Tools for Remoties

Here’s a list of tools that I found work well for me. Disclaimer: I am not paid in any way to endorse any of the products mentioned here.


Software

  • LastPass (Password manager). Good for security in general. Essential for distributed teams, as you can safely share/revoke passwords with others, secure all passwords when a phone/laptop is stolen, etc.
  • zoom (video software. Note: see below for evaluation process for this video software)
      • Krisp.ai (audio noise cancelling software for your microphone, so others on your call dont hear background noises in your physical location)
  • slack and/or irc (group chat)
  • Thunderbird (email)
  • Firefox (web browser)
  • Holloway Book has decent survey of tools here

Hardware

  • Desk: The kitchen table is not a long term option. The sofa is also not a good long term option. Instead, it is important to have a dedicated desk that you can setup ergonomically for you to use for doing focus work over prolonged periods of time. I really like Ikea’s Bekant desk which is well made, motorized variable height desk which can be used as sitting and standing desk – all for a very reasonable price.
  • Chair: Herman Miller Aeron. Expensive when new. Incredibly well built and reliable, so buying second hand is a good option (and usually a lot cheaper). After your first all-day sitting marathon of typing with video calls, you’ll never go back. Note: they come in different sizes, depending on your physical height, so check.
  • Keyboard: Goldtouch GO2: This foldable bluetooth ergonomic keyboard folds small enough to bring in my carry-on-bag, is rock-solid-reliable, great to type on for prolonged hours – and is good for your hands!
  • Camera: Logitech c930: HD auto-focusing camera. Dual stereo microphones. Small, portable, rugged which is important for travel. Works consistently. Boringly reliable. Which is exactly what you want when making video calls. Once you start using this, you quickly take it for granted – until you are on a call with someone who has an inferior webcam.
  • Headphones: Sennheiser HD1: Good audio. Microphone works well. Solid bluetooth connection, quickly and consistently establishes bluetooth connection. Works equally well with laptop and also phones (I’ve been surprised to find some other headphones that did not!). Fits in your pocket, so you don’t find yourself tempted to use your laptop microphone while traveling. Have also heard good things about this gaming headset (hattip to @catlee).

Conferences and Events

Meeting other “remoties” and learning from each other is important. Just like many other “industry events”, there are conferences and events for people who work in distributed teams. If you know of any conferences/events to add to this list, please let me know!


Co-Working spaces

Sometimes you need to get out of the house, just for the change of scene. Sometimes you are traveling in a different city, and need a professional workplace with reliable internet connectivity for some work and/or video calls. If you find yourself needing to work-from-nothome, I hope this list helps.


