Open-source, Software, Vacations

Colocation Week in Dallas, TX

Working remote has some unconventional consequences. A big one being its very common to have never met in person the people you have worked side by side with. Its a strange sensation to recognize a voice you’ve heard almost daily but not be able to apply a face. It turns out that many people don’t look at all like what you have imagined them to be.

To have some fun and meet our coworkers, our company hosted its first “colocation week” in Dallas, TX. After a 24 hour meet and greet, we all sat down on our new teams and sat together at the same table for the first time. It was a blast! Aside from a few major issues (hotel Internet, and Dallas being a dry county come to mind!), we did a lot of good.

This evening marked the end of our a 30-hour hackathon to compete for the grand prize of taking home a Google Glass dev kit.

It was hard work, with us stopping the night before at 2am, only to get a few hours sleep and jump right back into coding. Our team pitched the idea of brick and mortar stores integrating iBeacons (Bluetooth LE) devices to target proximity based offers and suggestions. The resulting app had some fun mechanics, that I’d love to see make it into stores:

  • Personalization and announcement when you walk into the store with your device
  • Assistance in locating goods at an aisle level
  • Scan as you go shopping
  • Integration with online payments to avoid checkout lines

 

There were strong tie-ins for the business side as well, with foot traffic analysis and hyper relevant offer targeting. The screen show is the Android activity returned as a user enters the geofencing of the first shop’s aisle.

It was tough to jump back into Android development after a few years, but it came back. Java is the language that just won’t die.

We had an awesome team, and its wonderful to work for a company where everyone is as motivated as you to deliver something kickass. Hopefully we will get a chance to work with some of these technologies.

Computers, Events, Family, Personal, Software, Thoughts, Vacations

The California of Texas

Austin is a counter-culture in the heart of Texas. I’m not sure what I expected, but vegan friendly restaurants, health food stores, hundreds of miles of bike paths, a city wide ban on plastic bags, and a highly affluent populous was not what I was expecting. So beings my journey.

The Sights

We drove thirteen hours overnight to accomodate our newest passenger, Morrigan and her sleep schedule. As bad as driving all night was, at least we didn’t end up with a screaming toddler in the backseat. We visited some of Kristin’s kin in Houston, which served as our base for the weekend before pushing further West to Austin.

We negotiated a great monthly rate on a condo we found on Airbnb off South Lamar on the South side of the city. (Affiliate link) I’ve been really impressed from the moment we pulled into our new home away from home. The unit is small, but renovated, and well furnished. What we lost in space, we more than made up for in location. Right up the street is a lifetime supply of changing restaurants, and only a 10 minute drive from Zilker park.

Our first weekend we visited a local farmer’s market and bought some Texas grown produce. I never thought I would do what we did next – attend a vegan festival. Sure enough. In the land of BBQ, thousands of health nuts live in this city. Despite being vegan the food samples they had were all delicious. If I hadn’t known, I wouldn’t have tasted any difference. Vegans have masterfully replicated an omnivore’s menu.

The next week brought with it a trip to Fredericksburg, another hour West of Austin (but still not halfway through the state!). It is a German town, and had plenty of beers, wursts, and gut busting treats. The main strip is really quite a marvel, as it goes for over a mile and encompases lots of original architecture. Sunday we visited the Austin Zoo which put a spin on the traditional approach, and opted for a non-profit animal rescue shelter and animal sanctuary. Morrigan loved spotting all the critters, but the Texas heat won out, even in April. I was never so glad to pay $2 for a bottle of Coke.

This week I rented a bike and road around the Lady Bird Johnson trail which follows the river that bisects the city into North and South. It is wonderfully engineered, running past coffeeshops, restaurants, playgrounds, fishing areas, boat ramps, and dog parks. I wish Atlanta had something like this to offer. Maybe when the greenbelt is completed? (And the bikeways protected with police?!)

We have plans to go to San Antonio next weekend to visit Fiesta de los Niños, and plan on visiting my cousins who are lucky enough to live here. Following that will be our last week before the long migration home. We will be spending the last weekend back in Houston where we will visit Kristin’s folks for her mom’s birthday celebration.

