remote work

Some highlights from 2020

My track record of posting here has been pretty poor in 2020, partly because of a bunch of content I’ve contributed elsewhere. In general, my guiding principle for posting is to only add stuff I’d want to read or cite, e.g., because I haven’t seen it discussed elsewhere. Well, no one has compiled a meta-post of my public work from 2020 (that I know of), so it’s finally time to publish it myself.

Remote work. I’ve been working remotely with Automattic since 2017, so I was pretty covid-ready as far as work was concerned. The main thing that’s changed for me is being unable to meet my colleagues in person. Looking back at the interview I did with BuiltIn from March 2020, it’s somewhat amusing that I was hopeful that we’d get to travel in May 2020, as business trips are still on hold a year later. Outside Automattic, it was interesting to see how quickly remote work has become commonplace, to the point where my curated list of established remote companies now seems irrelevant. Also, my June webinar with Felipe Flores on running remote teams is probably dated now that many more people have hands-on experience with remote work. The world has adapted quickly, though it seems like Automattic’s globally-distributed model is still quite unusual. Instead, many companies have switched to a locally-remote model, hiring remotely within the same country or timezone region. Considering the coordination costs of globally-distributed teams and the impact of frequent long-haul flights on employee wellbeing and on our environment, it may turn out that the locally-remote model is more sustainable in the long term. Only time will tell.

Sustainability. The Australian bushfires of 2019-20 provided me with extra motivation to help nudge Automattic to do more in the fight against climate change. The initial covid-19 lockdown provided me with extra free time to make the measurement and offsetting of Automattic’s emissions from data centre power use happen. I summarised this work in a post on the company’s blog, and discussed it in an interview with PublishPress. If there’s one key reason why I haven’t posted more here, it’s that the sustainability work always seems more worthwhile. I hope to continue working in the area in 2021, so the frequency of posts here is likely to remain about the same.

Bougainville wall dive

While data from RLS dives helps global conservation efforts, diving also reminds me that there’s still so much left to save and conserve

Reef Life Survey (RLS). Another distributed organisation that I’m involved with, and a worthwhile cause, is the RLS foundation. I previously posted about my experiences with RLS offline data collection and visualisation of the collected data, and have since helped with quite a few RLS surveys. Despite lockdowns and border closures, 2020 was no exception: I participated in the Lord Howe biennial surveys in February (just before the initial lockdown), and was fortunate to join a survey trip from Airlie Beach to Thursday Island in October (long after lockdown lifted in the lucky state of Queensland). I also joined the 38(!) author list of Establishing the ecological basis for conservation of shallow marine life using Reef Life Survey – a Biological Conservation journal paper covering RLS’s history, methodology, outcomes, and more. Finally, I was surprised and honoured to receive the Scoresby Shepherd Award for doing the most RLS surveys in the 2019-20 financial year. It was clearly a bit of a slow year due to the pandemic, but it’s always nice to get recognised. Overall, 2020 was definitely a good year for my participation in RLS and I’m planning on contributing more in 2021, especially with help around organising and conducting surveys in Southeast Queensland.

Technical work. My main "day job" focus in 2020 was on being the tech lead for Automattic’s new experimentation platform (ExPlat). This aligns well with my long-standing interest in causal inference. Among other things, it gave me an opportunity to apply my favourite approach to Bayesian A/B testing in the wild, and get excited about other interesting causal inference work we have in the pipeline. Now that ExPlat’s foundation is mostly in place, we are planning on sharing much of our work on data.blog. My colleague Aaron just published the first post in the series, and my post on ExPlat’s architecture will be next. Subscribe to data.blog to get updates!

A day in the life of a remote data scientist

Earlier this year, I gave a talk titled A Day in the Life of a Remote Data Scientist at the Data Science Sydney meetup. The talk covered similar ground to a post I published on remote data science work, with additional details on my daily schedule and projects, some gifs and Sydney jokes, heckling by the audience, and a Q&A session. I managed to watch it a few months ago without cringing too much, so it’s about time to post it here. The slides are on my GitHub, as is my list of established remote companies, which you may find useful if you want to join the remote work fun.

Angels Beach

Reflections on remote data science work

It’s been about a year and a half since I joined Automattic as a remote data scientist. This is the longest I’ve been in one position since finishing my PhD in 2012. This is also the first time I’ve worked full-time with a fully-distributed team. In this post, I briefly discuss some of the top pluses and minuses of remote work, based on my experience so far.

+ Flexible hours
– Potentially boundless work

By far, one of the top perks of remote work with a distributed team is truly flexible hours. I only have one or two synchronous meetings a week, and in the rest of my time I’m free to work the hours I prefer. No one expects me to be online at specific times, as long as the work gets done and I respond to pings within a reasonable time. As I’m a morning person, this means that I typically work a few hours in the early morning, take a long break (e.g., to surf or run some errands), and then work a few more hours in the afternoon or early evening.

