Remote work and the current health crisis has made Silicon Valley obsolete. Companies and workers are moving away in droves. Will they find a new place like Silicon Valley?
Yes and No. The end of the health crisis will enable a resumption of office work. However, having invested in and adopted remote work, organizations that embrace a hybrid remote+office business model will be more successful. New “Silicon Valleys” are forming at the optimal balance points of virtual and geographic communities.
Note: This personal essay/post is definitely a work in progress (WIP). I am sharing this early version to get feedback and will continue making updates over time. Please feel free to comment and contribute your thoughts.
The future is already here; it’s just not evenly distributed.
Great article. But I can’t get over the irony that so many of the interviewees are trying to recreate a Silicon Valley in Austin, Miami, Tallinn, or Topeka. Don’t you get it, with remote work, you will never find another place like Silicon Valley.
Wherever you point, there you are
In the Times’ article, John Gardner, founder and CEO of Kickoff, complains about the Bay Area:
But right now it’s just like: What else can God and the world and government come up with to make the [Bay Area] less livable?
This was probably just one phrase out of a longer conversation with the journalist, Nellie Bowles, butit’s ironic that he points a blaming finger outward.
Entrepreneurs and tech workers like John and I absolutely flocked to the Bay Area to cash in on amind-boggling inflow of venture capital, ballooning salaries, skyrocketing real-estate prices, and the occasional unicorn startup. We were the primary drivers of the nosebleed rents, million dollar bungalows, and soul-crushing commutes.
However, that stampede had a silver lining: We created the problems and started solving the problems we had created: We created the technology and culture that enabled remote work. By 2020, these innovations had become a metaphorical salt dome beneath theparadigm of work based on physical proximity.
As the corporations go…
Communications technologies transformed how and where businesses could operate.
New technologies appear decades before they and replace old ones and change paradigms.
In the 1860‘s, transatlantic and transcontinental telegraph enabled organizations in urban centers, like large banks, to open branches in other major cities.
By the 1970‘s, multinational organizations were using telephone, teletype, and jet courier services to communicate with and operate far-flung branches in cities, towns, and hamlets around the world.
Finally, the late 1980‘s saw an exodus of large corporations moving their headquarters out of high-priced central business districts. For example, following similar moves by Texaco, Mobil and J.C. Penney, Exxon closed its headquarters in The Rockefeller Center on 5th Avenue in Manhattan, and relocated it to Dallas Texas.
the Dallas area offered the best combination of factors from the standpoint of our employees’ personal and professional lives and from an overall business standpoint.
Why North Texas? Because this move brought Exxon back to the heartland of America’s oil/energy industry: Oklahoma, Texas, and the Gulf Coast. Many of its employees were from these regions. Some of them found living in New York expensive and hard on their families. By returning, Exxon saved a bundle on real-estate and relocation expenses, and gained better access to a labor pool that had industry experience.
…so go the individuals
Similarly, the communications and computing revolutions had a transformative effect on individuals.
In the mid-to-late 1990’s, the first dot-com boom made Bay Area real estate prices explode. Many tech and office workers had moved to more affordable areas an hour or more from the offices where they worked. And they spent hours commuting daily back into those urban centers, where they worked at a computer. Many of us had a flashbulb moment: While installing 56k dial-up modems in our home computers or stuck in traffic during an expensive 2 hour bus ride to San Francisco we asked, “can I just work from my computer at home? And the answer was…“No. Not yet.”
Between 2000 to 2020, many elements came together to enable remote work:
Tech companies, faced with a skilled work shortage and competitive labor market, started offering remote work to attract, recruit, and retain tech workers.
Tech-savvy managers replaced traditional ones.
Software evolved to support remote work and was widely adopted.
High-speed always-on internet became the norm for many households.
Outsourcing to India other locales normalized distributed teams.
The cost of office space made scaling expensive.
But that wasn’t enough.
The salt dome collapses…
The current pandemic is the forcing function that has normalized remote work. Now many organizations have implemented remote work across the board. Employees have embraced it.
It would be an exaggeration to say “There’s no going back. The toothpaste is out of the tube. The worms are out of the can. (Who has ever opened a real can of worms?!) Most organizations still own the physical office space they had before the crisis. When we find a way to do it safely, if the vaccines are successful, we will be able to resume working in our offices.
I’m not an economist, but I’d guess that:
During economic growth cycles, it will be faster and cheaper hire remote workers and maybe close some offices.
During recessionary cycles, it will be faster and cheaper to close some office spaces and hire or retain remote workers.
So, what next?
There’s no need to live and work in Silicon Valley.
People and businesses are moving to more affordable locations.
And then what?
A fundamental change hiring patterns.
Downward pressure on salaries and wages, as companies gain access to a much larger talent pool.
A new “Lagrange point” where the costs and benefits of living in any particular locale balance out against the new semi-local and remote labor market.
These costs and benefits will include housing, quality of life, taxes, access to health care, the quality and speed of internet connections, business and personal taxes, and possible regional specializations based on legacy industries.
It is more important than ever to participate in virtual professional communities, hone your skills, and become indispensable and for your unique blend of skills.
As a technical writer, I’m accustomed to telling users what to do using imperative phrases such as “do this or do that.” More recently, in my tech docs, I’ve adopted the practice of directly addressing the user by saying “you.” Many organizations have embraced this practice because it improves comprehension and establishes a warmer relationship with the user you, the reader.
In this personal blog, telling you what to do feels arrogant and high-handed. Instead, I want to move things further along that continuum of trust and familiarity. You know what’s best for you. If you find something meaningful in what I share, you’ll find a way to use it. If I still use imperative phrases, I do it out of habit and because that how I tell myself to do things.
