After rambling on landing remote contracts, pairing over the wire, and working remotely, this will likely be the last little meandering on the topic for a while. Don't wanna get typecast.

This is kind of an extension on working remotely. It focuses specifically on attending meetings (i.e. teleconferences). We have quite a few where I am, at least one a day in the form of our daily stand-up. And the rest of them are almost as intense in that I'm generally required to stay alert and avoid zoning out. They are usually very developer focused. Design sessions, sprint planning, feature reviews, and even impromptu discussions on specific pieces of code.

First and foremost:

Get a decent phone.

At a minimum, one with speakerphone and a mute button (for meetings that coincide with when the young'uns get home from school and yell, "DADDY! I STEPPED IN SOMETHING ON THE WAY HOME FROM SCHOOL!"). A portable handset is also nice to have. It should also have speakerphone and a mute button but make sure the phone still works while it is charging in the cradle. My current phone does not so when the battery is dead (which happens more often than you think in a paired environment), I'm either unreachable by phone or scrambling for a couple of tin cans and some string.

Also, get one with a decent range. One that still works through two floors of concrete, which mine also does not. For meetings where I don't have to physically be at a computer, I tend to walk around a lot. I could pretend that I do it to help keep my creativity up but frankly, I just like to be on my feet.

Skype is probably a viable alternative to a phone but I haven't used it for work. In any case, if you do consider it, keep in mind the speakerphone, mute, and mobility factors mentioned above. I'm guessing there are devices with those features that work over Skype but again, I know not of these.

And if you are working several time zones away (and especially in a different country), consider getting a Vonage account with a number local to where you typically get your contracts. This may involve some surreptitiousness when signing up for your account depending on the availability of Vonage in your area but if you are in North America, you shouldn't have a problem. (Side note: If you buy a router with VoIP jacks in the US, it doesn't work out of the box with Vonage Canada. You need to call them to get them to, I dunno, enter it in a spreadsheet or something.)

That's enough on phones. Here's what to do when you're in the meeting.

Pay attention

There will be huge urge to multi-task. To finish up that last bug while everyone else is scrummin'. To complete that last level of Halo 3 during the opening banter of a design session. Avoid this. Especially for meetings where you are expected to actively contribute.

It will often be the case that there is "dead time". As in time that you don't need to contribute but you still kinda need to pay attention. And without anyone there to nudge you, it's nigh impossible to keep from zoning out at best and outright falling asleep at worst (again, consider a phone with a mute button).

For these meetings, get a scratch pad. Not the one you use to take important notes. More like a doodle pad. And go nuts. Nothing intricate. Just enough to keep your brain from dozing off while still keeping focused on the meeting.

My current MO is actually to write down what people are saying. Not as a means of taking notes but more of a reinforcement of what's being said. Kind of a memory aid, I guess. You don't even need to make them complete (or even coherent) sentences. Just random words that jump out from the conversation.

Don't be shy

It's very easy for people to forget you're there. Don't be afraid to tell people to speak up if you feel you're missing something.

Ignore the previous two tips when appropriate

There will be meetings where you can let your consciousness slip in and out at will. In these cases, I see no harm in getting some work done while keeping an ear on the proceedings. Use your judgement and err on the side of caution. And practice some generic phrases for when someone blindsides you with a, "What do *you* think, Coding Hillbilly?" Some that have served me well:

  • Yeah, I'm good with that
  • I dunno, have we considered every angle?
  • Well, I'm a little worried about...actually, never mind. Yeah, that'll be fine.
  • Sorry, I was watching Oprah
  • I've given this a lot of thought and I think we should--<click>

And so on and so forth.

Keep in mind that these meetings should be atypical. And in my experience, you don't need to hide the fact that you are only at 50% capacity for these meetings. This will depend on the group you're in but generally speaking, if your tech lead knows you multi-task on occasion, he or she will get a sense at which meetings you're doing it. They will be the same ones he or she would do the same given the opportunity.

Bring in a group in IM

IM is your friend, embrace it. There are many times when you would typically wander in to another developer's office and start talking about a piece of code. Then you call out to another one to get another perspective. Then another and another until you start violating fire codes. We've been having some reasonable success replicating this with IM by adding more and more people to conversations in what are essentially break-out sessions for a very specific purpose. It ain't the same as being there but it's a decent substitute.

I believe I have sufficiently steamrolled the "working remotely" horse for the time being. It's been fun padding out October's post count but methinks it's time to get back on track.

Kyle the Diversionary