Workless Fun

It’s easy to fill your time off with activities that are as much work as the job you’re taking a break from. Even if they’re fun, they’re still work. If too much of your downtime is fun-work, you’re not really getting a break. You’re just switching tasks.

Examples of fun-work:

  • Training for a running race you entered with your friends.
  • Finishing that project that’s been sitting in your garage.
  • Spending the whole day at historical attractions in the town you’re visiting.
  • Learning to cook that elaborate thing you saw on a cooking show.

Personally, I enjoy all of these. They’re rewarding. They also take energy. They’re a form of work.

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Examples of workless-fun:

  • Hanging out with friends for no reason except to see them.
  • Watching videos of people working on projects in their garages.
  • Drinking coffee in a cafe overlooking the skyline of the town you’re visiting.
  • Going to a restaurant you’ve been meaning to try.

To get the full recharge that downtime can give me, I’ve found that I need to do as much workless-fun as I do fun-work. Otherwise, I’ll get back to the office exactly as tired as when I left. I’ll be more fulfilled as a person, but I’ll still be tired.

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Just Use the Tags!

There I was at KubeCon, hanging out with some friends from Nebulaworks. We were talking about deploying container images.

“I always tell people to use the SHA256 digest of containers. That way you know exactly what you’re deploying.” Said one of my buddies.

“Sure, but that’s a pain.” I replied, not thinking it through. “Just use the tags! That’s what everybody does.”

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90 minutes later we’re sitting in a talk about container registries and some of the risky things you can do with them.

“You should always deploy by digest.” Said Jon, one of the presenters. “When you deploy by tag, you’re basically piping curl into bash in production. Don’t do that.”

To show what’s possible, they implemented a chat service using pushes and pulls from a registry. “It’s built on what Jon has advised us to never do: pull by tag.” Jon’s colleague explained. This was just a fun example, but it was also a scary illustration of the scope of what a malicious user could do under the right circumstances.

My friend leaned over and loud-whispered “SHA256!”

FAIL.

“Just use the tags!” was a naive response.

I should have asked more questions. “Everybody deploys by tags, is that just a common mistake? A lot of registries have a feature that makes tags immutable, is that equivalent?” That would have left room for me to learn something.

There’s so much knowledge out there. You’ll inevitably miss something. No matter how much you know, you’re still usually better off asking questions than making statements.

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The Real Cost of Walkouts

When workers dislike their work or their work environment enough, sometimes they walk out.

Maybe there’s a bully in the office. Maybe it’s just not a good fit. I’ve known folks who tried software development, hated it, then discovered they love operations. I’ve known others who tried operations, hated it, then discovered they love software development. Maybe it’s something unrecognizably different from these examples.

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Whatever the cause, the most productive workers often quit first. A reputation for productivity creates opportunities, so it’s easiest for them to find alternatives. You can’t predict exactly who will leave first, but over the years I’ve noticed it’s often the core contributors.

Word also gets around. Companies have brands with their workforce just like they do with their customers. It’s common for workers to ask around about companies they’re considering. I’ve seen plenty of candidates decline interviews because they got too many negative reports.

Delivering product means hiring and retaining talent that’s able to deliver. The damage done by walkouts makes it hard to do both those things.

If folks are having a bad experience, prioritize working with them to understand and address the cause. If you wait for them to walk and reactively try to hire a replacement, the damage may already be done.

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Taking Time Off Too Late

Years ago, I left a job that had been full of 90 hour weeks.

“I need a vacation.” I thought, when I turned in my badge.

A few days later, I was on the beach. The sun was drying the ocean off me, and there was nothing to do but read. It was perfect, but I hardly felt the sun.

Not the actual beach, but a nearby one from a previous trip to the same coast. I didn’t take many photos on my recovery trip.

I was still beat from those 90 hour weeks. My thoughts were still spinning on the problems I’d left behind. I felt better by the time I went home, but barely. Two empty weeks didn’t make up for the dozens of brutal ones I was recovering from.

My next job didn’t require 90s, but it still came with the stresses that any job does. It wore me back down pretty quick. After a month I wanted another vacation.

If you wait until you’re burned out to take time off, a vacation may only bring you barely back to normal. The next stressful thing will pull you right back down.

