Why remote works

I’ve been at Chalkbeat for more than 15 months now, working remotely on a permanent basis for the first time, after two six-month stretches at the beginning of my gigs with GateHouse and Publish2 way back in late aughts.

In those early, somewhat forced “work from home for six months and then move to our office please” situations, I had no idea what I was doing.

In Santa Cruz, employed by Rochester-based GateHouse, I worked at East Coast schedule in a West Coast time zone, working from around 6am to 3pm, and then showering and taking our infant daughter off my wife’s hands for a few hours so she could make some progress on her Ph.D. thesis in progress.

Ancient, pre-Slack tools like GChat and AIM were my tools for staying in close contact with our team, but in truth I spent most of my time on phone calls with staff at our community newspapers in the Central and Mountain time zones, so it sort of worked. It was kinda exhausting.

Also, I recommend showering before starting your workday.

Then, in Rochester, working for Virginia-based-but-mostly-distributed Publish2, it’s kind of a blur. I remember spending a lot of time in coffee shops, which can get expensive. I had a desk in the spare bedroom that must have doubled as our office. There was a lot of Skype, both text from group chat and long group calls where we worked out product requirements and outreach plans. It was pretty intense.

Cut to the last year or so, and I’ve been fortunate to stand on the shoulders of remote giants — well, maybe “build out my home office in the basement of remote office dwellers” might be more accurate.

Of all the advice I fielded about remote work over the years, having a an office with a door that closes was one of the keys, personally. And I have one. In the basement of our exurban townhome, at the far end of a hallway, out of the way, through the laundry room. Before this, we had been using it for storage / a spare bedroom that hadn’t hosted too many visitors lately. And before that, when we moved in? It had been set up as a home office. Of course.

When I took the job, I painted the wall I would be staring at all day in a grid pattern with blue paint samples salvaged from a drawn-out dining room accent wall color selection project. And I built my own standing desk (after much googling) with a relatively inexpensive hunk of butcher block countertop and some giant shelving supports. There are also some cute little lantern light strings and some borderline kitschy geek art, Mars travel posters, Star Wars stuff, a World War I poster urging action, a bunch of artwork by my kids, rotating new stuff in over time, and, just because it’s giant and framed and I had never hung it before, my NYU diploma.

The dog works with me all day.

Those are just the basics. Like, how to set up your own work environment so you don’t go insane alone in a windowless basement room all day.

Working with a mostly remote team? That’s a whole different barrel of wax. How to build remote culture, how to maintain lines of communication (oxygen!), how to make sure your distributed team has all the tools and time and support they need to feel connected?

Start here:

Kavya Sukumar writes from Seattle about working with the East Coast Vox team. Among her awesome advice? Find a way to whiteboard together without, well, pointing a webcam at a whiteboard:

“Sketching can be a valuable tool for collaboration, but it does not always have to happen on a whiteboard or on the same paper. On the Studio, we have everyone draw on individual pieces of paper that are later scanned and added to a project’s documentation. Not only is this more participatory, it also improves documentation.”

Laura Bosco at Range (a design firm we work with at Chalkbeat) gets at a truly critical piece of remote work that I happen to think gets overlooked: If you’re running a diverse, distributed team communicating primarily over text, signals are easily crossed. Here’s one way to deal with that:

“Listen to your teammates and encourage them to share information on their backgrounds, their previous team experiences and how they prefer to communicate most days. Does a teammate’s culture influence how they approach conflict? What about how they make decisions? Identifying these subtleties, and knowing how to manage them, can be very beneficial during conflict.”

Over at the Trello blog, Stella Garber is, of course, recommending Trello among a suite of tools to use to track work across distributed teams, but putting that aside for the moment (Trello is great, so is Asana, so is JIRA, so is Basecamp, so are Google Docs, so is a big wall of post-its, your mileage may vary based on the size of your team and your needs), think about planning how you use these tools. Standardize your approach to reduce confusion!

“Design a plan together about how you want to use each tool, and then write down these guidelines in a document that the team can access anytime. The bonus is that it also creates a training resource for new people joining the team.”

