COVID-19 is not over. I must repeat that to myself every day. As a motorcyclist who rides thousands of miles a year on and off road, at track days and long 1000+ mile days in the saddle, I’m aware of risk assessments. The first motorcycle safety course I took in 2016 began with risk and how each risk you take elevates your chance of injury or death. The choice to drink and ride, forgo a helmet or other safety gear, ride in the rain, ride at night or ride with a passenger. Every choice may increase the risk and the federal and state governments have very little control over how you ride your motorcycle other than you being licensed and maybe wearing a helmet.
This pandemic was a similar exercise in risk. I traveled during the pandemic and I’m sitting on a plane writing this blog post. I went to friend’s homes and went shopping and even sat in a crowded bar before vaccines were available in Moab Utah for a night of live music and drinking with friends. To date, I have not contracted coronavirus, exhibited symptoms, or needed to be hospitalized. Over the last 2 years, I was tested 10 times via a cotton swab shoved in my h nose and 5 or so at home tests when I felt a cold coming on that just ended up being seasonal allergies.
We are leaving pandemic status in the United States and down to an endemic status and masks are not required anywhere except federal buildings and some transit authorities like busses and trains. It all happened exactly 2 years to the date that I went home. Viruses don’t have desk-calendars yet after 750 days of this pandemic, offices around the nation wrote into law return to office plans, mask mandates around the country and on planes were dropped and concert halls, theaters and highways filled up again.
I’m not a scientist so this is not a post where I pretend to be one but, to my surprise, my daily check of the NYTimes COVID-19 Tracker has shown me that we are ticking up again on everything but deaths but not as much as I had thought. A national increase from 30K cases a day to 50K cases a day is nearly a 100% increase over 14 days but when I look around this flight where less than 5% of people are wearing a mask and vaccination rates are stagnant, I expected a much larger surge…again, not a scientist, just my observation seeing numbers that aren’t exploding.
…and in the great state of Vermont who I believe still has the highest vaccination rate in the country, we’re having a mini explosion where Vermont is the fastest growing state in the nation outside of Puerto Rico for COVID-19 cases. Why? My non-scientific hunch is having lived in Vermont (or 1 mile from the border), this state has taken the most precautions of any other state even more than California. I still can’t go grocery shopping without wearing a mask and social distancing and so you have a population that while vaccinated, has not been exposed to this virus in any meaningful way. Population density in Vermont is so low that we can visit the store once a month, go home and not talk to or see anyone. You must drive 30 minutes into town to get within 6 feet of a human. We all know that any vaccine does not guarantee you won’t contract COVID-19, only that you’re less likely to and the symptoms, far less severe. It’s not a cure or inhibitor. So, when you have an old and sparsely populated Vermont population, no matter how many of us have been vaccinated (over 80%), all of us can still catch it and this means that when people began socializing again, it has been spreading like wildfire but with no increase in deaths and very few hospitalizations. People are catching it like a cold, getting tested because that’s just how Vermonters are and then staying in their homes and getting over it. Where everyone I talk to in cities has had it once or twice, there aren’t many Vermonters who have had it and so our surge is happening post-pandemic which is as good as we could have it since 4 out of 5 Vermonters are vaccinated. On the NYTimes COVID Tracker, it looks dire and ripe for riffing. “What, Vermont has 80% vaccinations and is surging?!?! LOL. Libtards!” Yeah, that’s one way to look at it. Florida on the other hand isn’t surging because they had 5 previous surges with every new variant. Everyone caught every one of these, some died, most didn’t, and they went back to doing their thing.
Speaking of that great night in Moab singing and dancing at a bar with my friends in September of 2020, a nurse told me everyone in her team were just waiting for herd immunity. Some states took this approach, and some didn’t. It’s going to take some time for researchers to conclude which was the better choice. Is Florida right or is Vermont? Florida told people that if you want to be protected, stay home, and do what you want but the rest of us are going to live our lives and Vermont and California kept everyone home and shut down which inevitably saved many lives more than Florida’s approach. We’ll let the data scientists crunch the numbers on which way was better.
