Responding to a co-located/fully remote/hybrid article

I read Should Your Organization Be Co-Located, Fully Remote, or Hybrid from Scrum Inc. It’s nice to see the agile community starting to accept that co-location isn’t necessary to be an agile team. (I’ve been on a team for many years with people in multiple locations and it never stopped us from doing Scrum. We even figured out how to make in person agile games remote. A few takeaways/responding

Feedback

I really like this quote

Uncollected feedback is perishable; the longer you wait the less reliable it is

Many years ago (even before doing Scrum or remote.), I noticed that people had trouble recollecting what they wanted to contribute to the retrospective. They were quiet at meetings and didn’t remember problems not fresh on the mind.

I solved this by putting a shoebox and post its in a common location. This let the team put in their thoughts right as they happened.We had someone organize the post its by topic and used the retrospective time to discuss them.

Over time, that shoebox became electronic. But the benefits still stand. Real time opportunities to record those thoughts. I really like the perishable quote and am sharing it with my current team at our next retrospective!

Purpose of an office

The article lists the following benefits of an office. It was interesting reflect on how much of this applies to me and my troubles over the last 15 months. The table shows my thoughts on them both for work and the high school robotics team I mentor

Item from articleWorkRobotics
Collaboration, communication, and the sense of belonging that comes with colocationI’m not sure. It’s definitely good seeing people, but my team has been distributed for years. So a lot of my connections were with people not on my team anyway.Definitely. The kids noticed how much they feel not being able to hang out, have team dinners, bond over dodgeball, etc
A place to work away from the distractions of homeYes! This is one of the problems I’m having. (I put not having a good physical work space in this area. A subpar work environment is certainly distracting.)Some of the students share rooms or have distractions on calls.
Creation of physical products and use of specialized tools n/a – our tools are computersDefinitely. Not having access to the lab, tools, robot greatly limits what can be done.
Space for gatherings and training While I don’t need to see my teammates every day/week, we do all meet in person on occasion. In person meetings allow for more flexibility and cross training
A need to directly interact with customersn/an/a
A place to focusAnother one for me. I only have so much energy to focus at home. It’s less than 8 hours worth which isn’t even enough for a day let alone fun things after work. I also notice, I can’t carry as many thoughts in my head at home.Not sure.
The status and stability a physical location conveysn/an/a

Sustainablility

Another quote I found interesting:

Working more hours to get less done is not a recipe for success. 

For most of the weeks of the pandemic, I refused to work more hours. (I made an exception for the a month and there was a high cost. I’m still recovering to get myself to the point I was at the week before I made that exception.) I got less done but it wasn’t from more hours.

Most of my colleagues get the same or more done at home. They should be able to to telecommute forever! I am not one of those people. At the office, I have a desk so I can see more stuff at once. I have two monitors so I can work faster. I can hold more thoughts in my head

And also

There will be times when after-hours work will be needed. These need to be the exception – not the rule.  

I agree with this. And I made that monthlong exception intentionally. Also my employer passed the “test” of it being important. I worked one weekend day in exchange for a comp day. So at least it was my employer’s time too, not just mine.

I hear a lot of people say “since I’m not commuting, I can work more.” I strongly disagree with this. I used my commute time productively. I read the news in the morning and a computer book on the way home. (My computer book reading is also down because my at home energy isn’t available when I have time to read now.) Commuting time belongs to me, not my employer. It being gone isn’t a reason to work more hours.

Hybrid workspace ideas

The article also lists some ideas for hybrid work. My thoughts on those

IdeaResponse
Have designated team days for in-person workWe did that when we were a colocated team with telecommuters. (Monday was the day nobody could telecommute.) I consider this a crutch that we long moved past. Luckily we became a multi-city/time zone team after I no longer needed that crutch!
Institute policies to fight ‘Zoom Fatigue’ and burnoutThe article suggests holding 10 minute breaks between meetings. I’ve had meetings 9:05-9:55 for as long as I can remember. So meetings i control do come with those breaks.
Always hold team events in virtual conference spaceThis one we didn’t quite do. We did have people at the same site connect from the same room rather than everyone being at their desk. But everyone did contribute equally. It wasn’t most people in one room and a handful alone at home.
Publish all meeting notes in a visible space which can be accessed remotelyEverything is electronic. While we do publish notes, we aren’t an async team though.
Only use virtual whiteboardsDefinitely! The only time we used physical whiteboards was for pairing when the two people involved happened to be in the same location.

re the interview question “what did you do with your extra time during the pandemic”

I turned on the television and heard a sentence about expecting a question during an interview – “what did you do with your extra time during the pandemic”. I don’t know the context or if this is a common question. I certainly hope is isn’t!

