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The Robot Uprising: Working Remotely at Usermind

The Robot Uprising: Working Remotely at Usermind

Chris Downie
By
Chris Downie

Working from home is a common perk at tech companies nowadays. It’s invaluable if you need to stay home for a delivery, watch over the kids, or make a midday doctor appointment. It’s also crucial if, like me, your home is in Missoula, Montana — about 500 miles away from our Seattle office.

Fortunately, we use a number of tools here at Usermind to help folks be their most effective when they’re not in the office. Here are a few indispensable tools I use on a daily basis.

Our Telepresence Robot, Dala

Certainly, the most noticeable tool is our Double Robotics telepresence robot:

 

With this fancy robotic surrogate, I can roll around the office while carrying on a video chat with my coworkers. Meetings are easier to follow, as I can actually look around the room and face the people that are doing the talking. The whole experience makes me feel like I’m physically present at meetings and in conversations at the office.

Arrested Development Surrogate
Worth every penny. Image via Arrested Development wiki

While that’s amazing and normal now, it definitely took some getting used to for folks around the office. Dala moves with the stealth of a Prius, so it was all too easy for someone to be startled by my rectangular face floating right behind them. The fish-eye lens I see through also took some trial-and-error before I figured out exactly how close was too close when talking with coworkers.

Additionally, in-person engineercandidates I interview may not feel quite as comfortable talking to a robot. To them, I’m sure I look like something out of a sci-fi novel:

Fallout Robot Face
You are an unusual specimen. Image via Fallout wiki

While Dala is great for face-to-face conversations, she can’t see screens very well. That weakness is exacerbated whenever I’m trying to pair program with one of my colleagues. Thankfully, we have another tool at our disposal which solves this problem beautifully.

Screenhero

Screenhero is a screen sharing application with some extra bells and whistles. In addition to seeing the screen of your counterpart, you can actually interact with it as if they had just passed you the keyboard and mouse.

This takes pair programming to the next level. It means I can ask my coworker Kim why a particular SQL query isn’t running correctly on my local database, and she can actually try new queries on my screen as if she were next to me. This kind of quick interaction is immensely useful, and even more vital when you're working remotely.

To achieve the same effect without Screenhero would be a lot of hassle. We could use another tool to show Kim my screen, but she’d need to very clearly spell out what I should type in order to try it. Or she’d have to send me a chat message or an email with the query to execute. In any case, it certainly wouldn’t be as fast or as fun.

Unfortunately, Screenhero’s advantage is also its Achilles' heel: While it solves pair programming expertly, it can’t be used by more than two people at once, and you can never see who’s talking. For those situations, we use Google Hangouts.

Google Hangouts

Using Google Hangouts is a no-brainer. We already use Google Apps for our email, calendar, and document sharing, and Google Hangouts is the lowest-friction tool to start a video chat that we have available. In fact, meeting invitations automatically have a hangout URL attached to them, eliminating last minute “can you send me the hangout link?” conversations.

In addition, presentations via Google Hangout are even better with Dala in the room. Through the main Hangout, I can follow along with what’s on the screen. When the focus of discussion changes, I can turn my attention to Dala’s screen and follow the conversation in-room without missing a beat.

Infinite selfie.jpg
‍Infinite selfie!

Finally, what do I use to connect with the team the other 75% of my day when I’m not in meetings? Text-based tools like Slack.

Slack

Slack is an amazing chat tool. Time and time again, it’s proven to be the fastest way to ask a quick question or have a short conversation with my coworkers without interrupting their flow. While we use Slack’s full range of channels and integrations to communicate most effectively, a few details really facilitate remote working.

First off, we have a #robots channel for coordinating the use of the Double Robotics robots. That makes sure I always have one available to me (usually Dala) and anyone else that may be out of the office can use our alternate, Daneel.

Slack also helps manage the time zone difference between Montana’s Mountain Time and Seattle’s Pacific Time. I can simply click on someone’s icon in chat to see what their local time is.

Slack Screenshot
It’s 9:48am ... Do you know where your VP Eng is?

With the ability to roll over to a coworker’s desk, co-code, chat, sync up time zones, and hop on a Hangout, I feel like I’m actually in the office, and it’s much easier to smooth over the friction that usually comes from working remotely.

So there you have it: the key tools we use at Usermind to make remote working more effective.

Interested in working with robots, cool collaboration tools, and a super-smart team? We’re hiring!

Chris Downie
Chris Downie

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