Recently I've been reading a lot about remote work and have written about it. I've also written recently about the value of context rich communication such as talking on the phone or in person. There were some points regarding the value of building a remote team that I missed in my last post and want to communicate here. These include finding talent in places you might not expect, finding talent that doesn't look like you expect, and providing a way for your creative workers to focus in a comfortable manner.
I listen regularly to the Rework Podcast (by Basecamp) and they recently produced the episode named Cult of Overwork. As I was listening I realized that a LOT of the dialog sounded very familiar. After looking at the episode page I realized that I'd read the Cult of Overwork article on Medium written by Ty Fujimura, who they were interviewing, soon after it was written last year. There's a lot in there that I agree with and, as such, there will be a lot of information written here that is very similar to what was written there. Hopefully we'll bring wider reach to the topic of remote working by having more people cover the topic. By stating the arguments in my own way I hope that it makes sense to you if it didn’t make sense when others have explained it.
There are hot spots / tech hubs throughout the country. Though this isn’t a complete list but Silicon Valley, Silicon Beach (Santa Monica / Los Angeles), New York, and Austin all come to mind immediately for me. These are meccas for those who want to be in tech and want to have an interesting and well paying job. And, as such, the big companies have all opened large offices in these areas. As the cycle of people gathering and companies starting/gathering has continued the housing prices and commute times have increased commensurately. This is a negative impact on the life of everyone who lives in these areas.
There are an incredible wealth of talented folks who live outside of the tech hubs. Many of them do not have the option of moving to a tech hub for a variety of reasons. The most important and urgent reason to me is cost. There are folks who have taken it upon themselves to learn how to become a developer, devops engineer, security analyst, or . What happens when they cannot find a job near where they live, a remote job, or can not afford to live in a tech hub? Others would love to be able to train themselves but do not have physical coding bootcamps nearby, the knowledge of where to find training online, or the equipment to take advantage of them even if such equipment is "cheap". (Note that this is an assumption given that I haven’t posted a study to prove it. I’d like to think that it’s a good assumption because we should always be seeking ways to lift up those who aren’t as fortunate as we are. I’ll post this on that basis and continue to look for studies that prove it)
Regarding the problem of employing the currently talented folks the obvious answer is to start hiring remotely. If you give people the chance to work remotely and set aside your biases of what an employee should look like you'll be able to start finding folks to fill your needs. Yes, post your positions on the normal job boards, but also take a proactive approach and reach out to communities on social media where such folks gather.
If you are a member of a community of tech folks who live outside of a major tech hub or are otherwise under-represented in tech please comment and let hiring managers know where to find you. Please message me with contact information on any available platform (email, Twitter, Facebook, or LinkedIn) and I’ll update this post with your information. I’ll also create another post about this issue with your info to extend the reach of the information.
After posting this article on Twitter, I received lots of great suggestions that I wouldn't have thought of given my background. The first set of advice that I'd like to offer comes from Tae'lur Alexis and gives a list of online code academies that are free or low cost. This suggestion provides a way for those without a ton of resources to teach themselves. Tae'lur herself raised herself to a career this way and these schools can provide an option for you to do that as well.
The second set of options comes from Angie Jones and surrounds how hiring managers can reach out to communities that are currently underrepresented in tech. These suggestions provide opportunities for companies to find talent in places that they might not normally look.
Her first suggestion is to connect with the career centers or engineering departments at HBCUs and ask them for a list of their best students. If a company gives these students interesting projects to work on it is a win-win for both the company and the students. The students get practical hands on experience and the company gets potential future employees.
Angie's second suggestion is for companies to send representatives to the various Black tech conferences that occur every year (including NSBE, AfroTech, and BDPA). As with many conferences, lots of top talent goes to conferences every year to learn and network. This suggestion would also work for other underrepresented communities that hold conferences every year.
