Telecommuting tools


I wrote earlier this week about my experiences telecommuting, and after reading a comment left on that posting, I wanted to write a little about the tools that I use to be more productive when working at home. But first, a bit of history.

Back when I started at Sybase in August of 1997, my friend and colleague Lisa suggested I ask the IT people for an extra monitor, keyboard, mouse, and power cable so that if I wanted to work from home, I’d just have to bring my desktop machine home and plug ‘er in. I did this, and this made things pretty easy for the one day every few months that I worked at home. My desktop machine, running Windows NT 4.0, had a modem installed, and when I wanted to check my email, I had to unplug the phone on the desk and plug the cable into the modem, dial into Sybase, and then synchronize Lotus Notes. I only did this about once an hour because it was a pain. If I wanted to check some files out of source code control, I had to write down the name of the file in my notebook, manually reset the read-only bit on the file, and make a copy of the file in case I needed to revert it. Many times I forgot the copy and was unable to revert if I needed to. When I got to the office the next day, I’d have to go through the list of files that I wrote down and check each one out.

After a few years of this, management sent an email around asking if anyone would be interested in having a laptop rather than a desktop the next time that machines were refreshed. I responded with something like “Yesyesyesyesyesyes” several milliseconds after reading the email, and a few months later, I had an IBM laptop. This made things orders of magnitude better — I brought the extra monitor and stuff back to the office, and was then able to sit at the kitchen table when working. I had broadband internet at home by this point but no router, so I still had to use the modem to get email. Another couple of years later, I bought a wireless router for home, as well as a wireless PCMCIA card that I could plug into my laptop. I installed the Sybase VPN software and nirvana was achieved. I could then simply run Notes like I normally would to send and receive email, and I could also use our source code control software directly. I subsequently tired of Notes so I moved to Outlook and then a few years later, Thunderbird.

Back to the present. Here is a list of tools I use to make telecommuting easier:

  • Firefox for web, Thunderbird for email, MSN Messenger for IM (this is true in the office as well as at home)
  • A lot of people seem to use Skype for phone, but I don’t really use the phone all that often. My regular phone works just fine. It does have a speakerphone, which makes things easier, especially for long conversations. Our old phone had a headset that worked pretty well too. That allowed me to walk around while talking on the phone which I always tend to do when not typing.
  • Broadband internet (absolutely required!) and wireless network, though wired would work fine if the router was handy or there were drops available.
  • VPN software is obviously a must. I won’t say which VPN product Sybase uses for security reasons (security through obscurity, dontcha know!), but one of the “features” is that it automatically drops the VPN connection every 12 or 24 hours or something, even if the connection is in use, and with no way to cancel it. When the connection has been idle for a while, I can understand it but every now and again I’m in the middle of copying some large file to or from work and I get a popup saying something like “The VPN connection will be dropped in 2 minutes“. Since there’s no way to cancel it, the message may as well say “The VPN connection will be dropped in 2 minutes. I hope you’re not actually using it, but if you are, well, it sucks to be you.” I just have to hope the file copy finishes in that time, or that I can re-connect the VPN fast enough that the copy just continues. If not and the copy fails, I have to reconnect the VPN and start the copy all over again. My description makes it sound like a huge problem, but it’s actually only bitten me once or twice in however-many years. It’s just annoying that I have to reconnect, especially since the VPN software is buggy and sometimes crashes while connecting.
  • Remote Desktop when connecting to Windows machines if possible. Some of our older (Windows 2000) test machines don’t support this, so we use VNC for those. But Remote Desktop is preferable because it’s faster and replicates the user experience more closely. If you maximize the Remote Desktop screen and the machine you’re connected to isn’t heavily loaded, you can almost forget that you’re connected to a remote machine. This is not the case with VNC.
  • When doing Unix stuff, I use VNC to connect to a Unix machine in the office and then use that to rlogin to other Unix machines. This works quite nicely, except that every now and again, I’ll be in the middle of typing some stuff and a character will get repeated for no apparent reason. I’ll be typing and something like cd /tmp/grrrrrrraeme will show up. Very irritating. I’m sure it’s a problem with the VNC client software, because I occasionally see it in the process of repeating – like it thinks I’m holding the key down when I’m not – but when I hit that key again, it stops. I suspect this is because it got a KEYDOWN message but missed the corresponding KEYUP message. I have never seen this when VNC’ing into a Windows machine.
  • I have a couple of VMware VM’s set up on our VMware server so I can do stuff on a machine that’s in our engineering subnet when I’m at home. Another VM has all the NetWare development stuff installed on it, though I rarely need that anymore.
  • Apple iPod (5G, 80 GB) along with a Logitech Pure-Fi Express Plus dock for music. Another absolute must.
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