Learning more about a remote working position

I’m in the process of wrapping up a long period of working remotely at least part-time from home, beginning in 2006 when I enrolled in a PhD program and continuing through my time at the Ada Initiative and at Stripe to this year.

My take on working remotely in future is really “it depends on the details” (and likely different details for different organizations). To that end, I contributed some suggested questions you could ask to Hypothesis’s Working remotely guide, which they’ve incorporated in a slightly edited form. Here’s my original questions; I’ve also added a few more at my end after some feedback from Andrew (himself a veteran of around seven years of remote work).

Introduction

Before you start working remotely at a new organization, you should explore how they structure remote working and if there are any expectations mismatches between you and the organization. A particular remote job may or may not be a match for a particular remote worker.

Important: I don’t think there is any one right answer to any of these questions. It’s a question of fit between your working style, the position itself, and the relationship of the position to the rest of the organization. But the answers are worth knowing so that you can evaluate your fit and make plans for effective remote working.

Sources of information

This entry has a lot of questions, too many for a “do you have any questions?” section of an interview. But you can use other sources of information to get most answers, especially about organization-wide questions:

  • the job description, and descriptions of similar roles
  • the organization’s website, particularly the About and Careers pages
  • the section of the employee handbook dealing with remote work
  • the LinkedIn pages or websites of your future manager and colleagues
  • longer, separate, conversations with your recruiter or hiring manager
  • your offer conversation or letter, or your contract

Some questions you also may only need to ask if you hear of concrete plans to make a change to the organization (eg, you learn that a new office is about to open near you).

Questions

How are you remote and who are you remote from? This post is using ‘remote’ to mean something like “most days, you are not in face to face contact with any colleagues.” But you should be aware of the details: will you be working without in person contact with teammates or with the wider organization almost all of the time? Do you have any colleagues in your team or your wider organization in your city or region, or who regularly visit? Will you work on any joint projects with them? Will you be able or be expected to sometimes work with them in person even if there’s not a permanent office space?

Separately, is in-person contact with vendors or customers part of the job?

Is your immediate team remote? Is your manager remote? Being a remote member of a team that is all working remotely from each other is different from a team which is mostly located in an office with each other. Likewise, being managed by someone who is in an office has some potential advantages (for example, access to information circulating through verbal grapevines, being able to access answers from colleagues for you quickly), as does being managed by someone who is themselves remote (a direct appreciation for experiences specific to remote workers, a personal interest in advocating for them).

How many remote workers are there at the rest of the organization? What percentage of teams you will work closely with are working remotely, and what percentage of employees overall are working remotely? Working as one of very few remote workers for an organization where most employees are in an office together is different from a mostly or entirely remote-working organization.

What’s the future of remote work at the organization? If the organization is mostly or entirely remote, are there any plans to change that? If the organization is mostly office-based, are there any plans to change that? If an office is likely to be founded in your city or region soon, will you be able or be expected to work from it?

You may be considering a job on the understanding that the remote work will be of very short duration (eg, an office is opening in your city in two months time). Is there any chance the time will be longer, and are you OK with that?

What is your manager’s approach to remote workers? How frequently will they speak with you and through what media? Will they expect you to travel to them? Will they sometimes travel to you? Have they managed remote workers before?

How long have there been remote workers for? Is the organization new to having remote workers or has it had remote workers for a long time and bedded down a remote working style?

What is the remote working culture like? Is most collaboration over email, text chat, phone, video conf, or some other means? Are there watercooler-equivalents like social IRC channels or video chats? How active are they? Are remote workers mainly working from home or from co-working spaces? Are there occasional team gatherings for remote workers to meet colleagues in person and are they optional or compulsory?

How flexible are the hours? Not all remote work has flexible hours; you may have mandated work hours, or core hours, or shifts, as in any other role.