From the oldie-but-goodie file, Stack Overflow’s 2013 post about remote work is canonical, especially the bits about making sure the in-office pieces of your team act like they’re remote, too:

“There’s no halfsies in a distributed team. If even one person on the team is remote, every single person has to start communicating online. The locus of control and decision making must be outside of the office: no more dropping in to someone’s office to chat, no more rounding people up to make a decision. All of that has to be done online even if the remote person isn’t around. Otherwise you’ll slowly choke off the remote person from any real input on decisions.”

And in 2014, Sara Rosso at Automattic wrote about having a daily routine that imposes a steady rhythm of work/life balance:

“Finally I got into a routine which always helps me get into work mode no matter where I find myself: I get up every morning, get dressed & presentable (brush teeth & hair!) and leave where I’m staying to get a coffee, ideally an espresso. My ‘commute’ is self-enforced and is as far as the nearest coffee shop. When I step back inside, I’m ready to work.”

Last, watch out for some of the remote work anti-patterns pointed out by Mak Arnautovic:

“Darth Overwork means well deep down. He knows there’s work to do, and he uses his once-Jedi powers to trick your brain into forgetting how to measure time and effort so you can do more work faster. Some may consider that a desirable skill. But the reason Darth Overwork is so scary, is because you usually can’t see him. You don’t know when your brain is being manipulated by him and when it’s not.”

Don’t be Darth Overwork. Be like Gillian, who works hard sitting in this chair all day, but also knows when it’s time to get up, go for a walk, and clear her head.

Gillian working hard in the home office.

P E R S O N A L   N E W S

Seriously, when did we start calling new job news “personal news” and why? It’s professional news. It’s just me, getting a new job. Personal news is “we adopted a dog” (we did!) or “we’re having another kid” (we’re not!) or maybe “we’re moving to New York” (also not happening!).

But other things *are* happening.

Personal News
I am excited to tell you that I have a new job starting next week.

I’m joining Chalkbeat to lead product and growth. Chalkbeat is a nonprofit news organization that’s reimagining local news with a focus on issues of inequity in education. I’m grateful to be stepping into an amazing team in four cities, and I’m eager to help them grow and continue to build a sustainable model for nonprofit education news.

Screenshot 2015-12-01 13.24.28

In years past, I’ve said young people don’t care about local news until they buy a house and send their kids to public schools. Guess what? I care about local news these days! And I’m a two-issue local news consumer: 1) Full-day kindergarten, and 2) are we ever going to build the stadium for that NASL team we were promised? The first issue is more important. And it’s tied to issues of managing housing development in Loudoun County a little more consistently. This might be a first world educational issue in my corner of the county, for now, but I’m an engaged local news consumer.

When the opportunity came up to get involved with an organization dedicated to covering high-poverty schools across the country, I jumped at it.

Onward.

I’m grateful to everyone at Gannett for the opportunities I’ve had there over the past five years. It’s been a privilege to work with local journalists and technologists on the biggest challenges facing the news business. My mission in journalism has always been to make a difference at scale, and Gannett was the perfect place to do so.

But now it’s time to move on, and I can’t wait for everything that comes next.

Any questions? I’ll start.

Q: Chartbeat? Cool, real-time analytics are totally addictive!
A: They sure are. Love that stuff. Not working for them, though. It’s Chalkbeat, like the chalkboard beat, like education news. If there’s one thing I know about education, it’s that repetition can be important. Chalkbeat. Education news. In context. Chalkbeat. Dot-Org.

Q: It looks like Chalkbeat is in New York. Are you moving to New York?
A: Chalkbeat’s leadership team is in New York, but there are also teams covering the Denver area, Indianapolis, and Memphis, too. It’s a distributed organization, like many nonprofits and startup news orgs these days, and I’m not moving anywhere. Ask me about my new home office, and the standing desk I’ve been building. And the walls I’ve been painting. And the bed and dresser I have up for sale on Craigslist. Please, ask me about the furniture. Bring a truck to ask me about it.

