Andy Elmhorst / Working Remote For Amazon AWS

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Jonathan Well, Ari, we are back for another episode and we’re cruising along with episode six.

Ari We’re almost at double digits.

Jonathan So, this one is a lot of fun for me, because our guest, Andrew, actually lives up here in the Northwoods of Wisconsin, and I know him in person. Andrew and I go to the same church, and shortly after we moved up here, I was talking with him one day and found out that he worked remote and in the tech industry. So, there was some instant excitement for someone else that was working remote up here in the Northwoods.

Ari So, you weren’t the only one.

Jonathan I was not the only one. And while I live in town, Andrew lives out of town here a little bit. Andrew, thanks so much for joining us.

Andrew Thanks, Jonathan. It’s great to be here. This is a lot of fun and I’ve been enjoying the episodes I’ve heard so far.

Jonathan Excellent. So, Andrew, why don’t you describe how you got into remote work and how long you’ve been working remote?

Andrew Sure. Yeah, I’ve been working remotely, actually, for about twelve years now. It started out I was working for a software company in Central Wisconsin and had gotten to know these folks who were building a startup based out of Salt Lake City, and they were looking for someone who had some unique experiences and skills that I happen to have. I met them at a conference. And so, I was talking to them on the phone about this opportunity they had, and they said, “You know, it actually would work out fine for us if you want to just work remotely.” And up to that point in that conversation, I never even ever thought about working remotely, but it sounded like a pretty good idea. So, I said, “Hey, let’s keep talking. This sounds pretty good.”

Jonathan So, twelve years ago, the internet connectivity up here in the Northwoods is a bit different, because it’s changed so much even in the last five years. So, were you living up here in that time, or were you in a different area?

Andrew No, I wasn’t, and I think back then, twelve years ago, I don’t think I could have done it where I live now today. Even the limited internet that I have even now didn’t exist back then. So, no, I was living in Central Wisconsin and we actually had pretty good internet connectivity at that time.

Ari So, Andy, what was your main reason why you work remote?

Andrew Well, there are probably a few reasons, and the initial reason was because I really wanted to go work for this startup, and I didn’t want to move to Salt Lake City. So, we had family in Wisconsin, we had roots in Wisconsin, and I think we always will. So, moving really wasn’t an option, and yet the opportunity was great to go work for this startup, to work in some technologies that were interesting. And so, initially, I think it had everything to do with the opportunity. I wouldn’t have had the opportunity otherwise. I will say since then, as we’ve thought about it, there are other benefits that have made me continue to work from home, but a lot of them have centered around the fact that we just want to live where we live. We live next door to my wife’s parents, who we love, and we just love spending time with them. We live on a lake. We just built a house a few years ago right on the lake, and we just don’t want to live anywhere else. And so, we’ve never really tried something different.

Jonathan I can definitely relate to living across the street, or close to your in-laws, as mine are just across the street, too. It’s a benefit and we love them a lot, so it works out.

Andrew Yep.

Ari There are definitely ups and downs to that. That’s for sure. Hopefully my in-laws don’t listen to this podcast. Anyhow, could you describe a bit about how your work environment is? Do you strictly work from home or do you work out of some kind of co-working space? How does that go?

Andrew Sure. So, over the years, I’ve actually lived in a few different places. I’ve always had a dedicated home office. My first home office was one that I actually built, remodeled our basement, and I made my first mistake of remote working, which was to build a home office without a window. So, really, I worked the whole time staring at the wall, and it was like a little closet. That’s basically how big it was. Initially, I thought that would be great, but after being in there day in and day out for weeks on end, it kind of started getting a little bit small. So, the next home office I built was in the next house we lived. I actually had a window, you know, but it was one of those basement windows that kind of lets you see a little bit of whether the sky’s blue or gray or whatever. That’s basically all you can see out of it. And that was definitely much better. I could tell that it was daylight. I could tell when the sun went down. I could tell when it came up. And it kind of let me fit into the outside environment a little bit.

But about four years ago, we built our own place, built our own house from scratch, and so I had the opportunity to really think about what the office environment that I wanted would look like. And we built a house, like I said earlier, on the lake, and it’s one of those houses where the basement actually is at the ground level on the lake side. And so, my office is still in the basement, but I have full windows on two walls looking out. And so, I feel like I’ve got a really good, high-quality ability to view outside, view the wildlife, view the weather, and it’s a pretty good size office, too. So, you know, I definitely recommend anybody who’s working remotely to think about their space. Maybe you don’t have space to build a nice office initially, but I’ve found that it really helps a lot if you really plan to dedicate yourself to this type of work.