Are the remote workers spread across multiple timezones? If so, are your team and closest collagues in your timezone or another one? Are you expected to adapt your working hours to overlap better with your colleagues? How are meetings and other commitments scheduled across timezones? Do they rotate through timezones or are they always held in a certain timezone? Are you ever expected to attend meetings well outside your working hours, and if so, how often is this expected and do your colleagues in other timezones face the same expectations?

What are the benefits for remote workers? Will the organization reimburse any of your remote working expenses, such as membership of a co-working space, home office furniture, or your home Internet connection costs? If you’re working in a different country from most of your colleagues, will you get equivalent benefits to your colleagues (eg, health insurance coverage)?

What are the travel expectations for remote workers? Are you expected to travel to headquarters or other offices or customers, and if so, how often and for how long? What are the travel policies and allowances for remote workers? How do these travel expectations compare to those of non-remote colleagues?

Sometimes you will be remote from an organization with an office or even headquarters in the same city as you. Will you be able or expected to visit the office? How often? Will there be resources for you (eg, hot desks, meal provisioning)?

What are the career progression possibilities for remote workers? As a remote worker in a partly non-remote organization, could you move into more senior positions over time, such as team leader, middle manager, or executive? Could you move into other teams in the organization, and if so, which ones? Are there some roles that are closed to remote workers? Match these answers to your own career goals.

What’s the training process like? Must you or can you spend a period of time in an office or visiting a colleague for training? Must you or can you do your training remotely using documentation, videos and similar? Will a trainer or colleague have some time assigned to remotely train you?

Is there support for first-time remote workers? If you haven’t worked remotely before, will the organization support you in learning how to work remotely, and if so, how?

See also

A very partial list of resources, focussing on individual remote workers and their experiences and strategies:

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Learning more about a remote working position by Mary Gardiner is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

The Ada Initiative’s sunset

This morning, the Ada Initiative, which I co-founded in 2011 and have been employed by between 2011 and now, announced our shutdown.

Sunset over San Francisco, original by  Nan Palmero
Sunset over San Francisco, original by
Nan Palmero

I’m proud of all the work we talked about in the announcement, but a few things of mine over the years in particular that I enjoyed doing a lot and that I hope will have a continuing impact:

AdaCamp. AdaCamp Melbourne was my idea, and was, for me, something of a followup to the LinuxChix/Haecksen miniconfs I founded in 2007, but, as we had done with the Ada Initiative, decoupled from the Linux community specifically, and explicitly feminist and incorporating what I’d learned from organizing earlier women’s events and meetups. It grew into much more over time, incorporating ideas from other events like quiet rooms and inclusive catering, and solving problems that plagued the events that all of the Ada Initiative staff and AdaCamp staff had been to over the years.

The guide to responding to harassment reports as an event organizer. This was based on a email I wrote to a conference organizer who was wondering what one actually does when a harassment report comes in, which, as I tend to do with my best emails, I later edited to put on the web. The wiki text has been somewhat edited and expanded of course, but is substantially similar to my initial version. It formed the basis of the enforcement manual that PyCon developed.

The AdaCamp Toolkit. I wrote more than half of this in the month between closing the AdaCamp program and launching the Toolkit, and edited the remainder from material developed internally. Not since the Geek Feminism wiki have I had so much (rather intense) fun emptying the contents of my head onto a website.

The Impostor Syndrome Training and our Impostor Syndrome Proofing article. AdaCampers had been discussing Impostor Syndrome since the event in Melbourne. I developed the version given at AdaCamps from Portland onwards, and which I will teach in Sydney shortly, built up around an exercise developed by Leigh Honeywell for AdaCamp SF, and we’re releasing it publicly after the Sydney workshop.

I also did a great deal of the behind the scenes project management and technical work (web work, systems administration, payments processing setup) throughout the life of the organization, and internally my documents are the core of our institutional knowledge. (I am hoping to edit a few of the fundraising documents for publication this month.) Valerie’s life will never be the same again now that everything goes in a spreadsheet. I am hoping I can offer my project management skills to another organization soon.