Q: So… [whispers] …are you hiring?
A: SO GLAD YOU ASKED! As a matter of fact, Chalkbeat is hiring a Full-Stack Engineer. This person will work directly with me on product development. WordPress is the core of the proverbial technology stack right now, but there’s amazing work to be done on measuring impact (read about Chalkbeat’s MORI here), as well as other big ideas around audience analytics. We’re going to be supercharging Chalkbeat’s already strong remote culture with inspiration from Vox Product, 18F, Fusion, and others, so although New York or DC-based candidates would be cool, remote would work for the right candidate, too. You should ask me more about this role. You’re probably right for it. Yes, you.

Q: What can I say, I’m inspired! How can I help?
A: First of all, if you have kids or family who teach in New York, Denver, Indianapolis, or Memphis, head directly to your local Chalkbeat and start reading today. Subscribe to an email newsletter. Follow Chalkbeat on Twitter. Like Chalkbeat on Facebook. You can do all of these things.

But also, you can make a donation today to support one of the few nonprofit news organizations in this space doing local reporting on some of the most critical issues facing schools in America’s poorest communities. Want to help tell this story? Help fund the important work they’re doing today.

Q: We know you’ve been listening to Hamilton a lot lately. Does this have anything to do with Hamilton?
A: I’m sure I don’t know what you mean, you forget yourself.

Q: Is there one more thing?
A: You know there is. It’s about finding a new job you love. You don’t find a job by obsessively refreshing LinkedIn, or Glassdoor, or searching Idealist and Media Bistro and Journalism Jobs multiple times a day. Nope. Doesn’t work. Good luck!

You find your new job on Twitter. Seriously. I should know better than to use any other method, but I first heard about this job listing in a tweet during ONA. I wasn’t even at ONA. I guess I was following the hashtag in Tweetdeck and happened to look up at the screen? Maybe? Or someone retweeted this. This:

Screenshot 2015-12-01 13.20.10Thanks, Twitter. Thanks, Sarah!

Elsewhere, recently, blogging

Remember when I remembered blogging? Hard to believe that was almost four months ago, but there it is. Meanwhile…

Here’s what I did after I posted that real live actual blog post on my blog here at ryansholin.com:

  1. I wrote a Medium post from my phone. It was about Sleater-Kinney and writing and content management systems. And about writing on phones. (Not too long after, Medium updated lots of features, including their mobile writing/editing screens, so some of this was happily and quickly made totally invalid.)
  2. I wrote a Kinja post from my phone. It was about tacos and emoji and terrible garbage data. And writing on phones.
  3. I wrote a Tumblr post from my phone. It was about beach vacations and long books and reading habits. And writing on phones.
  4. That aforementioned Medium update happened, and in the process of trying it out, I wrote a “brief” guide to things like Apple News and Facebook Instant Articles and Google AMP and the stuff Medium was launching and it was “fun,” but also actual publishing labor. I can’t remember if I drafted any part of this on my phone, but maybe.
  5. Writing in Medium was remarkably pleasant, and they’re proving to be a really powerful platform for driving engagement with push notifications, at least until everyone gets annoyed and turns them off, and also we’ve been listening to the Hamilton cast album non-stop (get it?), so I wrote a thing about what Product Managers can learn from Hamilton the Musical. And that really was fun, no scare quotes.

An aside: ALSO OTHER THINGS ARE HAPPENING.

Anyway, that’s what I’ve been writing about. More to come. Medium has been fun.

One new development related to all these thoughts about content management systems for actual writing: WordPress is doing something lots of people are doing, moving to fancy modern node.js frameworks for publishing tools, not just for what I would usually call reader-facing UX.

As a matter of fact, even though I don’t quite understand how this works, I’m typing this very blog post in what I have to assume is the new node.js powered framework on WordPress.com, which hopefully is going to publish as intended on ryansholin.com, which still runs using the standard latest dot-org build.

Screen Shot 2015-11-25 at 11.01.46 AM.png

 

Remember blogging?

Screenshot 2015-08-04 13.50.14

Cracks me up. Every time. Not sure how it started, but my top skill of “Top Skills” on LinkedIn is Blogging.