Remote Working

Working remotely during this time has been interesting. I’ve learned an important lesson: don’t go anywhere during the launch date for your product! Too much was up in the air to leave beforehand to stay clear, and I was concerned that afterwards we would be scrambling. Turns out ramping up to the last minute before launch can be just as stressful.

For those of you following along who already, or wish to do remote work, ensure that you rent a place that you can have a quiet place to work. I find that mornings are my most productive time, and I try and guard this time for the important tasks. But with a smaller rental unit, and a one year old, I found thata nice pair of headphones is essential. I’ve taken advantage of ROWE several times during the week when we visited the capitol, and visiting parks, and going out for walks with the stroller. It pulls me out of my comfort zone to not be sitting at my desk at 9am, but then I realized the world doesn’t end. I simply make up the time later. Exercising this perk has really boosted my confidence in working for my company. They genuinely care about results and not office hours.

Also, have a backup plan if (when!) the Internet goes out at your rental unit. The maintenance people decided to test the waterproof claim of the rental’s outdoor wireless AP with a pressure washer. I’ll let you guess as to the winner, but I spent the rest of the day at a coffee shop. Also – scope out your coffee shops. I would love to see a website that lists the rating of different places based on workability. Some places don’t give you the vibe (despite having wireless) that they want you hanging around with that laptop of yours. Other places look promising, but offer no connectivity. Grab a cup of coffee or tea beforehand and scope things out.

A few notes on extended vacations: Don’t binge vacation! You are there for a while, so relax. Buy some groceries; every meal doesn’t have to be an experience. We have been aiming for eating out once every few days. It helps with the finances as well.

Don’t wait until the weekends to go exploring – especially when you have ROWE. The weekdays are the best times because the crowds are small, and the traffic is light. Check out your local attractions. One of the most relaxing things has been for me to join Kristin and Morrigan in the mornings for a walk around the neighborhood.

I wasn’t at home with my millions of distractions, so I wasn’t prepared for a “boredom adjustment”. Once I realized its not a pure vacation, and that I had to work, I struggled to find ways to wind down in the evenings. I ended up finding a used bookstore and stocking up on reading materials. I’ve enjoyed reading again instead of falling asleep in front of the TV, or playing video games until the early hours.

Being in a place for a month is certainly better than the binge vacation, but it is just a taste of what living somewhere would be like. Its just enough time in my opinion to really begin to absorb the culture. I find it thrilling to wonder what each day will bring, as everything is new. Maybe you spot a new restaurant (or food truck if you are in Austin), or drive past a park you want to checkout, or see a bike rental shop. I’m really making up my itinerary as I go. I’m glad I strived to find a job that affords me the opportunity to do this, and I wish that everyone who wants the same can achieve their goals. I can tell you its totally worth it!

Computers, Hardware, Software, Vacations

Welcome to 2010

I broke down. I compromised my moral integrity. I did what I laughed at others for doing. I bought a tablet, and I couldn’t be happier.

What changed? Did my opinion change? Not drastically. I still don’t see them as the future of computing. They are a consumption device, and it would be difficult to do much more with them than that. But that is what I wanted.

Pricing has also changed drastically. When the iPad first came out, it was a 10″ behemoth, and it costed around $500, putting it well outside of my interests. (A high end laptop could be found starting at ~$800.) However, within the last year, some solid contenders have entered the 7″ ~$200 arena. The nVidia Tegra 3 chipset, quad core processing, and the latest Android experience on sale in the Nexus 7 for $155 shipped was too good for me to pass.