There’s a lot of smaller things that I would never have without the Ada Initiative, like quite good double-entry bookkeeping skills, passable knowledge of Javascript, and too much knowledge of US non-profit tax law.

Thank you to Valerie Aurora, my friend and co-founder, who made a very unlikely and very lucky gamble on me four and a half years ago. Without Valerie the Ada Initiative could never have existed in the first place and would never have had the vision or the conviction to do 95% of what it did. I’m in San Francisco right now, my last trip for the Ada Initiative, so that we could do this last thing together and go out leaving as much for the community to use as possible.

Thank you to the many many people who worked and volunteered for us over the last four and a half years, who came to our events, who donated, and who advocated for, amplified, and improved our work.

As for what’s up next, I’ll be at the Ada Initiative for another couple of months. During that time, if this sentence of our shutdown notice was of interest, let’s talk:

Mary will be looking for a new position based in Sydney, Australia, working in a leadership role with the right organization.

Sunrise in Sydney, original by Tom French
Sunrise in Sydney, original by Tom French

Image credits:

Nan Palmero, You Heading to Oakland or Space?, CC BY, cropped and colour adjusted by the author of this post.
Tom French, Harbour Sunrise, CC BY, cropped and colour adjusted by the author of this post.

Commentary on ‘How did you find your co-founder(s)?’

Valerie Aurora wrote How did you find your co-founder(s)?, about the very early days of the Ada Initiative containing the “moonshot email” we also referred to in our article Funding activism for women in open source last April.

It contains the following unpromising description of me (at that time):

The very first person to reply was Mary, a PhD student and primary carer for an 11-month-old baby who lived across the Pacific Ocean from me and whom I’d met in person only twice before. Our only previous joint venture had failed miserably (the great Attempted LinuxChix Coup of 2007). Less than two months later, we were sitting on her parents’ porch in Orange, writing up budgets and discussing how to keep her PhD supervisor from having a fit when he found out she’d started a business. 4 years later, we are running a growing, healthy non-profit that’s changing the world. (Mary also has a PhD and a second child.)

So how did that all work out? Other than healthy and growing and changing the world?

Why did I do it? That email was sent in December 2010. Negative/less promising reasons first: by then I had fairly firmly decided that I wouldn’t pursue an academic career. I didn’t publish enough, and particularly not prestigously enough, during my PhD to make an academic career likely without a big turnaround, and I had a child and husband whom I didn’t want to drag around the world for postdocs. My husband also had a salaried job (at the time, he worked at Canonical, in 2011 he moved to Google) and is generally uninterested in risky career choices; and in addition, at the time I earned very little income: my PhD scholarship had run out years before, and I had a few very low-hours academic support jobs only. Unless I went into debt, we had lots of room for me to make risky career choices: I didn’t even have a career to risk, and further, we were already living on one income.

Positively: at that point, I believed I had two career options that I had some background for. The one that wasn’t academia was open source software. In addition to volunteering for LinuxChix for years (although I was only coordinator for a few months in 2007), I had done a lot of volunteer work for the Sydney Linux Users Group and linux.conf.au, and I am a programmer, so the open source/open source associated end of software development seemed like the other. While “advocacy for women in open source” (we quickly widened to “open technology and culture”) wasn’t exactly that, it wasn’t completely out of left field either. The unproven aspect was whether there was liveable money in it, and my family had a cushion to find that out.

The unknown co-founder. I think Val is underselling that a touch. It’s true that we’d only met a couple of times, and not recently. (We’d met in California in 2004 and Sydney in 2007.) In addition, we’d not been in contact between 2007 and 2009. But we had done a lot of online collaboration prior to 2007, and after the formation of the Geek Feminism project in 2009. The big risk was, probably, that we wouldn’t like each other personally for extended periods, but we actually had a fair amount of practice doing work together.

