Five steps to making remote work productive and peaceful.

I have had to work from home for the last three years. It was torture at first because I really wanted to get a “real job” and go somewhere and be part of an organization. This working online (I am a big Upwork-ophile now) was only a bit part before I could get back to work properly. I quickly realized that this was going to be my “real job” from now. This brought on adjustments to life and work that have been a real boon for me. I want to share my learning with you so this short period of coronavirus-imposed remote working time will pass more pleasantly.

First, create a calendar with four to five working hours. It really helped me to create time boxes in my calendar to tackle the different tasks I wanted to do. An empty calendar is the most frightening thing that a freelancer can encounter. It takes time to get the discipline to follow the calendar so please don’t get frustrated in the first few days. 

Some days, you will drift along like flotsam in an ocean of mundane tasks not related to your immediate work. You can end up feeling very guilty if this happens and you are working from home. It happens in the office too but somehow, we convince ourselves that the place of work justifies whatever we do there. 

Don’t feel guilty all the time. Relax! Follow the calendar as a guide, not a legal judgment.

Second, take a break every working hour. I get up every hour and walk around, read my emails or watch a video. There are many distractions at home, and you should give in to them a little bit otherwise you risk not being able to get that hour of work. 

People always advise us not to check email in real-time and set times for when to check it. A sound idea but don’t make it a fetish. Some days, you do have to monitor your email. I need to be very responsive to my clients when there is a fire happening, so I check email more frequently some days. 

Third, find the flow times and work those hours. All of us are more productive during certain hours of the day and can get a whole lot done then. Find those times for yourself. If you pay attention for a week, you will recognize those times. Think a bit and if you don’t remember looking at a clock at a certain time yesterday, that’s the flow time for you. 

Remember time is not just an interval between hours, it is also your experience of the duration. Focus on the experience. Somedays, my flow times are very small. It’s normal. Somedays, I can be in the flow for hours on end. That is normal too. On average, if you can find 4-5 hours of flow, you are killing it. Talk to someone who writes for a living. They are intimately aware of these rhythms.

Fourth, socialize with colleagues every day with an hour of meetings/chats. Extroverts will need it a lot. I find myself hanging on to phone calls with clients and later realizing that I desperately wanted to have a professional conversation. We are a social species and the isolation that is proposed to deal with this coronavirus is not normal. We have great tools to communicate now so get on Slack, Twitter, Skype and talk to your pals. Get some gossip in too! I know you miss that about work.  

Introverts need a bit of it too. They are probably more comfortable isolating themselves but sometimes they need the vibe of an office or the buzz of events happening around them. I would advise them to write to their colleagues more and use the chats that organizations provide to get some social time in. Get a book club/coding club together so you can create a context to chat about. I don’t think introverts are above gossip too. Indulge in it! Secretly, bosses love being talked about behind their backs. It’s true!

Finally, have a planned stop time every day. Of all the other points that I have talked about, this is the hardest to adhere to. I take on more tasks than I can handle every single day. I have become better at prioritizing but there are still days when a pile of stuff “can” be done before midnight. Desist!

Make sure the high priority work gets done and leave the rest for tomorrow. Working remotely, we want to do more just to prove that we are not wasting time at home. No matter how much you do, there are going to be people who think you are. Ignore them and keep your head around what you had planned to do. If you are done with that and even a few more things that were easier than you thought, then quit for the day.

I admit, there will be some days where deadlines are squished, and you must push. If they are not more than 10-20% of your workdays, you are doing well. 

There is an important caveat in all my advice.  Most of my learnings came about because I was forced to take a break. I had just gone through a blood cancer treatment. It went very well, and I just passed my 5-year period two days ago. However, it destroyed my body and I need to build up again. The healthy among you might be able to work more and with much more ease. So, put in a little more time but please don’t schedule ridiculous hours in a day. If you are at work for 8-10 hours, including meetings, you get maybe 5-6 productive hours a day. Why should remote work be any different?

My rough usual schedule during the day – It is flexible

  • Wake up for prayers at 5:45 am. 
  • Work for an hour and focus on thinking tasks. This post was conceived and written at this time.
  • Breakfast and exercise – I take two hours for this
  • Work for two hours – this is my flow time and I get a lot done. Any interruptions in this part of the day really slow me down.
  • Lunch and rest – At least one hour for this. Take your time. Let work pile up. It can wait.
  • Work for an hour – This is really the last flow hour of my day and my mind is really flying. I feel like a supercomputer. Any coding or logic work here.
  • An errand break or chatting with the returning school kids.
  • The last hour and wind up – What work is left over? If there is a lot, can it wait? Most clients of mine can wait another day. Schedule the next day’s calendar and send status emails to clients/colleagues/bosses.
  • It is done! Whenever I give in to temptation and work more, I make mistakes! Really silly ones! 

This is the go-home-time. So what if you are working from home? Start commuting from the workstation to the couch. Walk slowly if you really want to simulate it.

I hope this little write-up helps. It is hard to do and if you fail a couple of days, please don’t feel guilty. This is really hard work. It takes discipline and that takes practice. If you are a manager of teams, please send this to them. They have been conditioned to be supervised and will be conflicted about how to be by themselves.

Analytics, Freelancing

The virtues and challenges of Freelancing

The days go by and you are sitting at your desk at home waiting….

…waiting for someone to respond. That great job post you saw yesterday was just so tailor-made for you. They have to call you! They would be stupid not to.

…and you wait some more. You watch TV in frustration thinking of how you are just wasting your life away for calls that never come; messages that go unanswered; and proposal that go unseen.

