Why You’re Not Telecommuting

Want a job working from home like Jeff Atwood described in his On Working Remotely post today?

You’re probably not gonna get it.

You Take Too Long to Prove Yourself

Think about how long it takes for you to:

  • Get your company equipment
  • Get your environment set up
  • Understand how the company’s system works
  • Work with your manager to find out what needs to be done
  • Contribute your first piece of work (code, management, whatever)
  • Get someone else to check your work
  • Get that other person to give feedback to the manager on the quality of your work

It’s not quick, and that whole time, you’re getting paid.  Say it takes a month for all this to happen – I know, you think it’s gonna be faster, but in companies, it often takes quite a while.  If the company finds out your work sucks, they don’t fire you on day 31.  They will likely assign you more work, and the cycle will continue while they give you a couple of chances to get it right.

When they finally fire you, they have to start the hiring process all over again, which sets them back months.  In many businesses, the most precious commodity isn’t money – it’s time.

Companies Think Onsite Staff Are Different

Sure, you and I know that bad programmers masquerade as perfectly good people.  They fool managers with their ThinkGeek t-shirts and their penchant for Red Bull.  They don’t talk much during the interview and they act scared – but so did you, and so does almost every other job candidate.  It’s really, really hard for managers to interview IT job candidates.  (Don’t send me links to interview questions – I’m not telling you it’s hard for me to do this interviewing, I’m just telling you how it is with other managers, because I talk to ’em a lot.)

Companies figure they’ll do the best they can with the hiring process, then they’ll watch the new guy like a hawk for the first couple of months.  They’ll make sure he shows up to the desk on time and that his breath doesn’t smell like beer.  (What, you thought your manager came around in the beginning just because they wanted to see if you liked that $49 office chair?)

Managers will ask coworkers a lot of questions.  “How’s the new guy working out?  Can you watch him for me?”  Sure, this stuff might work remotely, but it works much better in person when you’re sitting next to each other in those 6×6 jail cells cubicles.  Managers think they’re going to walk by the cube and see the new guy drooling on his keyboard if he’s incompetent, but of course you and I know it doesn’t really work that way.

You’re Competing with Everyone

Pop quiz: when you apply for a telecommuting job, whose salary range do you have to compete with?

  1. The company’s home office city
  2. Your city
  3. Bangalore

The answer is 3.  You might think offshore programmers aren’t applying for the job you want, and you might be right, but there’s another factor.  Consulting companies with huge numbers of offshore staff often hire onshore salespeople to build relationships.  These salespeople approach managers and say, “Hey, need a DBA or a C# programmer?  I’ve got senior guys available for just $30 per hour, no commitment required.  They report to our offices, where we make sure they’re drug tested and security checked.  If you get a bad one, we’ll switch him out for another one as often as you want.”

That means the hiring rank goes like this:

  1. Onsite staff that the company can see
  2. Offshore staff that the company can’t see, but someone else manages
  3. You working from home in your skivvies

That’s the way it works today.  Game over.  Deal with it.

How to Beat the System


I’ve been telecommuting on and off for ten years, and there’s three simple things you can do to get a telecommuting job.

Get in the door first. Start as an onsite employee, and after you’ve proven yourself and established your worth, gradually introduce telecommuting.  This is difficult.

Prove yourself cheap and fast. I do remote DBA consulting, but the first gig for a company is almost never remote.  I show up at their offices, do a performance tuning session or a health check, and within 48 hours they have a laundry list of actions to improve their environment.  I go out of my way to document the improvements in a way managers will love.  At that point, I can sell them on remote work because they like my results and their staff enjoys working with me.

Prove yourself before you even start. Have public results they can find without even talking to you.  Be the absolute best at something, and when someone’s looking for the best, they’ll see your results.  They’ll approach you without you even asking, and at that point, you’re able to say, “I can’t fly to ___, but I can do remote work and it’ll be better for both of us.”  If you’re the best there is, you can set up these kinds of demands.  And yes, this really does work – especially if you’re one of the stars on an open source project that companies rely on.

Want to read more of my articles on telecommuting?

Previous Post
I Know Kung Fu
Next Post
DBA Survivor by Tom LaRock – Book Review

15 Comments. Leave new

  • Hi Brent:
    Great post.Thank you for sharing!!! I do not when will i be able to get Remote DBA work.

  • My company started allowing my IT team (Infrastructure, Server Admins, and DBAs) to telecommute twice a week due to space restrictions of all things. They also got involved with the local “Clean Air Campaign” where we log our telecommute days. Not everyone participates, especially those that live only five minutes away, but most do at least once a week. We found that I in particular am MUCH more productive at home, so I now only have to go in once every 2 weeks (or as needed). Lately I’ve been getting overloaded with work, so started going in weekly just so I can talk face to face with my manager about all my projects, but that is my choice.

