On working remote

If you are from a rural area where IT jobs can only be gotten to through a rather arduous daily commute then working from remote (i.e. your home) might seem like a sensible and enticing thing to do. Especially when the commute route is as congested and public transport as poorly developed as it is in my area which is northern Upper Austria.

To be honest, this post will be something of a rant on my part, so if you think public venting is stupid or have another opinion, I suggest you do not read on.

Remote work has been all over IT news and periodicals over the last couple of months, 43% of companies in Germany claim that they allow their employees to work from home from time to time. Sounds like a no-brainer then, right? Well, in reality, my experience is a bit different though.

Mine is bigger than yours

Remote-working employees say that they are more productive because they can work in an environment that they are accustomed to and feel comfortable in. Especially IT people can be quite picky when it comes to hardware and allowing them to use their own PCs is therefore not only an opportunity for the employer to save some money for hardware and office space but also will it be a satisfactory and pleasant experience for the employee. Some might even consider it more desirable than soccer tables, a free vegan gluten-free fruit breakfast, or the occasional after-work beer.

Many IT people will invest heavily in their private IT infrastructure because they are enthusiasts and it is highly likely that their equipment will out-perform any company-provided hardware anyway. At least this has always been the case for me. Consequently, productivity is likely to go up as well. However, I will admit that there are some cases where company-provided hardware is a must, for example in some licensing situations, when special hardware is needed, for security reasons or when a tight coupling to company infrastructure is required. But these cases are rather the exception than the rule, especially in software development and many of these cases can be mitigated – if the company is willing – by the use of VPNs, multifactor authentication, RSA hardware tokens etc. For devs, all that is needed is git, an IDE, and access to any collaboration software like JIRA and a collaboration tool like Slack.

Refueled and rearmed

So, making homework a company-wide option would not only contribute to happier employees and supposedly higher work output but also to a more modern approach toward work-life integration. It allows for any personal work preference. Some people simply aren’t productive in the hours after lunch due to a phenomenon called postprandial somnolence, or food coma, when their nervous system is occupied digesting food and all their blood is directed to their digestive system, but they chug along anyway. Wouldn’t it be better for everyone involved to take a break, take a quick nap, play with the kids, go on a walk or whatever and return to work after a couple of hours, refueled and rearmed?

Why is it then, that so many companies, especially well-established ones in the industrial sector, are so reluctant to allow remote work models? Don’t they still have a grave need for qualified IT people? And by extension: shouldn’t they do everything in their power to entice potential employees and keep existing ones happy? One might certainly think so. In my experience, there are two main inhibiting factors.

Big brother isn’t watching you

A lot of companies, especially large ones that have been around for quite some time, are used to the traditional work model, where employees come in in the morning and leave in the evening. It has been this way for years or even decades for them and they have built their processes, their environment and infrastructure and their entire company culture around it. Everything, from punching the (physical) time clock, talking to secretaries, accessing network shares up to the daily coffee break chit-chat is centered around actually being there. Introducing home work would force them to change all that: the’d have to provide VPN access with proper protection, a Slack infrastructure (and actually use it!), allow for some means of time tracking, get used to holding meetings in web conference tools,… the list goes on. Granted, it is no easy task! Big companies often don’t like changes of that magnitude.

The second reason is, that even though companies hardly admit to it publicly, they are afraid that remote-working people do not produce the same output as if they were on-site due to the sheer plethora of distractions they might face and a lack of control mechanisms. In other words, they don’t trust their employees to actually work. This has not been openly admitted, at least not to me, but reading between lines, one might gather as much.

Tit for tat then?

Honestly, I would not want to work anywhere I am not trusted to the extent of actually doing my job. And the definition of what a distraction actually is also is highly subjective. Some people work best listening to podcasts, music or even a youtube video, others require total silence to concentrate. All of which they can achieve in their private home. I personally find human voices soothing and it helps me concentrate better sometimes. Some other time I want brutal guitar riffs of some heavy metal band blasting away my brain cells, because I need the aggression to pull through a tedious task. And I want all that in the comfort of my home office, listening on my hi-fi system. In return will be more productive, happier and more open to working longer hours, even if I do so outside of traditional 9-5 office hours.

Established control mechanisms, such as peeking over the employee’s shoulder, are not possible anymore (except you are the NSA and have hacked the laptop’s webcam), but it will become apparent quite quickly if an employee uses „home office“ as an excuse for taking a day off, at least to an attentive team lead. Their work output will simply not be the same and in the case of software developers, this is very easily trackable through their agile progress, git commit log, and overall workload they get done. Tracking this requires some effort on the team lead’s part, but that’s time well spent in any case.

Shopping between farts

Have you ever sat on the toilet bored to hell between bowel movements and 9gag just didn’t cut it anymore, so you wanted to buy a car but just couldn’t? Well, fret not, because Tesla comes to the rescue!

Elon Musk announced that Tesla will close many stores and let the employees go because they want to increase revenue. Big surprise there.

So how does that help with your toilet situation? If you’re in the USA then you can even order a Tesla with your smartphone app. With your friggin‘ smartphone!!! Buying stuff off of Amazon is just too yesterday… If you live in Europe, you must resort to Tesla’s website and order your Tesla there, you dirty peasant.

I mean, Tesla, have you lost your mind? WHO in their right mind will just go ahead and buy a f***ing car on their smartphone?? I don’t know about you, but buying a car is a major decision that involves careful consideration, test drives, price negotiations, discussions with sales people etc. You’ll forfeit all that for the benefit of … what… not having to bother with physically going to the store like the lowly plebs?

