380: Remote Work Life

Episode 380 · April 18th, 2023 · 32 mins 19 secs

About this Episode

Joël has been working on his RailsConf talk about various aspects of discrete math useful in day-to-day work as a developer and going deep on some concepts from propositional logic and Boolean algebra, particularly DeMorgan's Laws, which explain how to negate a compound condition. Stephanie attended a meeting with a fun "Spicy Takes" topic. She gave a short talk on how frictionless technology may not be the best path forward and tried to argue in favor of more friction in our software.

Together, they talk about ways they've made remote work work for them and things they'd like to try/do differently.

This episode is brought to you by Airbrake. Visit Frictionless error monitoring and performance insight for your app stack.


STEPHANIE: Hello and welcome to another episode of The Bike Shed, a weekly podcast from your friends at thoughtbot about developing great software. I'm Stephanie Minn.

JOËL: And I'm Joël Quenneville. And together, we're here to share a bit of what we've learned along the way.

STEPHANIE: So, Joël, what's new in your world?

JOËL: I've recently got accepted to speak at RailsConf. And I've been working on my talk about various aspects of discrete math that are useful in day-to-day work as a developer and going really deep on some concepts from propositional logic and Boolean algebra, particularly the DeMorgan's Laws, which explain how to negate a compound condition.

So if condition one or condition two, if you want to negate that thing as a whole, you can't just negate both of the conditions individually. You will get a totally different result, and that's a really easy mistake to make. I don't always memorize exactly what to do. But I know enough in the back of my head when it comes up on a pull request to check it out and be like, oh, there's a negating of a compound condition here. Pay closer attention. There might be a bug.

STEPHANIE: So are you saying that when you negate each condition individually, you get the opposite result that you want?

JOËL: It's not opposite, just different.

STEPHANIE: Just different, okay.

JOËL: So De Morgan's Laws tell us that if you want to negate the compound condition as a whole, you negate the individual clauses but then also have to flip the sign in the middle. So if you're trying to negate condition one and condition two, it becomes not condition one or not condition two.

STEPHANIE: I see. Wow, that's confusing because you'd think that there are just two outcomes, but really there are a lot more.

JOËL: Yes.

STEPHANIE: And that reminds me of when we've talked about on the show combinatorial explosions, which I know is a favorite topic of yours.

JOËL: Combinatorics will definitely come up in the talk as well. It's sometimes hard to hold all the possibilities in your mind. And so I'm a big fan of truth tables to visualize what's happening and to be like, oh, when I make this thing negative, now all these things flipped into false when I want them to be true and vice versa. Okay, I've got a weird inverse going on here or something like that.

STEPHANIE: I have a funny thing to share with you. Joël, have you ever heard of the show "Taskmaster"?

JOËL: No, I'm not familiar with this.

STEPHANIE: Okay, it's a British reality competition comedy show where the contestants are usually famous British actors or comedians. And they have to do just really insane, silly tasks. And usually, one of the more iconic ones is to eat as much watermelon as you can in a minute. But they're just presented with a whole watermelon without any tools or anything [chuckles] for cutting it up. And it's just very funny and very delightful.

And one of the tasks that I watched recently was a situation where they had to follow these instructions, and the instructions were to do the opposite of the following statement: "You must under no circumstances not avoid not making the bell not ring." And they had a bell right in front of them. And so they had to figure out if they were supposed to ring the bell or not ring the bell based on those instructions and within a certain time limit. If they had the math skills that you were talking about, [chuckles] perhaps they would have been able to figure it out.

JOËL: I would absolutely want to write that out as a more formal logic thing. Otherwise, it becomes...you just mess with your head. You get in almost a recursive space where like, wait, not not, does that cancel? Does it stay? And yeah, it gets really messy.

STEPHANIE: Yeah, it was very funny to watch them try to figure that out on the spot. And I think there's a clip of it on YouTube that we can link [laughs] for our listeners.

JOËL: That's amazing. What's new in your world?

STEPHANIE: So last Friday...you and I are on the same team at thoughtbot called Boost, and every two weeks, we get together as a team, and we have a meeting where anyone can propose a topic. It's just a nice space for people to see each other and hang out. And one of our co-workers hosted that meeting and he chose the topic of spicy takes and asked for volunteers to sign up and give a quick couple of minutes lightning talk on the spicy take that they had. And it was so fun.

We got some takes on how REST is not the best. We got some opposing opinions about Tailwind. And I ended up giving a short, little talk on how frictionless technology may not be the best path forward and was trying to argue in favor of a little more friction in our software.

JOËL: What would friction look like in this scenario?

