Distance no object

The way people work has changed a lot in the past few years but none more so than in the IT industry. As an independent consultant I am able to do much of my work from the comfort of my home office even though many of my projects are now based in the USA.

Like most people I used to commute to work. I spent more than twenty years driving to the station, waiting on a cold and wet platform for a train that may or may not turn up to take me to London. That all changed when I became an independent contractor.

Of course it didn’t happen overnight. My first big project was for Insinger De Beaufort in Amsterdam. I spent a more than a year doing a weekly commute from Luton to Amsterdam. I got to know Schiphol airport and Easyjet very well. Over the next three years I gradually reduced my office time such that I worked three weeks out of four from home.

My next lengthy project was in Halifax for Calderdale Hospital. Again that started with weekly commutes, this time driving up the A1 and the dreaded M62, but gradually reduced to one week in three.

After that was my real introduction in remote working. I had to do a project called ClinUIP  for Tony Shannon, for Leeds hospital. I did that entire project without ever visiting Leeds and, in fact without ever meeting Tony. I didn’t finally meet him until EHIlive in Birmingham where I expect to bump into him again in a few weeks.

That working remotely works well is shown by my last project. Working for Oroville Hospital in California I was part of a team that won second place in the US Department of Veteran’s Affairs (VA) Scheduling Contest.

This was a small team led by Zach Gonzales, manager of Development at Oroville who defined the requirements and coordinated the feedback to and from the clinicians as well as providing invaluable knowledge about the Vista system.

Rob Tweed, also from the UK, provided the expertise with the tool-set we used as well as doing all the development of the central calendar UI for the application. These tools included his own EWD which was the backbone for all of the development and provided the framework for Sencha Ext.js, and Node.js which comprised the UI and web components. Robs article has more details on the technical aspects of the project

My part was to build the application around the calendar, the rest of the user interface including all the necessary options and controls, to make it all fit together as a working user application and to write all the interfaces to and from the Vista system. That was quite a challenge as I had never seen a Vista system before that, but the details of that will probably fill another article.

So how did we manage to make it work, with Zach and all the hospital staff in California and Rob and myself in different parts of the UK? Well our biggest friends were Skype and Dropbox, they formed the basis of most of the communications. I took on the project management role and coordinated activities through a number of spreadsheets that were shared in a common dropbox folder. Rob and myself would be chatting throughout the day via Skype and we had daily afternoon conversations with Zach. These were followed up with scheduled weekly conferences where Zach would update us on user comments and changes to requirements. Of course none of this would have been practical if we didn’t all have a VPN access to the hospital development area as well.

Many people would say that you need some fancy tools for collaborative development, especially with a geographically diverse team. Well most of my development is done in Notepad++ and we managed this project with that, Excel, Dropbox, Skype and good communications.  I have one guiding principle for most projects. It is very old but holds very true despite people who try to do otherwise. Keep It Simple Stupid (KISS) works for me.

With the ever rising costs of fuel and train fares, as well as the ever building pressure on peoples time and personal lives remote working is going to become ever more prevalent and it certainly is the ideal way of working for me.

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