I have long said that I could’t justify a tablet when I have a desktop, two laptops, and a smartphone all within reach. My circumstances changed however during our latest vacation, and I found myself draining the battery on my smartphone daily trying to stay connected. I have discovered a few good areas that a tablet excels over other devices

  • Entertaining when space is limited (car, airplane, bed, etc)
  • Reading eBooks
  • Reading technical posts with code examples
  • Games developed for the touchscreen
  • Quick reference during certain table-top activities…

I find my discovery process similar to getting my first smartphone. I remember a few days after I had my smartphone I had the realization that I could get from my location to any other location without ever missing a turn again. I drove to a retail store to make a purchase and realized that I could mitigate buyer’s remorse by price checking while standing in the store! Information is power, and I had the Internet in my pocket. I could check reviews, prices, availability, stock nearby – all without carefully planning my trip beforehand at home.

While that smartphone does some things really well, it is a small form factor. For anyone that has ever upgraded their monitor to a larger size, or their computer to a faster model, you will know the feeling when you migrate from a smartphone to a tablet.

Despite my fears, I don’t think it will quickly become a device that collects dust. I’ve heavily used my smartphone for close to four years now, and there is no sign that this will change in the near future. The tablet is the extension of the smartphone.

I’m not saying to go blindly buy one – you should still have good reasons, and stick to a budget. But if you find yourself running your battery down on your smartphone from overuse, let me recommend a tablet to you.

And welcome to the year 2010!

Apple, Computers, Events, Family, Personal, Ruby, Software, Thoughts, Vacations, Web

Cloudy, Cold and Hip – Two Weeks of Training in Portland

I’ve really enjoyed the last two weeks. My new employer, recently acquired Analog Analytics flew me out to Portland, Oregon for training. Portland is quite an amazing place. Skateboarders, cyclists, and runners abound, but with a laid back attitude. Its the greenest city I have ever visited. Stores seem to only dispense recyclable materials including paper bags, and foods in waxed cardboard containers. The entire city is very walkable without much danger of personal harm. The food was amazing, and the drinks even better. This city knows its coffees, teas, and beers. It has to be home to the most microbreweries of any city. Needless to say I have probably gained 5 pounds, and I am super caffeinated. Also, the proximity to all these hip restaurants is giving me second thoughts about living so far outside of the city limits. No lie, I even glanced at Portland housing prices.

It took me a few days to get oriented to the city and the work environment. The company runs out of the Ford Building, in the heart of quite a few cool restaurants and bars in the Southeast side of the city. In fact, it left me a little jealous considering the hotel is only surrounded by fast food joints.  I got a shiny new MacBook Pro (which I am currently battling to make it as “boring” as possible). I can’t talk too much about the work, but it does hit the sweet spot of what I was looking for – a small team feel with deep pockets, and a launch date.

Kristin and Morrigan joined me for the second week and did their own thing, and they had a blast. They visited OMSI, Powell Books, Finnegans, several parks, and malls, and some tasty food joints. I’m happy they got to experience some of what makes this city awesome.

I’m enjoying several aspects of the job in particular: A remote driven environment, and pair programming. Training isn’t the best test run of this environment, as I am in the office everyday for now. Once I am setup, I pick the hours. People hop online and offline, according to their time zones, availability, etc. Every piece of communication, and workflow is centered around remote teams.

Pair programming makes programming social. Despite the image that telling someone you are a programmer conjures, I really enjoy interacting with people. I remember teaming up with James, John and many others at Clayton State to tackle some large issues with our portal and other systems. Since Clayton State, I have worked on a couple teams, and it was almost always in isolation, save for 5-10 minute high level meetings. The best part is, its actually kind of fun.

Pair programming was a tough adjustment for me. I’m used to presenting a final product and defending its implementation. I have all the answers. I know what the talking points are up front, and I am comfortable because I am the authority on the subject. Pair programming is letting your guard down, and conceding as much as contributing. You are two people working on a problem together, with neither party starting off knowing the complete solution. The work is certainly slower than solo programming, as incorporating input, early refactoring, and general discussion takes up time. This team takes an interesting approach to combat some of the time drain; You can either pair program and merge directly, or work solo but your code requires a peer review before merging. The choice is yours. The solo programming option will probably act as a safety value for those days when I just want some time to myself. They also encourage “switching drivers” to vary the work. Interestingly, being the passenger requires more focus than driving, as you are trying to proactively find issues with the current approach.

