Bjelkeman's travel notes

Travels with the cloud in my pocket.

Working remotely, a session at #SSWC 2010

Stora tältet

Last weekend I was at a most excellent unconference, Sweden Social Web Camp, #sswc. A lot was said and a lot of really interesting stuff happened there, (all of it in Swedish, except for maybe the “allsång“).

One of the sessions which I attended was called Working remotely, with a subtitle of, How do you live in Thailand and invoice in Sweden?

Now, I don’t actually have a picture of the grid with the real title, so I may well be off a bit there. And I didn’t take notes during the session, so this is all from memory, which is pretty flaky at the moment. So rather than trying to account for what happened, other than in a short summary, I will discuss how me and my team work, as not many have the privilege to work in a distributed organization the way I do.

Summary of the discussion

What the session was wanting to investigate were aspects around working remotely, away from your normal office. The discussions wandered through practical things like: How do you make your employer understand that you are effective, even if you are not at your desk? What are tools and practices you use? Where are you wanting / going to work? Through to discussions around specifics around taxation.

The key things I think we all agreed on were:

  • It is hard to convince a traditional employer that it is a good idea for you to give up your office and work from… anywhere.
  • The tools are there to get the job done.
  • People didn’t have a strong reason to work in any specific remote location. It was more a feeling that the traditional office is stifling creativity and restrictive.
  • Nobody seemed to care much about specific tax avoidance issues, even though the discussion dwelt on the specifics quite a lot.

How we at Akvo.org do it

Akvo is a small foundation, 12 people, running internet and mobile services for development aid organizations. We develop open-source software and use this software to run our services.

Even though we are only 12 people we are spread over nine physical locations. We have a shared office in the Hague, Netherlands, where four people work. One shared office for one person in London. The other seven all work from home. Two in Stockholm, one in Gothenburg, two more in London and two in San Francisco.

The four people who work in the Netherlands are actually employed by another organization, and then seconded to work for Akvo. Akvo started out as a project of this organization, but we are in the process of separating the organizations to make Akvo independent, now when the foundation is able to stand on its own.

The other eight people are all sole traders and independent entrepreneurs, contracted to work for Akvo. Even I, who is an executive director of the foundation isn’t employed by it, but contracted in. We essentially are independent organizations a tax and invoicing point of view, what is called in Sweden “F-skattesedel”. This is the easiest from a tax and central administration point of view, but places some burden on the individual.

The EU may have an open market and freedom of movement of a worker, but the regulatory framework is hopelessly behind in a context where a person works for an organization in one country and lives in another. So the easiest way to solve it is as described above. This also takes care of issues like pension plans and health care. Each individual is responsible for their own cost and selection of services. If you, like me, live in Sweden, the choice is easy. You take 50% of what you have invoiced and send to the taxman, and they sort you out. (Well, mostly.)

We use a lot of tools to make our work possible. I presume you probably use most of them in your own work, the following is an incomplete list:

  • iChat for four-way video chat (yes, we are all Mac-heads). We use this a lot.
  • Skype for voice conferences, when we are five or more, and one on one video when iChat doesn’t want to work.
  • Google Docs, for shared documents
  • Google Wave, for shared simultaneous editing (maybe Etherpad as a replacement)
  • Dropbox for a shared document repository
  • Twitter, for a public backchannel and sometimes front-channel, to our work.
  • Mediawiki for shared public documentation

Benefits and drawbacks

The mission critical benefit we derive from this setup is that we wouldn’t have set Akvo up if we couldn’t get the right team. The right team had people in Sweden, UK, Netherlands and the US. This automatically also gives us an inherently international outlook.

We are a distributed organization, so there is no way for me, or anyone else, to have a particular strong check on who is working when. This is an advantage, as it means we get self driven individuals who take responsibility for their work. We have several who have children, who can take care of them, take them to daycare or school when they would normally be sitting at an office desk. They compensate by working other times. The primary thing in our team is that you get the work done. But, everyone is so dedicated and passionate about the work I don’t think a single one works the minimum hours we expect, except during shorter periods. (Here I am, soon midnight, and I am blogging about work. See what I mean?)