Jonathan So, I’m just about ready to move into the home office I’ve renovated in our basement, and I’m a little bit nervous now because it doesn’t have a window, and I thought I was going to be able to deal with it. So, we’ll see how this goes. As episodes tick on, if I become less coherent, we’ll blame the office.

Andrew Yeah. Well, Jonathan, I’ve dug egress windows before in basements, so I can come help you put one in if you need one.

Jonathan It may come to that. [Laughs] So, have you done anything special with your office, like furniture or accommodations, ergonomic stuff or, really, how you have it set up?

Andrew Not really. You know, I’ve thought about doing some things. In my office, the way it’s set up right now, I’ve got basically kind of a counter that runs along two walls kind of in an L shape, and I’m set up in the middle of that, and so I’ve got a big desk space on my right, big desk space on my left, so I can spread out, set up a few different computers and printers and different things. And on my back wall—just last spring I did this for the first time—I painted whiteboard paint on my wall, so floor to ceiling, and I really enjoy that. Prior to that, I had a little 4x8 whiteboard that I’d nailed to the wall. I just love white boarding, so it’s been really refreshing to get a lot more space. I’m still working on the whiteboard, though. I think I need to maybe put another layer of paint on it because it isn’t quite as good as what I’d like it, but I really enjoy having a lot of whiteboard space. It’s one of the things that really helps me when I’m trying to solve a tough problem, is just draw it out.

Ari Sure. Whiteboards are great. You can do a lot with them. I’d never heard how successful people were with whiteboard paint, so it’s actually interesting to hear that you’ve been pretty successful using that.

Andrew Yep, yep. I love it.

Ari So, other than your furniture and other things like this, or your whiteboard, what kind of other stuff do you have around you? Do you have any pets that tend to be around? Do you keep some plants? I know you said you like to have a window to see outside, maybe some plants inside. Any people that come and go through your office?

Andrew Well, I haven’t ever been successful at plants in my office. I kind of am afraid to try to introduce a plant into my office because I’m pretty sure it would probably die. But, you know, I’ve looked at people who have plants in their office and I’ve kind of had a little bit of envy, but I’m just kind of afraid to take on that level of commitment with something that requires care and attention. So, I haven’t tried that yet. We do have some pets in our house. We’ve got a number of cats that kind of roam around, and sometimes they’ll... So, I’ve got a French door to my office, so you can see in and out, which has been one thing that I’ve actually had for most of my offices, by the way, which is kind of nice so the family can see in, I can see out, if we ever need to...if they need to see if I’m on a call or something. But sometimes the cats will come up to that and try to get my attention because they want something. But they’ve generally found that I’m not really very responsive, and I usually keep my door closed, so they don’t come in and bother me too much.

Jonathan I can relate to that. We are not a cat family here. I’ve got nothing against cats. I’ve told my daughter, who desperately wants a cat, that when we have a barn outside that needs mice to get caught, then we’ll get a cat and it will have a job.

Andrew [Chuckles]

Jonathan Yeah. So, do you have to travel much in your current job? Is it a requirement of your remote work situation?

Andrew Yeah, it is. I’ve always had... So, travel has always been a part of my remote work. As I mentioned, my first remote job was with a startup based out of Salt Lake City, and I ended up traveling... I think the average travel that I’ve been comfortable with, that I’ve had for a lot of my career as a remote worker, has been about 25%, although it has been down. When I first started working remotely, I think I only had to travel maybe four or five times that year into the office for a few days. So, there have been times when I haven’t had a ton of travel. But I think due to the type of work that I tend to kind of gravitate towards, which is more architecture/leadership type stuff, I have had to travel in various roles that I’ve worked. At one point, I was traveling close to 50-60% which was a bit too much for me, and at that point I made a change. So, I think my comfort level with travel is around 25-30%, which is what it is right about now. But travel has definitely been part of what I’ve done.

Ari So, in the course of your day, some people that work remotely tend to spend a lot of time collaborating with people all over, and some people, you tend to just work straight by yourself. So, this is really a two-part question. One is: Do you tend to collaborate with a lot of people during the course of your day from your company, or are you more working on your own? And on top of that, for those people that you may or may not collaborate with however often you do, are those people also remote or are they kind of a mix? Or are you just kind of that lone ranger there, the only one that’s actually remote?