Lastly, Angie suggests connecting with communities on social media who are focused on curating content for people of an underrepresented group in tech. Angie's suggestions include Black Tech Pipeline, Tech Stack'd, and Women in Linux. William Hill also suggested this and suggested /dev/color, Lesbians Who Tech & Allies, Next Play Events, and DatCode.
Thank you to all of those who have given suggestions on where to look to help bring people into tech who don't look like the current norm. I will continue to take suggestions and will likely create another post with more suggestions.
Other than being willing to hire remotely and/or hire somebody who doesn't look like you, how can you help this problem? That is a good question that I honestly don't have a single, complete, or "correct" answer to. If anybody who reads this has resources to help teach people, give people the opportunity to get interviews, or otherwise lift others up, PLEASE reach out. I'll be happy to update this post with resources. That being said here are some things that come to mind immediately:
- Setup an internship program
- Support STEAM programs in schools
- Start or support coding boot camps
- Start or support scholarship programs at universities or boot camps
I’ll put the same disclaimer here as above. These are just ideas that came to me as I wrote this. Please take some time to do some research into the effectiveness of these in general and, if the data is available, the effectiveness in your community. I will continue to read on this subject as well. Please leave me a message somewhere and let me know if you've worked on these things and let's get the information out on how to be effective.
Ty's article had a paragraph about parents that resonated really well with me given that I’m a parent. The summarized version is that parents are very busy taking care of their children. They have lots of things to do and have to learn to prioritize effectively. By nature this forces parents to learn how to be as productive as possible in the short amounts of time they have available. These skills are directly transferable to the workplace. Ty says this well enough in his article that I would like to quote him here:
Parents bring unique and invaluable perspective to a team. When you take care of children, you have no choice but to grow more patient and more resilient. In giving so much to a child, you sublimate your ego. You learn how to teach, to motivate, and to energize another human being. You learn how to prioritize, and get the most out of short bursts of productive time. You learn how to push yourself harder than ever before. Who doesn’t want a teammate with those skills?
There have been studies done on the capability of humans to focus creatively. Many of the studies show that there is a fairly hard limit at four hours of work per day that requires deep thought and creativity. In addition to Ty’s article, an article by Alex Soojung-Kim Pang in The Week talks about this and makes reference to the study by K. Anders Ericsson, Ralf Th. Krampe, and Clemens Tesch-Romer regarding the practice habits of violin students. The study talks about the necessity of practicing not only deliberately but not so much in a given day that you burn out.
My anecdotal assessment from my experience as a software engineer backs up this idea. In a given day, there are only a few hours in which I can really get into the flow of programming and be productive. Once those hours are spent I find that I begin distracting myself. While I can get more work done it tends to be routine work that doesn’t require a ton of creativity. There is, of course, lots of other work to be done in the course of running a business. Requirements gathering, planning, status updates, and team communication (among other things, of course). These are often the tasks I fall back on when I’m not actively being creative.
How does this relate to remote work, you ask? Getting into this state of focus is much easier without the distractions that come in an office with all of the people and noise that are there. There are, of course, plenty of distractions at home but, if an employee can be comfortable and turn off all forms of communication for a while focusing becomes much easier and more likely.
How we communicate with each other as a team also factors into this. If an team member is visibly sitting at their desk nearby it is easy to think that they are interruptible to help us solve our problem. The more energy it takes to communicate with somebody in a context rich fashion the more likely it is that we’ll be ok communicating asynchronously. If somebody is working remotely, it becomes much easier to communicate via message and only call when it really is critical to get information communicated quickly. This is yet another way that we can help our teammates get into their zone of focus.
There are many reasons to work remotely or setup a remote team if your goal is to produce creative work (software, writing, art). I understand that many people value the connection, ability to communicate, and ability to make decisions quickly that comes with being together in person. That being said please consider how much of the in person communication actually has to happen in person. If you can make use of other ways to communicate richly (phone / video chat) and practice asynchronous communication you'll open a world of possible co-workers, customers, and productivity.