The Virtual Commute is our Enemy

I have been working in software development for about 15 years and I love my job. However, like all professions there are good things and bad things inherent in what we do.

I want to talk about the one thing that routinely makes me lose my temper. It’s the stuff we all have to do. Well, all of us who work with a computer during a working day, which let’s face it, is very close to all of us.

I’m talking about:
… Switch on PC and/or monitor … wait…
… Oh no … preparing windows update… wait…
… login… wait…
… start Word / Excel / Outlook / Citrix, or whatever (other business software is available) … wait… wait… freeze… crash… wait
… Receive emails … wait

And that’s just for most folks… I work with Oracle Databases so I also have
… Open Toad or SQL developer (other IDEs are available) … Wait… connect… wait
… Open shared drive… wait

I could go on and don’t get me started on local VMs (Virtual Machines) were you have to login before you can login!  Then there are tasks where you routinely have to connect to new systems or databases and have to go looking for the passwords. Waiting for overstretched DBAs or Support to unlock / startup / rebuild.

Once you’ve done all that you’re ready to be productive…. right?

You, “I need the XYZ report to work from, does anyone know where it is?”
Sue, “It’s on the H: drive but it’ll be out of date as Bob was working on it yesterday and he was having some sort of trouble with the fileserver so it’ll be on his machine”
You, “So where is Bob? He’s usually in by now.”
Sue, “Dunno. Ask Frank.”
You, “Frank, sorry to bother you but do you know where Bob is?”
Frank(Manager), “Off Sick. Why?”
You, “I need the up to date XYZ report and Sue said he was working on it yesterday. ”
Frank, “It’s on the H: drive.”

… you explain the second hand information about Bob’s fileserver issue, Frank calls Sue over and a long winded conversation ensues where Frank is brought up to speed. Frank starts trying to contact Support…Yeah, good luck with that! You explore getting support to get onto his machine. That’s assuming you have support. You try phoning Bob in his sickbed but he’s not picking up…

 You, “Meanwhile I need to get going on this or I’ll need to step onto something else.”
Frank, “No I need you to get your stuff done todayor else. Just take what’s on the H: drive and do your best with it. We’ll have to update it later when Bob is back.”
You, “But Bob’s changes might have…”
Frank, “I know I know! it’s not ideal but do what you can. OK!?”
You, “…ok…”

There are dozens of software and hardware components in a modern office that have never really been “planned”… or worse… have been “planned” by an ill-informed or ill-advised management team whose original “plan” had a certain elegance to it, if only it were properly understood by the decision makers currently running the show… who are all too busy to “re-plan” everything.

We’re all having to live with a hotch-potch of add-ons and “It’ll do for now” bits of software that don’t really integrate with anything.

There are probably a lot of blogs on this subject and there is probably a name for all this. I couldn’t find one so I’ve started calling it my “Virtual Commute”.

A simple definition;
Virtual Commute
/ˈvəːtʃʊ(ə)l,ˈvəːtjʊəl/ kəˈmjuːt/

  1. The time spent starting up technical equipment including computers, connected devices, software and file management systems to the point where it is possible for one to proceed with the productive part of one’s job or task.
  2. Can also include the navigation of security systems and bureaucratic office tasks and processes that are not part of the core task that is needing to be done.

I’ll leave the very serious problem of stress and anxiety in the workplace for another blog but it’s not hard to see how this can wear a person down.

So now we have a problem AND a name. So what’s next? A solution?

Well, sorry you’ll not get a complete one from me but there are things that I think would improve your office’s productivity.

  1. Invest in decent kit that won’t take 10 minutes to startup in the morning. And kit that’s powerful enough to run more than one thing at a time.
  1. Employ someone to keep your kit up to date and make sure they do it. Monitor your kit and regularly check start up times and general performance.
  1. Don’t expect your staff to look after IT. If you’re a small business it’s most likely you’ll have one or 2 competent people (or people who think they are, which is just dangerous) and a lot of people who aren’t and really don’t want to be bogged down with it. If you’re a big company, you’ll probably have a help desk who are most likely over stretched. Advocate from them and use your authority to make their lives easier.
  1. Don’t ever give your staff a hard time for taking too long over something when you’ve pushed your hardware supplier to the cheapest possible deal. What actually happened is your supplier will have reduced the capabilities of your hardware to get to a price you considered a “good deal”. Or maybe you just ebay-ed your way to it. The result is you effectively tied a big tyre around the waist of everyone in your office while you congratulate yourself on the cash you saved.
  1. Never assume the cheapest option is “good enough”. The cheapest is just the cheapest and you probably don’t know what is really needed. Don’t get me wrong I’m not saying the most expensive is the best either. Far from it. There are good deals to be had if you shop around and you don’t have to go the other way and give each staff member a £3,000 iMac.
  1. Keep it simple.
    You probably think that means not complicated don’t you? Well it doesn’t. Let me explain.When developers write software designed for users, particularly users who are not necessarily particularly technical, simplicity is everything. We don’t fill a screen with buttons with acronyms on them. We guide the user into what it is they want to do.Make it “Simple" for the user.  Trust me, that takes a lot of effort on the part of the developer as it requires us to really understand the end user and what they need to do. So, simple in the context above means simple for your staff. Not simple for you. For you it will be complicated as you are going to have to think about how your staff can move quickly from one task to the next.Create a setup where your staff just fall into doing things the right way and don’t need to be constantly reminded. Your staff will take a shortcut if doing it slightly wrong gets the job done. It’ll be you who’s left to deal with a thousand little shortcuts that have resulted in a mess, which will require you to spend a fortune on a consultant to straighten it all out for you.
  1. If you use VMs, great! But get thin clients and don’t make people login to a local machine then login again to a VM. Update your software often and keep it stable so you don’t have to do a “once in a lifetime" update that almost crashes your business.
  1. Pay attention to all the cool business processes like procurement and customer experience and all those super cool management strategies that involve, usually, men with beards and feet on desks, but also have a sharp eye on the little ones such as, staff logins, file servers, bandwidth.
    Actually time how long it takes someone to sit down, switch on and get to the stage where word is both open AND unfrozen. Then do the arithmetic and scale it up. All the way up. You might be shocked.Use cloud based file storage or local servers.. whatever. Just make sure your staff machines are all well configured to mount drives seamlessly and spend time with the operating systems to default files to save where they should be saved.
  1. For heaven’s sake configure your firewall so it doesn’t kill everything! There are lots of bad guys out there but be sensible and cautious. Not paranoid.
  1. Keep an eye out for integration problems. If you see your staff copying and pasting or writing the same thing regularly you have one. Make it your priority to deal with it.
  1. Never assume the software you buy off-the-shelf is better than getting a good developer in to build something that suits your business. (That was a plug  - did you see how I got that in there?)

 

Just put yourself in your staff’s shoes when they go about the mundane tasks, and invest time and money into making those tasks as slick as you can possibly make them.

If your staff are pressed for time and against targets they will not follow really complicated administrative tasks properly, however many signs you leave about the place. Pave the way for them so when they are racing, they have a big clear road ahead and not a lot of little obstacles and things to remember.

I don’t have millions in my bank account so don’t have outrageous success to back any of this up but what I do have is a lot of experience in a lot of different companies who all have lots of staff spending large percentages of their day fighting with systems and processes which are costing their companies millions in wasted time.

Let’s get the message out there.

The Virtual Commute is our enemy and we should all be aspiring to work “close” to our desks!

 

Credits:
Thanks to Eoghain Anderson for his honest blogging!

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