Monday, December 10, 2018

How To Get Started with Remote Work ("Remote" Book Review)


In case you missed the memo, remote work (or "working from home") is VERY quickly becoming the norm. I used to be an outlier, but that's less true each day.

It hit home for me recently with Majordomo where everything we do is remote. We don't have an office, so even the people in Corvallis work from home. At first, it started that way because everyone works part-time and frankly, we can't afford office space.  But now, even if we could, I don't think we'd change the current set up much. Perhaps we'd create a shared space, but we'd primarily stay remote.

Also, I hired an assistant for Furlo Family Homes who lives in Sacramento. We've never met in person, with no current plans to do so. More on this another time.

Given this reality, I read a book called "Remote" by Jason Fried and David Hansson of Basecamp. To learn how to manage a team more effectively.

The benefits of remote work are many, but these are my favorite two:

  • Smart people, who get work done live everywhere. Corvallis is a great place, but the talent pool for web development isn't that deep. Using Upwork, we found a guy in Provo who is doing great work, and he introduced us to two other great guys. Being remote will allow us to stay in Corvallis for as long as we want.
  • It provides everyone a lot of flexibility to work anytime and anywhere. I'm a morning guy, others are night owls, and it works. I can do some work, then join my family for breakfast and lunch... maybe take an afternoon nap, then finish working in the later afternoon.


The book spends a lot of ink to convince you remote work is fantastic, which it is, but it was too much for someone like me who's already convinced and trying to optimize the effectiveness of a remote team. Still, they gave lots of practical tips. Here were my favorite pieces of advice:

1) You "need a good four hours of overlap to avoid collaboration delays and feel like a team. (p. 91)"  I totally agree. The folks I've worked with in India and Singapore are fantastic people, but the minimal time overlap is difficult. The good news is that means the entire US is fair game. We use Slack and Zoom video to communicate with each other.

2) "When someone wants to demonstrate a new feature they’re working on... often the easiest way is to record a screencast and narrate the experience. (p. 96)" I hadn't thought of this before and am now putting it into practice, and it's great! We don't have to coordinate schedules, and they can watch (and re-watch!) when they're ready to do the work. I use Zoom to record my screen (and myself), so it feels more like I'm talking to them.

3) "Put all the important stuff out in the open, and no one will have to chase that wild goose to get their work done. (p. 99)" We use Github for code and Dropbox for everything else at Majordomo. Furlo Family Homes uses OneDrive. Both work great. Why not everything in Dropbox or OneDrive? There's no great reason. Someday I'll consolidate.

4) "To instill a sense of company cohesion and to share forward motion, everyone needs to feel that they’re in the loop. ...[We create] a weekly discussion thread with the subject “What have you been working on?” Everyone chimes in with a few lines about what they’ve done over the past week and what’s intended for the next week. (p. 103)" This is part of a daily scrum 15 min we do which asks three questions: What did you work on yesterday? What are you going to work on today? Do you have anything stopping you? We also use Trello to track what everyone is doing.

5) "Instead of thinking I can pay people from Kansas less than people from New York, you should think I can get amazing people from Kansas and make them feel valued and well-compensated if I pay them New York salaries. (p. 161)" Brilliant! It's what HP did and one reason why some many employees in Corvallis stay for many years. Obviously, this requires margins and volumes that support this cost structure.

Isn't it amazing how technology has made some of the barriers to remote work disappear? With Upwork, Zoom, Slack, Dropbox, and Trello you can be up and running within an hour. By the way, each offers free plans, which is pretty cool.

There are many more tips for hiring, managing, and being a remote worker. The book is very straightforward with many little sections, so you feel like you're reading the book fast. I chose to read it instead of listening so that I could highlight and take notes.

If you're on a remote team or thinking about trying it, I highly recommend reading the book.

Monday, October 08, 2018

October: A Month of Ties


Octieber?

