My Personal Phone is My Personal Phone

Back at the start of the pandemic in early 2020, I made the decision to more clearly delineate between my work and personal lives. Working from home made it far too easy to be “working” all the time.

One of the first things I did was to “personalize” my iPhone. I don’t mean adding a wallpaper and rearranging my app icons. I deleted and removed anything that was work-related from my personal phone.

That meant signing out of my work Slack, removing my work email, getting rid of the VPN app and removing all other apps that were only there in case I needed them to work. I signed out of my work 1Password account and Google Workspace (or whatever they call it these days).

My phone is now only used for personal communications and not for work. If my co-workers need to reach me after hours (which is pretty rare), they send me an SMS message and I log into my work MacBook Pro to handle whatever needs handling.

Personalized Computer

Speaking of that MacBook Pro, I also purchased my own MacBook Air (the 2020 M1 model) in late 2020 and removed anything personal from my work computer and never installed anything work-related on my personal computer. I’m fortunate that I can afford to have a nice personal computer.

The only work “crutch” I have on my personal computer is that I can remote into my work MacBook Pro if I can’t be bothered to go down to my basement office. Other than that, it’s completely free of work. In fact, if I’m out of the house and not connected to my home network, I can’t remote in.

It’s a privilege to have the work-life balance I get with my employer. I get that some are on-call or have different needs when it comes to their jobs. But for me, separating out my work from personal life on my computing devices has been an important part of staying sane as we navigate the pandemic and all that comes along with it.

On Slack and Remote Work

I honestly don’t think Slack is solving anything as compared to email, and in a lot of cases, it’s quite simply making things worse.

As a longtime Slack user (early beta), I started out loving Slack. Now, after a year of using it while working remotely due to the pandemic? I kind of hate it.

Slack as an application is fine. It works well and looks nice. It generally doesn’t get in my way to do what it is supposed to do. I can type messages, read various channels and generally communicate with others in our company.

Where it falls apart badly is that it doesn’t do much of anything to prevent the things that used to really frustrate me when I was working in the office.

The Drive-By

Specifically I’m talking about the drive-by interruption where I would be sitting at my desk, with headphones on to signal that I am actively in the process of work. Someone would invariably interrupt me, breaking me out of that context and into a conversation (usually trivial).

This is quite literally almost 100% of my Slack. It’s honestly just a series of interruptions to my work day, the vast majority of which are ill-timed, unimportant and counterproductive.

I’ve tried many things to solve this. Status icons? They don’t work. People just ignore that you are in a meeting 📅, or have a DND ⛔️ icon or even a 🏝️ to denote that you are ON VACATION. “Hey, question for you…got a sec?” Well, I do now since you just interrupted what I was working on.

Even setting DND in our company makes no difference. People will get the message that I’ve set my Slack to do not disturb, and they break through it and notify me anyways. Seriously.

What’s the solution?

The only solution that I’ve found that actually works is to turn off Slack. I close the app. Since I don’t run Slack on my phone (that’s a whole separate topic), closing the app on my computer means I’m unreachable and uninterruptible.

Obviously that’s a terrible solution as it means I’m unreachable and uninterruptible so if someone on my team actually needs me, they can’t reach me. But it’s the only solution that works because the times that I need to be reached by my team are rarer than the times that the opposite happens and someone interrupts my work for no good reason and my team knows how to reach me off Slack when needed.

The Real Fix

The fix for all this is not to adopt a new tool or app, but rather to invoke a cultural change at work. We need to transition from an expectation of real time, synchronous communication to an expectation of non-real time, asynchronous communication. At the very least, there needs to be some way to reliably signal that a user is open to interruption or real time communication and coworkers should be actively prevented from misusing the tools to interrupt work.

Adopting that cultural change will make it clear to everyone that Slack (and other “work” tools”) suck. It will drive change.

Some feature ideas for Slack

Since Slack does have the ability to drive some of the change from their side, here’s a few “free” ideas for them.