How did my PhD supervisor react? First, it’s probably worth noting that I was enrolled part-time at that point (a change I sought after my baby’s birth on the grounds of caring responsibilities, the university wouldn’t have allowed it for employment purposes), so I had considerable time in the week that notionally didn’t belong to the university. The main conflict between the company and the PhD was in early 2011, before the Ada Initiative paid me, when I only had a few days of childcare each week and used them for both purposes. Once I was being paid, I bought additional childcare days and had a better firewall between them.

My former supervisor knows where I work and what I do now — we still have lunch every month or two — but to this day I don’t know how aware he is of the timeline of when it started. But lots of stuff was going on there: we were both part-time, and both had caring responsibilities for young children. It wasn’t the stereotypical situation of the single-mindedly driven late middle-aged professor and the conflicted young woman student with work-life balance issues. (People don’t really look to me as a model of work-life balance.)

The baby thing. Yeah, well. I think starting a business, having a PhD in progress and a little kid is somewhere between one and two too many things. I think my husband would say “between two and three”; there is a reason my children have a four year age gap between them, one of them had to wait on the PhD. (I was pregnant again at my graduation.) But probably my most questionable decision was…

The finishing the PhD thing. I recently spoke to someone who had lost contact with me in 2009 and we spoke for half an hour about my business before I mentioned in passing that I’ve finished the PhD. They couldn’t hide their shock.

I don’t know that I can bring myself to say I should have made a different decision about whether to continue it, but I might advise other people to do so. To be fair, in early 2012 when I did the bulk of the work finishing it, the Ada Initiative was still a fledgling with a longer life by no means assured, and me taking unpaid study leave was helpful in a really narrow sense for its finances. Broadly though, as I said, between one and two too many things.

Conclusion. I think identifying a workable co-founder relationship is non-trivial, but then, I don’t even know how one chooses a career. Co-found your next company with me today!

How to do more writing, by someone who has never made any such resolution

Jonathan Lange asked on Google+ for ideas about keeping a “write more” resolution. I took over his comment section, and in the spirit of taking some of my own advice, here’s a synthesis of what I said there. Since not writing as much as I feel I ought is never a problem I’ve had, this advice is in the delightful genre of someone who has never needed the advice simply making some up and giving it to you anyway! Enjoy my half-baked ideas.

Re-use your writing. A lot of people I know spend an enormous amount of time on crafting lengthy, tightly argued emails. These count, and you can make them feel like they count by editing them for a sufficiently general audience and publishing them on your blog. This is one I actually do do: several of my Geek Feminism pieces originated in annoyed private emails I sent to close friends, or in IRC rants.

Accountability and incentives. This is like all of the “how to exercise more” advice: make it public, make it social. Make a public commitment, make a shared commitment with a fellow writer. Have a competition, one-sided or not (“I will write more blog entries than N will this year”?). Deadlines and someone who will be personally disappointed in you can be an excellent motivator (as long as it doesn’t tip you over into an avoidance cycle), and for writing there’s a whole profession which involves, in part, holding people to deadlines and being disappointed if they fail to meet them: so, find an editor.

Unfortunately, in order to get an editor one generally needs to pitch (leaving aside the whole question of finding an agent, especially when it comes to fiction), which means writing, so you will have to be motivated to do some writing before you can partially outsource your motivation to editors and deadlines.

Becoming a freelancer seems like a big effort in order to fulfil a personal goal to “write more”, but part of the attraction is that you can pitch to places that have a ready-made audience, which means that you have outsourced any implicit “write more in places people will read it and find it useful” goal; you don’t need to put an equal or greater amount of work into building an audience for your writing.

Specific goals. This assists with accountability. What does writing more mean? A certain wordcount? A certain number of blog entries? A certain number of pitches sent out? A certain number of pitches converted to published articles? All of these are more artificial but easier to keep accounts of than “write more”.