How to choose Video Software

  • Pick the tools that work best for your organization and then standardize on them. While some bemoaned not being able to use their personal favorite, any initial resistance quickly went away when people realized that everyone using the same tool greatly simplified day-to-day life. If everyone uses their own preference, now everyone in the company needs to keep mental track of what person uses what software. (If I need to ask Mary a question, first I have to stop and remember “does she use Skype? Maybe Hangouts?”. If you have to stop before every call, and try to remember who uses what, you are repeatedly complicating your own life – and the temptation will be to resort to the lowest common denominator – the dial-tone of an audio-only call. Further, if different groups use different sets of communication tools, you are set up to fail whenever you need to hold a cross-group meeting, with people using unfamiliar communication tools. Have everyone use the same communication systems, and use them repeatedly so they are familiar. Choices and freedom-of-personal-preferences is nice, but being ubiquitous and interoperable across the entire organization is essential.
  • Cross platform. Should work on all desktops (windows, apple, linux). Should be mobile friendly (android and iphone).
  • A measure of reliability and ease of use: With a stopwatch, how long does it take to go from “The moment you want to start a video call” to “The moment when you are all connected, all can hear+see each other and can start talking about the topic at hand”. If this is more then a few seconds, try something else.
  • Consistent reliability: Obvious but worth explicitly calling out. If you instinctively feel that the software rarely works or is a headache, you will be tempted to avoid it as a waste of time, and choose to instead walk down the corridor or use audio-only call. If the software does not consistently work well, investigate why: bandwidth? server mis-configurations? client versions? human training? Find and fix the problem. If that specific product cant be fixed, replace it.
  • Ease of Use. The usability of the software when starting a call is really important to keeping mental work focus. The amount of time it takes to go from “realizing I need to get on a call with someone for help on some problem” to “we are in a video call working together on the problem” is crucial. If this is too long or unnecessarily complex with software that requires typing in multiple codes, email links, etc, it increases the odds that I mess up one of the steps, preventing the call from working, so we all hangup and start again. Best case, I struggle my way through the obstacle course and successfully start the meeting – but the process was so complicated that by then have forgotten the context on why the meeting was needed! If clicking “call now” is easier and faster then walking down the hallway and see if someone is at their desk, then the tools are working.
  • Moderator ability to mute individual or all callers. Help avoid the “could someone please mute” announcements by having the moderator just proactively mute anyone creating noise. Also, helpful if someone thought they were muted and didn’t realize they were unmuted. Ability for everyone on the call to see that they are muted and know how to unmute themselves.
  • Dial in option for audio only users. Hopefully rare, with most people on video calls, but still good to have this option with people driving, in airports or in poor-connectivity-parts-of-the-world.
  • Screen sharing: When this is needed, it needs to work easily. Note: when using screen share its typically hard to see the other meeting attendees, which I feel is a big negative. Caution: If you find yourself needing to screen share, ask “why”. For some situations, this makes sense (pair programming remote team, demonstrating mockup of userinterface). Some situations (presentations to customers, company allhands) make sense, only with structured alternate ways of communicating – the audio-video call is essentially a one-way-broadcast, Hopefully recorded so people who are not present can view later. However, for many cases where people “need” screensharing (looking through bug triage, doing financial review of spreadsheet, etc), I find it is much more effective to *not* screenshare, but instead to put all the data into a shared location (a bug db, a google doc spreadsheet, etc), and just share the link to the shared document in the meeting. Everyone can then click on the link to load the page themselves.
  • Recording: being able to record the entire meeting, so people can watch it later can be useful. Useful when demoing new features to remote-people, and then keeping the recording to show later to anyone who wasn’t around at the time. Other then that, I’ve not found this feature useful. I’ve heard claims that people would watch the entire meeting later to see if there was anything of interest, but in reality the download logs tell me very few people actually do go back to watch the recordings, and especially if the meeting has good agenda, and good meeting notes.
  • Whiteboard capability: I tend to ignore this feature. I agree a quick drawing can explain a complex idea faster then written words or speaking while waving your hands in the air in front of the camera. Having said that, I personally found using the mouse to draw on screen “as if on a whiteboard” never worked for me. I find it hard to draw with a mouse, and if I’m not careful, I’ll accidentally click some button that erases the entire thing. The whiteboard tools became a distraction. Instead I found it much easier to draw on an actual whiteboard, and then hold the laptop up close, so people could see the drawing using the laptop camera. If there’s no whiteboard nearby, I use dark pen and paper, then hold the page up in front of the camera for others to see.
  • Favorite: Zoom.us. Extraordinarily easy one-click to start a meeting. If someone who doesn’t have zoom installed clicks on the URL for a meeting invite, it asks to download and install the software – in a really fast and straightforward set up. Took me ~60seconds. It works really well, has live active views of all participants, does screensharing etc. And even has a really cool “driving mode” for cars – so you can one-click reconnect if you drive through a cellphone dead zone and helps you not accidentally hit hangup when trying to un-mute yourself.
  • Second place: Adobe Connect. Web browser based, so useful if people do not have admin rights to install software. Runs on most OS, easy to install, and share. Good use of bandwidth – used it routinely in groups of 18~20 without any problems. All users are visible whether they are speaking or not, so you can easily see non-verbal cues.
  • Also ran: Skype (Very old, widespread adoption globally. Recently acquired by Microsoft and being rolled into their Lync product to be called “Skype for Business”. Good for 1x1s, can even work for 3-way calls. You can see and hear each person well, even when they are not talking. However, I found it didn’t handle larger group calls well. Each additional caller consumed a decent amount of my bandwidth and even when I was in good bandwidth location, as my 6th or 7th caller joined, I’d lose one of the existing other callers.) Google Hangouts and Vidyo (Seems to handle bandwidth utilization between callers better then Skype, so additional callers didnt swamp my bandwidth as much. Hardcoded limit of 10?15? people in one call, with only 9 people visible. I don’t like because it forces you to switch tools for larger team or cross-team calls. I also don’t like the way it switches full video to the person speaking because if you joined after #9, you are not displayed in the thumbnails on the bottom. This means if you raise your hand to ask questions, or start talking while muted, people can’t see you.) WebRTC, Mozilla Firefox, Appear.in, join.me, anymeeting, gotomeeting (I like the open source and privacy impact of this. I’ve seen work well for 2 people, but never seen it work well with 3+ attendees). WebEx: Once you in an actual call, it works reasonably well. However, this comes distant last for sheer complexity-of-setup-for-a-call. By the time I actually get the call set up, and all the other people on the call have joined and can hear and see each other, I feel like I’ve accomplished my work for the day. Never mind people actually talking about the content of the meeting! Dialing into a WebEx call from a car or while walking with cellphone is an exercise in frustration for me. There are way too many codes to enter while driving. Its way too easy to accidentally hit hangup instead of unmute just when I need to speak. Also, losing cellphone signal for a brief moment drops me from the call, forcing me to stop the car on the side of the road while I redial and reenter all the various meeting room codes and pass codes).

Last updated 29aug2019