these post-industrial town.

The Co-working space (also known as hot-desking offices) are a concept that I was already pretty familiar with. While a common pattern for freelancers and remote workers, to get out of the home, is to work in coffee shops (essentially renting their working space by buying coffee), the co-working space is exactly the opposite, people rent their desk, wi-fi etc. and drinks are, typically, provided socially.

This has the added benefit that the workers, and sometimes dedicated managers of the space, can craft a working environment that's suited to the people who use it. It's quieter than a coffee shop, and there can be smaller social spaces and meeting rooms for use as and when they are required. It's cheaper than renting and maintaining your own office (as my company does), which is crucial to small companies (which are often a "one man band", where one worker does everything, the coding, accounting, finding business, filling out tenders, whatever's required), to keep costs down.

I spent Monday working in one of these spaces for the first time (at Union Street in Sheffield), and I was pleasantly surprised by just how easy it was to transpose my day-to-day work into a new place and work remotely. The space was nice and quiet (I had been a little concerned that a space where various people were working on various  projects for various companies would cause distractions throughout the day), and the freelancers working there were friendly and considerate. 

Most of the people I spoke to also worked from home, which is cheaper again than hiring a desk for the day. The fact is it's quite hard to work on your own, in your own living space. It seems that spending a few days a week at the co-working space and a few days at home is a common pattern, to balance costs with the risk of becoming a "digital hermit", disconnected from the world outside your own home. More on that story later.

I was only there for one day, but I can also see that this would result in various combinations of people being there on different days.  This would lead to an interesting and ever-changing community, although perhaps with less of a feeling of companionship or stability.

Talk 1: Sheffield Ruby

(I've got quite a lot of talk about in this post, with my experience of different working environments and of spending some time with the Ruby community in Northern England. So I'm skipping over the contents of my talk.)

So my first talk was delivered at the Union Street co-working space, to the Sheffield Ruby Users Group. It was a friendly bunch, showing some real interest in programming with Ruby and camaraderie within the local community.

Afterwards, after a couple of tries to find a pub that was serving food, we wound up in one which happened to be holding a pub quiz. We competed (with the team name "Sky Leeds is Hiring"), and after a lot of laughs and fun, actually won! To the tune of four English pounds each. If you don't count events and their sponsors covering some of my travel and accommodation costs, this £4 is the most I've ever been paid for public speaking!

I liked Sheffield, and I liked ShRUG, but, as is the nature of a tour, it was soon time to move on.

Office 2: Open-Plan

On Tuesday I woke up in Sheffield, and made a bee-line north through Yorkshire, to the city of Leeds, or more specifically Leeds Dock. Just outside the city itself, it's a modern renewal of the cities largely unused docklands, it's pretty, it's fashionable, it's got shopping and, intriguingly, a museum of weaponry.

It's here that the Leeds offices of Sky Technology have their home, on the first two floors of three large, dock-front buildings, beneath tower blocks of fresh, modern apartments.

Inside the offices themselves, Sky Technology, which must employ at least 400 people in this location, subscribes to the open-plan philosophy of office arrangement. Each office is a large hall, arranged on the ground floor with a high ceiling, with more office space above on a mezzanine level. Beneath the mezzanine are the irregular spaces, meeting rooms, toilets, kitchen and social spaces.

I'll admit that I was a little unsure about working in this kind of environment, I know that conversations in the space I'm working can be a distraction, and any programmer will tell you that a distraction sets you back much further than the time taken to deal with it, as you then need to take up your work where you left it, and remember what you were thinking about and this process takes time.

I was actually pleasantly surprised by my first experience in an open-plan office. The high ceilings kept the actual noise level down, so the many and various conversations going on came across as a kind of hushed murmur. I found it pretty easy to ignore the chatter going on around me and buckle down to my own work. I can also see that this would make it easier to catch up with colleagues, ask questions, and otherwise get in touch as required. Although... when you distract a developer...

This particular open-plan office had one unusual feature. At the head of each bank of desks was one monitor showing some information about the state of the project, presumably a project manager gets to decide what takes place on that one, and another monitor displaying Sky News, on mute. It's almost as if the businesses are connected.

Talk 2: The Sky at Lunchtime

So, this particular talk was essentially a favour to our corporate sponsor, Sky Technology, who had covered some of my costs for transport and accommodation for the week. I was in their offices in order to reprise my talk for some of their staff as an extra bit of lunch-time entertainment (possibly even education) for them.