STEPHANIE: I was really interested in exploring how by making our software so easy for users we eliminate some amount of attention and mindfulness into using technology. So I think for me friction would be presenting the user with more autonomy and choice rather than making decisions on their behalf.

I don't totally know what that looks like, but I do know that things like one-click ordering or autoplay those things have made me bristle a little bit in certain contexts and wondering what other options do we have available to us to provide the features we want to provide to our users but maybe not in a way that is so convenient and easy to use that we lose that aspect of knowing what we're doing with our technology.

JOËL: I feel like knowing you, you've probably read a couple of articles and some books on this topic. And if I wanted to dig more into this idea of a little bit more mindfulness or introducing a little bit of friction into my software world, where would you recommend I go to read?

STEPHANIE: Yeah, that's a great question. When I was preparing the talk, I referenced a few articles that I'll link in the show notes, one from The Atlantic and one from The New York Times. And I liked them because one of them presented what I was getting at, the more philosophical approach of like, what does it mean for our attention to be? And what does it mean for our technology to be too easy? And the other one had more practical use cases for security and technology misinformation and abuse. So I liked that those two things complemented each other equally.

And then I also would plug a book called "How to Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy" by Jenny Odell. I read that book last year and really enjoyed it. And she talks a lot about just the current technology landscape and what we, as consumers and users, can do to reframe our relationship with it. And I think that book is for people who use technology in general. But as developers, I think we are in a unique position to extend that train of thought right into the things that we develop.

JOËL: You know, a place where I do appreciate friction is in the physical world. If there weren't any friction, my chair would not stay put on the ground. My fingers would not press on the keyboard. So we need friction to be able to do our jobs. So you work from home; I work from home because thoughtbot is now fully remote. How has that been for you setting up a work environment in your home?

STEPHANIE: So I've actually been working from home since 2019. So about a year before the pandemic, I had moved to Chicago and was still working for a company in New York. And so that was when I started working from home, and then have just been doing that ever since. So I think I have now really figured out a setup that works for me. I've been doing it for four years now, which is pretty wild to me when I think about it. It's interesting because I actually really enjoyed going into an office. And there are parts of that that I really miss. But I think I have just gotten used to it and have a setup that works well for me.

JOËL: Are there any things that you like to do for your environment to help get yourself into maybe the zone a little bit more easily?

STEPHANIE: Yeah. So my workspace is a separate room from the rest of my apartment, which is also really just one big room. [laughs] It's kind of like a loft-style situation, so I don't really have doors. But I am in what we call the sunroom, and it's actually kind of like an enclosed porch with a big window and lots of plants. And it's in the back of the apartment.

And so whenever I'm in this space, it's because I'm working. And I think having that separation of home and work is really helpful. Because when I step into this space, I'm like, okay, now I'm at work, and I don't have as many distractions as I would if I were working in a different space like a bedroom or the living room.

JOËL: I have to say whenever you're on a video call, the plants around you are iconic.

STEPHANIE: Oh, thank you. Yeah, it's been a nice conversation starter. When I'm meeting a new person, they usually comment on the plants, and I can give them a little show and tell. And that's been really nice.

JOËL: I feel like a lot of people who work from home have put a lot of work into creating fun backgrounds for their video calls. Maybe they're setting up a cool bookcase behind them or plants. People like to put something behind them that will make things interesting on a video call in a way that maybe we didn't need to when it was just a conference room and in an office.

STEPHANIE: Yeah, absolutely. I was just on a meeting with someone who had a big pile of tiny rubber ducks. So he was also a developer and, I guess, had just amassed this very delightful rubber duck collection, and it was just in the background. And we got to joke about it for a little bit, and that was really fun.

JOËL: Are these rubber ducks meant to be used during debugging sessions?

STEPHANIE: Yeah, exactly.

JOËL: So I'm in a somewhat different situation from you in that I don't have a separate room to set up a home office. I've resisted doing anything in my bedroom. Like you said, it's good to have that separation. So I work more in my kind of living room-dining room space. And something that I found is really valuable for me has been movement. So say I work an hour in one part of the room, and then I switch to a different place. And it's going to be maybe a different posture.

So I'm working in a solid chair table for a while, and then maybe I switch to more of an easy chair situation. That I think has been really helpful for me ergonomically during the day is just making sure that I'm not always in the same position constantly all the time but actually incorporating change in movement throughout my day.

