June 26th, 2015

This is going to be an incredibly impromptu post, but one I felt I had to write.

Today, the Supreme Court of the United States ruled in favor of same-sex marriage nationwide. Same-sex couples can now get married anywhere in the country, and that marriage is recognized in every state.

This is monumental. While I live in a state that has “allowed” same-sex marriage for years (a term I hate using because it’s absurd that it had to have the stamp of approval in the first place), it is certainly uplifting to see the entire United States covered in a rainbow.

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Volunteering at the Northwest Harvest’s Cherry Street Food Bank

As somebody living right in the center of Seattle, surrounded by high-rise office buildings, various apartment complexes, hundreds of restaurant establishments, and just as many retail shopping stores, it’s sometimes hard to fathom that millions of people in the United States go hungry every single day. Washington is the 22nd hungriest state in the nation, with 14.3% of the state’s inhabitants not having constant and reliable access to food.

Northwest Harvest

The Northwest Harvest is a 501(c)(3) based in Seattle, Washington. Besides providing food for over more than 370 partner programs, they operate the Cherry Street Food Bank in downtown Seattle. Cherry Street is one of the busiest food banks in the state, and provides nearly 1.5 million meals every year to anybody who walks through the door.

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Working Remotely: I Do It, & So Can You!

I mentioned this in a post last year detailing my move to Seattle, but I’ve now been working remotely as a software engineer for NimbleUser for over 16 months. It’s hard to believe, but I’ve crossed the threshold for having been a remote employee for longer than I was an employee that showed up physically to the office everyday.

Work is great; I love my job. I get to fly back to Rochester every few months for work-related events and catching up with coworkers, and I use it as a convenient way to see family and friends as well. But, working 2,500 miles from my team and manager definitely has its challenges.

Here are some things I’ve learned over the past year. Maybe you can use some of these tips to be more successful and productive in your career, and perhaps you may even have a few tricks of your own to share.

1) The methods used to communicate with your coworkers is probably not going to be the same as when you didn’t work remotely, but it is absolutely critical to figure out how to communicate effectively.

It used to be so easy to shout over at Joe and ask him a question about some detail I didn’t quite understand, or to ask Sue if she would look over the current design I was prototyping. When working remotely, I can’t just talk out loud to my coworkers – they won’t hear me – but that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

Now, I schedule frequent video conference calls with my teammates to bounce around ideas and make sure we’re all on the same page. This is perhaps more convenient for both myself and my team. Instead of randomly interrupting Joe throughout the day, he can simply ignore my request for a video call until he is finished with the task he’s working on. Google Hangouts is a really great video conferencing tool, especially because screen sharing is built in as well.

My company uses other modes of communication, and it’s helpful for even our non-remote staff. We use Hipchat for our day-to-day conversations. Need to work on something important and not get distracted by noise? Simply set your status as Busy and you’ll stop receiving alerts and notifications when there’s a new message in one of the chat rooms that you’re logged into. As another pro, it’s helped us to considerably cut down on the amount of emails we send each other!

2) Along the same lines as tip #1, make sure it’s clear to everybody what you’re working on. Additionally, don’t be afraid to reach out for help when you need it.

A rule of thumb that I’ve heard repeated several times is that if you get stuck spinning your wheels for longer than 15 minutes, seek out help. Or, if there is nobody currently available to help you, move on to something else.

This rule is especially easy to break when working remotely. Let me repeat again: Don’t be afraid to reach out for help when you need it. As a remote employee, you shouldn’t feel hesitant to pester somebody via email, instant message, or phone call if you need assistance. Remote employees should be treated as if they were right there in the office working alongside everybody else. (Side note: if your work environment is such that you don’t feel like you are a true part of the office, then perhaps your company isn’t handling remote employees appropriately.)

The main concern that I had when I started to work remotely was that I was afraid my peers were going to think I was never getting any work done. That was a silly concern, especially since the work I do is completely visible to everybody else. We use Jira boards to track our progress as tickets moving along multiple columns (from “To Do” to “Done”, with various transitions in between), and so it’s easy to see when work is progressing forward. It’s also very easy to see when work isn’t progressing.

My team participates in what are called daily standups, a core component of agile development. Every day at 10am Pacific, 1pm Eastern, my teammates and I all share 1) what we’ve accomplished since the last meeting, 2) what we will accomplish by the next meeting, and 3) if we have any roadblocks. Not only is it a great opportunity to talk to my coworkers, but it helps commit to goals for the next day, and alleviate any problems we may be facing.

3) Lastly, don’t spend every day locked up inside your house. Find a coworking space! Coworking spaces offer all of the benefits of working in an office, without all of the office politics.

