On The Road Again

One large change in my transition from a desk-based engineer to a “product manager helping desk-based engineers” (and part time basement-based engineer) is the sharp increase in travel. I am writing this post from a hotel room, as I likely will others in the future.

Travel has been a blessing. I get to meet more people in person, make deeper connections with those I have met online and see parts of the world that are drastically different than my basement.

However, I am learning that I thrive in situations that are boring.

A large part of my success on projects like Contextual Electronics was a focus on routines; these were natural extensions of excess time while firmly planted in my house in the midwest. There wasn’t all that much to do on any given weeknight and any social activity takes planning because of the relative distance of my friends in the area. When I’m home, I stay on track with my daily habits. Travel throws a wrench in the works though.

One problem relates to my last post about co-workers. I often work by myself, and that’s when I get a lot of work done. But when I’m with co-workers on the road or at the office, I want to spend time with them! Friends…right next to me! This means dinners and social events and simply sitting down and chatting for extended periods. My rather packed habit schedule does not go for this though.

Ultimately, it comes down to balancing fun and social things with work. That’s the nature of work, right? If I want to continue improving myself, my course and my life, I need to sometimes pass up going out for a beer. I think in general, the coincidence of alcohol and social functions also needs to decrease on travel, but that is a topic for another post. The first thing I will be focusing on is striking a healthy balance between spending time face to face with people I don’t see very often (which is important) and getting work done for the future (which is also important).

Thanks to Moyan Brenn for the picture of the road.

On Having Co-workers

I thought the thing I wanted more than anything else was to work alone. By myself. With myself. For myself.

Quit my job. Strike out on my own.

Sure, no job actually exists in a vacuum. The basis of commerce is one entity paying another, which sets up a power structure. So I assumed I would be working for my customers. That continues to be a very rewarding part of Contextual Electronics (CE). Hearing about the problems they’re having and working to solve those problems tickles my teaching nerve and my engineering nerve (the one the rewards me when I solve problems).

But I thought I’d be on my own and that’s what I really wanted. I was kind of wrong.

Shortly after leaving my last job to work on CE, I joined Supplyframe part time. We have been doing exciting things like the Hackaday Prize (now in its third year) and building tools I’ve always wanted for myself as an engineer. That has become a bigger part of my life and I really like where the company is right now and where it’s going. Today marks the two year anniversary of that decision. Also along the way, the direction of CE has also taken a turn towards embedded, so I brought on two part time instructors, who also act as advisors for both the content and the site.

Co-workers challenge me.  They keep tabs on me. They inspire new ideas during our discussions. They prevent me from getting lonely, even working remotely in a basement in Cleveland (the “Co” in “Co-workers” meaning working on the same stuff, not necessarily in the same location).

In both of my jobs, I now work with people on a daily basis. Engineers aren’t supposed to like that. I’m supposed to be a lone wolf. I’m either a bad engineer or a true pack animal, because I enjoy having co-workers again.

Thanks to Lex Photographic for the picture of the Lone Wolf

Habits, Not Goals

Part of this site used to be public, but is now hidden; it’s a list of goals that I have for myself over the long term.

I went and looked at it recently and realized I have achieved 3 out of 5 in one manner or another, but probably not to the extent that I initially imagined achieving the goal. For example, one goal was “have a music studio in my house”. Recording equipment is super easy and cheap these days and I have it for all my music instruments…does that count? I dunno. I say yes.

But in thinking about revising those goals, I realized there was no way to know if I would ever reach them. More importantly, there’s no way to know if I would want to reach them by the time I actually did. That’s what’s crazy to me. I can set a goal to become an astronaut now (hard pass), but on the path towards becoming an astronaut it’s very possible that I could find out I want to be terrestrial biologist or a children’s author or something I’ve not even heard of yet. You just never know where your path will take you. I got to see a talk on this very subject at XOXO last September and I go back to watch it often. Nicky Case is a wonderful speaker and this was exactly what I needed to see at that point in my life:

So instead, I’m focusing on habits. Really, that’s why a lot of goals exist in the first place. It’s focusing on something far in the future so you can figure out the steps required in the near term. Instead, I’m going to try and change some daily habits to see how that moves me towards a better tomorrow, especially since I have no idea what that will eventually look like.

This actually all started with an app install. I saw a list of “must have apps” and tried installing one called Habit Bull. It’s really quite simple. You input the habit you want to build and every day you track either how much you did of that thing (ie. how many minutes did I read) or whether or not you did it at all (ie. Did I read today?). I normally choose the latter as it makes it a very simple exercise. I also started very slowly. I started with a singular goal,

“Did I walk the dog today?”

Obviously that has benefit for the dog, but also for me. It means my head is in the right place. It means I’m not putting my work above all else. It means I’m getting a little bit of exercise for myself. But that simple question allows me to stay focused. I’ve gradually added other things that seem to indicate daily success.

My most recent one was, “Am I working at my bench by noon?” I have worked from home since I quit my full time engineering job 2 years ago (wowsa, that long ago?). While that sounds like an easy goal (it is), it focuses me on not just reading and responding to emails all day upstairs on the couch and instead being near my electronics. The environment helps me focus even if I’m not working on electronics directly. It also makes me do a little bit of work to go upstairs and grab yet another cup of coffee, which means I might get to sleep at a decent hour later that night.

This all hinges on using the app daily, which I’ve been doing pretty consistently. Even if I miss a day, the “yes or no” nature of these habits makes it pretty easy to remember and back fill from memory. Over time, I hope these habits will become permanent, but my priorities may also change. For instance, right now I’m learning my third instrument (piano) but who knows what I’ll want to learn in the future (tuba?). Also, I should mention that the app is not the real thing that’s driving me to do these things, so much as the idea behind them. Had I been a pen and paper person, a simple log book could have driven me to similar levels of success.

Obviously, writing has not been on my list for a long time. I’m not sure it will be any time soon, either. I like the idea of writing and I think it helps my career, but I’m not sure it’s as much of a priority for me. Another on my list is trying to make a video each day for Contextual Electronics, and that would take priority as that’s my main communication medium these days. Regardless, I like the flexibility and the focusing on things I can get done in the short term. It has helped me focus what I want in my life with regards to health, relationships, career and personal fulfillment on a daily basis.

If you see more articles from me though, perhaps blogging made it onto my list.

Image via the YouTube video of Nicky’s talk.