Category Archives: Philosophy

Employers, let your people work from home

Work from home (WFH) is, astoundingly, still not the norm in United States IT offices. This is ludicrous, because:

  • Employees want it
  • Employers already provide it
  • The objections to work from home do not hold up
Work from home with a dog
IT work: better with a dog

Edit: *Sigh*. People. People people people. “Work from home” does not mean “100% full time work from home and never in the office”. It can range from “emergency” WFH, to part time WFH, to full time. Companies should offer these options.

Employees want work from home

“Gallup consistently has found that flexible scheduling and work-from-home opportunities play a major role in an employee’s decision to take or leave a job…” – New York Times, Feb 2017

People want to work from home. The most consistent complaint I have among my data and programming colleagues is that their job does not allow WFH. The most often-asked questions I get from the same group is, “How do I get a job with work from home?” The answer right now is, basically,  “Good freaking luck.”

Do all IT professionals want to work from home? No, not all of them. And even the ones that want WFH care to do so full time. I know a handful of professionals who don’t want to work from home at all…but even those people admit that they want the flexibility to work from home on days when their kids are sick, the car has a flat, or workers are coming, rather than having to take time off of work.

Everybody – EVERYBODY, I say – wants at least the option of work from home.

What’s more, quite a lot of people will run to another job with the alacrity of a golden retriever after a tennis ball, the moment they see it. Check this out:

  • 24% of employees surveyed say their company offers part-time WFH.
  • 12% said their company offers full-time WFH.
  • More than 35% of employees would change jobs to work from home, even part time!

(Source: Gallup “State of the American Workplace Report 2017”.)

Let’s say that again.

More than 35% of employees would change jobs to work from home, EVEN PART TIME!

Everybody wants the option of work from home. If you offer it, you become the cool employer that people are very hesitant to leave.

Work from home on the couch
Look how hard he’s concentrating! On work!

Employers already provide work from home

Companies with technology departments – that is to say, nearly all of them – already have work from home. You know how I know? Because if a server goes down on the weekend or evening, I can dial in and fix it! And it’s been that way for the last 10+ years. (Ask me how I know.)

You already have work from home, but right now it’s only allowed when it benefits the company, and not the worker. A DBA can work from home on evenings and weekends, because it’s faster to dial in to an emergency than to drive all the way in. But somehow, WFH evaporates when the clock strikes 9am.

How much better off are companies that are WFH-positive? Think about it: Employees have kids that get sick. Houses with bad plumbing systems. Commutes that get snowed on or iced over (yes, even here in Texas).  Would you rather have your project suddenly on hold because Dean has to stay home Tuesday for the roofing company, or would you like Dean to sit down at his kitchen table and bang out the reports while people bang on his roof?

Pick the “kitchen table” option.

Companies with single parent employees, and employees with health issues, will especially benefit from a WFH policy.  A kid with the flu won’t mean a delayed migration; an IBS flare-up won’t halt the security audit.

Those employees are happier, too. If there’s no WFH option, there’s that worry that all the “extra” time off – as compared to healthier, childless, or two-parent-family employees – will be counted against the worker at review time. Again, ask me how I know.

(I feel compelled to add: employees who are too sick to work really should just call in sick, though. WFH doesn’t replace sick days.)

“For employers telecommuting can limit absences, increase productivity, and save money.” – Monster.com, Working From Home can Benefit Employers as much as Employees

Work from coffee shop
I’m writing this article in a coffee shop. WFH, WFCoffeeShop…

Objections to work from home fall apart

“I like to see people in the office,” also known as “How do I know they’re working if I can’t see them?”

Most employers stake the bulk of objections here. A boss wants to know whether you’re working or not.  The thing is, the boss almost never actually sees their people working.  You can see people type, you can see people click. But who’s to say what the techie was doing?  Were they working on something for the company, or responding to something on Twitter, or Reddit?  Maybe they’re updating their resume!

It all depends on the company goal:

  • Is it to make sure people are working like you want them to? Then I suppose you might have a valid argument, but we should really talk about your management style…
  • Is the goal to get the work done? Then you’ll know if they’re working pretty easily, because the work will get done.