Or is it that Tesla can’t even afford proper showrooms and well-trained sales people anymore when they sell their (very expensive) cars because they have yet to earn any money? Teslas still are a premium product, that most people will never be able to afford, right? Even the Model 3 is more expensive than what most people are able to spend on cars (me included) so I presume that the crowd that actually can afford one will likely be accustomed to and therefore want that customer service experience when purchasing something as expensive as a car.

I am not sure if the ubiquitous buy-online mentality is such a desirable way of thinking after all. We all do it, right? Need something? Go to Amazon. But that furthers laziness and complacency and lowers any barriers to spend money, sometimes resulting in shopaholism and thereby amassing useless stuff and potentially even sliding into debt. Moreover, I am not convinced that efficiency (with respect to money) should be the driving factor behind every last decision that is made, especially if the company’s ultimate goal is nothing less than the improvement of the world. Or so they claim.

Have you gone completely mad?

Since you have not yet closed the browser tab and decided to read on you apparently are not quite sure on how to answer that question. That’s a start. We will get back to insecurity in a bit.

First off, let me say that this post is about being self-employed in the software business, the upsides and downsides of it and why I think it’s a great way to work. I will not analyse your psychological state of mind.

Most software developers I know have some sort of pet project that they do out of curiosity and interest and in their spare time or they tend to their (extended) family’s technical devices or they do some contract work „on the side“. The reason for this likely is that developers are a naturally curious species and since IT is a very fast-paced field, there is ample opportunity to dabble.

I was no different and after some time it got increasingly serious and projects came rolling in. As I am a naturally cautious person and since the Austrian finance police does not entirely consist of fat bureaucratic idiots that never catch you, I decided to get a business licence and tax registration ID to get things done in a legal and orderly way. And being able to buy electronics and cool gadgets minus the Austrian VAT certainly is a bonus, I’m not gonna lie.
So for a couple of years I continued my side business in parallel to being a full-time employee at different software companies in the Linz area. It paid for hookers and blow, so things were fine.

After my last employment was terminated quite unpleasantly with legal action being taken on my side (check back here, I will write about that in the future) I decided that I didn’t want to go back to employment, and since I already had a semi-active company registered in my name, knew the basic structure of Austrian tax law and had a few promising contacts in my address book, going full-time beardyINC appeared the logical way to go. I was to become self-employed, or – using the more modern term: a freelancer.

Now, almost a year later, I can tell you this: from a day-to-day perspective being a freelancer is not very different from being employed. You get up (very early) in the morning, drive to work, you grind along during the day until you drive home again, kiss your kids good night and waste the rest of the evening with Netflix, video games or other stuff (e.g. writing blogs).

These rather practical aspects can indeed be quite similar to the employee life because many clients want you to be on-site, most of them unfortunately even require you to wear pants, and they even dare to tell you what to do. Hell, they are the ones paying the bill, so what.

So in addition to having to wear pants, the not-having-a-boss-part isn’t really true either, but then again: is it ever?
In the business world very, very few people really don’t have anyone to answer to at all. Startup founders are the loyal subjects (read: bitches) to their investors as well as to the market (whatever that is) – even if they claim otherwise-, most employees have bosses hovering above them, and even the C-something-Os of companies most likely have company owners, share holders, investors or other people to answer to.

Why then would anyone in their right mind want to be self-employed you might ask? Why be an entrepreneur (yes, blog post on that particular term will follow as well)?
Or – touching back on the original question: have you gone mad?

See, the thing is, even though many people think it is the pinnacle of human existence to call themselves „technical evangelist“ or „disruptive digitalization expert“ or something even less tangible, there are people like me out there that actually enjoy hands-on working with technology, writing code, digging deep and designing system architectures. The guys that actually do the work.instead of just (cluelessly) talking about it. To us, nothing is more elegant than a beautifully written piece of code, a well-designed data model and a modular and decoupled set of scalable microservices.

We view software development as a kind of craftsmanship, an art even, and we enjoy working different projects with different technology stacks for our various customers. It’s that diversity through which we thrive and what – quite frankly – also makes us more universally deployable than most company-employed developers who spend most of their professional time in one and the same project and most times even in the same technology. And it even pays quite handsomely, too.

And before you ask: yes, I know, there are certain risks involved. This is where I must talk about the downsides of being self-employed. It is a clear and present possibility that you do not have a contract for some time, it already happened to me and probably to most freelancers out there. Get your financial planning in order, use the down time to catch up on latest tech and actively approach potential customers.

Being responsible for your own taxes and social insurance also has its pitfalls and not having holiday entitlement nor sick leave arrangements alongside not receiving holiday and Christmas bonus payments is a bummer but hey, nothing that can’t be fixed with a bit of planning ahead, a tax advisor and a few pills here and there.

On the upside we sometimes can skip the pants for work.

First ever blog post!

as you well know web site creation merely consists of point-and-click, selecting colors and fonts and can thus not be regarded manly. For this exact reason beardyINC has refused to „blog“ anything or – as we call it – vomit on the internet.

as we all get older though, we begin to find certain things interesting, like robotic vacuum cleaners. or cooking vegetables. or what other people think.

and here it is: the beardyINC blog! it will receive updates infrequently and its quality will be … shall we say heterogenous, but still. i welcome you all to read it, enjoy it (or not enjoy it, doesn’t matter to me, really) and leave a reply!