Remember blogging?

Every now and then someone tells that joke. The one that goes “Remember blogs?” Ha. Ha ha.

It’s funny, because the blogs won, and most of the websites/apps/screenthings we use on a daily basis either *are* blogs or they look like blogs.

But we don’t write personal blogs these days, do we?

(Look, I know this is well-trod territory, but every time I look at this particular personal blog and see the last post was May 2013, I feel silly, so allow me this indulgence.)

The best personal blogs I read these days are email newsletters. And they’re not necessarily published every day, and they’re not necessarily personal. And they’re not blogs, either.

But we blog all day, on Twitter and Facebook (Remember microblogging? Remember linkblogs?) and for a certain demographic, maybe Tumblr or Instagram or S N A P C H A T wait the whole messaging thing turns the idea of “blogs” inside-out and backwards, but still. But. Still.

I kinda miss blogging?

Also, this is the first time I’ve opened up the WordPress “Write” screen (not what it’s called anymore) in ages, and even with almost no fancy plugins left turned on here, it feels a little Enterprisey for me. Too many buttons, too many decisions, all the custom fields and categories and tags and format options and checkboxes — and really, this is pretty stripped down compared to fully outfitted WordPress-as-Content-Management-System systems.

I want a system that intuitively sees me pasting in a big block of text with quotes around it and says “Yo, that’s clearly a blockquote, I’ve got this,” before I can find the right button on a toolbar. I want a system that knows the only thing I’ve dropped into the body is a YouTube link and says “Dude, looks like a video post, no problem.”

You get the idea.

Tagging, of course, should be mostly automated, cleverness economy investments excluded, naturally, while we’re at it, suggest some links when I highlight some text and hmm I bet these are all plugins that someone has built and I’m going to hear from WordPress developer friends that everything I’m describing can be bolted onto my install in no time and…

…yeah, I guess I need something to blog about.

Subscribe to my Tinyletter to help me decide.

May Linkdump

I read a lot of stuff. Or look at it, anyway. I save some of it. I tweet some of it. Not much, really.

Here are some of the most interesting/useful/provocative/linkbaitey things I set aside for repeated/deeper/continued consumption since I last published a Linkdump post on April 10, 2013.

  1. Teacher Testimonial: How Rap Genius Fixed My English Class: If you haven’t been following my interest in emerging annotation platform Rap Genius, you’re missing out. I like it. I like the annotation tools, complete with a simple Redditish flavor of Markdown, I like the casual copyright infringement (so sorry I uploaded your image to Imgur instead of hotlinking to it, but hey, that’s a courtesy, too). Anyway, they’re expanding. Poetry Genius. Rock music. And, inevitably, News Genius, although they don’t quite have the formula quite right there yet, mostly annotating speeches and public records, whereas I’d like to apply these tools to articles. Anyway. In this link, the Rap Genius platform is used by an English teacher to get his students to annotate Siddhartha.
  2. The Guardian launched a UGC photo platform. This is relevant to my work. Read the comment thread on this and other related posts from around the launch to get an idea of some of the issues people enjoy debating on this topic.
  3. Flat design is a trend. It’s OK.
  4. Twitter is hiring someone to lead their News team, which is, more accurately, a News Partnerships team. Even more accurately, it’s a team heavily populated by brilliant and talented people I respect. This is not a job application. But somebody has to manage them, apparently. Much of the conversation around this job listing completely missed the point of the team and their role in driving adoption and increase of use of a product called Twitter at news organizations. It was silly.
  5. What it’s like to be a Jew in a state prison in the United States of America. (Hint: Awkward.)
  6. Propublica open-sourced a tool to search Instagram by time and location, if you’re into that sort of thing. (Again, relevant to my work.)
  7. Relevant to your arguments about building things for an audience that is comprised of a number of people somewhere between one and a number less than everyone, here’s some light film theory discussion about “the public” and Hitchcock’s construction of his audience.
  8. How the Syrian Electronic Army hacked The Onion: Love, love, love this new genre of show-your-work DevOps explainer where we explain how vandals snatched our keys. (Spoiler: Phishing. It’s always phishing. No actual hackery involved, really.)
  9. Speaking of new genres, Mat Honan has the whole “I went to a horrible tech conference so I’m going to write a crazy Gonzo piece about what it felt like and what these guys believe in and it scares me” thing down. I mean, down.
  10. Casual onlookers will have spotted some casual language in the public communication about Yahoo’s acquisition of Tumblr. I didn’t make the connection at first, but of course, “Fuck Yeah” is part of Tumblr’s history.

