On Remote Work: An Interview

Thursday, March 26, 2020.

This interview originally appeared on remote.community in March 2020.

Hello! who are you and where do you work?

Hello! I'm Alan Grow, co-founder at Endcrawl. We're a SaaS that makes credits for film & TV. We've been used on thousands of productions including Oscar Winners "Moonlight" and "Nomadland."

How did you get started working remotely?

I first tried remote work back in 2006. It was a failure. Part of that failure was lack of consulting experience, but part of it was also my lack of experience with remote work. After two decades of classrooms and offices, I didn't know how to create productive environments and habits for myself.

The next time I tried full-time remote work was in 2014. I interviewed over Skype and was hired the next day, by someone I'd never met in real life. Six months would pass before we finally met face to face. But that was fine, because this time, things were actually working great! I'd finally figured out what keeps me focused and motivated within a remote team.

What I realize now is that remote work starts and ends with a team of one: yourself. If you can’t keep yourself focused and motivated, someone will have to do that for you remotely, and that’s a tall order. You have to figure those out for yourself the hard way. But the good news is, once you have them, they’re a superpower.

Describe your typical work day or week.

I begin and end my work days at my home office, but in the middle I almost always leave the house to work from a coffee shop. This is a crucial thing that I learned the hard way: even as my home office improves, I still need to get out of the house to clear my head and avoid cabin fever.

Coffee shops and coworking spaces are less predictable in a couple ways that affect work. Sometimes there are network issues, and sometimes there's an annoying conversation noise. Both make it harder to have meetings. So I adapt by taking meetings at home and using these spaces instead for deep work.

That brings some challenges of its own. How do you focus deeply in a noisy public space, where people you know or strangers may interrupt you? For me: repetitive electronic music! A decent pair of headphones with focus-inducing music works wonders, both for your own mental state, and to signal to others that you're uninterruptible.

Just like a change of venue in the afternoon seems to keep me focused throughout the day, changing activities during nights and weekends helps me reset and avoid burnout. Whether it's playing music, lifting weights, or exploring the wilderness here in Utah, getting into a very different mental state keeps my "work mind" fresh.

When I was younger I wanted to program 24/7, and every other activity seemed like a waste of time. Now I know that the opposite is true: the right mix of non-programming activities makes me a much more productive programmer.

What tools do you use when working remotely?

I spend a fair bit of time in Github and Slack. Video conferencing is usually via Google Meet. Beyond that, I try to stay minimal and inhabit a simpler world of text.

I keep long-running tmux sessions both locally and on remote machines. For email I use mutt + offlineimap, and try to only poll for new emails at the beginning and end of the day.

I like spending time in my editor (vim) and at a shell prompt. Learning unix and the Unix toolset has been a 1000x investment over the course of my career.

Describe how working remotely has affected your life.

Not gonna lie — remote work was a difficult adjustment at first. I'm a social person, and most of my socialization when I lived in NYC in the 2000s was (surprise) via the workplace. I didn't know any different.

But learning how to make and maintain friendships turned out to be an orthogonal concern. It doesn't have to happen through the workplace. That sort of bundling is just an easy default. Friendship can be unbundled from work.

When I left NYC, I had to make friends all over again, as well as maintain more remote friendships. Both of those turned out to be good exercises.

Remote work has let me live away from a major city, but still work with people in major cities on exciting things. I don't have to deal with the stress of traffic, rush hour, crowds, or the concrete jungle. In 15 minutes I can be enjoying a quiet hike in the wilderness. It's the best of both worlds.

Remote work has also let me work with people around the world. I was fortunate to work for London-based music hardware & software maker ROLI, with teams from all over the US and Europe. That kind of geographic diversity comes with all other wonderful kinds of diversity, and it's a difficult thing to replicate in non-remote companies.

Finally, remote work has made me much more results-oriented. Physical offices inevitably become a stage for productivity theater. Try as they might, people are pulled towards the things that look busy, and away from the things that actually produce value. Remote work keeps you honest – you're constantly proving yourself, and you're measured by your output. Those are good things!

What advice would you give to people working remotely?

  1. Adopt a schedule and commit to it. Once it’s “burned in” you can start to experiment, but try to build rhythm first.
  2. Measure your daily output. This could be git commits, tasks checked off, new revenue booked, etc. It doesn’t have to be how others measure you. But it should loosely correlate with that, and it should be something trivially easy for you to measure.
  3. Course correct often. When something impacts your daily output, act on it. Does your output drop noticeably on less than 7 hours of sleep? Get more sleep!
  4. Focus is sacred. Your focus is your temple — don't let anything or anyone defile it. Especially yourself. Find ways to subdue the part of your brain that craves distraction.
  5. Embrace the written word. Always be reading, always be writing, and always be improving your reading and writing.
  6. Review, and seek review. Critical — but constructive — written dialog with your co-workers will level you both up.

Would you like to add anything else?

If you're bootstrapping a remote-first company, consider applying to Earnest Capital. They're an incredible resource to companies like ours, and their community of founders and mentors is very much aligned with the future of work — which is remote!

Posted by Alan on Thursday, March 26, 2020.