    If you have the discipline, telecommuting is a WONDERFUL thing. I personally see it as a huge benefit (much less gas required, less traffic, less having to listen to everyone in the cube farm) and treat it as such when considering other opportunities.

  • You are so on target, Nice job. I especially like the more reading links and the one on status reporting. Frankly Telecommuting or not this type of status updates work.

  • My personal experience is that tele commute is not half as glamorous as it looks. If you end up in a company where lots of others telecommute (including your boss), then it might work out ok. But in offices that have a culture where people walk up to one another, have lot of meetings, and interact personally – you can be as good as a computer if you sit at home and respond, and managing politics is incredibly hard online. In other words look at the company culture strong and hard before asking for an option to telecommute and avoid asking for special privileges as much as possible, it can be nice in short run but very counter productive long time.

  • My first experience telecommuting was with Perot Systems in Plano. I was getting 2 days of telecommuting per week as I designed, built, and administered VMware environments.

    But my big break came three years ago when EDS (now owned by HP) offered me a fantastic consulting gig. Not only am I doing the work I really love but I’m 100% telecommuting. The job has the potential for 75% travel but I barely do. On the flip side I also work some fairly long hours. I don’t mind though. There is a lot less stress in your life when you don’t have to sit in Dallas traffic for 2 to 3 hours a day.

    I’ve even sold my car.

    I really tried to sell Perot Systems on telecommuting. I even wrote a white paper on the savings that could be passed onto the customer. That company had to build an entire data center in 2005 because they ran out of floor space. They could have sent an entire floor of consultants to work from home and saved MILLIONS.

    IMO the problem comes down companies being more worried about what you are DOING instead of what you are ACCOMPLISHING. My company holds me fully accountable for meeting my deliverable and deadlines. They have never once worried whether or not I’m seated in front of a computer at home. They are more than happy with the $5million in revenue I and a teammate generated last year. When you go to work for a company, you need to see if they are more worried about you are doing or what you are accomplishing. If they are more concerned with accomplishments, then I think you have half a chance to turn that job into a telecommuting heaven..

    • IMO the problem comes down companies being more worried about what you are DOING instead of what you are ACCOMPLISHING. <<That is very well stated but i'd alter it slightly to see how much of your accomplishments involve active team work with two or more people? Are they tele commuting or working onsite? If they are tele commuting you can possibly work out a communication strategy and get things going. If they aren't then sorry no things don't work very well online. I have two major parts to my job for example – one is the mundane DBA part – checking on backups, event logs, nightly jobs etc which is very easily done from anywhere. Second is database reviews, code reviews and such which involve a LOT of people. Some don't read emails consistently, some don't answer phone depending on who is the caller..if i sit at home hoping that part will get done by remote communication am not getting very far…My boss really doesn't care what I 'do' honestly but he does care about getting people to do what is expected to them, that has not yet evolved to efficiency in the world of tele commute.

  • mdba,

    Those are all fair points but my experience has been pretty good. I am currently working on four different projects for four different customers. EDS/HP has people that work onsite at the datacenter for things like rack and stack, cabling, networking, etc, etc.

    You are reliant on others getting their work done but frankly that is the case whether you are telecommuting or not. Even if I was working in our Plano office, I have to deal with other HP employees that are all over the globe. It is pretty easy to figure out which people are the weak links in a team and create countermeasures for working with them. Some people I can hand a request to and walk away. But others I will not only email but call or IM for a followup. It takes more time but in the end my net time saved versus commuting is huge.

    Beyond that I also use virtual classrooms for white boarding and presentations. We have regular conference calls. I am always on my project managers to keep track of their project plan. I make them share the plan out to everyone on sharepoint so everyone knows what their deliverables are.

    Oh, and people that don’t make their deliverables, they get RIF’ed very quickly.

    I value my telecommuting position very highly. I didn’t like it when HP forced a pay cut on everyone last year but in the end I wasn’t leaving, even though someone with my skill set is in very high demand right now. I stayed because I love not having to drive to work.

    I’ve been with HP/EDS for three years now. I’ve designed, built, and migrated to numerous VMware environments. I’ve had less than 2 months of total travel in those three years but I’ve yet to have a project fail. Most of them are executed on time and even within budget. That doesn’t just speak of me, but literally hundreds of people that have worked on those projects. Many of which are telecommuting just like me..

    • That doesn’t just speak of me, but literally hundreds of people that have worked on those projects. Many of which are telecommuting just like me..<< Yeah I think you have summed it up right there…you have to have lots of people telecommuting and the company a policy in place for communication – people have to answer phones or emails or stay on IM. That is all what i was trying to say…being the one-odd person who telecommutes while majority of team members work onsite does not work very well.

  • I’m very surprised you’ve still got your shoes on in that pic, Brent.

  • Hi Brent

    You said :

    “I go out of my way to document the improvements in a way managers will love.”

    Can you please expand on this give me a couple of examples please?

    Thank you



Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Fill out this field
Fill out this field
Please enter a valid email address.