It’s that simple.  If the work is getting done, then what do you care where it gets done, or even when?

Break: Story time!

I used to work with a programmer who hated coding during the day.  He got so little done, because of all the interruptions. He just couldn’t think properly during the day.

So we started letting him keep his own hours.  He worked in the middle of the night and we couldn’t reach him the first half of the day because he was sleeping, but his productivity went through the roof.  Nobody was bothering him and he was able to follow a complete thought for longer than a couple minutes.

Moral: Get over the notion that you have to be able to reach all your people the second it crosses your mind.  Give them the space they need to do their job right.  And if they’re not doing the job, then restrict their work from home! Or, you know, replace them with someone who will do the work.

“Some people need close management.”

Some people do need close management! You can closely manage those people in the office, or via Skype or email (or the message system of your choice). Stop pretending that stopping by someone’s cube is the only way to manage them.  Make them accountable.  If they’re not meeting their deadlines, keep them on track. Have your normal review process. Someone who underperforms out of the office should be treated just like someone who underperforms in the office.

I used to work on a project where everyone was remote. We lived on Skype.  I collaborated with two other DBAs online daily, and it worked great.  We got the job done, and it was better than being in the office, because we didn’t have to all huddle around a desk.

So, unless your management style relies on having to touch your employees constantly (and I feel compelled to tell you that this style will get you into trouble), then this isn’t a valid argument.

“It’s not fair to other workers who literally can’t WFH.”

Let’s get this out of the way first: Lots of things aren’t fair.  Can you make sure that the person who saves the company $1mil gets a bonus, instead of their VP? Can you give the janitor a salary closer to the senior DBA’s? Can you make good on training promises when the budget dries up? No, you can’t. So “fairness” can’t be the only measure for this decision.

Different jobs have different requirements. Sales people are required to travel, but I don’t get to travel on the company dime. That’s a necessity, and it’s not my job, so it’s fair. The art department gets to sleep all night, while I have to stay up with a downed server. It’s not their job to get up and fix the emergency, so that’s fair. The surgeons at the hospital I work for get to go to a seminar on the newest laser technologies; I get to go to a conference on the newest high availability technologies; the warehouse workers don’t get any conference. That’s fair. (I do hope the warehouse guys get a cookout or something cool, though.)

Everybody does not get the exact same benefits, because each job has its own circumstances. I happen to have a job that supports me being able to work remotely.  So do a lot of sales people, and so do a lot of executives.

Everything is a trade-off.  Every job has its perks and its downsides.  WFH just happens to be a perk of being on call and working the extra hours.

“But I don’t want to work from home.” (From an employee.)

So, don’t! Full-time or even regular work from home isn’t for everyone, and shouldn’t be mandatory if there’s an office to go to. Workers who don’t want WFH should come into the office (where they can be distracted by coworkers instead laundry).

The point isn’t that everyone should work from home; it’s that everyone should have the option to!

“It also worked better when employees were given the freedom to decide when they wanted to WFH…” – Huffington Post, New Study Decodes When Working From Home Is Actually Productive

Conclusion and references

You almost certainly already have work from home for your IT folk. You  just need to allow – no, encourage – work from home for your people who want it. Easy tips:

  • Start with 2-3 days a week and see how it goes.
  • Keep in touch with your people; check in on email or Skype as needed.
  • Keep your eye on work done, not number of hours I’ve seen Employee X. Are projects moving forward? Things getting done? Then it’s working.
  • Encourage work from home for “I must be home” days – that’s, sick kid days, car trouble days, bad weather days, and so on.

Who else supports work from home? Like, pretty much everyone. Articles on Forbes (“Top 10 Benefits of Working From Home“), Harvard Business Review (“To Raise Productivity, Let More Employees Work from Home“), Entrepreneuer (“20 Reasons to Let Your Employees Work From Home“), and many more expound the good of flexible work arrangements. A simple web search will turn up hundreds more articles on the topic.

And then there’s me. I’ve been an independent consultant and business owner for years now, and by far the biggest benefit is still the ability to work in my home office. If I ever return to work a full time DBA position, you can bet I’ll hold out for a shop that has full-time work from home.

It’s not that hard. Let your people work from home.