I’m still struggling to embrace TDD. I don’t like the zealotry in the community when the topic comes up; presenting the only two options as either you test first, or you are just ignorant, undisciplined, or apathetic to the code you write. The truth is far from it. I figure things out by moving the pieces around – not by staring at it from a distance. That is not to say that there aren’t times when testing first is extremely useful, like when clarifying requirements. The test assertions (even with missing test bodies) is often enough to help solidify an attack plan. The amount of code coverage can be a hindrance though, as real world tests always end up being more tightly coupled than you ideally want them to be. If you make seemingly small code changes, you can end up with quite a bit of the test suite failing (all though with the same few errors repeating). If you mock and stub too much, you aren’t testing much that is useful. Even worse, the workflow doesn’t seem realistic: Write the tests, verify the tests fail, write the code, verify the tests pass. The reality seems to be write the tests (heavily guessing at the exact implementation), verify they fail, write the code, refactor almost all of your tests, and verify they pass. Given the choice, I think I’d still rather write code, then test the code to verify it does what I want in all scenarios. I’ve yet to meet a dyed-in-the-wool TDDer that sees any fault with this extra refactoring step. The subject of pre-written tests needing to be refactored seems to be glossed over. Maybe my opinion will be changed yet.

Things are looking awesome for this next step in my life! I’m keeping my fingers crossed for Railsconf tickets, since they are in my employer’s backyard. There are also a few missed restaurants I am meaning to visit next time I’m back up this way…

Computers, Events, Family, Personal, Thoughts, Vacations, Web

One Month Perspective On Working From Home

Today marks one month of being a remote worker for my employer. I’m still learning on how to be the most effective with this new environment, but I wanted to reflect on my experiences for anyone else considering this working arrangement.

Lets get this out of the way: its not all unicorns and rainbows. I think that was the biggest surprise to me. It seems like a dream to wake up, walk into another room of your house, work a few hours, and already be at home when 5 o’clock hits. For those expecting instant happiness – you will be slightly disappointed.

The reality is that, like most things in life, working from home is a mixed bag. For those looking to make the transition, consider the following issues:

Isolation can be a big problem, depending on your personality. I think this blow was softened because I am a software developer, and I am used to working with a computer more than people already. I have already cut my teeth on reduced interaction. What I do miss is the comradery in working in a team environment. You often have lunches with your co-workers, entertaining side conversations, and a million other things that contribute to the work culture. When you are working remotely, you exclude yourself from most of that, and it can be frustrating to feel like your avenue for interaction has been reduced.

Reduced visibility in the company is another disadvantage. I feel that I need twice the participation in communications just to prove that I really do still exist. You aren’t in the chatter loop anymore, so information may come to you seemingly out of the blue. Its important to remember that the company isn’t just swinging at things to see what sticks – they are in discussions that you aren’t part of anymore. There is something to be said for that office grapevine. I also get the feeling that I am quietly passed over when it comes to opportunities. The “online” indicator in a chat room isn’t the same as being a warm body in the room when it comes to picking a person for a job.

Getting into a rut in your routine is something that you have to constantly work against. While it seems so simple to sleep in one room, and work in the next, my mind craves more experiences in a day than the walls of two rooms of my house. Like it or not that soul-sucking commute, and those bleak off-white painted walls in the office provide some stimulation. I think it is key to be mobile. Work from a coffee shop for a day, or visit a local university, or other facility welcoming of guests, and providing free wi-fi.

Take your lunches out a few times a week, just to stay connected with the outside. You will be amazed to know that the rest of the world isn’t in a stasis. Things on the outside change. New restaurants open, roads get built, technology improves, books get published. Partake in the changes by going outside your house.

Join a meetup group for fun, or for professional development. In addition to providing networking, and keeping you up on the times, it is also and excuse to go have a few drinks with some peers.