In my closet hangs a bunch of ties. Ties I never seem to have an occasion to wear. So, in an effort actually use something I own, and perhaps expand my wardrobe options, I created my own occasion: October.

For the month of October I'm wearing a tie each day. I'll wear each tie at least once and cull down the total number of ties to ones I'm excited about. That snowman tie will survive the culling since my kids LOVE watching it light up. I have another one coming up that also plays music. I'll have to pick a day when I'm not actually meeting with anyone. :)

So, one week down and it's going great. I'm getting more comfortable wearing a tie in regular situations, and want to keep that going after October. I also have a few more fun ties I'm excited to dust off... and some other ones...

Fun!









Wednesday, September 26, 2018

My Dreams of a Smarter Home


I've been thinking about the concept of smart homes recently. My goal is to have the smartest home on the block and I'm doing pretty well with an Amazon Eco (and dots in each room), Lutron wireless light switches, an August door lock, the Ecobee thermostat, Chamberlain garage door opener, Philips Hue lights in the living room, B-Hyve garden watering system, SOMA smart shades, and a Nest camera and, Nest smoke alarms.

But what's interesting is that is not really a "smart" home, it's more like a "remote controlled" home. It's still cool. Here are some things that I regularly do:

  • When riding my bike home and I tell Siri from my watch to open the garage door.
  • When I arrive home at night the front door unlocks and the entry way light turns on.
  • I'll tell Siri "it's movie time" and all the lights in the living room turn off, except for the front row, which turns on 10% red. All other lights turn off too.
  • When I say "Clap clap", it locks the door, makes sure the garage door is shut, turns off all lights except for a dim path leading to the bedroom. My shades are supposed to also shut, but I can't get them to connect to HomeKit. :/
But you see the trend, it's all remote controlled actions. And none of them are really solving big problems. They also don't fundamentally change the way I live my life.

To me, "smart" involves, at a minimum, some sort of learning. The Nest Thermostat perhaps comes the closest by learning when I'm gone and adjusting the temperature accordingly. In our home, we use Ecobee for the HomeKit integration and because I could put a sensor in each room (which also doubles as a motion sensor of home/away status).

I'd like my home to notice that every Sunday afternoon we come home from church around noon, turn on the oven to 425, and turn on music. Then it could ask me if I'd like that to happen automatically so the oven is ready to go when we arrive.

Or, notice that my refrigerator's energy consumption is 10% higher than a year ago, or vs my neighbors. Our city recently switched over to digital meters. Perhaps this is possible now?

Actually, a lack of sensors is probably the biggest barrier to a smart home. I would put a sensor on my water pipes for pressure and temperature. I would put motion/temperature/moisture sensors in my attic and under my house.

Weather sensors on top of each house would also be amazing. Imaging if they all shared data to a central service to provide precision real-time weather information. Why are roofers not requiring this on every house? It'll make their planning so much easier over time.

If we built in all these sensors and started collecting the data, it would follow a similar path of current data trends: at first it would be stored, then it would be analyzed to understand what's happening, and then it would be predicted based on complex multi-variable trends.

Again, remote controlled actions are still cool. RC via voice feels especially cool... when it works, but it's just not smart. They're not breaking any paradigms yet. I know vertical farming doesn't work at scale yet, but could it work in my house? Could I enter what I'd like to grow and let robots take care of it so I have fresh food waiting for me?

Heating and AC feels especially broken. Heating and cooling the air around you via convection is the most inefficient method (that's a typical forced air system). Radiation (like from a radiator) is better with good insulation, but it's still heating the air. Conduction is the most efficient (think, floor heat), but condensation when cooling (depending on what you read) seems to be an elusive problem. How do we make rocket mass heaters safer and more mainstream? How can we make radiant cooling work better?

Or food. Why does preparing food feel so difficult? How we do make home food prep feel as easy as eating out (which I get is simply outsourced the food prep)? Can robots help? Don't even get me started on doing dishes or laundry!