The potential downside of such flexibility is not being able to stop working, especially as most of my colleagues are in Europe and North America. I deal with this by avoiding all work communications during my designated non-work hours. For example, I don’t have any work-related apps on my phone, I keep all my work tabs in a separate tab group, and I turn Slack off when I’m not working. I found that this approach sets enough of a boundary between my work and personal life, though I do end up thinking about work problems outside work hours occasionally.

+ More time for non-work activities
– There’s never enough time!

Not commuting freed up the equivalent of a workday in my schedule. In addition, having flexible hours means that I can make time in the middle of the day for leisure activities like surfing and diving. However, it’s still a full-time job, so I’m not completely free to pursue non-work activities. It often feels like there isn’t enough time in the day, as I can always think of more stuff I’d like to do. But my current situation is much better than having to commute on a daily basis. Even though it’s been a relatively short time, I find the idea of going back to full-time office work hard to imagine.

+ No need to attend an office
– Possible isolation from colleagues (and the real world)

Offices – especially open-plan offices – are not great places to get work done. This is definitely the case with work that requires a high level of concentration over uninterrupted blocks of time, like coding and data analysis. Working from home is great for avoiding distractions – there’s no need for silly horse blinders here (though I do enjoy looking at the bird and lizard action outside my window).

One good thing about offices is the physical availability of colleagues. It’s easy to ask others for feedback, socialise over drinks or shared meals, and keep up to date with company politics. Automattic works around the lack of daily physical interaction by running a few meetups a year. The number of people attending a meetup can vary from a handful for team meetups, to hundreds for the annual Grand Meetup. In all cases, the idea is to bring employees together for up to a week at a time to work and socialise. In my experience, the everyday distance creates a craving to attend meetups. I’ve never worked in a place where co-workers were so enthusiastic about spending so much time together – with non-distributed companies, team building is often seen as a chore. I suppose that the physical distance makes us appreciate the opportunity to be together and make the most of this precious time – it’s a bit like being in a long-distance relationship.

That said, in the majority of the time, isolation can be a problem. As I’m based in Australia, I probably feel it more than others – most of my teammates are offline during my work hours, which means that there’s no one to chat with on Slack. This isn’t a huge issue, but I do need to ensure I get enough social interaction through other avenues. As the jobs page of Bandcamp (another distributed company) used to say: “If you do not have a strong social structure outside of work then employment at Bandcamp will likely lead to heart disease and an early death. We’re hiring!”

+ Most communication is written
– Information overload

As Automattic is a fully-distributed company, most of the communication is done in writing. The main tools are Slack and internal forums called P2s (emails are rarely used). This makes catching up on the latest company news easy in comparison to places that rely more heavily on synchronous meetings. The downside of so much written communication is potential information overload. It is impossible to follow all the P2 posts, and even keeping up with stuff I should know can sometimes be overwhelming. I especially feel it in the mornings, as most of my colleagues work while I’m sleeping. Therefore, catching up on everything that happened overnight and responding to pings often takes over an hour – things are rarely as I left them when I last logged off. I experience this same feeling of being overwhelmed when coming back from vacation. Depending on the length of time away, it can take days to catch up. On the plus side, this process doesn’t rely on someone filling me in – it’s all there for me to read.

+ Free trips around the world
– Jet lag and flying

As noted above, Automatticians meet in person a few times a year. Since joining, I attended meetups in Montreal, Whistler, Playa del Carmen, Bali, and Orlando. In some cases, I used the opportunity for personal trips near the meetup locations. Such trips can be a lot of fun. However, the obvious downside when travelling from Australia is that getting to meetups usually involves days of jetlag and long flights (e.g., the 17-hour Dallas to Sydney trip). Nonetheless, I still enjoy the travel opportunities. For example, I doubt I would have ever visited Florida and snorkelled with manatees if it wasn’t for Automattic.

+ Exposure to diverse opinions and people
– Cultural differences can pose challenges

Australia’s population is made up of many migrants, especially in the tech industry. However, all such migrants have some familiarity with Australian culture and values. The composition of Automattic’s workforce is even more diverse, and it lacks the unifying factor of everyone choosing to live in the same place. This is mostly positive, as I find the exposure to a diverse set of people interesting, and everyone tends to be friendly, welcoming, and focused on the work rather than on cultural differences. However, it’s important to be aware of differences in communication styles. There’s also a wider range of cultural sensitivities than when working with a more homogeneous group. Still, I haven’t found it to be much of an issue, possibly because I’m already used to being a migrant. For example, moving to Australia from Israel required some adjustment of my communication style to be less direct.

Closing words

Overall, I like working with Automattic. For me, the positives outweigh the negatives, as evidenced by the fact that it’s the longest I’ve been in one position since 2012. Doing remote data science work doesn’t seem particularly different to doing any other sort of non-physical work remotely. I hope that more companies will join Automattic and the growing list of remote companies, and offer their employees the option to work from wherever they’re most productive.

Update (March 2019): I also covered similar topics in a Data Science Sydney talk about a day in the life of a remote data scientist.