STEPHANIE: I like that a lot. I actually do also end up sitting at my dining room table sometimes for a change of scenery. It's funny because there was a while when...when I'm at my office desk, I have a standing desk. And so usually if I'm in a meeting, I would be at my desk and people would see me standing. And I think someone at some point mentioned like, "Wow, you seem to stand all day." And I was like, "Oh, well, when I'm not in a meeting, that's when I'm sitting on the couch or a lounge chair or something." [laughs] I'm curious, though, because you are working in your dining living space if it's been harder to separate work and home life.

JOËL: I think it was definitely an adjustment, but it's a thing that I learned to do. And I still try to keep some amount of separation, which is why I don't set up an office space in my room. But I've also gotten to the point where now that I work from home, I find myself leaving home much more frequently after the workday ends. I was surprised just how much social interaction you get just by default being in an office around people all the time. When you're at home all day, even if you're on calls, it's not the same.

And so I've found myself more and more to stay in a healthy emotional, mental space, leaving the home in the evening to go do things with friends or with other people. And so even though I am an introvert who prior to working from home preferred to stay at home more evenings than not, I've started living almost more of what people would assume is an extrovert lifestyle where I'm out every evening.

STEPHANIE: Wow, that's so interesting because I'm the opposite; where when I was commuting and going to an office, I found it much easier to stay out. I would just go to a bar or a restaurant after work. Whereas now it's a bit harder because I'm not already out and about in the world, and also I am in my comfy pants, and I'm just like, oh, I have to go out? I don't know if I'm up for that. [laughs]

Though I also really...I think the downside is that I have been really missing some of that human contact. And there are weeks where I'm like, dang, I really didn't talk to people in the world very much. So it's actually been a bit of a bigger obstacle for me to find the energy to see people in the evenings after work.

JOËL: It helps to make plans.

STEPHANIE: Yeah, that's a good idea.

JOËL: Or you can have people come to you. You mentioned you were doing that soup club.

STEPHANIE: I did, yeah, back when the winter was first starting. I mentioned on the show that I was having people over for soup on Friday nights, and that was really great. That was nice because then I was like, okay, I have to sign off by 5:00 p.m. so I can start making the soup. [laughs]


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JOËL: So you mentioned that sometimes it's hard to leave the home because you're kind of in your comfy clothes, and you don't want to kind of get dressed to go out. Has working from home kind of changed the way you tend to dress? Do you ever do the thing where it's like, oh, I've got the formal top and then just sweats?

STEPHANIE: Yeah. Like business on top and party in the bottom [laughter] or something like that is the phrase. My habits around getting ready in the morning have definitely changed; where I don't put as much energy or effort, or time into it as I did when I was working in an office. And that has been nice because I get that time back, and that is really valuable to me.

Yeah, I'm also usually just in soft pants. [laughs] That has definitely been a very positive impact on my life. And I do try to make an effort to go out for coffee. And when I do that, I'm just like, yeah, how I go out is how I go out. I don't really mind. I'm very comfortable going out however I'm feeling that day. But I think getting the time back actually has been really important to me.

JOËL: Hmm, I think for me, interestingly, that's become an interesting way to build a little bit of separation from personal life and work life. So I'm making a point to put on...I don't know how you describe it. I was going to say real pants, but it's not like sweats are not real pants. But yeah, I will put on the kind of thing that I would put on to go in the office. And for me, that's kind of a...it's a start to the day. It's a start to being more serious and transitioning to more of a work mindset.

STEPHANIE: Yeah, absolutely.

JOËL: As opposed to on the weekend, if I'm just hanging around in the same space, but I'm dressed differently, I don't feel like I'm in work mode.

STEPHANIE: Yeah, yeah, that's fair. I've definitely noticed your fun sweaters that you wear in video calls and stuff. So I really appreciate that; yeah, you are just putting on clothes that make you feel like you're ready to dive into the work week. I'm really curious, do you find yourself being more productive working from home than you were working in an office?

JOËL: I would say it's about even on average. There are probably days where more or less on one side or the other, but I would say it's similar.

STEPHANIE: I think I'm actually much more focused at home. And I know that this is not true for everyone because I was chatting with a friend, and she was asking, like, "How do you stay focused at home?" She was telling me that she gets so distracted by all the things that she could be doing in her home life. And for me, because I really enjoyed the social aspect of being in an office, I found myself wandering into the kitchen not infrequently to go get some snacks, and oh, running into this person and having a little chat.

And I think my presence also, I was available for other people to come to me and start a conversation or ask to go on a walk. And I think I actually really needed that external push to take breaks. Because now that I'm working from home by myself, I definitely just get into some rabbit holes, and it's tough for me to resurface.

JOËL: Let me fix one more error, and then maybe the test will be green. Oh, that didn't fix it, but I'll bet one more would fix it. And keep doing that until it's like, oh, well, I'm going to push off my break for another 30 minutes, oh, another hour. And it's like, you know what? I'm just going to finish my day.