What about open-living spaces? Imagine not owning a home, but instead reserving one. Or just opening up an app to see what's available that night. When you arrive, the house turns your personal temperature on, and ensures drones deliver the food you like. You're only charged for when you're there and the items you use. That's the direction we're headed in with cars. What about homes? Oh my: You have a van that stores your stuff. It backs into the garage and puts your stuff in the living space. When you leave, via another vehicle (?), it packs up your stuff and starts heading somewhere else.

At the very least, let's take RC to a logical extreme. I know there are some concept automated windows. Those should connect to my inside and outside thermostat and humidifier to determine when to be open. And each of those should be tracking my location and motion in the house. My windows would have shades built into the glass, like on newer 787s. Not only should the smoke alarms connect to the thermostat, but to the oven, all outlets, and the lights. You get the idea.

Perhaps what's needed is a modern open-source protocol for collecting/storing/retrieving data from sensors and controllers. My guess is that one already exists, but the big players (Google, Apple, Amazon) are too interested in owning the eco-system, which prevents something the equivalent of email or wifi from taking off.

For now, let's pretend that the privacy and security issues are solved. Wouldn't that be cool?! Perhaps companies are working on these in the background, but it doesn't feel like it. It feels like they're OK with focusing on voice for previously touch-screen and keyboard activities. They don't seem focused on actually integrating services and turning the home into something truly smart.

Wednesday, September 12, 2018

I'm Thinking About Getting a VA, But I Struggle With Delegation


I'm reading a book right now called the Time Wealthy Investor by Mark B. Dolfini. I'm fairly certain that if I wrote a book, it would be pretty similar to this one. It's focus is on building systems that work  for you to reduce your personal workload. Think E-Myth and The 4-Hour Workweek applied to real estate investing. If you're an investor, it's worth reading (along with Landlording on Autopilot which gets more tactical).

Automation

What's interesting is that I'm finding I'm excellent and automating systems. I started reading the book hoping to learn a couple tricks to further automate what I'm doing, but I'm finding I'm already doing well. There are a couple small things I could automate, but the relative gains are small. For example, when I send a message, I email and text everyone individually. Technically I could set up a list for email through something like MailChimp, but I don't like that there will be an unsubscribe button. Plus, I don't even know of a texting service that'll let me use my existing phone number. It hardly seems worth it to spend 4 hours researching if it's possible for the ~4 times a year I send a text to everyone, which I already pretty easy because I use Google Voice and send everyone from a computer with copy/paste (if you know of a service, let me know).

Automation? Check.

Delegation

The other part of the book talks about setting up processes that are documented and repeatable, with the goal of making them easy to delegate and manage. With such easy access to virtual assistants (VAs), it's super easy to delegate small tasks without having to hire someone full time. Example tasks could include:

  • When someone moves out: calculate their last month's rent, send the move-out email and prepare a new Craigslist ad.
  • When a new person is accepted as a resident: add their info to the database & QuickBooks, calculate their first month's rent, prepare the rental agreement, and schedule a time to sign.
  • When a resident calls with a maintenance request: add the request to Trello, contact the proper home service provider (which could be me), coordinate the schedule fix time, follow-up with the resident when it's done, document in Trello, and send a payment.

You get the idea. When a certain event happens, the documented actions are taken.

This seems pretty easy as I write it out, but for some reason I struggle to give up that control. I don't want to lose a pulse on what's working on Craigslist. How do I stay on top of it? Since I end up doing most of the maintenance repairs - because they're normally easily, and I enjoying getting out from behind my desk - what's the point of having someone else be the go-between? That seems needlessly complicated.

I also have a very high standard. Even today I was helping Jessi print our monthly newsletter (pictured above) and I couldn't help but notice a couple formatting issues (which nobody but I will notice. Like a double space after a period). I'm super happy Jessi is able to help with the newsletters, but how do I keep the quality where I want it... without hurting a relationship?

