Work

Old Office, New Office

by Joey deVilla on September 6, 2011

Summer Sojourn’s End

Joey's car (Black Honda CR-V), packed to the gills, with a red bike in the rear-mounted bike rack.

My summer immersion term at Shopify ended on Friday. I’d found my niche within the company, gotten to know the team and was ready to continue working remotely. It was time to return to Accordion City.

I moved out of the furnished apartment they provided me for the summer – affectionately dubbed the “Swank Tank” – a day early because I had a business trip to Montreal and packed everything I’d brought with me and picked up over the summer into my car. I tucked my car into Edward’s driveway for the couple of days I was away, far enough out of sight of the kind of people who break into cars to help themselves to the loot inside.

Between not knowing how much kitchen stuff would be provided by the Swank Tank’s proprietors, wanting to have a good chunk of my home office material handy over the summer and just being be ready for anything, I overpacked when I left for Ottawa in May. I’d also picked up a couple of large items over the summer, including a new monitor and bike. Looking at my car, you’d think that I’d made a permanent move and not just gone somewhere else for the summer.

I decided to wait out the Labour Day Friday cottager traffic and make the five-hour road trip from Ottawa to Toronto in the evening. I had dinner at the Smoque Shack with my coworkers Liz, Julie, Nick and Brian, picked up my car at Edward’s and went into the Shopify office one more time to get the last of my stuff.

Old Office

Here’s the entrance stairway to the current office. This won’t be our current office for too much longer; we’re moving into a newer, larger space a couple of blocks down the street later this fall:

The entry stairway to the Shopify offices

Here’s the reception area and lobby, as it appeared at 9:30-ish on Friday night:

The reception desk and lobby at Shopify

Offices take on an eerie, haunted sort of vibe late at night, so I decided to snap a couple of pictures. Here’s the “Fishtank”, the glass-enclosed room where Shopify’s design team works:

The empty desks of Shopify's design team room

The Fishtank has a big glass wall that looks out onto the main “bullpen”:

The big glass wall in the Shopify Fishtank looking out onto the main office

Right across the hall from the Fishtank is the boardroom, which you may remember from the Epic Meal Time video that was shot at our offices; this is where the final tasting scene was shot:

Shopify's boardroom, with cardboard animal "trophies" hanging on the far wall

By some strange coincidence, whenever I get an assigned space at an office – something that hasn’t happened since I left Tucows in late 2007 –- I usually get the “Keanu Reeves Location”: a desk situated in the dead centre of the mass of desks (just like his character in The Matrix had). I had that spot in the Shopify office:

Two rows of empty desks in the centre aisle of Shopify's main office

Here’s my old desk, all clear and ready for the next person to occupy it. I took the Shopify standard-issue 15” MacBook Pro, Magic Mouse and wireless keyboard with me, but left the Cinema Display and Aeron chair behind. It would’ve been nice to take both back to the home office with me, if I’d had the room in the car:

A desk that is empty except for an Apple monitor

New Office

This year’s been a bit of a weird one. Between being in the hospital, several trips (two of which lasted nearly two weeks each) and being in Ottawa for the summer, home wasn’t where I lived; it had become a nice place to visit. The (not so) recent change in the domestic situation also meant a few changes in the layout of my apartment, including a chance to reclaim the home office. I got the basics done before I left and did some serious setup over the Labour Day weekend. The results are shown below.

Here’s what you see as you enter the new home office:

Carpeted apartment bedroom converted into a home office, showing a long desk with computers and a window looking out onto treetops

Here’s a closer look at the desk. I bought it at Cooper’s old Queen Street location back in 1997 for what seemed like a lot of money back then, and it’s served me well over the years. It was originally L-shaped, but over the years, I’ve reconfigured it in all sorts of ways: L-shaped, split into two desks and finally, as a single long workstation:

Joey's workstation, as seen from the left

Here’s the desk from the other side:

Joey's workstation, as seen from the right

Opposite the desk: a set of matching shelves and a lot of organizers I’ve picked up over the years. I used to have more programming books – they used to eat up shelves – but in the age of PDFs and the iPad (plus the fact that the half-life of a tech book seems to be nine months these days), most of my tech library is in electronic form now:

Bookshelves packed with books, plus photo boxes of files and many plastic bins full of wiring and other tech equipment

Here’s another view of the whole office. The window looks west out onto the courtyard behind my building, and beyond that, the tree-lined Gothic Avenue:

Joey's home office as seen from the desks, showing a windows overlooking treetops and the bookshelves and organizers

The left side is the Windows half of the desk. My main Windows machine is the Dell 15” laptop I got as one of my fabulous parting gifts from Microsoft. The monitor is one I bought as a present to myself shortly after joining The Empire just before my birthday in 1998. And hey, who wouldn’t want to have an Xbox in their office?