Is this an illegal question?

I’m not a lawyer, so I don’t know. It feels dangerously close to illegal questions though. You aren’t allowed to ask someone at an interview if they have kids. And guess what group of people did not have extra time during the pandemic? People with young children.

Similarly, you aren’t allowed to ask if someone had COVID-19. Guess what other group of people did not have extra time during the pandemic? People with long haul COVID-19.

Is this an insensitive question?

Absolutely. Some people had less time during the pandemic. Some were upset. Some found it hard to concentrate. Some lost an immediate family member. Also, it’s none of your damn business.

Why are you asking in the first place?

I’ll assume you aren’t being nosy or trying to cleverly find out information that would be illegal to ask. And how does it help you find out that your prospective hire is now an expert in making sourdough bread. The only answer I can think of that is relevant to the job is what skills the person has learned that are RELEVANT to the job. In which case…

What could you ask instead to accomplish the same result?

“What is the last thing you learned about technology?” – this is an appropriate question to ask. I’ve asked it before the pandemic. This question doesn’t have assumptions in it about how recently you learned something. It doesn’t suggest something is wrong with you if you haven’t had time or energy during a pandemic to learn something new, you can still list something you learned in 2019.

What would be my answer

It’s hard to answer this hypothetically because it depends on how much one needs the job. Let’s assume I do and decided to answer the question in some form.

Side note: When I was interviewing for entry level jobs, I was asked “how would you handle being treated differently because you are female.” My answer was “why? is that a problem here?” (with some attitude in my tone.) I still got an offer. I declined.

“I finished writing the OCP 11 Practice Tests book with Scott, read some technical books, passed the AWS associate architect exam and served on the planning committee for the first ever JChampions conference.”

What is my honest answer

While my answer is factually true, none of that was what I did with my extra time for several reasons.

  • I would have done those things anyway.
  • I read less books in 2020 than in any of the past years I can remember. (I read tech books during my commute.) Trying to read at home, I get distracted. Most of the tech books I managed to read were when it was warm enough to sit outside.
  • I was unable to do my annual CodeRanch “JForum Day” feature for the first time in 11 years. I really wanted to do this. But I spent the finite amount of energy I had in the winter for coding/thinking on work. It wasn’t available for my extra time. So I objectively did and learned less in 2020 than in a normal year.
  • Studying for and taking the AWS exam was a mistake. I wasn’t able to retain information even in the short term. I cried numerous times trying to force myself to do so. I’ve already forgotten what I ‘learned’ and will have to re-learn it when things are better. I wish I had noticed what was going on earlier and stopped trying.
  • I spent most of my “extra time” trying to be physically and mentally ok.
  • All but one of the people I know who is comfortable physically getting together are two train rides (and over 90 minutes) away. This means it takes pretty much a whole weekend day to have any human interaction.
  • Having video/virtual contact is more tiring than real human contact. So the energy I put into trying to keep myself ok came out of my ability to do other things.

And none of this is bad. I believe expecting people to have learned and accomplished more during a pandemic is inconsiderate. Unless you believe we are going to be under stay at home orders for another year and learning during it is a requirement for your job, ask a different question!

studying for and taking an exam during a pandemic

Update (11/05/2020): Read The 1Z0-819 Exam page to learn how you can easily our Java 11 Study Guides to prepare for Oracle’s 1Z0-819 Exam, as well as the 1Z0-817 Upgrade Exam.

In the past two weeks, I’ve taken two certification exams: The AWS Associate Architect and the Java 11 819 exam. Taking a certification exam during a pandemic was not a good idea for me. I didn’t realize that until a few days before the first of the two exams.

It’s easy to read about how people are using all they time they have during lockdown/pandemic to accomplish things. In May, I talked to someone who got two AWS certs and talked about wonderful it was to have so much extra time to study. By contrast, this is how I was doing in May.