  • Send when available: User A can mark themselves unavailable for a time. User B can send a message to User A, but it’s only actually delivered when User A marks themselves available again. User B is told this will happen so they aren’t expecting an immediate response.
  • Offline for most: User A can set themselves as “away” for everyone except a selection of users they choose. For example, User A could be “away” for everyone in the company except their team or manager.
  • Focus mode: User A can choose a few important channels, and when activating “focus mode” the rest of the channels they are part of are hidden and muted.

Flight Tracking with ADS-B

A few months back, before the COVID-19 pandemic basically destroyed air traffic, I set up a Raspberry Pi as an ADS-B feeder for aircraft data in my area.

ADS-B stands for Automatic dependent surveillance–broadcast and it’s a technology that allows aircraft to transmit their positional data over open airwaves in order to be tracked by anyone who wishes to receive and decode it.

It’s meant to function as part of the Next-Generation Air Transportation System and forms the backbone of a new air traffic navigation system for the next century.

How it works isn’t really important, but the fact that anyone can set up a receiver, add some software to decode the data and display it on a map, is amazing. From there, you can feed the data to popular aggregators that allow anyone, anywhere in the world to see almost all the aircraft in the sky anywhere in the world in real time.

My Setup

Receiving and feeding ADS-B requires both hardware and software. Everything is pretty easy to acquire and install, as long as you have some computer skills and the ability to follow instructions.

Hardware

I opted to purchase a few things from Amazon to get started. My total investment was about $150 for the hardware. The software is all open source and provided for free. Supplying data to various sites gets me premium accounts that offer some big benefits to aviation enthusiasts.

  • Raspberry Pi 4. this credit-card sized computer runs Linux and can be had for as little as about $40. I opted for a model with 4GB of RAM along with a case and power supply.
  • FlightAware Pro Stick Plus SDR. A USB software defined radio receiver, specifically tuned to the ADS-B band with some special filters to improve reception of the signals from aircraft.
  • FlightAware 1090MHz ADS-B Antenna. A tuned outdoor antenna that really improves range. In my case, I also added a 25ft. cable to run from the Raspberry Pi, through the wall and to my antenna which is mounted on our second-floor deck.

Software

On the software side, I used the FlightAware package for Raspberry Pi to get started with feeding. Once that was up and running, I layered the FlightRadar24 software on top and began feeding data to both services.

The FlightAware software has a built-in web server that creates a local tracking site that shows all the aircraft being tracked by my system on a map with tracks and other details. They also have a stats page on the web that is publicly accessible where you can see lots of details about my feeder including flights tracked over the last 30 days, range information and more.

Both FlightAware and Flightradar24 offer upgraded accounts for anyone who feeds data. On the Flightradar24 side, they give you a free Business account which is the highest level they have. It’s totally overkill for a hobbiest, but being able to view two years of history or make your own custom fleets is a nice bonus. As long as you keep feeding data, you can enjoy the upgraded account.

The Impact of the Global Pandemic

Covid-19 is having a severe impact on the number of flights in the sky over our area. When I first activated my receiver I would see hundreds of flights an hour. Over the course of March and April, that dwindled down to just a handful with private planes and cargo flights making up a lot of the traffic I was tracking.

Over the last few weeks, the number of flights I’m tracking has been slowly rising. Some days I see as many as 500 aircraft now and at peak times the number of flights tracked in an hour is more than 50. That’s still about 20% of what it was pre-Covid, but it is interesting to watch as air traffic slowly returns.

On Working from Home

My job went full remote on March 9, 2020 as the Covid-19 pandemic began to spread around the globe. I had hit the office over the weekend when the email went around to all staff and I grabbed a couple of monitors and my keyboard, mouse and laptop stand to help get a good setup in my basement office.

We had travel planned for the week following that, so after four days working from home, we drove south for nine days. On our return, the real work from home experience began. A part of my team has always worked remotely for some of the week, so the transition to 100% remote went really smoothly. We already used Slack extensively and our Google accounts were upgraded to Enterprise giving us the ability to host Meet calls with hundreds of people.