The left side of Joey's workstation, with a Dell 15" laptop, 25" Samsung monitor, Wacom drawing tablet, Xbox and wireless controller and office chair

On the right side of the desk: the Mac side. That’s a 15” MacBook Pro driving a 24” LED Cinema Display that I bought from my coworker Nick just before heading back home. Note the Avenue Q “The Internet is for Porn” mousepad just to the left of the keyboard.

The right side of Joey's workstation, showing a 15" Mackbook Pro, 24" Apple monitor, several organizing containers and a "The Internet is for Porn" mousepad

The New Old Routine

Today’s my first day back at my old routine as a mobile worker. I’ll get a fair bit of work done at the home office, but I’ll also be mixing it up by being on the road, plus working at some alternate locations because I don’t like being a shut-in.

The view from the front of Cafe Novo, a cafe that opens out onto Bloor Street

I’m a member of the Hacklab, which gives me 24/7 access to their Kensington Market space; it’s often empty during the day. There are also a number of work-friendly wifi-equipped cafes where I hang out, both close to home in High Park (I’ll write about them soon) as well as closer downtown. And finally, I’ve got a fair bit of travel in my future – so much that I’m getting my Nexus card next month – which means I’ll be working from hotels, cafes, airport lounges, BarCamps, other people’s offices and so on.

It’s going to be an interesting fall.

This article also appears in The Adventures of Accordion Guy in the 21st Century.

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“That’s Not OCD” Revisited

by Joey deVilla on May 5, 2011

Small version of the text

Yesterday’s posting, That’s Not OCD, You’re Just a Slacker, garnered quite a few comments. You should check them out if you haven’t already read them.

The most informative and extensive response comes from a commenter named “Another psychologist”, who sums up the problem with the multiple-choice question in the textbook quite well. It covers a number of issues with the question, including:

  • The DSM. Look hard enough, and you’ll find something that you’ve got.
  • Introverts vs. extroverts. North American society favours and rewards extroverts (and yes, a good chunk of my career as a tech evangelist is based on cashing in on this trait, a relative rarity in high tech).
  • “Normal” vs. “abnormal” behaviour. A tricky thing, and I remember a lecture on cognition where a psych prof told our class that being slightly manic is probably a good trait for living in 21st-century North America.
  • The importance of “It depends,” the most important phrase in consulting. Without knowing a little bit more about the back story of the medical student in the question, it’s hard to make a good diagnosis. Sometimes there’s little to distinguish someone having a bad day and someone who’s bipolar (it’s also hard to distinguish between “bipolar” and “asshole” at first glance).

Here’s the comment:

I’d be wary of labelling this chap as possessing “obsessive-compulsive traits” without more information than the vignette provides. His lack of delight in partying may simply be because he is relatively introverted, rather than extroverted. Another normal trait.

The problem with the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of mental disorders (The DSM) is that there is no entry for “Normal Personality”.

If the mythical medical student did happen to have OC traits then he was using them constructively. Perhaps this was the point the examiner wished the students to understand, but there is insufficient context to know whether this is true.

As a health professional I would certainly not want to “treat” this apparently well-functioning individual unless his “traits” caused some problem that was not included in the brief description.

One of the things I tried to teach my interns was a healthy skepticism about what was “abnormal” behavior, given the environment and the circumstances of the situation in which it was expressed, and a health skepticism about interpreting elevations on standard personality scales without knowing the patient’s history and background.

If a patient throws a tantrum in a waiting room when told that this Xray has been cancelled again (for the fourth time) this does not necessary mean that the patient is suffering from a personality disorder or impairment of the parts of the brain that regulate behavioural expression. A sick person who is struggling with pain and indignity is entitled to this type of behaviour in the circumstances.

When a group of intern psychologists, but not the intern medicos, get blips on the personality disorder scale of a well-known test it does not mean that the psych group are all deviants who should not be practising psycyology. It probably means that they are good researchers who have been trained to question authority.

I hope the professor who set the test made this kind of thing clear.