Want more? See the follow up, “Employees, encourage work from home“.

 


 

Bonus: A rant on productivity

One of the biggest problems we have is all the time that’s wasted in the office.  People come by to pull you into useless meetings, to tell you about what their kid did yesterday, about how stupid this other guy was they just had to deal with, or even just to hang out.

I’ve always found the office a horrible place to get anything done.

I used to have a boss to insisted that, and I quote, “All work in the US is done between 9 and 5, and it has to be done in an office!” That’s where work is done, and that’s final.  So, no work from home (unless it’s after hours and it suits the company’s needs).

One thing people like this don’t realize is that they have a door that can be closed.  Coders and data people – in other words, regular employees and contractors – don’t have that luxury.  What we have is an open workspace, so we can interrupt each other’s thoughts and waste time with stuff that has nothing to do with my current project…er, I mean, openly share ideas and move the company forward in an organic and inviting manner.  Yeah. But back to the story.

But even with his door closed, the “”work is done between 9 and 5” manager was still getting interrupted quite a lot. One day he got a really important project, and he declared he was going to finish out the week at home so he could get something done, because he was being interrupted too much in the office!

When I reminded him that he had a door, he said that people just knock and come right in anyway.  When I reminded him that we work from 9 to 5 in this country “in an office” and that this was a great opportunity for him to show us how it’s done, he told me to shut up.  Then he went home and we didn’t see him for the rest of the week.

See? His bosses weren’t sitting there watching him work either.  They just cared that the project was getting done.

/rant

 

This article was co authored by Jen McCown and Sean McCown, and we mean every damn word of it.

I’m on a podcast! I mean someone else’s podcast.

Carlos Chacon of SQL Data Partners was kind enough to have me on his podcast, and that’s now out!

Listen to SQL Data Partners episode 46: Unraveling Tangled Code.

It really was fun. Carlos picked a good topic, remembered that I referred to part of the code detangling process as the Hunger Games, and asked me questions about stuff I’m interested in. I like that in a podcaster.

Thanks again, Carols! And enjoy, everyone else!

-Jen
http://www.MidnightDBA.com/Jen

A Data Age proclamation

mac-glassesTwice in two days now, I’ve gotten in discussions with people about the state of data usage…the idea that we have absolutely massive amounts of data at our disposal – especially us, as if you’re reading this, you’re likely a DBA or at least an IT professional – but that people are not using data to its fullest extent. To use an overused word, companies, groups, and individuals are not leveraging data enough.

The Data Age

This most recent talk on the subject was spawned by Jorge Segarra (blog, Twitter), who posted an image from a book (“Signal”, by Stephen Few). The text said, in part:

“IT tools can at best assist us in performing work that we already understand. … The information age continues to exceed our grasp. At best, we live in the data age. We have made great strides in accumulating data. By comparison, we have made little progress in using data to inform better decisions.

(Bolding is mine, italics are the author’s.)

That hits the nail precisely on the head. One of the most egregious examples of this is the non-use of data in healthcare. Any data professional who spends five minutes thinking about the potential power of data in healthcare will get really excited, really fast. Universal doctor access to medical history! Alerts on drug interactions before they’re administered! Data mining for unusual trends in symptoms and diseases! Connect the medical dots, man, this is awesome! My fellow MCM and spouse Sean has a whole lot to say about why this sort of thing generally doesn’t happen in healthcare, so I won’t repeat it here. Suffice to say, the healthcare industry is not leveraging data.

This sort of thing is repeated in most industries across the board. Some financial firms might actually be ahead of the curve when it comes to getting intelligence out of data, I don’t know…but it would make sense. There’s money to be made immediately and directly by determining trends and patterns in the world of, well, money.  But in most other industries, what we’ve got is a long, slow march toward actual data intelligence.

(As a side note, this is why I really am pleased to see Business Intelligence exploding on the scene in the last few years. Companies should be excited about the possibilities. Go with godspeed, all you BI folks, to your new positions.)

