As the end of 2020 approaches, it feels like an entire lifetime has passed by. So much has happened over the past months, that it’s hard to believe I had only started my current co-op position back in January. Since then, I also wrapped up my undergrad research and picked up my computer science degree in a pizza box (seriously). And like the rest of the world, I made the full transition to remote work. I’ll probably never forget the day we got the announcement at the office.
It was my first company wide release planning session. The cafeteria was converted into multiple stations for all the various teams I never knew existed. There were some tables filled with goodies like cookies, pastries, and coffee. I sat down with my team and dove into planning. Sticky notes were everywhere on the tables, the whiteboards, and the windows. I tried my best to keep up, but honestly I couldn’t really follow. Lunch rolled around, and new platters of sandwiches were swapped in. I started to notice something was off. There were whispers everywhere, a feeling of alert was in the air. Something was happening. My team lead went around, telling everyone on the team to meet in the lab once lunch was over. What was going on?
That was the moment of truth. We were to pack up and take our workstations home by the end of the day. The office was going to shut down. That was 2 months after I started.
Early Stage Resourcefulness
At first, nobody really knew what to expect. I just tried my best to go with the flow. The ability to work from home was always available, but it was never actively encouraged before. In the first couple of weeks most of the time was comprised of overloading the IT department trying to get everything set up and running properly. Even though all the tools were already mostly in place, the company was not prepared for the scale.
It was impressive how quickly everyone adapted. All of the VPN access was smoothed out. Headsets and monitors were prepared for pickup. New sets of laptops were rolled out. There’s nothing more impressive than teams of engineers all putting their problem-solving heads together to debug the kinks in the transition period. One of the more creative solutions came during the first ever virtualized PI planning session. Apparently Skype couldn’t handle hundreds of people on a single call, so some senior developers engineered nested calls to project the central meeting across multiple smaller meetings to distribute the bandwidth. It was a very clever hack.
The development process for the most part retained its productivity. Despite the occasional disconnect and some remote stuttering, almost all of the tasks were completed on schedule. There was, however, an obvious concrete ceiling we couldn’t get past. Our lab, which had federal level security protocols, prevented remote access to live test devices. Scheduled lab access was created to keep on-site work flowing. It became clear to me then that there are some hurdles tech simply couldn’t overcome.
Soon, other issues started to follow.
The Good, the Bad, and the Oh-so-many Meetings
There were some obviously amazing perks to working from home. On the top of my list was extra sleep. I didn’t mind the commute so much, but being able to use the saved time for zzz’s was a blessing. It was also great having access to my fridge and snacks at all times. I got into a nice routine of waking up, making my Aeropress coffee, logging in, and casually sifting through my emails and plans for the day just 15 minutes before scrum.
One unintended benefit of remote calls was the ability to access other teammates, and even other teams, at a moments notice. It was clear when they were available or when they were occupied. There was no more need to wander around the office trying to track someone down. I could just ping them, get the help I needed, and get back to it. There were less disruptions and, for better or worse, casual conversions to serve as distractions leading to more focus. (It would have been amazing if this kind of environment was possible in the office. A solid startup idea!)
On the flip side, there were also so many calls. Possibly too many. I didn’t have much in the beginning since I was mostly useless, but there were days when it was just exhausting. Sprint planning was the obvious one. A full day on a headset is no fun at all. After a while I started switching to my laptop mic and kept my guitar on hand to make it more bearable. Recently, though, I’ve started collaborating with the UX team, and the meetings poured in. Some days, the UX designers and I had so many calls it was impossible to get other work done. There were little blocks of time here and there that weren’t long enough to squeeze in anything meaningful.
Many of us also started to notice the drawback of calls versus normal meetings in a real room. Only one person could talk at a time, so none of the usual side conversations could happen per usual. They started leaking into the text chat as a proxy. (Enter your top emoji here.) There were also the constant, awkward interruptions. It’s like the virtual version of trying to walk past someone. You first. No you first. Then there’s the infamous mute button. You’d think everyone would have gotten used to it by now, but there are still so many instances of people talking to the void.
This part surprised me. Personally I am pretty dedicated to my work and try to do the best I can, when I can. As a more mature student, I’m well versed in how to get work done. I’ve integrated with the full-timers pretty well, and took on a higher load than the other co-ops in hopes of securing a permanent position. However, my dedication is limited to the working hours. When the clock runs out, I shutdown for the day. But not everyone could.
For the parents of the bunch, they didn’t exactly have a choice in the matter. It was cute having my team leads hop off to have play time with their sons and daughters. Or we would hear the occasional cries and yelps in the background. Go play now, mommy’s on a call. It was fascinating to see how much they missed being at the office, and it made the gripes against lockdown feel more a bit more reasonable. It was tough being the worker, the parent, the playmate, and the teacher all at once.
For others, they couldn’t figure out when work ended. There would be emails from midnight and beyond. I got messages on my phone on more than few instances over the weekend with progress updates or requests for help. One teammate in particular has me concerned. He’s started to work nonstop, well beyond the committed features moving onto side projects. It’s like the code has seeped into his life and taken over. I can understand using the flexibility to split the work into chunks throughout the day, but it’s worrying when someone starts to work well beyond the expected hours, seven days a week, completely voluntarily.
A Different Kind of Career
When I first went back to school, I would have never expected the world to enter into a state of crisis by the time I finished. But I’m glad I finished at the right time. So many friends who are still finishing up or starting their master's degrees are thrown into an awful situation. Remote school is just bad for the students and the teachers.
I considered myself pretty lucky to have had a guaranteed position throughout the year. As a co-op I was afraid they would have canned me immediately after lockdown to cut costs. I’m glad they didn’t. It was a good job, with pretty good pay, and good people all around. There was never any explicit pressure to force us back into the office, and the decision is still ongoing.
In terms of the possible Covid outcomes, I think mine was as cushy as it could get for a new grad. I know some other friends who aren’t so fortunate. The job market is looking pretty thin out there. Somehow, deciding to choose tech four years ago ended up being the best decision, and, oddly enough, the future seems bright. All the ducks managed to line up just right in this historically messy year. You know what they say. Hindsight is 2020.