Being used to remote working also means that we are able to let people travel for shorter periods (up to a couple of months) and work remotely.

Drawbacks
The major drawback is that we are not sitting in the same office. No quick answers to questions (well, people often have iChat/Skype up, so not all is lost), but it is also easy to work without interruption. No easy brainstorming sessions when you drag in everyone or anyone you need.

It can also be hard to communicate well, which make misunderstandings are harder to avoid. It is also easier to get angry at someone who isn’t in front of you. Email and chat, even voice conferences hide many cues which we use to avoid conflict. So heated discussions happen more often than if we sat in an office together.

The timezones are hard to deal with as well. The US crew has to be up at 07.00 for a 15.00/16.00 Euro-time team meeting, or the EU crowd is up at 07.00 for a 22.00 Pacific-time team meeting.

Does it work?

Absolutely.

Do I wish we sat in the same office? Yes, sometimes this would be very nice.

Don’t hesitate to ask any questions. I’ll answer when I manage to get away from this late night conference call with the US…

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Filed under: ITC technology, SSWC, Travel

Last day in India

Today, 31 January 2010, is the last full day in India for this trip. We have had an absolutely fabulous trip, we have made friends for life and we are going to go back as soon as we can. Thanks to all our friends in India!

Filed under: India, Travel

Wrapping up with VJNNS and travel

Picture from VJNNS training facilities

Today we wrapped up with VJNNS and agreed on how Akvo.org and VJNNS can work together. Karthik and his family has been incredibly friendly and helpful to us and I am really happy to have met them all.

The travel back to Bengaluru went without a hitch this time, which was rather nice. Hyderabad is really quite a nice airport if you ever get stuck there, like a smaller version of Terminal 5 at London Heathrow, but nicer.

Filed under: India, Travel

Travel to Visakhapatnam

Travel day. This turned out to be quite the adventure. We were flying: Bengaluru -> Hyderabad -> Visakhapatnam. But our flight to Hyderabad was delayed by 4 hours, which meant we would miss the connection. A very nice young man who was also in the same bind found out we could book a flight on another airline to just make the connection, because the flight to Visakhapatnam was also delayed, and would not start earlier. So we cancelled the first flight and booked the second flight, on which we got the last two tickets ($ ouch). The connection in the end was delayed enough that we could have just stuck with the first flight, but we couldn’t have known that. Oh well.

The team from VJNNS, who we are visiting, was kept abreast of events and valiantly waited for us to show up. The drive to Narsipatnam ended up being in the dark but uneventful. Anitha at Arghyam brilliantly supported us whilst we tried to get the tickets sorted out, despite it being a public holiday, Republic day.

Filed under: Travel

The paradox that is India

A bird, its image captured at the dawn of the morning in Nal Sarovar bird sanctuary

On the Friday we took some time out and went to Nal Sarovar bird sanctuary, where we saw hundreds if not thousands of flamingos and other birds. A very beautiful trip, despite having to get up at 4.30 in the morning.

I will give you a talisman. Whenever you are in doubt, or when the self becomes too much with you, apply the following test. Recall the face of the poorest and the weakest man whom you may have seen, and ask yourself, if the step you contemplate is going to be of any use to him. Will he gain anything by it? Will it restore him to a control of his own life and destiny? In other words, will it lead to Swaraj for the hungry and spiritually starving millions? Then you will find your doubtd and your self melting away. – Mohandas Karamchand (Mahatma) Gandhi

We also went to Gandhi’s ashram (a hermitage) which was a beautiful and contemplative place. Here Anke bought a book at the museum store. The book was wrapped in what initially looked like newspaper. But when I looked more carefully it was the legal documentation of an IPO (initial public stock offering) / a sale of shares in the Red Herring Fund in India. (The Red Herring Fund would be a cutting edge technology fund.) I was quite taken by this. Here we have museum of one of the most revered spiritual leaders in modern history wrapping books in the offcasts of rampant capitalism, or recycling failed commercial venture’s remains.