When I’m talking to you, I’ll say “you.” Nothing I say here is written in stone. I adapt and improve the ideas I discuss here to fit different needs and circumstances. It would be best if you did the same.
This year’s WTD conference was online/virtual only. This shift to virtual conferences make them more inclusive and accessible to attendees whose work, personal responsibilities, finances, or other constraints would normally discourage them from participating. Although this conference was well-attended by folks on the West Coast, by my estimate, half of the attendees were from other regions in the US and Canada; and a handful were from other parts of the globe. I enjoyed breaks and mealtimes with my family and sleeping in my own bed.
Day one, Sunday, August 9th was a pre-conference day with two sets of ten breakout sessions.
The writing day sessions were my favorite part of day one: We got to meet members of the doc teams from GitLab, Microsoft, and Mozilla and contribute to their open-source projects. It was interesting to see the similarities and differences in our tools and workflows.
The event hosting platform, hopin.to, worked well. I stubbed my toe on a few potential improvements, but quickly adapted and had no trouble navigating the event site. The sessions were all live hosted on YouTube, which made it easy to pause the live feed, step away, and then return. I couple of times, after taking a quick break, I caught up with the live session by setting the playback speed to 1.25 or 1.5x. If you’re interested, WTD will probably published the recordings from this year’s event in a month or so. If you’re interested, you can also watch these recordings of last year’s conference.
There was also an unconference, where anyone could sign up for a “table” to give brief talks or discuss anything of interest. For example, shown below is the unconference schedule for the first half of day one.
These unconference tables were the best forums to discuss subjects of interest and meet fellow documentarians (the preferred term for everyone involved in this business). I got to meet more than a few of the main speakers to ask questions about their work.
Today is Red Hat’s “Day of Learning.” We are encouraged to dedicate this day to learning.
This past year, I’ve been mentoring one of my peers. Earlier this week, I asked her to share her thoughts on what went well and what could be better. I got her notes this morning and spent some time reflecting on them and sharing my thoughts.
I listened several hours of The Servant: A Simple Story About the True Essence of Leadership, by James C. Hunter
One of the nice things about the Write the Docs – Portland conference two weeks ago, was it’s unconference.
An unconference is a participant-driven meeting. The term “unconference” has been applied, or self-applied, to a wide range of gatherings that try to avoid hierarchical aspects of a conventional conference, such as sponsored presentations and top-down organization.
This morning, I wrote the conference organizer and pulled my presentation. My early morning thoughts had revealed to me how I had missed the mark.
During the process of creating the presentation, I had this uneasy sense that I was missing something. My early morning thoughts crystallized my understanding of what was amiss and I saw the way forward.
To sum it up, my realization was this: Try it again. Do it the open-source way. Don’t develop a presentation in isolation and toss it over the wall to an uncertain audience! Instead, engage the oVirt team, learn about the issues, and work together on solutions. Then, bring that insight to presentation and make a relevant contribution to the oVirt community.
A few weeks back, I saw an opportunity to give a presentation to my fellow developers. The dev lead for oVirt put out an RFP for the upcoming oVirt 2020 Online Conference.
Oh, and by the way, please prerecord your presentation so we can upload it to the conference YouTube channel.
Sure! I thought. No problem, I thought. I’ve given many live presentations, recording a video of one should be easy, I thought.
After a week of working on the material, a day of recording, and several hours of editing, the rendered video was eight, almost nine minutes long.
A week of working on the material
My inspired brain-fart was to simplify modular documentation (aka “mod docs”) and provide a set of markdown templates. The purpose of doing this is to make mod docs easier for developers and other upstream contributors. My goal is to fix the problem of documentarians unintentionally driving away upstream contributors by bringing our specialized doc tools (asciidoc) and methods (mod docs) into upstream open-source projects.
The week flew quickly by as I tried to bring subtractive design to mod docs. I kept going off on tangents, developing a cute bento box analogy for mod docs (that I haven’t given up on yet). Every time I sat down to eat the frog, I wandered off to snack on the appetizers and side dishes instead. I had to work through the material, but that always takes more time than you think. In the end, I thought I had a pretty good set of slides. Many of the appetizers and side dishes ended up as hidden slides – something good to keep for another day.
A day of shooting
This was my first screen capture on Linux. I’ve used TechSmith Camtasia on Windows in the past. Searching Software for “screen capture,” I found OBS Studio. It was easy to set up and record the slide presentation with myself as a talking head in the lower right corner. I’ll write a separate post about how to do that.
The hard part was getting over my stage fright, or proceeding in spite of it. My voice box felt tight the whole day. Listening to myself, my voice sounded reedy and uncertain, and I clung to the words on the slides instead of describing my thoughts. Standing at an improvised podium in my bedroom, I resolved to continue recording to the very end, instead of restarting every time I flubbed a line. “Try several times and move on. I’d fix it on the edit,” I thought.
I used Pitivi to edit the handful of clips Pitivi dropped in my home directory. It was fairly easy to cut away my not-so-good takes and slide the better parts together into one somewhat cohesive presentation.
Finally, I clicked the Render button and waited for a few minutes while it created an .ogv file. I also had it render an MP4 file. YouTube accepted the .ogv file, even though it wasn’t listed as one of the supported file types. The .mp4 file was about a third larger than the .ogv file, and it looked sharper on YouTube.
It was slow and challenging, but worth persisting. I have wanted to do this for a long time, and am glad I finally pushed through my discomfort with being in front of the camera. I expect I’ll get faster and better with practice. This is a key skill for some of the work I want to do going forward.
Now, I need to start working on a re-shoot or perhaps a voice-over of the original…if I can get my voice box to loosen up.