Andrew Yeah, so, that has varied a lot because over the last 12 years, I’ve worked probably four or five different jobs. So, it’s tended to... Generally, when I’ve been in a developer role, so I’ve done a lot of software development, when I’ve been in a developer role and I’ve been on a dev team, typically I’m spending most of my day writing code and then usually we’ll have a morning scrum or something like that – pretty typical dev-type activities. When I’ve been in more of a management role, I have found that I have had to proactively reach out to people and to make myself...essentially kind of project myself out of my remote office and into a remote office. Generally, for a lot of my remote career, I have worked remotely and most of the rest of the team has been in an office, and so that’s a little bit different. It’s a little bit tougher, I would say, environment than, say, a pure remote team. And so I’ve had to really... I’ve found that I’ve had to make an effort to really reach out, to pick up the phone, to do video calling, to make sure that I don’t seclude myself into my shell and just kind of wait for people to contact me. I’ve had to really kind of be proactive. And in my current role, I’m actually in a much more of a customer-facing role, and so typically throughout my day I’m on a lot of different types of phone calls with customers and with other team members. So, that’s pretty much how I’m working today.

Jonathan So, take a moment and describe what your current position is, and kind of what a typical workday looks like for you.

Andrew Yeah. So, currently, I’m a solutions architect. I work for Amazon Web Services. My role really is to help the AWS customers be successful on the AWS platform. So, a typical workday for me... And I’m actually pretty new to this role, so I’m kind of on-ramping a little bit. I’m doing a lot of training. But typically, my day might consist of doing training activities, doing some development activities, like basically creating some sample configurations in the AWS environment. And then I would say about half my day is maybe spent in various phone calls with customers, and that’s when I’m not traveling. So, I’m, at some point, also traveling and visiting customer sites.

Jonathan So, what is the hours and schedules that you keep? Is it pretty consistent or does it fluctuate a lot?

Andrew It’s pretty consistent. I usually get up around 6:30 or so. Sometimes I go running when I’m motivated enough. Eat breakfast. I’m usually into my home office around eight o’clock. And generally, I work until about five to six depending on what’s going on during the day, and that’s with some capabilities to take a little bit of time off during the day, for example, so I might take an hour lunch or whatever. But it really depends on the day. It’s not completely set in stone. But I generally work I guess what you might call a normal business day. I’m not generally working too late. I generally try to wrap up before dinner.

Ari Andrew, what methods of communication do you use? What kind of tools? And on top of that, is it generally real-time communication, synchronous communication, or do you have more asynchronous, kind of like chats as people have a chance, or emails as people have a chance, back and forth?

Andrew It’s really a mix of email and chat. Over the years, I’d say it’s varied a lot depending on my role. I tend to prefer chat myself. I love Slack and HipChat and those sorts of tools. I just think it really is a lot more efficient type of communication than trying to communicate over email. That being said, at my current job there is also a lot of email traffic, and so I have to kind of deal with that as well. But my first choice always... If I need to reach out to a team member or to my boss or anything, my first choice is always to use a chat tool and to try to take care of that synchronously and immediately, rather than sending an email. I think email just has a lot of built-in impedance, mismatch. It takes... People tend to process emails in batches, whereas with a chat tool, typically I’ve found I can get a response and keep going at whatever I’m trying to solve a lot more quickly.

Jonathan So, how do you deal with distractions and what are some of your biggest ones when you’re working remote?

Andrew Yeah. So, distractions... I have found over the years that the biggest thing for me for dealing with distractions, especially working from home, is to have the dedicated space. As I’ve mentioned, I’ve always had a home office. I’ve generally had a door on my office that’s almost always closed, even though if my family needs to get a hold of me they can usually see me through the door and get my attention. And that’s worked pretty well because, generally, if I’m in a phone call or whatever, they can kind of motion to me. I can see they need my attention and I can either excuse myself and go talk to them, or I can tell them I need to wait until after the call or whatever. That generally works pretty well. I don’t get a lot of distractions during my day, quite honestly, except for the normal family emergencies that sometimes happen, and over the years we’ve had some pretty big events happen in our household and I’ve luckily been able to be home when those things happened. And so those sorts of distractions are just really not anything you can plan for, but one of the benefits of being home is to be able to be there if the family does have an emergency.

Ari Definitely. The flexibility of being there for the family is definitely something we keep hearing – a valuable advantage of working from home for those who can do that. What do you do for your personal development, since you’re remote especially? You can’t necessarily attend trainings necessarily in the same way that somebody could, say, in the office, things like that.

