The Engineer’s Guide to Being Stuck at Home

Absolutely no distractions here, honest

Firstly, let me say that I’m not making light of the coronavirus, or its impacts; it’s an incredibly serious & dangerous virus that is having and will continue to have a devastating affect on millions of people all around the world.

However, if like me, you find yourself working from home, “self-isolated”, quarantined, or told by your local authorities to stay at home, this guide can perhaps offer some advice on how to use your newfound “extra” time at home, in a few buckets:

  • What could you do or learn
  • Tips for working at home
  • And let’s be honest, what to stream! NEW SERIES OF WESTWORLD!!

Let’s kick on!

You’ll probably have more free time than you’re used to.

In 2019, outside of my actual job, I:

  • Attended, ran or spoke at about 10 tech meetups.
  • Appeared on a panel at a conference.
  • Helped out a Coding4Girls summer camp.
  • Gave numerous tech talks in schools, universities and elsewhere.

and more!

In 2020, outside of my actual job (which I’m doing from home), I’ll now most likely:

  • Be at home.

Unless things change unexpectedly anytime soon, I’m going to have more free time on my hands than I’m used to, which should be good news for …

Side-Projects!

As I’ve written about before, finding time to do side projects is difficult, not only because of family commitments but also because a lot of us do other things in the evenings — sports, exercise, meeting friends, whatever — a lot of which will be curtailed for a while (or a long while depending on how bad things get wherever you are).

So, maybe the coronavirus has a silver lining in that we can finally make some progress on all those side projects we’ve started / dreamed about / not actually done anything on! The hard bit will be not allowing other activities consume all the extra time instead, but actually put it to some good use. This is complicated by the fact that Disney+ is finally launching in Ireland on the 24th March and I fully intend not doing much else until I’ve watched all of the Mandalorian!

Star Wars aside, I’m going to make use of this extra home time to get more work done on the list of projects I want to get done this year. I know what I want to get done, but in case you’d like some inspiration, here’s some ideas of what to do …

Learn … machine learning

Regardless of coronavirus, I’d recommend this. I work in a full-time innovation team and machine learning is almost all that’s talked about — not just theoretically, but using it for true business value in large scale production solutions.

What I’d call typical engineering — frontends and backends — is becoming more and more commoditised; making websites that have APIs, connections to databases etc is easier than it’s ever been. The new differentiator for engineers (and the businesses that are driving this need) is machine learning in real world applications.

If you can think of a business solution that involves a lot of information, ML can probably help in some part of the process. Maybe it’s to predict which customers are best to target, or where to best route emails to, or whether documents are fraudulent or not — whatever the use-case is, learning how to use ML to help will be a very beneficial skill to have in your current and future career.

There’s a ton of places online to learn, maybe start:

Level up your cloud computing & serverless skills

Maybe you use cloud / serverless already and you’re an AWS demigod, but if not, now’s probably a great time to learn how to do it or to improve your current skills.

A colleague of mine, Matthew Coulter recently set up https://cdkpatterns.com/ to show people how quickly solutions can be created using CDK (AWS Cloud Development Kit, which allows engineers to deploy to AWS using familiar programming languages). You can also follow the site on Twitter:

I know pretty much nothing about CDK but it’s near the top of my list of what to learn this year. Anything that can speed up the “architecture” piece and give me more time on the solving the business problem / improving the customer solution, is worth knowing.

Do some good

I’m involved in Tech for Good Dublin, a meetup / community which aims to encourage tech companies, engineers, designers, whoever, to use their skills for socially good purposes. I believe that these awful circumstances can actually lead to a lot of good — as people will have time to spend time on side-projects to help people.

Maybe you know a charity that would love a new website, or an app for their volunteers to use, or your local school or club could do with some development help. Maybe you don’t know anyone who you could help, but you could try find out. One of the side projects I’ve been thinking about for a while is creating a “match-maker” site to link up engineers who want to help and charities who need help; being at home for the next few weeks/months may give me the time to actually do it.