Spend money. Enrol in a course or similar. This adds deadlines too, typically.

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How to do more writing, by someone who has never made any such resolution by Mary Gardiner is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

So yeah, that happened (Wikimania 2012, Washington DC)

On Friday, I was announced as the keynote speaker for Wikimania in Washington DC in July.

Ada Initiative:

We’re proud to announce that Ada Initiative co-founder Mary Gardiner has been chosen to give the opening keynote at Wikimania 2012! Wikimania is the world’s top conference for Wikipedia and related Wikimedia projects, held this year from July 12 – 15 in Washington, D.C. “Mary has been a strong advocate for open source and has worked extensively to elevate the role of women and increase their participation in open source and open culture,” says James Hare, Wikimania 2012 coordinator.

I basked in my glory for all of about two hours before coming down with some horrible illness my toddler picked up at daycare. Talk about crashing to earth.

Anyway, so, I am Wikimania’s keynote! My plan, loosely, is this:

  1. arrive DC on July 8 or 9
  2. AdaCamp DC on July 10 and 11
  3. Wikimania on July 12–14
  4. (possibly/probably) San Francsico on July 15 onwards, probably departing on the 18th or 19th (due to the dateline, add 2 days for my Sydney arrival)

Since I am unlikely to bring my son, I’m trying to limit my time away and am unlikely to add another city. If I do, it will probably be Montreal (where my sister-in-law lives).

If we know each other and you want to get in touch about meeting up in the States, email me at the usual places. If you’re a journalist wanting to talk to me, email me via the Ada Initiative press@adainitiative.org.

Signal boost: the Ada Initiative Seed 100 campaign

Clearly I wouldn’t be here without a good reason. Here’s the reason: the Ada Initiative Seed 100 campaign!

Lovelace and Babbage: They Fight Crime
Limited edition Lovelace and Babbage print, donor reward

At the Ada Initiative, we have a vision: A world in which women are equal and welcome participants in open technology, open data, and open culture. We want women writing free software, women editing Wikipedia, women creating the Internet and women shaping the future of global society. Here’s what we are doing to make that happen.
We need your help to make that vision a reality. Join the Seed 100 funding round for the Ada Initiative today! Seed money raised through this drive will go to pay for vital but unglamorous work necessary to raise larger long-term funding. Seed money from funders like you is crucial to the success of the Ada Initiative.

The Seed 100 funding round is a high-prestige, limited availability funding round. As such, it is limited to 100 donors total, of $512 [USD] or more, between June 1st and June 30th, 2011. This is a unique opportunity to show your personal support for women in open technology and culture, at a time when a personal donation will have the most effect.

Frankly the Sydney Padua print that is a reward for the first 25 donors of $1024 [USD] and over makes me want to donate, which would be counter-productive financially. But… love it. Thanks Sydney.

We’ve been poking away at this for ages, considering various options to get startup funding for the heavy-hitting project proposals we need for larger corporate donors and program partners (basically, business plans). Small donations, big donations, lots of donations, few donations. I think what we’ve come up with is a lot of fun. As of the time of writing we already have six donors at the Analytical Engineer level (so, 19 Sydney prints to go) and three at the Difference Engineer level, about nine hours after opening. Sweet!

So far the donation rate is exceeding our expectations, so, if you’re interested in our work, donate now or help spread the word.

The Ada Initiative Seed 100 campaign: donate in June to support women in open technology and culture

The Ada Initiative launches

Last night (midnight Sydney time!!) Valerie Aurora and I announced the Ada Initiative, a new non-profit organization promoting the participation of women in open technology and culture.

Per our announcement:

The Ada Initiative is focused on helping women get careers in open technology through recruitment and training programs for women, education for community members who want to help women, and working with corporations and projects to improve their outreach to women.

Hooray!