Thanks for the comment, Another psychologist! And to all of you, please feel free to keep the discussion going.

This article also appears in The Adventures of Accordion Guy in the 21st Century.

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And So It Begins (or Frederic’s Officially on Board)

by Joey deVilla on January 3, 2011

Frederic HarperIt’s official: I’m not "The New Guy" any more.

After two years and change, I’m passing the mantle to our newest developer evangelist, Frédéric Harper, whose first official day on the job is today (I’m still there, but now it’s my job to torment the new guy). Of the many ways one can kick off a brand new year, starting a new job, especially one as interesting, challenging and fun as being an evangelist at Microsoft, is certainly one of the better ones.

Fred is based in Montreal, where he blogs at A la Base {2} and is known as an open source guy, having worked with its vibrant PHP community with tools and technologies that those of you who eat, breathe and sleep the bash shell will find familiar: PHP, Perl, MySQL and PostgreSQL. That’s not all that different from my own experience, having worked open source from the PHP, Python and Ruby side of things. Also like me, he’s worked the .NET side of the fence, with stuff like ASP.NET, C#, SQL Server and so on. I think his perspective as a newcomer, open sourcer, Montrealer and francophone will be of great value to the team, and judging from the couple of times he’s joined us at TechDays (in Montreal and Winnipeg), I think he’ll fit in just fine.

Fred’s area of concentration is going to be web development. He’s going to be your go-to guy for Windows web technologies of all sorts, and he’s definitely your go-to guy if French is your primary language.

He’s going to be in town later this week to visit Microsoft Canada HQ in Mississauga, where he’ll go through the standard employee “onboarding” procedures, which include getting a security badge (hence the term “blue badge” for Microsoft full-time employees), filling out some TPS reports, getting his assigned gear (one of the best parts of this job – we get lots of toys) and having an exploding tracking chip implanted in his head, near the base of the skull.

(Oh, wait a minute: I think the tracking chip is one of those things we’re not supposed to talk about.)

Anyways: welcome aboard, Fred! I think you’ll like it here.

This article also appears in Canadian Developer Connection.

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I Probably Owe You an Email…

by Joey deVilla on October 7, 2010

"Getting Caught Up": Large stack of papers in an office cubicle

…or a phone call, or visit or something along those lines. The past couple of days have kept me quite busy helping run TechDays Edmonton, but that ended yesterday, and I’m spending today helping run Windows Phone 7 Coffee and Code Edmonton (it’s at the Second Cup at 102 and Jasper) and getting caught up. I’ll be working through my backlog in reverse chronological order, and if there’s something that needs my attention, it wouldn’t hurt to fire me a reminder email!

This article also appears in Canadian Developer Connection.

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It’s One of the Perks of the Job

by Joey deVilla on June 15, 2010

View from the bar at Cafe Novo, looking out onto the patio and High Park

The best antidote for a day full of meetings in boardrooms in a suburban office park is to finish it in different surroundings. So when my last meeting on Friday ended with a couple of hours of business day to spare, I made a beeline for one of my favourite “field offices” – Cafe Novo, located across the street from High Park, and a very short walk from home.

The photo above was the view from my “workstation” at 4 p.m. on Friday: the bar facing the roll-up front wall which in turn faces the park. Pictured are the tools of my trade – my trusty Dell Latitude XT2 tablet with the memory maxed out at 5 GB and the so-last-century mechanical hard drive replaced with a solid state one, my favourite portable mouse and an iced mocha.

Working in settings like this is one of the perks of the job.

This article also appears in Canadian Developer Connection.

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Getting Paid to Work for Ballmer is Pretty Nice

by Joey deVilla on June 5, 2010

Joey deVilla and Steve BallmerMe and Ballmer at the Microsoft Town Hall in Toronto, October 2009.

David “DHH” Heinemeier Hansson recently wrote in the excellent blog Signal to Noise (add it to your reading list if it isn’t there already) that he’d never work for Ballmer.

Since he’s DHH, he doesn’t have to – he’s a principal at the development firm 37signals, whose web apps I like to cite as examples to follow, and the creator of the web framework Ruby on Rails. Unfortunately, most of us aren’t DHH: we can’t all be brilliant game-changing programmers who are also photogenic enough to have the option of becoming a male model when this computer fad blows over. When a Sith Lord from Microsoft comes a-calling with a job offer, we don’t automatically turn it down; we have to mull it over.