I've noticed this trend in other areas as well. Last week I was asked if I needed help on an HP project. My instinct was to say no because I knew the person wouldn't do as good of a job as I would and I didn't want to spend even more time going back and correcting it. Again, how do I set quality expectations and properly train somebody to successfully hit them? For a while my thought was "I'll just hire amazing people", but that seems implausible and limiting. The problem isn't automation. Perhaps it's a process that isn't fully documented, including quality checklists?

Delegation? I'm honestly not sure how to pull this off.

Moving Forward

I need to figure this out. We're planning to continue growing and it won't be sustainable as a part-time hustle for much longer. Unfortunately, I think the answer is I need to invest more time in the short-term to figure out delegation so I can spend less time later. I found one good article about successful VA relationships, but there really doesn't seem to be lot of good resources, which looks like a mini-red flag - why aren't there more resources and success stories? And I just looking in the wrong places?

Of course, then I go the opposite direction and wonder if I'm making life too complicated, like in the Fisherman's Parable. Should I instead figure out ways to remove tasks off my plate completely? For example, if we lived in a tiny home that was owned free and clear, that would remove a lot of the financial pressure and allow me to drop my job and then do all the business tasks myself. Of course, that would create new issues: space for the kids, a less desirable location, less ability to invite friends over, etc.

So no answers at this time, just public processing. If you've hired a VA, I'd love to learn about your experience and talk about what has and hasn't worked.

Tuesday, September 04, 2018

Phone Setting Idea: TimeTravel For The Clock Display


I was thinking about time this morning. Or more specifically, telling time.

In an effort to be on time, Jessi & I tend to set out clocks a little ahead of time. For example:
  • My alarm clock is set 1 minute fast.
  • The bathroom clock is 4 minutes fast.
  • The car is 3 minutes fast.
Of course, the problem is that I know how fast each are, so I tend to do the math when looking at the time.

Then there's my phone. It always tells the "right" time because I have the clock set automatically in settings. It's convenient when traveling and when we spring forward and fall back.

My Brilliant Idea

So, what if there was a phone setting... let's call it TimeTravel, that let's me set an interval of how fast head my phone clock display is. For example, I could set it 0-2 minutes fast. And throughout the say, the time displayed on my phone would sometimes be exactly right. Sometimes it would be 30 seconds fast. Sometimes it would be 95 seconds fast.

It would help insure that I'm always just a little early, but not consistent enough for me to always subtract 2 minutes.

Ideally I could link this setting to my watch and computer, but that's not a requirement. Also, I think it's be important to have access to the "real" current time in the clock app.

That's my idea. Since it's a system setting, I don't think I can create "an app for that", but it's something I'd find useful. Plus, I like the idea of time travel.

Friday, May 25, 2018

Behind The Glitz of a Dream Marathon Race


This is a follow up to The Great Wall Marathon Adventure which summarizes the whole trip.

Jessi and I just came back from a trip of a lifetime: running a marathon on the Great Wall in Huangyaguan China. The course is on The Wall (I feel compelled to capitalize it) for ~7 miles. The rest is run in the surrounding city. It's good that the entire race isn't on The Wall because... well... The Wall is brutal and probably couldn't be run for 26.2 miles.

You start by running 3 miles almost straight up a hill. Then ~3.5 miles on The Wall (2,582 stairs, the equivalent of 47 stories). Then around town for 13 miles. Then, if you finish all that in under 6 hours (remember this time, it's important), you get to go back on The Wall for another 2,582 stairs, and back down the hill you started on. You have 8 hours total. Here's what the elevation looks like (click on it to see a larger version... but I think you get the point):


This was my first marathon and Jessi's second. It's how we celebrated 10 years of marriage (technically in July, but we can't control when the event happens). My sister, Lisa, and her boyfriend, Jason, also joined us.


The pictures look awesome, and the experience was fantastic. It was truly a dream trip. But like any great success, this was a long time in the making and included a lot of hardship. Too often we only learn about the result, but I think it's valuable to also share what it took to finish.