The event was catered, so this was my first experience of "performing to knives and forks", in a bustling canteen, against the sound of the lunch time rush. It was a little harder to engage this audience, half way through their working day, with so many distractions (not least of which was the free food they were applying themselves to). Nevertheless, the talk was well received, I had some very positive feedback from it, and this event facilitated the rest of the tour. 

By the way, Sky Technology are hiring...

Office 3: Working from home (occupied)

Wednesday was a different working environment again, I'd travelled over to Lancashire to stay at my parents' house near Oldham. Now my working practise was the most common for people outside the office, just staying at home and setting up where there's a free surface. As it happens, this was in their conservatory, looking out on the garden on a bright, sunny day.

On Wednesday, the house was full and there was a general buzz of activity going on around me. My parents, now retired, were outside working in the garden, my brother, currently staying here as well, was in and out of the room, occasionally stopping to chat, and their dog occasionally camping around my ankles, hoping for some attention.

Now, this is fairly common. Sometimes people work from home because they have children or older relatives to look after, and need to be present during the day. Sometimes people take a trip, stay with friends, and, like me on this journey, have to do some work in and amongst the reason they took the trip.

This was pretty pleasant, as a working environment. I didn't feel particularly alone or isolated, the space I was in was quiet enough to concentrate, but I was able to take breaks when I could catch up with my family.

It does take some discipline to work from home, mine or someone else's. There's always plenty of distractions, if you look for them, and of course nobody from work is looking over your shoulder. I've worked from home before (usually when I've been ill, and have trying not to infect my colleagues), but this was a different experience. Overall, due to some fortunate circumstances, it was a very pleasant working day and, it should be noted, I got a lot of work done in this time.

So I can highly recommend working from home, in a conservatory, on a nice sunny day, with family going about their business around you. Of course, in slightly different circumstances, or if I'd been less disciplined about getting the job done, this could be very unpleasant, or disastrous for my job.

Wednesday was a good day, Thursday was a little different.

Office 5: Working from home (alone)

On Thursday I was still at my Parents' home in Lancashire, still in the conservatory, and it was still sunny, with one simple difference. My family were away from home for most of the day.

This is the 'digital hermit' scenario mentioned above. I didn't leave the house for most of the day, as I only had to go through two doors to get to work. I had not just quiet, but silence to work in. Okay, I played music to fill that up, but the feel of this day was still basically solitary. I got work done, of course, and didn't didn't succumb to the temptation to take an extended lunch break in front of the tv, or just to take a nap in the afternoon. 

I can completely see the issues of completely solitary working, tho. I can see that this kind of code-only time could lead to a kind of 'cabin fever' for remote workers. I can see why people choose to spend some of their days in co-working spaces, to get out of the house, and socialise a little as they go about their work. This was okay for a day, but I don't really know if I could handle a life where I don't have much reason to leave the house or go anywhere. 

So my word of warning if you're considering working at home would be this; beware of cabin fever, make sure you see daylight and walk around outside, and take any chance you can to socialise. Or, of course, go and rent a desk at your nearest co-working space.

Talk 3: North West Ruby Users Group

So now we get to the end of my tour of the North of England, and it really was a fitting end to this experience, at the North West Ruby Users Group (NWRUG) in Manchester, England. I actually learned to code in Manchester, or specifically Hulme, in the south of Manchester, some years ago. I had been a regular member of NWRUG, over half a decade ago, and my first talk about technology was actually at an event in the same venue, MadLab. So this was very much the "home town gig" of my tour.

I was not disappointed by the local community where I'd started out. NWRUG was a friendly bunch, relaxed, and very willing to laugh with me. The lighter, comic opening to my talk was very well received, and this friendly, approachable atmosphere extended to the pub afterwards (no quiz this time).


So, this whole thing took place at ridiculously short notice. I was called upon to write a talk with only 2 weeks notice in and amongst a product release, so it wasn't the easiest talk preparation I've done so far. 

However, and I really do need to be clear about this, the week has been a very positive experience for me. I've had the chance to share a bit of my experiences of coding and learning to code, catch up with some of the Ruby community further from where I live and get some first-hand experience of doing my job out of the office.

This has all been made possible with the help of some members of the UK Ruby community. I've already mentioned Eve, but also her co-organiser James. The venue for ShRUG, and a great supporter of that group was Union Street co-working space, that event, and my time at the Sky Technology offices, was sponsored by Sky Technology, who, by the way, are hiring. Thursday's talk at NWRUG, was at MadLab, and arranged by Tekin, who helped make it all happen and sponsored by Createk, who are also hiring. Thanks so much to these people and organisations for helping me along on a truly unique week of experiences.

Any questions? Comments? Feel free to catch up with me on Twitter.


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