Don’t get me wrong – I love working from home. If I ever have to do laundry on a weekend, then I must have royally screwed up my schedule for the week. Working from home is a great way to conquer those household chores that everybody hates doing. I’m also incredibly productive at home, and a large part of that success is likely a result of having created strong boundaries between work and life – I have my own office, and I’m only ever in the office if I’m working. I am rarely on my work laptop elsewhere in the apartment.

However… being home alone all day can be boring, even though I have a cat to keep me company. Let’s face it – she sleeps all day except when trying to annoy the heck out of me, or when she wants to be fed. And, even though I may see my coworkers through video chat every day, it’s not the same experience as face-to-face human interaction. You need that.

Sure, you can go to coffee shops and work. But what if you need to use the restroom? You can’t just leave your items unattended, they might get stolen. What if you have a really important meeting? The wi-fi is certainly not reliable, and it’s probably noisy in the cafe as well. It’s probably not very private, either.

Hello, coworking. I love Office Nomads in Seattle. It is my new office. Even though I may only spend 2 or 3 days there a week, I consider it my main office. The people are now some of my closest friends and acquaintances in Seattle.

The membership options for most coworking spaces are very flexible – so while there are some entrepreneurs and remote workers who need a dedicated 24/7 desk, there are also some of us who only want to drop in to a space a handful of times of month. Most coworking spaces can accommodate both of those options.

Office Nomads is member-run. We help organize our own events. There are volunteers who help take out the trash, man the front desk, and give tours. We are responsible for doing our own dishes and making coffee, just like any other office. But there is a sense of belonging here – this isn’t a Starbucks. Membership isn’t free, of course, but the coffee is included, as well as printing and wi-fi. Meeting rooms galore. Phone booths. People from all varying fields of study – from ornithologists to journalists. Free food. Beer.  Yes, beer. (Who doesn’t like beer?)

There are coworking spaces popping up all over the world, so there’s a good chance there’s one close to you as well. Honestly, if I hadn’t found a coworking space like Office Nomads, I might not be still working at my current company as a remote employee. I’m pretty sure #3 might be the best advice I have to give you.

Maybe I should have put it at #1?

Anyway, those are my top 3 tricks that I’d like to share about working remotely. I’d love to hear your thoughts on what has worked best for you!

– Robert

Givin’ Back

Volunteering has always been one of my passions. We all have a finite amount of time on Earth, so why not try to help out others? Even something as simple as buying a stranger a cup of coffee can completely change their day and also change yours. We can all use a helping hand every once in awhile, especially those of us that are less fortunate than others.

I haven’t volunteered much since I graduated from RIT, so I’m excited to be involved in the Rochester community once again as an active participant in NimbleUser’s 1-1-1 program. Salesforce’s 1-1-1 initiative was started over 13 years ago and has currently “given over $40 million in grants, 445,000 hours of community service, and provided product donations for over 17,500 nonprofits.”

The company I work for has decided to adopt that model, with its initial efforts being put toward improving the non-profit Full Circle Home – specifically, their website and backend operations. Full Circle Home is a Rochester-based non-profit organization whose mission is to ensure that the significant others of deployed Armed Forces members are able to receive a personalized letter and care package from their separated loved one on Christmas and Mother’s Day.

NimbleUser will also continue to support the Bushnell’s Basin Fire Department and be an active participant in the Big Brothers Big Sisters of Greater Rochester’s Bowl For Kid’s Sake. (We raised over $2,200 for BBBS as a company this past year!)

If you couldn’t tell, I’m excited to get more involved in volunteering this year. I’m also starting to think of organizations in Seattle where I would also be a good fit to help, especially now that NimbleUser is offering a “Volunteer Day” as part of our yearly benefits. I hope to be posting more updates throughout the year on our progress!

Race Volunteering

While I know it’s not life-changing by any means, I’ve also begun volunteering at a few local races in the Seattle area this year. As a frequent race participant, I have rarely been on the other side of “running” an event and it just seems like something that every runner should do when they have the opportunity to spare a handful of hours.

Even for smaller races with 50-200 participants there is a lot of work involved, especially if the courses are of greater distance and are more technical. So far, I’ve volunteered for two races put on by Northwest Trail Runs – the Frost Eagle Half Marathon and the Redmond Watershed Races – by helping to set up the event and man the remote aid station.

Really, it’s been a win-win-win situation for me: I get to experience new trails without having to subject myself to the hell of running 10 miles without knowing anything about the race or the terrain. I also get to help fellow runners and make a few new friends, in addition to getting to participate in future races for free! Why wouldn’t I do it?!

I’m not entirely sure what my next volunteering event will be. I am redeeming some of my volunteer credits for the Soaring Eagle Half Marathon at the end of April though, so hopefully that goes well.

If you know of any volunteering opportunities in the Seattle area, let me know in the comments below! Until next time,

– Robert