Try some emerging technology

Even though my day job is completely focused on innovation, there’s still technologies that I don’t get enough time to spend on — such as augmented reality glasses! I’ve recently got a hold of a pair of the Google Glass Enterprise v2 devices and I’m planning on using some of my newfound extra time to explore them and hopefully build something useful.

I’m going to have to rely on local testers!

There’s lots of emerging tech that’d it’d be fun to explore more, such as:

  • 5G — I think there’s a massive opportunity to offer new services and products using 5G, and there’s not enough exploration into yet.
  • IoT — a buzzword that’s been around for a few years, IoT isn’t as ubiquitous as many predicted but it’s only a matter of time.
  • Quantum Computing — probably a while off, but worth exploring.

or something really different, like …

  • Design skills! — a lot of engineers think that they’re bad at design, but it’s a learnable skill! My most popular blog post:
  • Learning a new language, like Mandarin! If you’re planning on releasing solutions in China, it wouldn’t hurt to learn a bit of the language, even to sanity check any localisation you pay for.

Tips for working at home

There’s lots of resources online giving advice on how to best work from home, and I’m no expert, but a few tips, learned through experience:

  • Have somewhere comfortable to sit — an obvious one.
  • Have somewhere comfortable you can stand — I like standing in work, no reason not to do it at home either.
  • Try and position yourself wherever the wifi signal is good, nothing is more soul destroying than bad signal when on remote calls etc. I always prefer video calls, but at home I usually turn off the camera to help with call performance.
  • Try have a routine just like you probably do in the office—update JIRA at 9:00, standup at 9:45, cup of tea at 10:15, lunch at 12:30, check in with team at 3:00, etc. The goal is to minimise the risk of being distracted by everything else at home.
  • Delete any games on your machine and phones. Seriously! It’s nice to have time to play on your commute, but can be all too easy to play at home. This is especially important if you recently downloaded Civilization 6 for the iPhone …
  • Explain to your kids that although you are at home, and it’s cool for them to come in and say hello occasionally, that coming in about 26 times an hour is not so cool! This is an actual conversation I had yesterday with my five year old while on a call on my mobile:

“Daddy?”

“I’m on a call, talk later”

“Daddy — one thing”

“I’m on the phone, can’t talk”

“Daddy — just one thing”

“Can’t talk, I’m on a call”

“Daddy — just one thing”

“Ok, what it is it?”

“Can I use your phone for Angry Birds?”

“GET OUT!”

This is particularly important if, like me, your kids are off school aswell!

Before we finish …what to stream!

Let’s be honest, Netflix is going to have a field day with everyone stuck at home, so a few tech related shows to keep you entertained in the evenings over the next few months …

  • New series of Westworld! Starting this Sunday on HBO! If you haven’t seen this show and are interested in the future, technology and artificial intelligence, it’s for you. A quality show with deep themes.
  • Altered Carbon — series two recently launched on Netflix. Another show set in the future, it’s full of interesting concepts and ideas.
  • The Mandalorian — Star Wars tv show, I’ve haven’t seen it yet, cannot wait!
  • Picard — On CBS All Access/Prime Video, the latest Star Trek show, it’s great, and now must-watch TV for me and the older kids. “Please friends, choose to live …”
  • Person of Interest — a slightly older show, made by the some of the same people behind Westworld, also full of action and themes of artificial intelligence, worth a watch.

One final thought

As well as all the tech related advice, I can’t finish without suggesting … spend more time with your family! I’d expect life to get back to normal in a few months, and we’ll probably look back at the extra time with our loved ones with fondness, so it’s not all about side-projects and machine learning!

If you’ve any thoughts or comments, let me know below or you can get me on Twitter or LinkedIn. Thanks, Andy

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Andy O'Sullivan

Andy O'Sullivan

Creator of Boxapopa, the iOS game for young kids with zero ads, just fun! https://apps.apple.com/ie/app/boxapopa/id1550536188