I’m posting this about my experiences with the certs because it is ok to not be normal right now. Some people are going to be able to study in these times (if that’s you, buy my Java 11 certification book!) But if that’s not you, it is ok. You aren’t alone.

Why I took the two exams

Work set a goal for me to take the AWS Professional Architect exam. We then downgraded it to the AWS Associate Architect exam. (you need the knowledge of the associate architect on the professional).

For the Oracle Java 11, 1Z0-819, I wanted to make sure the existing book Scott and I wrote was appropriate to study for the restructured exam. (It is). Which meant taking it as close to when it came out as possible.

Timing and needing to pass

This was unfortunate timing. When I took the AWS Practitioner and AWS Associate Developer, I didn’t know if I would pass on the first shot. But I figured that i’d rather pay out of pocket for a second attempt (knowing what to study the second time) than overstudy the first time around. However, a re-take would have been after the Java exam. Which meant I had no hope of remembering the AWS stuff for a retake. So the “one and done” approach was far less than ideal. (My employer didn’t pressure me about passing during pandemic. But I didn’t want to go through all of that only to have to take it again)

I’m already Java 11 certified. So it didn’t matter what score I got. Still, it’d be embarrassing to fail an exam that I author a book about!

How studying went

As I wrote in my AWS blog post,

While things have been better since Memorial Day, I don’t know if I’d all them good. One of the problems I have with working from home full time during pandemic is remembering stuff. I remember things spatially. And apparently, I can only remember so much that happens in the same place in a day. So during the week, work “takes” all of that. So I’ve found it incredibly difficult to retain anything and had to learn the same things over and over and over…

This was a major impediment to studying for the AWS exam. It wasn’t for the Java exam, because I already know most of that material. (There are some things I have to “re-learn” for each attempt at an exam though because I don’t have them memorized.) Also, I didn’t fully study for the Java exam because of lack of time and because I’d rather do worse than go through that again.

Mock exams are an important part of studying for a certification exam. I wrote for the AWS exam

I also got frustrated during (practically) every mock exam when I couldn’t remember stuff I knew I “should” be able to. This gave my brain the opportunity to freak about about all the other stuff I’m worried about (going back to a coronavirus winter and the like)

I didn’t get frustrated for the Java ones because I knew what was going on. Also, while I was having trouble concentrating, I knew it didn’t matter. That said, I wasted a bunch of time trying. I just kept making the same mistakes over and over.

It’s funny because I always study with the mock tests at home. But I’m home far less overall. The concentration energy I have is going to other things (like my actual job). Whereas normally, I “get home” and am in a different mental space.

How taking the test went

While I was able to concentrate in the AWS testing center far better then at home, I still had a problem. I couldn’t recall stuff “I learned” at home. So I got frustrated because the problems from home felt like they were following me. This is something I’ll have to be careful with when we finally do go back to the office. I’m sure I’m accumulating all sorts of “mental debt” with things that I’m not learning as well as “normally.” But at least then it won’t be an open ended stretch of time ahead of me.

For the Java test, I was fine at the testing center. I was able to recall stuff far better than I did at home. Including stuff I didn’t study.

My score

On the AWS exam, I got a 760 (passing is 720). On the Java one, I got 72% (passing is 68%.) Both of these are lower than what I normally get on cert tests. But a pass, is a pass :).

(I found a couple of errors on the Java test. They might still be shaking it out.)

Why I think it was so difficult

First of all, I don’t do the lion share of studying for a certification exam from home under normal conditions. I study on the subway. I make “cheat sheets” of things I need to memorize and leave them in different spots (my desk at work, a paper to carry around the robotics lab, etc.) This allows me to “anchor” things I learn to specific spots.

Second, it’s been hard enough to do my job from home all the time. Learning/remembering more things from home on top of that is not helpful.

Third, I keep comparing how I’m doing to “normal.” I like to push myself as I can (at times). I like to feel productive by knowing I accomplished so much. Things aren’t normal. And I have trouble convincing myself that shouldn’t be the baseline. So when I did worse than normal, it was like a frequent reminder of this.

In Conclusion

I don’t want to take another certification exam until things are far closer to normal. In particular, I want my work stuff out of the middle of my apartment, not to be “using up” my finite ability to retain things from home on work and to have a commute again.