If you take time off before you burn out, a vacation can energize you beyond normal. It can pump you up with excess motivation that you can spend on your next project. Take vacations early so they lift you up instead of just patching you up.

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How to Survive Working from Home

In How to Work from Home, I shared lessons I’ve learned about staying productive when teams go remote. Working from home can impact more than just productivity, though. It can make me feel stagnant. Lethargic. Here are lessons I’ve learned about staying energized while I’m working from home.

Lesson #1: Dedicate a space for work.

Position yourself so you see a view that you only see when you’re in that space. It can be as simple as allocating a chair at the table facing the opposite direction as the chair where you eat. Don’t do anything except work in that space. Don’t work from anywhere except that space. The separation has helped me focus when I’m at work and relax when I’m not.

Lesson #2: Practice different personal habits when working.

For me, this means dressing business casual whenever I’m in my work space (ok, most of the time I’m in my work space). The basketball shorts stay in the closet until after dinner. This gives work a crisp feeling that distinguishes it from downtime.

Lesson #3: Don’t sit for long intervals.

It’s easy to sit all the time when you have a desk job. Working at home, it’s even worse. You don’t have to walk to the front to sign that form for HR. There’s no lunch group walking to the restaurant across the street. Nobody stands around in the break room chatting.

At home, I need replacements for the physical activity that office life used to create. I’ll walk a loop of streets near my house before lunch, do some lunges between emails, or stand in the kitchen doing dishes after each meal.

I’ve also noticed that even a tough workout doesn’t substitute for sitting all day. I can’t finish work, run for an hour, then plop on the couch. To stay energized, I have to move and stand throughout the whole day.

Lesson #4: Add color.

This is the most subjective habit I follow. It might not work for everyone. It worked so well for me that I figured it was worth sharing.

I was feeling cooped up this week, so I bought a bouquet of flowers and put them in my living room. I smiled a lot of times that day for no reason. A colorful print on the wall and a blue ink pen for the notepad on my desk have similar effects. Color makes the light feel brighter and the air seem fresher.

Enjoy skipping your commute!

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Process-Go-Round

This is a true story, but I changed details to respect everyone’s privacy.

A team regularly reviewed their process. The frequency of their check-ins, how they tracked their tasks, things like that.

These reviews were supposed to be an opportunity to raise concerns and make suggestions. In reality, folks were expected to raise concerns and make suggestions. If they stayed silent, the leader would call on them by name.

“Tommy, what do you think? You haven’t said anything.” He’d ask.

“I’m good, no problems.” Tommy answered. The team had been working together for years. He was comfortable with their process.

“Don’t hold back. Tell us what you think.”

Feeling pressure, Tommy tried to think of something. “Maybe we check in too often. I guess the interruptions make it hard to focus.”

The manager nodded. The team switched from daily check-ins to Monday, Wednesday, and Friday.

It took weeks for the new schedule to become a habit. People would show up on Tuesday and wait around for a canceled meeting. They’d forget to go on Friday and hold up the conversation while someone went to find them. Eventually, the new schedule stabilized.

Then, “Tommy, what do you think? You haven’t said anything.”

“I’m good, no problems.”

“Go ahead. Tell us what you think.”

“Uhhhh. Mondays are tough days. After the weekend, I’ve forgotten about work.”

They changed the check-ins to Tuesday and Thursday.

People showed up to an empty room on Wednesday. They remembered barely in time on Thursday and showed up unprepared. Eventually, the new schedule stabilized.

Then, “Tommy, what do you think? You haven’t said anything.”

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On and on the process-go-round turned.

The team spent a lot of their time and focus tweaking their process, which is another way of saying they spent a lot of their budget tweaking their process. It turned out that the check-in schedule had no measurable impact on their output. It didn’t change what was delivered.

Process changes are expensive because folks need time to adjust to them. Each change needs to be valuable enough to offset the cost of making it a habit.

If people are happy and their work is getting done, let them work. It’s important to provide opportunities for team members to raise concerns and give suggestions, but equally important not to force them to change what’s already working.

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The Channel Bully

This is a true story, but I changed details to respect everyone’s privacy.

A director created a chat channel for non-work conversations. People could share pictures or puzzles or whatever else. It was fun. Then the Channel Bully showed up.