Darth Vader makes his offer: "Join me...we have a good dental plan!"

I’ve been working for Ballmer (quite indirectly: I’m a fair number of degrees of separation below him on the org chart) for the past twenty months. I can say with complete certainty that out of all the jobs I’ve held – from the job right out of school building multimedia CD-ROMs in Director to working with Cory Doctorow in his dot-com’s evangelism office in San Francisco at the height of The Bubble to various coding jobs from my own consulting shop to Toronto’s worst-run startup to that very brief stint as a go-go dancer at a nightclubmy current gig as Developer Evangelist for The Empire has been my all-time favourite of the bunch. I get to do two things I absolutely love – working with technology and schmoozing with people – and with a fair bit of autonomy: in the setting of my choice, with a set of priorities that I negotiate. I also get to work with some of the brightest and most passionate people I’ve ever met, both inside and outside the company, and it doesn’t hurt that the pay’s quite nice (although, as Dan ink will tell you, money isn’t the primary motivator in this line of work).

Joey deVilla playing accordion in front of the RailsConf logoPlaying accordion onstage at RailsConf 2007.

Until 2008, I’d worked mostly for small companies, many of whom you could fit into a minivan. I might not have considered working for Microsoft, or any large corporation for that matter, had it not been for a little moment that I internally refer to as “The Abercrombie Epiphany”. And oddly enough, it happened at RailsConf 2007, a conference devoted to DHH’s creation Ruby on Rails, where I played an ode to DHH onstage with Chad Fowler at the start of the evening keynote (that’s what’s pictured above, and there’s even a video of the song).

The second day’s opening keynote was about Ruby, Rails and the enterprise, and the crowd was not impressed. A good chunk of the IRC backchannel chatter was devoted to saying “enough with the enterprise already…who cares?” I distinctly remember someone referring to one of the presenters as “trying to be the Rachael Ray of enterprise computing”. The guy leaning against the wall behind me (I’d arrived late, having taken part in the previous night’s bacchanalia) in an Abercrombie & Fitch T-shirt started putting on a hoodie with the letters “A & F” on it and packing up his laptop. “Who uses this stuff, anyway?” he said to me as he picked up his Starbucks cup and walked towards the door. “I’m going back to the Marriott.”

It was probably the fact that he was wearing all that Abercrombie & Fitch – the company vaguely annoys me – that got me thinking about his question, “who uses this stuff anyway?” It turns out he did: he’d flown to Portland, stayed at a chain hotel, used a laptop and conference wifi, drank coffee from the shop with a branch in every mall and seemingly on every corner and bought clothes from a century-old retailer – and the cycles that enabled all that didn’t run two-week-marathon-written code living on 10-dollar hosting, but invisibly and everywhere on systems he didn’t think anyone used.

I wouldn’t give the incident any thought until just over a year later.

An office chair, a computer and some boxes lined up against an interior brick wallPacking up my stuff after getting laid off from b5media, September 2008.

What got me thinking about that little Abercrombie & Fitch experience was my getting laid off from b5media during the econopocalypse of summer 2008. I’d been interviewing with a number of companies, all of them small, and blogging the experience as a means of amplifying my job search efforts.

While working on a blog entry, I got an IM from Adam Carter, a tech evangelist at Microsoft. It went exactly like this:

Ever thought about working for The Empire?

(Yes, he referred to Microsoft as “The Empire”.)

Every culture has certain tendencies, and the “I build on Mac OS and deploy to Linux” culture of which I was part led me to instinctively dismiss the idea at first blush. Ridiculous, I thought, and besides, why would they hire me? I haven’t coded any .NET since those trivia games for MAXIM in 2002.

(Yes, I really did that, in an office across the street from the downtown Toronto Hooters. It was like working inside a beer commercial.)

But when my friends John Bristowe (who I’d have voted “most likely to work for Microsoft”) and David Crow (who I’d have voted “most likely to take a dump on Microsoft’s front door”) were making suggestions within the company that they hire me, I had to give Adam’s out-of-the-blue IM a little more thought. And in that thinking, I was reminded of the Abercrombie incident.

Archimedes moving the world with his lever

Many people would (and did) see working at Microsoft as “the safe move”, but to a guy from the culture of DHH, who’s always worked in all small companies and one medium-sized one and hadn’t used their development tools in over six years, it’s the scary one. When word got around that I was interviewing at Microsoft, I heard a small chorus of voices – one of them that nagging voice of doubt – saying the same thing: “You couldn’t pay me to work for Ballmer”.

