Telecommuting – Its Your Infrastructure Now!

Telecommuting, work at home, virtual office all mean essentially the same thing. Having an employee perform a portion or all of their work from home with the assistance of simple office equipment like a computer and phone line. One can argue its driven by economics more than the beneficence of the powers on high.

The argument would hold a lot of weight. With commercial square footage, power requirements, networking hardware infrastructure, facilities, furniture, liability insurance etc. etc. employers could easily be averaging $100 a square foot and be nowhere near a prestige footprint in a major metro area. Easily $1500 an employee at the low end. In step with the modern age of widely available broadband, vpn networking, instant messaging and there you have a formula for a new workplace in your home. For less than $4000 initial outlay and less than $150 a month the employee is set up in their own home with no excuse for being late for work.

Vunderbar we all say. You get to work from home, you get to keep your job, you save on the commute, the corporate costumes and the dining out that inevitably comes from being away from home.

However, you are also now faced with the logistical challenge of ensuring you have a viable space to work in, productively, effectively and provide your own infrastructure. Someone out there is saying, ‘Huh?!’. Yep, you now have to provide everything your employer provided in you new work environment.

Granted, much of it you have to provide for your own home anyway. Water, food, shelter, heat, air conditioning, and power. All of that will now, to varying degrees, increase. You’ll be running the heat and air, using lights, and running pc’s for 40 plus hours a week(for full time telecommuters), not to mention any dedicated sqaure footage you may use. This should be a minor increase in the total cost of a home, especially when weighed against the savings of daily gas, corporate costumes and the dining out. It’s an upfront cost that can be accounted for with your annual taxes. Its something to be aware of.

Then there is making sure you have a good connection for data, whether it’s via a cable internet, ISDN, DSL connection, using wireless or old fashion phone lines via modem. These will ultimately be your responsibility. By this I’m not necessarily talking about the service provider, but the connections from your provider to where ever you will be working in your home. Whether it’s dsl jacks, lan connector ports or wireless adapaters for your computer it’s something you need to plan on. Where in the home will you work? What kind of construction is your home? Do you have pre-existing network connections or nothing at all in place? Will you be installing the connections yourself? Definitely stuff to consider.

Then there is the more technical stuff. Any outage or difficulties with communicating to your corporate applications and you’re not walking down the hall to the on site IT guy. You’re on the phone with whatever support will help you best. Whether its your PC support group, your broadband provider, your phone provider, the know it all nerd that you used to hang with, you need to know who to call and when. Nothing is more irritating than calling multiple support groups only to find out you’ve wasted an hour with someone that can’t help you. So this is a two point tip. 1) Write down all the different organizations you get support from in one place 2) learn the basics for each element as best you can.

Here in the lightening belt of the ‘Sunshine State’ and host to an annual six month long event called hurricane season continuity of power becomes a challenge. Not to mention if you happen to be a part of any neighborhood that has any level of construction. So, as good corporate citizens, it behooves us to find a quality UPS (un-interruptable power supply) to fall back on for just such occasions that may last for 20 to 30 minutes, enough power to allow you to save that critical document you were churning away on all morning, a last e-mail or call to inform whoever that you are off line and then power down. Ensure it has enough outlets with battery backup to power the laptop/pc, the broadband modem, and any power needs for your phone.

Do you have a choice of what phone service? If you do, I would strongly recommend considering a VOIP (voice over internet protocol) service. You should shop around with the more established ones and monitor reviews and consumer reports. Although still in its infancy as far as large industries go with some of the VOIP providers still learning the ropes and getting their corporate formula solidified VOIP can provide flat rate service with long distance throughout the United States with unlimited calling and losts of extras. They include a large variety of bells and whistles included in their normal costs, that can cost a ridiculous amount with business line services provided by your local phone company. Things like caller ID, automatic call logging, call forwarding, three way calling, on line feature control, voice mail alerts and voice mail audio sent to the e-mail ID of your choice.

