American in Spain

Transatlantic Telecommuter

August 30, 2011
Desk Traffic

Over the past fortnight, several of internet friends have asked me that important question that any adult relationship eventually reaches: "What is it that you do, exactly?" One of them asked if I was a professional blogger, which is flattering, and, now that I think about it, I can see why one might think I should be getting paid for all this gorgeous content. But no, I have a day job.

Initially I was going to write a narrative of my job history for the last decade, but I realized that would be more than anyone really wanted to read, so I'll just talk about my present job. The company I work for sells medical supplies and mobility equipment. Our biggest sale items are: lift chairs, those recliners that can lift you up to a standing position; stair lifts, those chairs on a track that go up and down staircases; and mobility scooters.

I'm a transatlantic telecommuter. I work in my pajamas from my office at home.

What I do, specifically, is write the computer code behind the website that displays the products, allows you to add them to your shopping cart, enter your shipping and billing information, and place orders. Plus all the other bells and whistles that make a successful modern day e-commerce site, like product reviews, recommended products, and little questionnaires to help customers find the right product. But the part of an e-commerce website that a consumer sees is just the tip of the iceberg. Behind the curtain, there are dozens of administration pages where other company employees can edit the products, make sweeping price changes across a set of products, and maintain product options as they are added or discontinued. Then there's the whole branch of code specifically for what is known as Search Engine Optimization (SEO), which involves getting as much useful information about your products into Google and Bing and Yahoo as you can, through uploading of product feeds and tweaking of special keywords on each page. Since the major search engines are constantly updating their algorithms, keeping your sites ranking highly (i.e. appearing on the first page of search results) is a never-ending battle.

Telecommuting is an interesting way of life, and it's certainly not for everyone. You really can't beat the 30 second commute from bed to office, but you have to be the kind of person that doesn't need human face-to-face interaction all the time. I spend most of my workday in constant communication, via instant messaging and VOIP calls, so it really feels like I'm just in the next cubicle. We collaborate splendidly with screen sharing applications. If someone has a problem they want me to look at, I can just pull up their screen and see what they are doing, and even take control to show them what they're doing wrong, and vice versa. I do miss out on some inside jokes and office gossip told at the water cooler, but I don't mind missing the other office chatter about sports or last night's television lineup.

One interesting consequence of working on the other side of the ocean is that I am six timezones ahead of my coworkers. In the past, I have worked standard european office hours, and only coincided with the other office people for a few hours each day, enough to exchange ideas and discuss projects.

Since becoming a father, I have chosen to shift my working hours to match up exactly with the eastern US workday, working more or less from 2:30 PM to 11 PM, but sometimes other odd hours. The truth is that I have a lot of flexibility in my schedule. I have tremendous respect for my employer's understanding that what's important is that stuff gets done, not what hours of the day it gets done in. There are some times and some tasks where you can finish the task sooner, and with fewer errors, if you take a twenty minute nap first. I strongly believe that my employer benefits from me having this freedom. Just last night I was up until 2 AM working on a project I really wanted to get finished while I was channeling the flow.

My current work schedule allows me to spend all morning with my daughter (who is two at the time of this writing) before taking her to daycare for only a few hours before her mother can pick her up in the afternoon. It's working out really well. I hope things won't change too much when she starts school.