Its not all gloom and doom, as there are some really positive things about working from home. Some of these you probably already know (and maybe even dream about!):

You will have a lot more time. Simply commuting is an average of two hours a day – 10 hours a week that you instantly get back. Also, if you cook at home for lunch, often you can use the remainder of your time to complete tasks mid-day instead of waiting until the end of the day when you are tired. I often do some laundry, or vacuum, take the dogs for a walk, sit outside and read my book, etc. My wife and I have a seven month old daughter, and every minute is precious to me. Having more time to spend with her is priceless.

There are cost savings to remote work, including reduced wear and tear on your car, and fewer fill-ups at the pump. I actually got to reclassify my vehicle as as “for pleasure” on our auto insurance, since it is no longer used for commuting and falls under the cap for average miles per year. Other savings include cheaper lunches (unless you go out) since you have a full kitchen at your disposal, and a thus are able to prepare a range of foods. You may find other savings including no more mid-day dog-sitters, saving on a parking spot, or public transit (just kidding – this is Atlanta!).

You will be hyper-focused. A co-worker once told me “an office is a great place if you don’t want to get anything done”. I understand what he meant by this now. Co-workers can be lots of fun, but when you are trying to buckle down and squeeze something in on a deadline, the office is the least likely place that is going to happen. I often get “in the flow” for 3-4 hour straight in a day when working from home. Its important that you recognize the speed you are working at, relative to your output before to understand how productive you are. The first week, I felt like I was moving in slow motion trying to adjust to the new environment, only to find that I had increased my work output. I would wager I am twice as productive in a day at home relative to a day in the office.

That being said – take frequent breaks. Your coworkers aren’t there to give your brain a break – so its up to you. I find it the most ethical to take breaks doing tasks I can relate to my work. I read HackerNews, read a technical book, or use the time to test out some new technologies. I have already been able to fold some of this exploratory knowledge back into the projects at work.

You are free to travel (and for extended periods!). Lots of people binge vacation, one or two weeks a year. When working remotely, you aren’t tied to a particular location anymore. As long as you have a laptop, access to the Internet, and power, you can be anywhere in the world. My wife and I are gearing up to spend a month in St. Augustine, Florida. I will work during the day most of the time, taking only a few PTO days. After 5pm, or when the weekend hits you are already in the middle of vacationing. The best part is that the month long vacation schedule is one you can physically sustain, with plenty of rest between the activities.

The final benefit I will mention is being able to set your own schedule. You can’t get carried away, especially if your employer enforces office hours. But if you need to take lunch earlier, or later, you can. If you need to step away from the computer for a few minutes to handle something, you can. There is trust that has to occur between employer and employee, but in my experience, your employer is most concerned with work output. It is a loaded gun to know that you are being entrusted to operate with almost total autonomy. You no longer have the eye of an overseer watching your every movement, which is a liberating feeling. Just get what you need to get done, and don’t go crazy with power!

So far, I am loving it. I have heard mixed reports of people adapting to working remotely. Some people crawl on hands and knees begging to come back to the office, and some people work remote the rest of their career. I think it comes down to your particular personality. If you are like me, you just have to try something to know if it works for you. This is one gamble I am glad that I took.

For anyone seriously considering a teleworking gig, I would highly recommend a few resources that helped me get started. First first is a short post like this one from Kyle-Kulyk. I don’t touch on it, but he makes a great observation about how working from home will affect your relationships with significant others. Benefits of, and managing your new teleworking lifestyle can be found in the 4 Hour Work Week. This book contains lots of great resources for how to negotiate a remote work arrangement, and tips for extended travel. Finally, Joel Gascoigne has some great pointers for keeping yourself mentally happy during this big transition.

Family, Vacations

T Minus One Week Until Vacation

One more week until vacation! We are joining my family in Cape Cod, MA for a week, and I couldn’t be more excited. A break from the routine of work will be a long overdue relief, and it will also mark the first time my parents, and my brother have seen Morrigan since she was born. We are planning on biking along the coastline (hopefully – if I can convince Kristin), exploring the islands of Nantucket and Martha’s Vineyard, and making a trip up to the Provincetown just to say we have done it all. I don’t have a strict schedule this time, but I am hoping we can do some whale watching if we are in season, and hit the beach for a little while.