Like I said, I never had the virus and neither did my wife and that’s for the best. That’s not to say we’ll never catch it and I hope we don’t. We remain cautious and careful but live long enough and your risk of dying gets high enough that it’s just going to happen. Catching a virus is similar. On an infinite timeline, we’ll eventually catch it, and it should be just like a cold…I hope.
1000 words in but I’m going to dish out a double-whammy today and that’s remote work. I worked remotely from 2001-2004 as a Tech Blogger and Photographer. I was in high school, but it was a job and I made money. I once again worked remotely when I co-wrote a book with my friend, and we did it virtually. I was hybrid from 2008-2010 working at 3 different startups where the long commute had me working about 2 days a week from home or a cafe to save myself hours on Caltrain every day to little benefit. From 2010 to 2014, I worked hybrid as well going into our office 2 days a week because my entire team was in Belgium. In 2014, I started going to the office every single day until a day in March 2020 when they sent us home to ‘stop the spread in 10 days’. Colleagues struggled and so did I to a degree not because I struggled with working from anywhere. I can make a PowerPoint file on a plane, in an airport lounge, on a bus or on my back porch but I was worried about what I call “technical serendipity” which is more likely to happen when you’re face to face with another bag of germs in a confined space with little air flow (sorry for that one).
I had 6 interns starting in May, just one month after we all went home, and I did that internship remotely and reduced the team to 4 allowing the other 2 to join us the following Summer or a first right of refusal basically. 2 Interns of the 6 volunteered to defer for a year and we went to working remotely as a team. I had to use new tools such as Miro and we relied more heavily on Slack, and I became more of a stickler about following Agile and Scrum methods and interns had to update their Jira tasks before our weekly meetings where I was more passé about it in the before-times.
This first remote Summer, I noticed everyone was getting their job done and communicating effectively via video chats, but we were indeed missing the technical serendipity. After 4 intern groups in a row, all groups of 4-6 undergraduate CS students, I deduced that there are 2 software teams that need hybrid work to be most effective. They can get the jobs done remotely and I’d argue coders don’t need to work a 40 hour week if they have time-management down as a soft skill because wiring code is already such an efficient operation that saves many trillions of human hours in aggregate that I don’t need to have the most effective teams working for me BUT (sorry for the run on sentence)….the 2 teams would be a group working on a brand new product from scratch where collaboration makes up 50% of your day because you’re fleshing out ideas, drawing on the walls, reading body language, vocal inflection and really getting into the weeds and need to stare them in the eyes and determine just how much your partner really cares about this one feature versus them just assigning it high priority in Jira. The second group is early careers. Again, both groups can function remotely. Writing software is not an office task but young people who are just starting out in a corporate environment with one foot in academia and one foot as a professional and they’re learning not just how to write clean code and do it collaboratively with testing, documentation, and planning sessions but also how to manage a calendar, show up to meetings on time, maintain a personal task list or work on time management skills. These folks, my interns, are effective remotely but they’re more effective when we are all in person.
I feel so strongly about this that I will be in the office full time with a team to guarantee their success. Summer of 2021, our entire team was in person for the full Summer, and it was great. We accomplished a lot. Everyone was super effective and the clarity of what we wanted to build then going and doing it with a clear path of planning to execute woke up my technical serendipity meter daily. Showing up to the office and seeing a heated discussion about how we store catalogued images after processing, discussing pros and cons of different database technologies and seeing an intern speak out loud into the universe “okay, who didn’t secure the S3 bucket? Show yourself!” That sort of collaboration in person was huge and more rewarding. Every remote intern I’ve had, in their exit interview, says they wish we had all been in person.
We then went back to fully remote, and I think our team will remain remote forever until the leaders in my company 2-3 levels above me mandate interns are back to in person which will adversely affect things for me despite all the pros.