At the starting line with Jiggle Bells playing in the background.
To start, we spent MONTHS training. Two weekdays I would run. Then Saturday morning I would do a long run before the family woke up. I learned to run with a lamp, and the places to avoid before the sun came up. Jessi ran during nap time and Sunday after church. We didn't have to run in snow, but in a lot of rain. As distances increased, so did the time. It wasn't easy to juggle schedules. We only ran twice together before the race.

Then in January, I hurt my knee. I went from running 20 miles in 3.5 hours to limping in pain after 3 miles. It was frustrating to have to completely stop running. I went from "ahead of schedule" to "doubtful to finish". The recommendation is to stop running for 8 weeks (!) and let your body heal.

I really had to trust the advice and cross trained for the 8 weeks. I learned I dislike swimming laps, but I woke up early 2 days a week and swam laps. After swimming, my nose would run the rest of the morning (something in the water?). Man, I really wanted to run instead. It was tough. With additional strength & flexibility training, lots of reading (I recommend "Your Best Stride") on my injury, and help from doctors at Corvallis Sport & Spine, I was able to get back to 20 miles in 4.5 hours... on flat ground with zero stairs.

I kept forgetting my goggles in the locker room. So I took a picture to show the staff ("These ones...again").

I felt mostly back on track confident I could finish in 8 hrs despite the hills & stairs with minimal knee pain.

Then, as we left on the trip Jessi got sick and didn't improve at all leading up to race day.

As a result, when we started up the first hill Jessi couldn't breath. Think asthma attack level of not breathing. I knew the run would be tough because she was sick, but this was bad.

We barely made it to mile 13, stopping regularly, and Jessi furious that she was struggling so much. We talked to a medic, and after hearing her symptoms told Jessi she was done: get in the ambulance to go to a local hospital for oxygen.

Predictably, Jessi was furious. "I didn't train for 8 months, push my kids around in a stroller, and come to China to stop half way!" The medic was polite, but firm. He told me I could carry on and still finish.

Leave my wife to fend for herself in some random hospital on the other side of the world?

Yeah, right.

We negotiated with him and determined we could keep going, as long as we went slow and stopped trying to reach the gate to the wall in 6 hours. After all, what’s the difference b/n stopping now and being picked up later? At least if we kept going, again much slower, we could enjoy more of the country side.

Then something amazing happened. We actually started having fun! By deciding to walk, Jessi calmed down, got out of her own head, and relaxed. We held hands and treated it like being on a relaxing date... up a spiraling hill that never seemed to end. (Yeah, that's the third peak in the elevation map...it looked much smaller on the map.)

A hill in the middle of the run. We'll get as high as the hill in the background on the right
We were able to let go of the expectations of finishing and simply enjoy being together in China. We talked, we joked, and we bonded. We were of course disappointed, but recognized some things were out of our control (like getting sick). It's a great life lesson we want to share with our kids: when your life revolves around Christ, you can be joyful in tough situations because life is bigger than a race/achievements.

Eventually Jessi felt better, and we were headed down hill, so we started jogging again. We got 5K away from The Wall's gate and an official let us know we had 40 mins to get to the gate. We could make it!

This is when the training paid off. We walk/jogged and entered the gate to The Wall with 5 minutes to spare. So close!

Then the really hard part: those remaining stairs. Jessi powered on like a champ. At this point, I was happy to spend more time on The Wall and even thought it might be nice to have the bus pick us up at the top so we didn't have to go down the hill (my knee was starting to hurt at this point). We completely ignored the clock and just made progress one step at a time.


These stairs are brutal. We passed one guy who was laid out and waiting for the medic team to get him. We passed a lady screaming in pain as she was lifted onto a stretcher. It was surreal.


We got to the top of the hill and checked the clock. If we jogged down most of it, we could actually finish. Thankfully, down hill didn't seem to tax Jessi's breathing, so we went for it.