Andrew Yeah. Well, as a developer, I have... As any developer knows this, you really have to work hard to stay current with technology because it’s changing so fast. And as I’ve gotten older, I’ve either gotten a lot worse at learning new things or it just is moving faster, or maybe some combination of both, because it seems like the fire hose is getting bigger year over year. But generally, I find that as part of my job of being a remote worker—and I think this would be true if I were in the office as well—I do tend to spend part of my day looking at things that are going on in technology and trying out new technologies. So, I may spend half an hour reading a blog post and trying something out that I read about. I’ve always been kind of someone who’s been self-taught, and so I haven’t found working remotely to be at all any sort of impediment to my growth. In fact, I’ve found that I can focus a lot more as a remote worker than I could in the office, and also choose the times when I might want to work on something new or learn something new a lot better just because I’m in charge of my own schedule a lot more.

Ari So, do you have any kind of productivity systems or strategies that you use to keep on top of your work? Maybe things like inbox zero, things like that?

Andrew Yeah. I generally follow the “getting things done” methodology. So, I use Trello as primarily to help plan my day. So, I generally try to keep the list of things on my Trello board of the things that I’m planning to work on today down to a reasonable number, like less than four or five items. And I kind of use the Trello methodology for that. So, when I’m done with an item, a task, I’ll drag it to, like, a “Done” column. So, that’s how... And I try to really curate that list, and at the end of the day, I’ll kind of groom it a little bit and get it ready for the next day, so I can just kind of leave my computer and kind of come back and know exactly where my focus needs to be.

As far as my inbox, for a while there, I worked for a company—this was at my previous job—where we’ve very rarely used email, and inbox zero was like, “Oh, you mean I need to open my email? I haven’t opened it for, like, a week.” We used Slack for 95% of our communication, which was great. But in the jobs where I have had to use email, I generally try to follow inbox zero. I wouldn’t say I’m perfect at it. So, I’ll keep an item in my inbox if I need to refer to it, say, within the next couple of days. If there’s something that I need to keep top of mind, I’ll keep it in there. But otherwise, I try to get everything out of my inbox as quickly as possible, and either get it deleted or archived or moved somewhere else. And if I need to follow up with it later, I’ll­ put a task on my Trello board and say, you know, I need to follow up with that item later.

Jonathan So, you’ve been remote for, like we’ve been talking about, a whole number of years here, and one of your daughters is kind of turning into a remote entrepreneur. So, it’s kind of running in your family now. Talk a little about what she’s doing and how that kind of plays out.

Andrew Yeah. So, my youngest daughter... It’s kind of interesting how, you know, as I’ve seen technology evolve over the last, you know, 15 years, even between my different daughters, they kind of approach technology differently and done different things and kind of gravitated towards different types of tools and stuff. But my youngest daughter actually runs a couple of YouTube channels. She started when she was 12, and she really started it as something kind of fun to do. She has rabbits who live in the house, so we have house rabbits. They’re trained. They’re litter-trained and they actually live in her room. And when she started doing this, she started filming some videos, putting them up on YouTube. I don’t think she really knew exactly how that would turn out. She didn’t have a grand plan or anything. But she ended up being one of the first people on YouTube who had a channel dedicated to raising house rabbits, and there is actually a pretty big audience out there of people who have house rabbits, not only in the U.S., but also globally. And so, she actually has one of the number one YouTube channels now on house rabbit care, and it’s really been kind of fun for her. So, she’s learned how to monetize her videos. She gets a check every month from Google, and it’s just something she does.

She does a number of other things also online. She started a second YouTube channel that was more focused on herself, and she also does some social media work for an online pet supply company. So, she does all of that remotely, as well. So, she’s definitely learned how to work remotely, work online, and I think it’s pretty cool.

Jonathan So, when that first started out, did she come to you and say, “Hey, Dad. I want to put a video online. How do I do that?”, or has she kind of run with it herself?

Andrew She did most of it herself. I don’t remember exactly how it originally played out, but we had a few rules for her initially, because she was so young. You know, don’t say your name online, don’t put your address online. You know, that sort of stuff. And so, she was really good with that. But she pretty much did the whole thing herself. I can’t really remember helping her with any of it. She just kind of did it herself.

Jonathan That is awesome. So, how do you see remote work fitting into your long-term career objectives?

Andrew Well, for me, I can’t imagine ever going back and working in an office, quite honestly. You know, I’ve thought about it over the last ten years or so, when I’ve thought about, “What do you want to do next in your career?” And any option for me to go back and work in an office, at this point, would require us to relocate and to move somewhere. And likely for the type of job that I would be looking for, it would require relocating to a major city or something like that. And that’s just really not in the cards. It’s not something that we’re even remotely interested in—sorry for the pun—at this point. So, as far as my long-term career, I think I’m going to finish my career working remotely, probably doing similar sorts of work to what I’m doing now in the architecture-type space. You know, that may change if something interesting comes along and I’m able to work remotely, and maybe work for a company where I’m partially remote or whatever. But I think at this point, it looks to me like I’m going to finish my career working remotely.