First, it requires I only recruit talent who can come to our office in New Hampshire. Mostly that requires they must rent a place as a group, and it costs much more to be in our program because they can’t do it from their parent’s home. So, I’ll need interns who come to us and have reliable transportation.
Second, it will put us at a disadvantage because the industry is moving to remote first and I’m not competing with tech companies in our city but with tech companies all around the country. So, an internship that’s fully remote out of California that pays more will be my competition. That’s the case now but we’re also remote.
What about hybrid? I will follow what my work mandates we do and there’s nothing changing now, but hybrid requires the entire office or at least team agree to the model together. I feel like an idiot when 6 of us are sitting around a laptop because we were getting into a technical discussion that wasn’t scheduled and we have to call up the person in Florida who is with us remotely OR the person who stayed home that day to get a package or wait for a plumber and now we’re all trying to share a laptop and talk to that person and pause to let them speak and they’re only hearing half of what’s being said in the room of people. Conference setups solve this problem but anyone who has built an app in a small team from scratch knows that meetings just happen and aren’t always scheduled. Big decisions get made on the fly. You don’t wait for next week’s risk & issues meeting to review something that’s an issue right now.
The big problem with hybrid is when there’s a complete breakdown of the team and someone misses a big discussion because someone forgot to call them when the ad-hoc team meeting starts and concludes without input from the person we just “voluntold” to do the task.
Therefore, for my Summer 2022 program which includes 6 interns in North America and another 10 overseas will be fully remote. I let the team decide. I tell them our office is open and they can come into the office full time. They can even choose to come in the office by themselves if they flourish in an environment where you physically leave your house and go to a space with a desk and white board. Some people just like going to an office to feel productive. However, if even 1 of the interns wants to be remote, we’re going to be remote as well. Or remote-first. The interns are happier, they’re saving more money working at their parent’s house and they’re able to join early meetings with Europeans because their commute is bed-to-keyboard and they’re happier because they’re home with their family and friends and not stressing about finding a place to rent, finding roommates, a car and getting to the office on time.
I will still stand by the importance of technical serendipity and how early-careers and startup teams do benefit from face time but in my team dynamics, those cons do outweigh the pros.
We’re seeing this nationally with every tech company who puts employees first moving to a remote-first model. There are still office spaces in the big hubs and 2-10% of employees go in a few days a week, but you can do your job from anywhere (with a couple of legal restrictions). My employer allows me to work from home, we have an office I can go to any time, and I can work from anywhere with pre-approval. There are massive tech companies like Apple forcing employees to return to office or RTO. In person work is just in Apple’s DNA as a culture and those against it have already resigned. There are plenty of people in line to replace them. Working professionals that don’t fit into the two groups I outlined above can work remotely full time. I’ve done it for years and have seen the entire world wake up to it.
Matt Mullenwag who should be given credit as the pioneer of distributed work not because he did it first but because he has been the champion of it as a matter of principal but his company, Automattic has evolved and designed their day to day to build a remote-first company that works from the beginning. One area that I want more companies to implement is in-person gatherings. Remote first is fine. I can work remotely with 12 people full time, and we’ll get our jobs done but I’d like a quarterly in-person event where we fly to a central location, grab a co-working office and work together and I want a company all hands once a year for 3 days. Everyone, all 5000 of you fly to one place and get together as a company. Automattic does this and it’s a huge benefit because despite being remote, it gives employees a sense of community. We are tribal and our brains haven’t learned how to form bonds virtually yet. You can get very close, but a handshake and a hug are still seal-the-deal actions that bring us closer together and companies are just professional tribes.
In 10 years, it’s not clear where knowledge work will take place and how. Meta verse is interesting, and we’ll see how it plays out. Every time I hear about our future of work in VR, I think of the film Surrogates with Bruce Willis and think…nah I’m good.
COVID-19 isn’t over but the way we live and work in the tech space has changed forever. I’m signing off from somewhere over New Jersey on an airplane with my N95 mask. It’s not a fun experience but it beats catching Coronavirus. Take care.
Sent from my iPad Pro