Sharada Prasad, who was with us, said: “This is the paradox [of India]”, and it truly is.

Filed under: Culture, Travel

Travel preparations

This day has mainly consisted of travel preparations, as we will be travelling all of the following week. The weekend will be spent with friends in Bengaluru. On the Sunday night we set off for Pune and then on Tuesday night onwards to Ahmenabad.

Filed under: India, Travel

Mysore, the abode of the demon

During this week’s break we have spent some time in Mysore, Karnataka’s second largest city. Mysore is famous for its big palace, Mysore palace, completed in 1912, after the previous palace burnt down at a (rowdy?) wedding of Princess Jayalakshmanni. We also visited the mother of a friend and checked out the vegetable market.

Filed under: India, Travel

Arrival in Bengaluru

The trip to Bengaluru (Bangalore) from Stockholm was essentially uneventful, which is how I like it. One hour delayed departure due to rain in London, where we transferred through LHR Terminal 5. We were met by a taxi driver at Bengaluru International Airport at 06.00 in the morning, and it was 15 degrees C and very foggy. The taxi driver was so cold he was shaking, quite a difference in perception compared to how we felt.

We didn’t sleep that much on the flight, so we grabbed a couple of hours of sleep at the place we are staying before we headed over to Arghyam, where the reception was warm and enthusiastic as always. It was good meeting those who I know already and seeing the new faces, also the new Arghyam offices. It seems a lot of the people at Arghyam had watched the video of me, which Mark Chamer shot, where he asked me what I was going to do in India. This brought out quite a few laughs, as I hadn’t seen it myself yet. After that we wandered around a bit to familiarise ourselves with the neighbourhood and ate some at the local vegetarian restaurant.

The day wrapped up with the weekly conference call with the Akvo team, using Skype, where we had ten people in (I think) nine separate locations, sitting in San Francisco, London, Hague, Gothenburg, Stockholm and Bengaluru. The internet still amazes me, and I have been working with it for 15 years.

Filed under: Arghyam, India, Travel

Electronic preparations

Packing your clothes is probably what you think about when preparing for travelling, but like I posted in the last blog post, getting ready involves a lot of things, including getting the communications gear organised.

Today the preparations consisted mainly of those things you can not touch: travel insurance, paying bills, wrapping up bits of work that has been left hanging, and nearly all my work is communicated electronically. Even a day like today, when I am supposed to be packing and getting ready I managed to send 30 emails. But writing email was probably just a displacement activity, for… packing clothes. 🙂

The highlight of the day though was when our friend Paul arrived, who will be hanging out in our home when we are away.

Filed under: India, Travel

Cloud peripherals kit

To be “useful” at the edge of the cloud I really do carry too many things. Someone picked up my backpack the other day and only said “heavy”. It is clear that I could rationalise this somewhat, but I am not quite there yet. The KeySpan remote could be replaced by an application on the iPhone (not depicted, I took the picture with it). I could stop carrying the camera and the Flip video camera, but the quality of my iPhone 3G camera isn’t really good enough and it doesn’t do video. I could skip my Moleskine notebook and only take notes on the laptop, but it is really distracting to do that when you are meeting someone. The noise cancelling headset is great for flights but I don’t like wearing it during long Skype/iChat conferences et cetera.

I actually travelled on a semi-business trip with only my iPhone once. It worked, but it was really cumbersome not to be able to take notes in meetings, not be able to show a presentation properly and only get crummy pictures of some of the locations were were in. So there we are, a much too big collection of stuff to connect to the cloud.

Filed under: India, ITC technology, Travel

About Bjelkeman

thomas@bjelkeman.com

Co-founder/director: Akvo Foundation

+46-8-626 7609

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