Software engineers and data scientists are known for working from the basement, in the dark, without sunlight or social interaction – basically socially awkward vampires to the rest of the world. Perfect conditions for working from home. As with any cliché, it is not exactly true. Yes, we like to have no direct light on our screens – ever tried to work with sun reflections on your screen? Annoying and sometimes almost impossible to work with. But the “no social interaction” part and “being a lone wolf” is impossible in our field: we need to talk to swap ideas before we start implementing solutions, we need to talk if we are stuck with an issue, we need a break sometimes from our own thoughts and to air our brains, we need to talk to update each other on our progress, we need to plan together where we want to “go” with our software.
Before COVID-19, we could just turn around and ask a colleague (or more like “turn around and stare your colleague down until they finished their train of thoughts”) and then talk to them about whatever was on our minds. Now in our home offices, we ask the silly question “Do you have time?” in our chat software and hope we are not interrupting at an important moment. If we are lucky, shortly afterwards we receive the answer “Sure,” and then we can either chat or call to talk. Now the real challenge begins: Talking is often faster and avoids some misunderstandings, but if you have started a chat, more often than not, you will continue writing and not call. What problem can come from writing instead of talking? There is a good chance that your interlocutor (and you too) will continue work during your conversation because you need to wait until the other has finished their message and hit “enter,” and how this can affect the efficiency of the conversation is pretty clear.
If we do start a call, usually the issue to solve and the reason for the call is bigger, needs more explanation, and requires everyone involved to look at the same screen, rather than trying to have everyone reproduce the issue on their own machines. Luckily, we are in this amazing time of “share screen” software and can simulate sitting before the same screen. It works quite well; we’ve used it a few times already for co-debugging sessions in our team. What we noticed is the most useful tool in this scenario is “get control” for the shared screen. This can be used to take over another’s screen and try stuff out – without needing to spell out each command and click to the owner of the shared screen.
We are lucky to be in the current age of internet and digital technology. Without all these assistive tools, it would be much harder to make working from home feasible. Just imagine trying to conduct a phone call with someone whenever you are stuck somewhere or explaining what you see on your screen without sharing – it would take so much time and we would all end up with grey hair! At the same time, I can ensure you that you do not need to be afraid to write your colleagues a message in the chat – it is usually less intrusive than interrupting by looming over others at their desks.
We, the social awkward vampires, welcome you in our club of home office workers! To those of you for whom social distancing is new, let us give you hope: While working from home is not always ideal, modern technology provides us with enough tools to make it through the COVID-19 time.