STEPHANIE: That literally happens to me all the time. The lunchtime break is tough because I definitely will delay that by 15 minutes and then 30 minutes, and then oh no, it's like 2:00 p.m. Okay, let me just eat a snack, then. And then keep going until I finish whatever task, and then end up wishing that I had made a little more of an effort to take a real break.

JOËL: Yeah, I was having a conversation recently with someone about how it's often easier to make space for other people than for yourself. So if somebody is like, "Hey, I want to take a break. Do you want to go take a walk?" You might be like, "Sure." Maybe I wasn't quite in a place where I wanted to take a break, but I'll make the time for you.

Whereas when it's like, you know what? My body or my mind is telling me I need to take a break, but this test isn't green yet. So I'm going to almost deny myself here for the, I don't know, the good of the mission, whatever. It's not really a noble sacrifice. It ends up hurting you and the project in the longer run, but it's so much easier to do that.

STEPHANIE: Wow. Okay, yeah, that really resonated with me because I find myself in situations where I don't think that I can take a break because I'm like, oh, I have all these red tests, and I need to get them in a place where I feel comfortable stepping away. But if someone asked me like, "Hey, I'm at your door. Let's go for a walk," I could just put it away and go for a walk and have a great time. And I would like to be able to do that for myself when I don't have someone prompting me.

JOËL: There's something I really appreciated that someone who used to be at thoughtbot would do is this person would go for a walk every afternoon without fail and would drop a line in the Slack channel being like, "Hey, I'm stepping away for a walk." And, I mean, yeah, it's nice to know that, okay, this person's not reachable for the next 15 minutes or whatever. But that's not really, I think, the value that I got from it. It was more of seeing somebody else taking a break and it being a reminder for me too to be like, you know what? Maybe I should take a walk as well, like, it might be time for a break.

STEPHANIE: Yeah, I like that a lot. I think it's kind of ironic that I have quote, unquote, "optimized" my setup so much that I don't get distracted that I miss out on the friction [laughs] (A little call back to earlier.) that I would like to, yeah, call more mindfulness to how I'm physically feeling, not even physically but also emotionally and intellectually and being prompted, like I said, externally because I am realizing now that I really need that.

JOËL: And at least for us here in North America, it's now starting to be spring. And so I think sometimes winter can be its own barrier to be like, you know what? I should go and take a walk. I don't know if I want to put on all the layers and my boots and all of that and deal with the snow. Whereas now it's like, just walk out and there will be flowers and trees covered in blooms. And it's going to be amazing.

STEPHANIE: Yeah, I'm really looking forward to that. I agree; I think when the weather is nice, that is definitely a bigger motivator for me because there's more to enjoy and more to look at. And I love being outside. When you do step away to take a break, what do you do in your home or outside your home?

JOËL: So I'm a big fan of taking a walk. I live in a dense, walkable neighborhood, Downtown Boston. And so just walking around a few blocks is a great way to get a little bit of fresh air, just get some motion going because I've been sitting around for a long time. It's a lot of natural beauty as well. A lot of people have gardens, and there are a lot of trees planted along the roads. So it's just a really pleasant way to, in some ways, connect with a little bit of nature and be outside and reset. Do you find yourself when you're looking for a break gravitating outwards or inwards in your space?

STEPHANIE: I like to make myself a snack, a cup of tea. Sometimes if I'm reading a good book, I'll get into the book for 20 minutes. And sometimes, if there's nothing to pick up, maybe I'll find myself on YouTube and watch a short little thing just to reset and have some fun. Sometimes I'll try to tackle some dishes. I think the other thing with working from home is that I now create more mess in my home. [laughs] I don't know if it's the same with you. But I, yeah, try to keep on top of that so that I don't have to do it later in the evening.

JOËL: I think one of the things that's really nice about working from home is the ability to cook more because you're in that space. So I've found myself oftentimes more on my lunch break, maybe prepping some things for a stew or something that's going to braise, and then just having it sit on the stove all afternoon. And like I said, maybe a really quick break is just you get up, go check the pot on the stove, and you turn the heat down or stir it a little bit and then get back to work.

STEPHANIE: Yeah, I like that a lot. I do that, too, with a pot of rice or beans or something like that. I also am definitely making my own food for lunch a lot more just because, being at home, you have your whole kitchen and fridge available to you, and I feel less pressure to get all that done the night before.