Its been four months since Morrigan was born, and she is growing up fast. The folks have offered to help take care of her for a little while and give Kristin and I a break to go out and enjoy ourselves again for a few hours. It is a big thing to miss having someone to watch over Morrigan when you are without family in an area. Prior to this vacation, Kristin and I have alternated taking care of Morrigan 24 hours a day. It will be hard to imagine having someone else care for her for a change.

Jeffrey files in to Providence’s TF Green next Friday, and it will be the first time he has seen our house since we have moved from Atlanta. He recently got a new house of his own, and I realized I never saw his previous residence. That makes us even, since he never saw our place in Braintree, MA.

While I am thinking about family and friends, birthday wishes are in order for Ripley “Dinky” Templeman who turned two years old on May 13th. Congrats to you both Chris and Kellie!

Also, I will be making a pilgrimage down to Atlanta at the end of July, and I would love to see some folks! I look forward to that Atlanta heat for a change, and will probably eat myself sick on all the foods that I miss.

Events, Family, Personal, Vacations

Always Waiting for the Next Big Thing

Life at the Simpson household has been interesting of late. We try and keep things exciting.

To begin with, Fall semester has started at Clayton State University and I am finishing up the few classes that I have left. I am taking Economics 101 (supply and demand), Operations Management (what a bore!), and my “capstone” course to complete my degree. I imagine it will be a pretty easy semester. If I can CLEP my way out of taking some of these waste of time classes, such as French 101, Biology, and Sociology, then I should be able to finish this thing up next semester. I guess I can go ahead and update my graduation schedule.

Kristin has finally thrown in the towel with her employer. There were fundamental differences in beliefs of the management and the employees, and enough was enough. Kristin feels that she should be doing things as a Zoo Keeper like working with the animals, and doing training, enrichment, and public education. Go figure! I can’t blame here for walking away from this place, as it is in serious need of a management style overhaul. You can’t work in a hostile work environment and be happy in life. I wish the best for the employees that are still there. It brings an interesting quote to mind about not judging someone by how they treat their equals, but judging them by how they treat those under them. I think that someone’s management style speaks a lot about who they are as a person, and these are some hurting people.

In an ironic twist, as Kristin left her employer, we decided to purchase a new vehicle. We have been planning this for a while, and the Ford Ranger (our only vehicle) is on its last legs. After looking around at the (cheap feeling) Toyota RAV4, the (unmemorable) Honda CR-V, and the (arrogant) Mazda CX-9, we decided on a 2011 Hyundai Tucson GLS! We were amazed by how nice the ride was, and the accessories that come standard. My wife fell in love with it, and as of Tuesday, we will be picking up our new joy. We have been looking at a newer vehicle since I am mechanically incompetent (and with little time or ambition to learn), and leasing just felt like it wasn’t right for us. Since this is the only vehicle we own, we have to synchronize the selling of the Ford Ranger, with the purchase of a new car, and work out the auto loan, etc. In the end, this particular transaction was much easier going through a dealership. Sometimes the extra price is worth saved hassle.

I will be attending my latest bar crawl, which includes an epic 27 bars on the Red Line of the MBTA. We all have t-shirts (designed by our resident graphic designer at Beacon), and my wife has decided to join. We will be peeling away from the crawl early though to attend a Flyleaf concert at the House of Blues near Fenway Park.

Lisa Bower will be coming up to spend a few days with us in the next few weeks too. (I am convinced we moved up the car time table so Kristin can show off her new ride.) It should be fun, as Boston has quite a bit of things to do. We are definitely going down to the Cape, and Martha’a Vineyard, and I am pushing them to doing some walking around the Charles Esplanade, and maybe go to the aquarium in the North End. We will miss you John, but maybe we can all get together again sometime.

To everyone holding it down at Clayton State, keep up the good work! I miss everyone, and we hope we will get a chance to come down for Thanksgiving, or the Christmas break!