First, someone posted a puzzle. Someone else wrote a possible solution. The Channel Bully attacked. “We already know you think you’re so smart you can solve everything, you don’t need to tell us again.”

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Next, someone shared a funny pun. The Bully struck again. “Please be more careful to use correct English. This sentence needs the Oxford comma.”

Folks stopped using the channel. Around the same time, several quit. The channel attacks were just one symptom of a broader problem.

A few comments like these can destroy a team’s willingness to collaborate. If people sense that a predator is about to pounce, they’ll find a wall to put their back against and stand there on guard. It’s hard to work with your teammates when your back is against a wall on the other side of the room.

Collaboration happens when team members sense that their team protects them. It stops when they sense that their teammates will attack them.

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EggOps

One morning, I cracked an egg into a bowl and threw away the shell. I cracked another egg into the bowl and threw away the shell. I cracked the last egg into the trash and threw the shell in the bowl. I realized something was wrong when I was about to whisk together two eggs and a shell.

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There were no more eggs in the fridge. I wasn’t going to scoop a yolk and its whites out of the trash, so I was short on protein that morning.

There was no reason to drop an egg into the trash.

I crack three eggs every morning. 21 eggs a week. I stand in the same place, use the same bowls, and keep my eggs in the same shelf on the fridge. I’m well practiced. The circumstances are consistent.

Even though it made no sense and even though I was set up to succeed, I made an unpredictable mistake. How could I have guessed I’d throw away part of my breakfast for no reason?

Human operators will make unpredictable mistakes some percent of the time, even on the simplest tasks. Training and other tools can reduce that percentage, but not to zero.

All operations have to plan for unpredictable mistakes. That means there has to be a way to restart the task. There have to be more eggs in the fridge. You can’t plan to scoop an egg out of the trash.

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One Dollar Scissors

I bought a pair of scissors for a dollar. They were terrible, but they opened packages for ten years. I’d still be using them if I hadn’t lost them. After I lost them, I bought a better pair. They cost twenty dollars. I used them to open packages.

Tool quality is often defined by comparison. My one dollar scissors were lower quality than their twenty dollar replacement.

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Tool quality should be defined by outcomes. My one dollar scissors opened my packages. My twenty dollar scissors opened my packages. They delivered the same outcome. I should have bought a one dollar replacement and saved myself nineteen bucks.

This is easy to see when you’re buying scissors. It can be hard to see when you’re shipping software.

Does your app really need to be redundant across multiple geographic regions? If the West Coast region goes offline for an hour, how much will that cost you? Because if it’s less than the cost of building a system that can automatically fail over to the East Coast, consider taking the risk. Maybe you only need one dollar scissors.

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The Real Cost of Tech Debt

“Technical debt” is engineering jargon for the work left behind when you cut corners.

You cancel the automatic updates on your laptop because you don’t have time to download and restart. Going back and installing those updates is now tech debt.

You need a CI/CD pipeline for one of your apps. You’re in the middle of five other features and you don’t have time to write automation that creates one. You click around in Azure DevOps and set everything up manually. Recreating your pipeline with automation is now tech debt.

Engineering is full of these compromises. The debt they create is manageable if you don’t accumulate too much of it and if you pay it back fast enough. It’s hard to know how much is too much and how fast is fast enough. Bills come due suddenly and with bigger finance charges than you realized.

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The updates you didn’t install turn out to be critical security patches. You get breached. There’s an investigation. Logs show you skipped the update that would have prevented the breach.

When you’re not looking, other engineers copy your temporary pipeline to deploy the primary apps of the company. You try to replace those pipelines with automation and discover it’ll require multiple outages that each impact revenue.

Even when it doesn’t create disasters, tech debt can be expensive. I’ve worked on several projects where 80% of my time was spent paying back tech debt. Most of everything I was paid was diverted from features into debt. The delays in feature development also delayed product launches which led to lost revenue.

Tech debt feels like this:

Cutting corners increases the cost of development by 10% to 20%, but you deliver 10% to 20% faster.

Wrong

Tech debt is actually like this:

Cutting corners is ten times more expensive than doing it right, and sometimes it causes business disasters.

Reality

Even if you need to ship quickly and cheaply, quality is usually the right approach. You can cut a few corners, but you’re gambling every time. When the dice don’t land in your favor, you can suffer outages and breaches and high costs and all kinds of other problems.

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