An item on the list that I haven’t seen employers provide, a quality phone. The phone must have a mute. You have to have some way to mute out all the background noise of the neighborhood lawn workers, garbage trucks, passing emergency sirens and the occasional Scotsman bagpipes. Other nice to have features cordless (that doesn’t conflict with your wireless network), a speakerphone, memory for saving phone numbers, a voice mail waiting indicator (that work with supporting phone services), and a quality headset for hands free multitasking.

These are key infrastructure elements that can be easily addressed if thought about. Or they can prove to be continuous irritants that cause constant time loss and distractions.

My Ubuntu Review

This is my review of Ubuntu 5.10 the “Breezy Badger”.

The platform I used was an old Compaq Presario 5360 with a 480 mhz cpu, 180 meg of ram, and 40 Gb hard drive. My network connection was a Realtek PCI 10/100 NIC card through my home network. It also includes a TV PCI card.

I performed the OS download from one of the mirror site. Make sure you validate the download with appropriate error checking (like MD5 Sums) prior to burning a CD. It took three attempts before I received a clean download.

Ubuntu has both a live CD version and a full install version. I’m a great believer in giving users an opportunity to preview what they are getting. This gave me the opportunity to at see what it would look like after loaded and what applications I would find and I was pleased with the variety of applications, since most of them are favorites I’ve used before. The live CD was a clear representation of the look and feel of the OS and I was quickly sold and began to install.

The full load for i386 is all on a single CD. (Unlike fedora which had 4 full CD’s at my last count).The install process provides a means for reformatting the hard drive in a proper supporting configuration. The install proces went smooth without a hitch. The NIC card was detected with no issues. The install process didn’t paint out details, but the option does exist if you want it.

Install defaults made sense with minimal interaction. After the install was complete and the desktop comes up, you’re greeted by some very mellow low range noted tones and a muted background combination of brown, orange and other shades making a very peaceful desktop. The desktop is clean and the application drop down menus are clearly organized and make sense.

The total suite of applications were some of my favorites. Evolution e-mail, Firefox browser, Open Office suite, GAIM, Bittorrent, and the Gimp photo image editor to name a few.

The system update and upgrade process flags any out of date elements and prompts you for the upgrades you may need. Again, this feature worked without a hitch. The upgrade and Apt functions needed no special configuration information to start with. There are multiple libraries that can be added to the location sources for a bigger and broader range of application sources. Once that was completed I downloaded and ran several new applications not already packaged without a hitch. Examples of those I downloaded have been Streamtuner, Bluefish editor, acidrip, TVTime, and Mplayer.

Following the WIKI for Ubuntu Linux, I was easily able to get this completed. Upgrades and downloads with the system updates and with the Synaptic functions were very smooth, fast for the machine type used and without error.

I could go on and on with analyzing the entire composition of features and applications, but we don’t have that kind of time. Key points I hope you take away from this 1) The install process was one of the simplest from an end user stand point. 2) The desktop is installed clean so you can add all you want or operate with a clear view of whatever background you choose. 3) OS Update functions and Synaptic package managers are the key systems for getting what you want. Following the Ubuntu wiki’s everything worked smoothly for me. 4) Ubuntu’s on line documentation is some of the most complete I’ve seen. This may be a result of how new they are as much as their quality of work. It may be a challenge for them to maintain the clear library of documentation as they go forward. It certainly seems they have a strong backing from it’s founder, Mark Shuttleworth. 5) and there is the intangible factor of ‘it just plain works’.

To sum it up, this OS is everything you need and nothing you don’t. (I believe that’s a line from Nissan Xterra commercials). It’s been one of the easiest and more enjoyable Linux experiences I’ve had for a full desktop OS. I would recommend this to a first time Linux user any day. In fact, I liked it so much its now my primary OS.

Here’s to the future with Ubuntu.

Bright Future for Linux

Everyone interested in Linux has their own story. Some people are just curious. Others have a serious programmer background and Linux offers a huge platform of free utilities with no strings attached. Whatever the reason, its a wide open territory with a huge platform of opportunity.