 

This is a linkdump

At the risk of doing what I’m best at — overstating the obvious — you might have noticed that I don’t use this blog much anymore.

Actually, I do use it, maybe once a year or so, to communicate the fact that I don’t write many blog posts these days, and you should just follow me on Twitter or somewhere else if you’re interested.

But that’s barely true. I don’t “talk” about “media” stuff much on Twitter, although I sort of do, depending on how you feel about reading between the lines, but sometimes a GIF is just a GIF.

That’s the end of the preamble.

This is a linkdump.

I’ve been using Pinboard (again) for a couple months now to “save” links to “read” later. (Is there an Emoji for air quotes? Wait, I’m going to tweet that, brb.)

The air quotes are because I haven’t really used these tools for anything other than reducing the amount of guilt I have over not reading the entire Internet.

Really, who reads everything they save to “read later?” Nobody. It just sits there, festering. I used to share first, read later, but in modern times, it often feels silly to re-share something everyone has already shared, so I’ll just “like” or “favorite” and let that be a passive form of sharing, rather than crafting a shiny new headline and point of view around some interesting article, where “interesting” equals “this caught my eye and it seems important.”

So, instead, I present this unscheduled, imperiodic link dump of a bunch of stuff I’ve saved. Maybe I’ve read it, maybe not. Maybe it’s useful, maybe not.

You be the judge. An ordered list in no particular order follows, although it might end up in chronological order, we’ll see.

  1. Matt Waite for Source on the hey-wasn’t-this-hotly-debated ethics of a mugshot news app.
  2. 10 years of NFL play-by-play data, in CSV form.
  3. A List Apart article on small-screen (iPhone, for example) navigation patterns.
  4. Software to help humans figure out if that pic was ‘shopped, marketed to insurance companies.
  5. “Don’t learn how to code; learn to make things.”
  6. A painfully basic lesson for product managers and entrepreneurs: Solve Existing Problems
  7. If you’re going to have meetings, Always Be Capturing, so you don’t have to have more meetings to review what you decided in the previous meeting.
  8. On the perils of including edge case legacy functionality in your application to satisfy power users: Checkboxes That Kill Your Product
  9. Hey guys, remember when Netflix was a useful social network?
  10. Solid notes on *how* to measure audience engagement in news apps, although I would argue that *what* to measure is critical.
  11. For the completely uninitiated, a perfect explanation of the (current) state of open graph tags and making content shareable.
  12. Lorem Ipsum for avatars.
  13. The accidental limerick detector.
  14. The year-old Zeldman-approved recommended replacement for the ol’ -9999px trick.
  15. “Could you make a list of cute animals that gets 5 million views?”

 

 

Current obsessions

In no particular order…

  • Men In Blazers, a soccer podcast by Brits of some vintage, in New York City, mostly, for ESPN’s Grantland. Funny.
  • Roadrunner, by Jonathan Richman and the Modern Lovers.
  • Hay Day, an iPhone farm game. Or as we call it in my household (all members of the household, cats excluded) “the farm game” or even just “the farm.”
  • Trying to get sort of OK at, well, Rubik’s Cube.
  • Reddit.
  • Alt Latino, from NPR, because, seriously, where else are you going to hear interesting new (and old) Latin music?

Channel switching

Not sure how much I have to say these days, as most of my media-thinking-and-writing happens in the office and not on this or any blog, but I’m going to make a run at switching back to WordPress from the Tumblr I’ve been barely touching.

We’ll see. No promises.