You can find out more at the Ada Initiative, and follow us in a multitude of venues: RSS, email announcements, Twitter and Facebook.

linux.conf.au 2011: Day 1

Slow first day for me. I had a stressful Sunday getting a toddler to the airport on my own and Andrew has just flown in from the US.

We weren’t very impressed with our hotel, iStay River City. For starters, it has extremely limited keys. Many, but not all, rooms have two keys, which would be hard enough with four adults per room, but one of the keys for our room is missing, which means one key (and suggests that somewhere out there a former guest still has a working key to our room). The hotel reception wasn’t even sympathetic. People steal our keys all the time! What else are we to do?!

There’s no way to leave a key with reception and get yourself back into the room unless you have a second key to the room. There are buzzers for the rooms, but the reception smilingly conceded that it does only get guests into the lobby. You have to go down the lift yourself to get them up to the room. (Interestingly, this has meant with a lot of confusion from other LCA attendees. “How hard is it to make a new keycard?” Bad assumption. They are using keys, as in, those chunks of metal with notches in them.)

There’s also several things broken in our apartment: a couple of lights, the phone, the bathroom fan.

Anyway, after a restless night, LCA! I mostly spent time at the Haecksen miniconf, although partly working on my laptop in an introversion bubble. I wasn’t really ready, after the travel and the settling in, to sit down and listen to talks well. Some talks I did catch in whole or in part:

  • Pia Waugh Applying martial arts to the workplace: your guide to kicking arse
  • Brianna Laugher An Approach to Automatic Text Generation
  • Andrew Gerrand Practical Go Programming
  • Noirin Shirley Open Source: Saving the World
  • Donna Benjamin We are here. We have always been here
  • Valerie Aurora and Donna Benjamin Training Allies (workshop)

I didn’t really fully follow any of them, except for Training Allies, which is of professional interest to me now. (More on that later, I guess.)

Reverb 10: One Word, Writing, Moment

One Word. Encapsulate the year 2010 in one word. Explain why you’re choosing that word. Now, imagine it’s one year from today, what would you like the word to be that captures 2011 for you?

“Vincent”, of course.

Vincent’s birth was interestingly timed in terms of the way I divide my life; slightly more than ten years after my relationship with Andrew started. So, 2000–2009 were relationship years, and very early in 2010 I had Vincent.

I thought about “mother” as well, but it seems too general to say that. Perhaps the word of 2010–2019 might be “mother”, but this year has been specifically about Vincent. 2009 was generalities about parenting and babies: what was it like, were we ready, would we make it? And this year has been more about answers. The answers are Vincent.

Next year’s word, I hope, will be “Doctorate”.

Writing. What do you do each day that doesn’t contribute to your writing — and can you eliminate it?

You know, I think right now, each day, I do exactly as much writing as I want to be doing.

What I need to be doing is more sitting around in the evenings in pyjamas snarking at the television with Andrew. What’s stopping me doing that? Earning money. Can I eliminate earning money? No. I need to finish my PhD though and move earning money to daylight hours.

Moment. Pick one moment during which you felt most alive this year. Describe it in vivid detail (texture, smells, voices, noises, colors).

The hospital where I had Vincent discouraged fathers from staying all night, unless the baby had been born very late. Vincent was born at about 4pm, and after I had been stabilised and finally transferred to the ward with Vincent, Andrew went home at 11pm or midnight.

Vincent had had several good breastfeeds in the delivery room, but newborn babies sometimes do not feed much for the first 12 hours or so after birth. And indeed, in the ward he initially didn’t feed much. I lay half-dozing in my hospital bed, bathed in the light of a green LED attached to my otherwise dark television set. Vincent slept, wrapped up tight, in a plastic cot to my left within arm’s reach. I smelled sweat, mostly, and looked at him.

Every few hours he would call softly, like a peep or a mew and I would pick him up and put him to the breast, which he would sort of explore for a moment and then go peacefully back to sleep. At some points, I left him to sleep on my tummy.