A couple of weeks in we on-boarded a new developer who I had only met once during the interview process. She was the last non-employee in our building the Friday prior to our offices closing down. That all went great with the company shipping out a configured laptop to her. She was coming from a full-remote position at another company so for her, the transition was smooth.

A couple of months into our new work from anywhere lifestyle, here’s a few pros and cons that I’ve put together based on my experience.

Pros

  • Sleeping in. I used to be up at 6:00 A.M. and out the door at about 7:10 A.M. to catch my train into the office. Now, I wake up without an alarm and roll out of bed around 7:30 A.M. while still starting work at 8:00 A.M. as before.
  • Lunch runs. To be able to get in 8-10km of running on my lunch hour is a real treat. After work time: I finish up most days by about 4:30 P.M. which means ample time to get out to run an errand or go grocery shopping before dinner.

Cons

  • A non-empty house. my wife works from home upstairs and our two high-schoolers are doing school from home as well. That’s a lot of people around the house all the time and it’s sometimes distracting.
  • No social time. I miss the idle chit-chat, coffee runs, impromptu conversations and the other social aspects of office life. We’ve replaced some of that with more Meets and Slack calls, but it’s not the same.
  • Cold feet. being in the basement all day, especially in March and early April was sometimes tough. It’s not exactly warm down here and so a space heater and a blanket was sometimes required to stay comfortable.

Final Thoughts

Overall, it’s been more positive than negative. I do enjoy the time away from work on the weekends and I’ve set some boundaries to resist the urge to sit down and work on Saturday or in the evenings. Shutting down Slack and email and turning off notifications during off hours really helps with that. Keeping the daily routine of a specific start time and end time also helps in ensuring that work and non-work time is clearly defined.

I suspect we’ll be working from home for quite some time still and there’s always the possibility that I never go back to the office. I’ve long dreamed of moving out west to Vancouver, and so maybe this new remote work reality will finally make that at least somewhat possible.

Road Map vs. Road Trip

A recent episode of Under the Radar (#182) with Marco Arment and David Smith got me thinking some more about planning for the 2020 year as a Product Manager and how to approach that when you have different challenges.

We’re really short on resources at the moment for various reasons, and that has a significant impact on my ability to plan out the year. We also depend a lot on teams across other areas in the bigger company which means I have little or no control over when (and even if) related blocker work gets done that allows us to do our work.

Sounds awesome, right? It’s not.

A lot of PMs and companies have a roadmap for the next few months and probably as long as a year or more. I can’t think that way as there’s no real solid way that we can get on a journey and get there thanks to the various challenges outlined above.

So instead of a roadmap, I’ve come to think in terms of a road trip. The difference is that a road trip is more of a general idea of where we’d like to head, than a real defined plan of where we are going.

When you embark on a road trip, you might have a theme or themes that guide you to what the whole point of it might be. Perhaps you plan to camp in various State Parks in NY and PA, visiting gorges and glens and other natural wonders.

The theme of that road trip is one of seeing nature’s wonders, specifically those around rivers. You might have a side theme of “small town America” and perhaps even something like a plan to hit tourist traps like scenic caves or other tacky “wonders” as you see them.

With a road map, you tend to stick to highways an have a path from A to B. With a road trip, the plan is less defined, but over the course of the next few months or a year, you know generally where you’d like to go and what you’d like to see.

As a PM, that means we might have themes like “better serve our large customers” or “add tools to make managing DNS easier” or “reduce support costs with better inline help”.

Throughout the year you can be opportunistic and tackle some things that relate to each theme as they come up. Just like in a road trip, you might be “freestyling” a bit here and there. Perhaps you get the resources to do a specific task for a week or three and you can jump on it and get it (or part of it) done.

Maybe a series of small bits of work can be bundled over time to equal one big piece.

The key is to have a big picture in mind, to be flexible and agile, and to always know how each bit of work that you get done can fit into the bigger set of goals to keep things moving forward.