Jonathan So, one of the things that’s pretty common living in the Northwoods of Wisconsin is being a snowbird, which are basically those people that live up here for the beautiful weather in the summer, and then they run away and hide for most of the winter. You’re kind of a partial snowbird right now, because you’ve been in Florida for the past month, haven’t you?

Andrew Yeah, actually, I have. I’ve done this a few times. So, this is actually a third time that I’ve actually worked a full month from Florida during the wintertime, and so we’ve been coming down to Florida for some portion of the winter. I haven’t always made it every winter, but for the last ten, fifteen years or so. And so, this month, yeah, we rented a condo here in Florida on Panama City Beach, and I’m just working from here. And it really doesn’t change anything about how I work. I am doing the same things I would be doing if I were working at home. So, that’s one of the benefits of working remotely is just having that flexibility. And now, as our kids have reached the age where they’re all adults, this is our first time that we’ve done this without the kids. And so, it’s kind of refreshing. It’s a nice break from the cold, from the ice, all that fun stuff that’s happening right now back home.

Ari All right. So, we always like to wrap up with always asking those guests we have, like you, who are very experienced with remote work... I think you’ve had the longest run remote work we’ve had, I think, in any guest so far – even longer than Jonathan, who I think, until now, was the longest. So, what kind of advice might you have for someone who is considering remote work?

Andrew Yeah. So, I can think of a few things. One thing is, so, if you’re considering remote work, I would say the first thing you need to do is to really be self-aware about whether it’s a good fit for you, because even though I’m a big fan of remote work, I truly don’t think it works for everybody, and I’ve seen it actually kind of crash and burn and fail for some people. So, at one point, I was working remotely. I had another developer who we hired who was working for me remotely. And it really crashed and burned, and I ended up having to let him go, because it just wasn’t a good fit for him. He just wasn’t able to concentrate and work from home. And so, I think the first thing is just to be self-aware and think about what sorts of environments you work well in, and if you seem to be more productive when you’re around people and in an environment where people are kind of surrounding you, you might want to think twice before you decide to go home and work by yourself and be there, where there’s nobody except maybe the family pets to talk to. So, that’s the first thing, is just know yourself. You may want to just think about it and maybe give it a try in a safe way before you decide to commit to it if you’re not sure.

The second thing I’d think about is, as a remote worker, I think when you choose to work remotely, you actually all of a sudden open yourself up to this whole world of a lot more possibilities of where you could go, I think, with your career. And so, the other thing I think about is what actually do you want to accomplish as a remote worker? So, I’m in the technology space, for example, and I’ve found when I’ve looked for remote work that there are tons and tons and tons of opportunities for remote work, but they are not all for me. In fact, very, very, very few remote-type positions would actually work for me, for a variety of reasons. So, some of them might involve lots of travel. Some of them might require you to be onsite. And the other thing that I would say about it is think about the types of skills that you want to be associated with, as part of your personal career profile, I guess, I might say. Think about that when you’re thinking about where you might want to work. Just because you get offered this job and it sounds cool that you could work from home, is it really a growth opportunity for you and your career, is what I would ask myself. Because you’re basically choosing to put yourself into a spot where you could end up getting into a spot where, from a technology perspective, you’re not growing, and that’s not a good spot to be in if you’re a technologist. So, kind of keep that in mind.

I think the last thing I’d say is be patient and willing to wait for the right opportunity to come along. So, don’t just jump at the first opportunity if you’re just kind of desperate to try this remote thing out, because it sounds so cool. I recommend taking your time, especially if you’re not in a huge hurry, and just look for a good mix of culture, the right amount of travel, the right types of skills. Just look for those things really carefully, because working remotely can be really, really cool, but you know, I would say not all remote opportunities are equal. So, you just want to keep that in mind where you’re looking.

Jonathan That’s really great advice, Andrew. Thanks so much for sharing all of your experience for the past twelve years and for coming on this podcast, and I will be happy to welcome you back to the snowy Northwoods here shortly as your month in Florida wraps up there.

Andrew Don’t remind me. Don’t remind me. I had to call my daughters and tell them how to start the snow blower this month while I was gone. I have no idea what my driveway looks like at this point and can’t wait to get back.

Jonathan Well, if you ever get stuck, you can always give me a call. Thanks so much. This wraps up the interview portion of our podcast.

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