JOËL: Right. I think I've been trying to incorporate a little bit more physicality to my breaks recently. And one thing that I've done for shorter breaks...if it is a longer break, it is nice to go out and take a walk. But for shorter breaks, I set up a pull-up bar, and I just try to go and do a set of pull-ups there. And I'm not great at it, so it's not like I'm there for 10 minutes doing 100 pull-ups. But it's a nice way to go from a very static mental mode to a quick break that just totally resets you into this active physical space.

STEPHANIE: Yeah, I like that a lot because something like that requires your full attention and physical effort in that moment. So it's not like you can still really be thinking about work while you're in the middle of doing a pull-up, at least [laughs] that's my interpretation of [laughs] how you take those breaks.

JOËL: I'm curious, are there any other kinds of lifestyle elements that you've changed or customized to help you have a better working-from-home experience?

STEPHANIE: There was a past Bike Shed episode hosted by Steph Viccari and Chris Toomey, and I can't remember exactly what it was that they were talking about. It must have been working from home-related because Chris had mentioned a ritual that he had when he was finishing his workday where he would close his laptop and say, "Schedule shutdown complete." And I've been thinking about that a lot and trying to do a similar thing of just verbalizing, "I'm done with work now," to make it true. [chuckles]

Otherwise, if I don't, I can find myself gravitating towards my laptop when I have a thought. Like, I have an idea like, oh, I just thought of a way to try to debug that test or whatever. And then I'll want to go back just really quickly to write it down on my work computer so it's there for me when I come back. But if I've said, "I am done with work today," that means I'm trying not to reopen the work laptop, and then I'll try to jot it down somewhere else. And that has been really helpful.

JOËL: So, setting like an emotional boundary.

STEPHANIE: Yeah, an emotional boundary that almost becomes physical in a way because when I was working in an office, I would never take my work stuff home with me, so I physically could not access it. And since I can't do that now, by verbalizing it, it's almost as if I've created a boundary in my head.

JOËL: That's really powerful, the impact that you can have just by sort of verbalizing something.

STEPHANIE: I will say that I also don't keep any work stuff on my personal devices and that was true even when I worked in an office, but I think it has actually been more helpful and important working remotely. It sounds like you've experimented with a lot of different ways to make remote working work for you. And I'm curious if there's anything else that you really want to change or anything that you would like to try or do differently.

JOËL: I think an element that I've been experimenting with recently is actually working outside of the home, so something like going to the library or going to a coffee shop. Interestingly, I've tended to use those mostly for when I want to work on personal projects that are not work. So strangely enough, now I work in my home, and when I do things for myself that I previously would have maybe done in my home, now it's always at a coffee shop, at the library, something like that. So I still keep that separation, but it's inverted.

STEPHANIE: Wow, that's really interesting. I also like to be in a more public space as well with my work. And just being surrounded by other people and busyness is very comforting for me. And it actually also helps with the rabbit hole because I think I am more present in my environment when I do have cues of people getting up around me or whatever. Though ironically, my wanting to be around other people does not really work well with meetings and collaborating and pairing with other people. [chuckles] And so when I have to do those things, even though I'm also socializing just in a different way, I usually have to be in a more quiet, private space.

JOËL: Have you ever tried to maybe group your meetings on a particular day so that you have, let's say, an afternoon of uninterrupted time that you know you can just go to a coffee shop and be heads down and not have to take a call there?

STEPHANIE: I haven't tried that. But I think that would be helpful because then it's kind of like the best of both worlds, right? Where I can say, "Hey, I can meet once I'm moved back into my private space," and also have that physical environment of being around other people. And I think I had previously thought just those things were mutually exclusive, but there are certainly ways that I'd love to try injecting that into my home-work setup.

I'm really glad that we ended up talking about this because I think this will just be our future for a while. And it's always worth revisiting it and thinking about it and thinking if it's working for us or not. I'm really excited to try some of the new things that you mentioned. Like, we've been doing this for several years now, but there's always room for improvement and room to inject more fun and joy, and creativity in how we choose to do our work.

JOËL: On that note. Shall we wrap up?

STEPHANIE: Let's wrap up. Show notes for this episode can be found at bikeshed.fm.

JOËL: This show has been produced and edited by Mandy Moore.

STEPHANIE: If you enjoyed listening, one really easy way to support the show is to leave us a quick rating or even a review in iTunes. It really helps other folks find the show.

JOËL: If you have any feedback for this or any of our other episodes, you can reach us @_bikeshed, or you can reach me @joelquen on Twitter.

STEPHANIE: Or reach both of us at hosts@bikeshed.fm via email.

JOËL: Thanks so much for listening to The Bike Shed, and we'll see you next week.

ALL: Byeeeeeee!!!!

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