But I took the job, anyway. It offered the most challenges, the greatest learning opportunities, a journey to places well outside my comfort zone, and I hadn’t done anything like it before. It was a window into a world I’d only seen from the outside, toward which I’d only made snarky comments from the peanut gallery. It offered me the lever that Archimedes talked about – one big enough to move the world – and a chance to see this computing the Abercrombie guy thought no one used.

(It even gave me the perfect excuse to pull out the Jean Cocteau quote at parties, when explaining my change in career direction: “Since it’s now fashionable to laugh at the conservative French Academy, I have remained a rebel by joining it.")

HacklabTO work table with my laptop plugged into a monitor, mouse, "Coding4Fun" book and can of Diet CokeYesterday’s work enviroment – my setup at HacklabTO.

What is working for Ballmer like? I can’t speak for all of Microsoft’s 90,000 employees, but this Developer Evangelist job is pretty sweet. I’m classified as a mobile worker, which means no cubicle – I’m either working out of the home office, a select bunch of work-friendly cafes, or quite often at HacklabTO, the “hackerspace” in Toronto’s colourful Kensington Market where I’m a member with 24/7 access. Every day’s work environment is different (the picture above shows yesterday’s, at the Hacklab), and this constant flux keeps me going.

I get to noodle with all sorts of interesting tech, from dev tools to cloud computing to game consoles to phones, and I have a hardware guy stocking me with the latest gear. I get to shape the content of a cross-Canada conference that thousands of professional developers across Canada, whose work makes your money move, your electricity flow and your favourite retail stores stay stocked. I get to participate in all sorts of fun stuff, from holding a pre-conference in a train car to having a little fun with Richard Stallman. I get to inspire students as they start their search for jobs in a shaky economy. I get to concentrate in the web, mobile, and open source — fields where the company’s traditional strengths aren’t.

Simply put, I get my shot at changing the world. That’s what DHH is also trying to do – he’s just working it from a different angle. If you want to do that as well, I’m sure you’ll find your own angle, whether it’s homesteading in your own indie software company working out of a cafe to doing it as a part of a Fortune 500 company. DHH is DHH, and you are you, and while he could never work for Ballmer, you might like it like I do, and that’s okay. After all, that’s why the saying goes “Do not follow in the footsteps of the masters; seek what they sought instead.”

This article also appears in Canadian Developer Connection.

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Dan Pink on What Motivates Us

by Joey deVilla on May 25, 2010

Here’s a great movie which takes the audio from a presentation by Dan Pink based on the research for his latest book, Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us and augments it with video of a whiteboard cartoonist illustrating what Pink is talking about. I have no idea how long it took to film the illustration sequences, but I love the end result – I think it makes for better internet viewing of a presentation than simply watching a video of the presenter on the podium, even when accompanied by slides.

The movie covers the part of Pink’s presentation that talks about an experiment to determine whether higher pay led to better performance. The results:

  • For turnkey, mechanical, just-follow-the-instructions tasks, larger rewards do lead to better performance.
  • For tasks that call for cognitive skills, conceptual and creative thinking — even at a rudimentary level — larger rewards did the opposite: they led to poorer performance.

The sort of work we do calls for cognitive crunching certainly falls into the latter category – as Andy “Pragmatic Programmer” Hunt says, making software is one of the hardest thing humans do.

Money is a motivator, but when it comes to people who do the sort of work we do, it requires more than just money to motivation. Pink’s recommendation is to pay people enough so that they’re not thinking about money, but thinking about their work instead. Once you’ve done that, there are three factors that lead to better satisfaction and performance:

  1. Autonomy: The desire to be self-directed, to direct our own lives
  2. Mastery: The urge to get better at stuff
  3. Purpose: The reason we do something

In the end, what Pink suggests is that if we treat people not like “smaller, better-smelling horses” with carrot-and-stick incentives but like people and set up the appropriate motivations, we’ll make our work and the world a little bit better.

If you enjoyed this portion of Pink’s presentation and want to see the whole 40-ish minutes, I present it below. Enjoy!

If Pink’s name rings a bell, it’s probably because you’ve heard of his other books, A Whole New Mind and the manga career guide Johnny Bunko.

This article also appears in Canadian Developer Connection.

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