My story is part and parcel to why I am interested in the publically licensed OS. A couple years ago, I like everyone was struggling with virus, malware, adware, pop-ups and the continuous planned obsolesence from MS. After two separate marathon bouts with my wifes pc, my own pc and my work pc that consumed at least 100 man-hours I was completely fed up.

I was tired of paying $30 to $60 bucks a piece for every inconsequential program with no guarantee that they could or would fix my problems.

It was during this time that I was stuck in an airport and picked up a Linux magazine, thinking it was a program platform, not a full OS. I read with interest, realizing the magazine assumed an existing working knowledge of Linux. From all of this I realied that Red Hat was a big player.

I checked on the net and discovered enough to peak my interest. Within a week I bought a ‘Red Hat Linux 9 Bible’ and loaded it up on a spare hard-drive and I’ve been tinkering with Linux ever since.

Red Hat 9, Knoppix, Damn Small Linux, Fedora, and Ubuntu are among those that I’ve tried so far.

I won’t go into reviews at this time, but I’m incredibly impressed with Linux in general. You can download an entire operating system that includes a full suite of applications with complete freedom and no cost. You can find full OS’s of Linux that can run without even being loaded in the hard drive. The platform is wide open to individual customization for whatever the end user might desire.

Is it exactly like Windows? No. Is it easy like Windows? Some parts are and some parts aren’t. Can it do everything Windows does? From everything I’ve experienced and I need, yes. Does it have a future?You betcha. I believe that as major organizations (like Brazil and Maine) rule out propreitary formats, heavily charged license fees, and get tired of the continued trend of planned obsolescence (i.e. forced upgrades/fees/cost overhead) we’ll see the doors open more and more for Linux and Open Source Software in general. Linux is definitely here to stay.

Telecommuting – A Two Edged Sword

Whenever you meet someone for the first time the subject invariably rolls around to what you do for a living and where.

I’m a telecommuter (aka working virtual office, work at home, etc.) Working for an IT organization over the past fifteen years I’ve been blessed with the experience of telecommuting part time from 1998 to 2002 and then full time from 2003 to the present.

Almost all of the reactions I get are ‘That’s fantastic for you’ and they get that envious look in their eye. But they become baffled when I tell them it’s truly a two edged sword.

They all day dream of waking up, avoiding the long drives to the office and working in their PJ’s. Yes, it’s true you can work in your PJ’s and allow your personal hygiene to slip for as long as you want and spend no money on gas.

On the other hand, there is the total isolation. You only communicate with another human being when your on the phone or via the already impersonal means of instant messaging. You can never truly judge the other persons reaction through all of this.

Not to mention you really have no friends through all of this. Sure, you may have one or two people you work with that you develop a rapport with and can talk more candidly with, but when your entire strata of work relationships is scattered across the eastern seaboard, your opportunity for developing a true camaraderie is slim if at all. You can’t just strike a talk about the game passing in the hall for thirty seconds. Meeting for lunch and after work for drinks or maybe the Monday Night Football game are gone.

And, as much as everyone says they would love the isolation, (like marriage) that honeymoon feeling fades and you settle into a grind that is much easier to get through when you have other people around for the simple recognition that you are a good person no matter how hard the corporate grist mill grinds because no one passes by your cubby on the way to the water cooler to recognize your new hair or how much weight you lost or how well you handled that jerk in accounting.

Then, there is the work environment. You have to own a home thats conducive with residents that are cooperative with working at home. Working at the dining room table while the wife or kids or noisy large dogs or lawn mowers are going is not the best way to focus on what you’re doing and produce for the team. Trying to use a master bedroom when a mate wants to sleep or watch tv or have that discussion you’ve been putting off doesn’t fly either.

Then there is mental self discipline. You need the self discipline to ensure that you stay focused on your work rather than doing all the chores in the house to avoid that project you so dread. And you also need the self discipline to tell yourself enough is enough, you’ve slaved from 8am to 11pm on nothing but coffee and chocolates for the past week and you need to walk away, take a break and visit the land of the living.