Changing the world

So why am I talking about this today? Mostly because it’s on my mind.  And, because I’ve been thinking a lot about the problems associated with organizations with data management solutions (like SQL Server and all the attendant BI integration). The issues range quite a lot:

  • politics, which is always big fun
  • funding, which in truth is a matter of perception; a company will fund those things it views as important
  • a deep misunderstanding of the potential of data
  • a lack of understanding of the inherent roadblocks to data intelligence

We – meaning Sean and myself – aren’t BI guys. We are company owners, but we’re already leveraging the hell out of the data that we have. We’re not in a position to change the world in a single stroke, but we can do what we can in our small corner. And in our small corner, what we can affect most is that last bullet point: the roadblocks.

We’re doing two things: educating, and tool building.

Education

First, we are educating.  We give sessions at technology conferences that include elements of data philosophy (wouldn’t that be a good 201 class? Someone sign me up…) that aren’t common in the business world. We record those sessions and put them online for free, and point more people back to them. The sessions are about technology, but we also get an approach across.

I’ll give you one specific example: administration is a huge roadblock to data intelligence. If the data isn’t quickly accessible (indexing, maintenance, configuration), or if it isn’t there (backups, HA/DR, security), then you’re not going to have much luck mining the stuff and tying it into other data.

Part of the problem with data admin culture (in both companies and in tools vendors) is the round-robining of servers. Data philosophy point 1, therefore, is the holistic enterprise. Any task that requires a DBA to hit 20, or 100, or 10,000 instances one by one (or by some other inelegant means) is a task that’s not going to get done.

A more thorough discussion would take more room than I want to use here, but anyone who has click-click-clicked through a vendor tool – SQL instance by SQL instance – has an idea of what I mean.

Tools

Second, we are building tools. Yeah, I just said that we’re building tools to change the data world, and I mean it quite literally.

(A side note on this: it’s old even to my ears to hear “our tool will change the game!” from a vendor. I know that some vendors really do believe their tool is a game changer, but I also know that too many others use the same words just because. But there are only so many words available to describe it when you’ve Gotten Excited and Made Something.)

A database administrator* has several essential job functions, and both ideology and the RDBMS itself get in the way of those jobs. Common security tasks and auditing is maddeningly complex. Maintenance is weak and default configurations are actually detrimental to an environment (who on this planet actually wants 10% file growth, I ask you??).

And Microsoft (and other vendors) have been trying, but they haven’t addressed the problems well. Each new solution forces a DBA to do that round-robin across all their servers, presents a pretty GUI that you have to stare at to get any use of, and most of all treats the DBA like an everyday end user.

You know why DBAs aren’t end users? Because they can do amazing things with collected data. But again, any tool that gathers data either hides it, or sticks it in XML and/or flat files. How infuriating is that?

We Proclaim …

I won’t give you the hard sell** on Minion Enterprise (or, “ME”). That’s not really the point of this particular tome. I want to start on a list of proclamations that, as it turns out, we have implemented into ME because they should be founding principles of any third-party data tool.

Here’s a start on these principles:

  • A data systems tool should make work easier across many instances, not just one instance.
  • Data should be in a usable format. Flat files aren’t usable to data professionals.
  • Data should be in a usable format, part 2: Administrative data – including security, hardware stats, trace information, etc – must be accessible to the DBA. In a usable format.
  • Any system that generates data that will not be needed in the long term, must clean up after its own damn self.
  • A solution meant to help the DBA in the execution of their job must not be a burden on SQL Server instances. (I’m looking at you, monitoring-software-that-has-a-huge-overhead-on-monitored-instances.)

This is just a start, after several weeks’ introspection on the Minion products and our own fledgling software company. There are more principles out there, already hiding in plain sight in our code.

Happy days,
Jen

*For those of you who don’t believe that the database administrator position will be around in N years: horsefeathers. Data systems aren’t, and will very likely never-ever-ever be, smart enough to take care of themselves entirely. To add to the weight of my “horsefeathers” argument, I say that at the 2015 PASS Summit I paneled with Allan Hirt, Denny Cherry, and Karen Lopez (emcee) on this exact topic, and there was not one iota of disagreement among the four of us. Though the job will continue to morph and grow, DBAs are here to stay.

**More information on Minion Enterprise: we’ve got introductory and topic videos up on YouTube, and of course product documentation and download at MinionWare.net. You can also join the MidnightDBA newsletter here.