Tuesday, January 10, 2006

Telecommuting From Halfway Around The World

I have been a full time telecommuter for over two years now (plus a 7 month gig a few years before that) but this is the first time I've really tried to take my show on the road, let alone to another country. I'm not counting our temporary moves to Mobile, Alabama when we moved from Michigan and more recently evacuated due to Katrina. Those times I was able to pack up my development machine and take it with me. For this trip to Peru, moving my monster box and its two 20" flat panel monitors was not an option.

The first thing I did was pick up a laptop. Since I rarely ever need a laptop when I am at home, I could not rationalize picking up a high end (expensive) one for the six weeks we're going to be in Peru. Instead, I went for reliability and purchased a refurbished IBM Thinkpad R40 from Overstock.com. I've been a big fan of Thinkpads ever since I had one when I was a road warrior during my brief gig with Arthur Andersen. Holly has a Thinkpad T23 which I consider to be the perfect combination of weight, durability, and power for the average user. Unfortunately, I'm not the average user and I needed something a bit beefier in terms of processing power and disk size in order to accomodate my development environment.

So I went with the R40 which is a step down in the product line but was available with a faster processor, larger disk, and a DVD reader/CD burner on Overstock.com for $599. Using a combination of discounts includings Overstock's 12% off for a first time buyer, Fat Wallet's 4% cash back, and Discover Card's 5% off of online purchase promotion, I got the price down to right around $500 after all the discounts and kickbacks. Of course, the $100 I saved was promptly spent on maxing out the laptops memory at 1 gig.

Moving my development environment over to a new machine actually proved to be a welcome opportunity to clean up two years of cruft and a good chance to just reorganize my development directory structure. I'm actually looking forward to transferring my new environment back to my real development box when we return home.

In order to stay connected to my coworkers in the states (usually just for my weekly status calls), we brought along our Vonage internet phone with us. This just consists of a small box that you connect to your internet firewall and plug a phone in to. Fortunately, the power supply for it (like the laptop) handles the 220 volts/50hz that Peru uses. We've been Vonage customers for almost 4 years now and it been great to be able to take your home phone with you wherever you go.

So, in theory I now had everything I needed to work remotely. In practice, there's been a few kinks to work out. Fortunately, we spent the holidays in Mobile at Holly's parents and that let me test out my telecommuting rig before we were way far away from home. Now that we've been in Peru for almost a week, here are my thoughts on my long-distance telecommuting experience so far:
  • The laptop has worked suprisingly well for me in terms of having the oomph needed to build software. It's nowhere near as fast as my monster development machine at home but with enough memory, its done a decent job. The biggest issues is that its disk I/O is much slower so I have to be judicious about when I do things like clean rebuilds of our entire development base.
  • One thing that hasn't work so well is the laptop's limitted screen size. I've grown accustomed at home to having two identical 20" flat planels that run at 1600x1200. Since I bought a low end laptop, its display only does 1024x768 and thats painfully small. I anticipated this problem and before we came to Peru I confirmed that the I could hook my laptop up to the monitor for the computer that is in the house that we're renting. So I do have at least two displays to work on, albeit both of them are half the resolution of the ones I'm used to.
  • Our Vonage phone has also been a disappointment too. Even though we have a cable modem here in Lima, the bandwidth is not particularly good, particularly on the upstream end. Even at its lowest quality setting, we've had lots of dropouts, making it difficult for the people we call to hear us.
  • As a result of the problems with our Vonage line, we've moved over to Skype internet phone which does not involve any custom equipment as it runs on the computer and uses my laptop's microphone and speakers. This is working much better for us and most importantly, it provides me with call quality statistics so I can keep on the call and know if I'm likely to start having trouble communicating.
All in all, its been fairly easy to take my telecommuting show on the road. I think the small losses in efficiency I have on a laptop have been more than made up for by the wonderful support we have in Peru. Having someone who can watch Will all day and help out with meals, cleaning, and laundry makes a huge difference and as led to me working longer days as I don't have anyone else dictating when I need to stop work.

For any of our friends and family out there with a high speed internet connection, check out Skype - its free to call other Skype members (we pay 2 cents a minute to traditional phones). If you do install Skype and want to call us, just e-mail us for our id.


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