Here are some tips for telecommuting sanely and successfully:

  1. Have a room dedicated to use as an office, preferably with an insulated door and a normal interior door lock to isolate yourself from the live-at-home distractions who invariably believe that if you’re at home, your free whenever they are. If it has a limited number of windows, all the better for noise dampening in the suburban setting when the lawn warriors are out in force and it sounds like the deck of an aircraft carrier.

  2. Set a schedule and try to keep to it as best you can. Start and end your day at a given time each day. And for heavens sake include a lunch break in your schedule. Just because you’re working at home doesn’t mean you have to be inhuman. A little break from work is a good thing. It allows you to regroup and finish out the day more refreshed. Healthy alternatives like exercise will definitely generate endorphins to combat cabin-fever. Or meet a friend for lunch. Or run a few errands. Or satisfy some self serving whimsy, just take that break.

  3. Avoid distractions in the schedule. Don’t think you’ll be able to concentrate on leading a conference call while sorting the laundry, doing the dishes, starting the roast, scrubbing the bathroom and cleaning the pool all at once. The distractions will take away from your ability to focus on the quality of your work. Try to limit all non-work related activities to non-work hours or at least to times of work when there is little or no demand for your attention. Additionally, don’t get caught in the middle of something you can’t stop easily if the boss calls and needs your undivided attention.

  4. Get the cooperation of those you live with. When you first start telecommuting, those immediately around you will have to be trained that just because you are at home does not mean you have all the time in the world to get things done for them. Getting a honeydew list from the spouse with a ‘before I get home’ deadline doesn’t fly. Things will have to wait until the work day is done. You’re time is supposed to be dedicated to working. On the other hand, using that ‘commute time’ that got freed up to contribute before and after your working hours will win kudos with the significant other.

  5. Telecommuting (aka virtual office) implies you will be using a few technology solutions. This post won’t discuss details. From my personal experience, keep it as simple and flexible as possible. I’ll cover more details in the future.

As for the conversation with those that ask about the two-edged sword of telecommuting, it’s up to you whether you decide to gloat or put a picture of reality out there for them. So for those exploring, consider the possibilities. For those with no choice, take heed. There will be more to come.

Advice to the Future IT Techs of America

Let’s look at a little history.

We could start in the cro-magnon of the technology era with the birth of the transistor, the birth of the CRT, the birth of the computer, or the birth of the Internet (by the way, Al Gore had nothing, zippo, nada to do with the birth of the intenet).

Instead, let’s fast forward to a more recent age. The internet is on the up-swing, IBM as a company had been suffering brutally at the failed OS2 operating systems market performance in light of strong handed exclusionary marketing tactics by MS. Like other manufacturers, IBM turns to overseas sources for production.

But that was only the beginning. They progressed over time to embrace the ‘International’ of the name to expand the business to allow non-US offices to take on more and more of the basic business production (programming, support, etc.). This allowed them to hire qualified people (albeit with potential language and cultural differences) to perform tasks that would replace the US worker that cost as much as ten times as much. And with the progesses in telecommunications and excess in bandwidth available across the globe, the process became a foundation of the business model.

Funny thing, they weren’t the only ones or the last. So, as corporations are pushing for high performance and lower overhead, US workers are not the prefered employee. They can hire someone anywhere on the planet.

What does this mean for the Future IT Techs of America? If you’re interested in IT, corporate IT is probably not the prime direction if you’re looking for upward growth, opportunity, income growth and a strong career.

Is IT dead? Not by a long shot. Local businesses will always need someone to walk in and provide the installation and on hands support to their offices. This is where the IT future is. Small shops and teams of people that can provide monthly installation, support, direction, administration and response.

But, with the excess exodus of IT pros on the streets either looking for new jobs or starting new businesses either in or out of the industry, you can bet that the competition is tough.

Get in with or start a small or medium sized organization for an opportunity at staying in touch with the real technology, the real customer and a career that can reward you on issues directly based on your productivity, rather than the desparate gasps of a US industry that is shrinking.