The perils of freelancing are many. Waiting for someone to give you a first break is one. In my early months, I always thought that I was doing something wrong, hence the lack of jobs. Slowly, I realized that while I did make mistakes, the nature of the business is such that it will take you years to get settled. Particularly, if you don’t have actionable coding skills. So waiting is a significant part of the job.

The other problem that most of us who are not salespeople encounter is the amount of rejection that is the norm. When working for a company, your work is not rejected everyday. There is an automatic buy-in from your employer on whatever you do within certain parameters like performance reviews. While freelancing, one is rejected constantly. Over time time, I have learnt to expect 90% rejection, at least. Once you do that, it becomes the new norm and you don’t lose too much sleep over it.

A third major issue I encountered was the constant selling of yourself or your skills. One doesn’t have to do this in a regular job. It is taken as read by your colleagues that your skills are of some value. One could argue that you make a better case for advancement in an organization if you sell your ideas better than others. However, in freelancing it is all about the sales pitch. You have to hone several pitches for different kinds of jobs and be unremitting in your proposal follow-ups. No one looks at your resume and very few actually read your profile. Almost all of my jobs are a result of personal conversation via Skype or the phone. Conversations that were all about selling myself!

The great joys of working on your own time are many too. I have gone through a very bad health phase ( a bit of jujitsu with cancer) and this allowed me to work whenever I was able to. The flexibility that a freelancer has is probably the most important selling point to this style of work. There is true joy in working at your own convenience. Be disciplined and keep weekly to-do lists. You are your own boss and employee too.

Working on various different projects and problems also forces you to keep on top of new technologies and better ways of doing work. Continuing education is another great asset of freelancing. I have learnt more about coding in the last six months than I did in the last three years. There is no administration overhead and that generates enormous amounts of free time for one to learn. I usually look to UdemyCoursera and the O’Rielly Bookshelf to help stay in touch with all the goings on out there. Youtube is a serious source of learning too.

Another thing that relates to one’s usage of time is the opportunity to just get up and go somewhere during the day. The time of rest between jobs and within them cannot be had in any other lifestyle. I have found time to go to the museums, drive around for fun and volunteer for various non-profit organizations. I have found a lot more time to cultivate relationships and talk to my family: the important stuff of living, really.

It’s a good life but in the beginning, like every business, it is a hard life. You just need to remember not to let the waiting, rejection and relentless sales pitches get to you. Also, make sure that you continue to bid or reach out for jobs all the time. Don’t sit back. A freelancer, ironically, cannot afford to be too relaxed.

Still interested in going down this garden path…

Then the best places that you can freelance in my opinion are, UpworkToptal web developers Community and Freelancer. You can also find some freelance work on Linkedin if you build relationships there.

Let me know if you have any questions.  I will be happy to help.

Analytics, Freelancing

The education of an Analyst

There are really two streams that we can see these days coming out of Master’s programs. One is the marketing/product Analytics practitioner and the other is data science practitioner. At the initial levels we need to learn  both streams because it will not really be clear to a student where their capability or interests truly lie.

Based on this premise, I would like to suggest a few types of learning that web analyst in particular need to imbibe in the start of their careers.

Business Writing is factual journalism.

I have experienced a lot of analysts coming in with lots of capability with numbers but none with writing business stories. I also see many analysts who don’t know the first thing about how to use stats tests in real life situations. Simple questions like —  Did the pricing change lead to more leads? Are the results statistically significant? — make us all go into huddles and battle stations.

Several online course providers offer creative writingbusiness writing or journal writing courses and I think they should be part of any Analysts formative education.

Knowledge of the tools.

We need to provide hands-on understanding of the tools that are used in typical business analytics. I have seen a lot of spreadsheets(Excel wizardry can take you lots of places) being used.

There are some statistical packages like R(open sources and free, hence very useful), SPSS and SAS that the analyst should be familiar with. More importantly, they need to be able to live and breathe statistics because the core fundamentals are always useful. Some elements of data mining and clustering should also be learnt as needed or as a person’s curiosity demands it.

These days, data visualization done correctly, explains half the analysis by itself. So, some experience in TableauMicrostrategyQlikview is very important in explaining the information clearly.

I also see a lot of visualization available via Google Data Studio and Power BI.

At the end, it is all code.

Whatever the environment of development in an organization, the analyst should have a fair idea about it since all the measurement hooks are mostly encoded. Even the ubiquitous Google Analytics is run based on javascript. A solid grounding in Python, PHP and SQL is also important so we need some intermediate technical courses to get a well-rounded technical perspective.

Understand the data river as it flows downstream

Although, large amounts of data exists, we don’t get training in information architecture.. How do you get unstructured data to structured data, to BI tools and to reports and metrics is something that needs to be taught too. The analyst can use some BI tools and data warehouse development and maintenance skills. As it become more common to build self-service reporting systems, we need to be able to teach some rudiments of this skill to our budding analysts.

Project Management

Most Analysts end up in large project teams as core members in-charge of numbers. So we need to teach them principles of project management and the current techniques like Agile and kanban. This will help them build their managerial skills too.

Design and Analytics

A good analyst will have a strong creative streak, not just have a good head for numbers. We need to be able to look the system that we are trying to improve (or make profitable) from a design perspective too.

In fact, a lot of web analytics is done just to measure and influence the design and flow of the information on the site for the customer. Conversely, not many designers are just going to rely on their intuition while building a site. They would ask the analyst about measuring the success of a particular design. So, a couple of introductory courses on creative design are essential for the education of an analyst.

I hope these make sense dear reader. Please let me know your thoughts.