Here's a video of us near top, and my favorite part of the course. These stairs are the first thing I saw when researching this race, and what compelled me to suggest we do it.


We finished with 10 minutes to spare: 7 hours and 50 minutes.


It was both a physical and mental challenge and 3 observations:

1) I’m thrilled we finished. But not finishing would have also been great because life isn't about the achievement. It's about living each day and moment to the best of your God given ability, no matter what the circumstances. We did that, and celebrate that, not finishing or the medal.

2) I was the last male to finish with a time. On the way down the hill, we passed a couple other guys. I don't know if they also got to finish or got picked up, but it's sobering to think some people didn't get to finish despite going so far. One guy in particular had a great attitude and cheered us on as we passed him (we cheered back). I want to have his same attitude when facing challenges.

3) Slowing down and letting go of the result saved us. Had we kept pushing, we probably would have ended up in the hospital. At the very least, we wouldn't have enjoyed the event as much.

We probably won't run another marathon for various reasons (my knee injury & the training commitment to start), but we're glad we did it. It was a tough challenge that taught us a lesson about pursing a dream and being OK with letting it go.

Wednesday, May 23, 2018

The Great Wall Marathon Adventure


To celebrate 10 years of marriage, Jessi and I, along with my sister and her boyfriend, went to Beijing, China to run a Marathon on The Great Wall.

The race was put on by an organization called Albatross Adventures and included 6 days, with a couple of tours like Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City.

It truly was a trip of a lifetime. Here were the highlights:

Day 0
We started the trip by dropping off the kids with my parents. It was great getting to spend Mother's Day with the whole family. Thank you so much to my parents and Aunt who watched the kids all week.


Day 1
We arrived and were free to explore the city. We rode the subway around and marveled at how many people there were. We packed those subway cars like sardines.


Unfortunately, Jessi got sick and I decided to head out at 1:30am to find a pharmacy. I couldn’t find the place the hotel recommended, so I walked to another location (btw, the iPhone X & iPhone 8 on whatever carrier AT&T partners with, allowed full access to Facebook & Google. Perhaps an upgraded SIM card?). Anyways, I rang the bell and a grumpy looking man came out. I held up my request using Google Translate. He looked at me, said "Bù" (which I knew meant "no"), turned around and walked away.

Are you kidding me?

I stood in shock for a bit. I was happy I learned a handful of words, like "no", so I could fully appreciate the moment. But really? I opened my maps app and walked to another place.

This time a lady was willing to help me. We used Google Translate to communicate, and it was magical. I'm so impressed with that technology. Using the camera to translate the text on the box was magical as well. The future is now.

Day 2
We inspected the wall. Here are some photos:






Day 3
We visited a market and the Qing Dynasty Tombs. The setting was beautiful.




Day 4
Race day. Here are some pictures. I have much more to say about the actual race later. Lisa and Jason completed the half marathon. It was Jason's first, and Lisa's tenth.





Perhaps the funniest part was the song selections of the band.


Day 5
We visited Tiananmen Square & the Forbidden City, but I was most impressed by two smaller shops. The first was a silk factory. They showed us the process from silk worms eating leaves to stretching the silk into a comforter. It was true craftsmanship. It's inspiring to learn about a business that's doing excellent work.

We also visited a tea shop and learned about different types of tea and how to make a couple of them. Again, it was a perfect example of passion and excellence intersecting.


In both places they also had professional sales people. They were knowledgeable, but not pushy. It was like they understood that they got to live their passion by creating, AND proudly selling, an excellent product.

I was in the middle of reading "Meaningful Work", which contributed to my wonder.

Day 6
I was impressed with China Southern Air. The food was good and the entertainment options were plentiful.

It was a great trip and I'm glad Lisa & Jason could join us. If you run marathons and want to see China, this is definitely worth it.


Update: I promised to say more about the actual race. Here it is: Behind The Glitz of a Dream Marathon Race.