Leon Barnard – Education Team Lead at Balsamiq

Leon Barnard – Education Team Lead at Balsamiq

Can you introduce yourself?

Hi, I’m Leon. I lead a team at Balsamiq dedicated to helping our community learn design basics.

I started working in the field of User Experience over 15 years ago when it was just starting to take off in companies outside of Silicon Valley. I feel very fortunate to have ridden the wave to where I am today, teaching UX techniques and best practices to aspiring designers and people who design to communicate but don’t do it as their primary job (Product Managers, Developers, Executives, etc.).

How did you start working remotely and why?

My first remote experience wasn’t a deliberate choice. I wanted to move to San Francisco but found a good job in LA that was open to me transitioning to working from SF. I worked on site for a couple of months, then would fly down there for one week a month after I moved.

I was really surprised by how much working from home seemed to suit me. As an introvert, I found myself becoming much more focused and productive. Unfortunately, I was the only remote employee and I got left out of a lot of important conversations, so it didn’t work out in the end.

But when I saw a job posting at Balsamiq (a company I had been eyeing for years that just happened to be remote-first) a few months later I jumped at the chance. The fact that I had remote experience helped my case for getting the job.

What is your typical day like?

My morning routine is one of my favourite things about working remotely. I’m not a morning person. I like to gradually boot up. I always hated the hustle of getting out the door to go to the office. Wake up, shower, get dressed, eat breakfast, commute, start work. My natural inertia would fight me every step of the way.

Now I have total control over the order of things. After I wake up I grab a cup of coffee and check my email and Slack messages to see if anything urgent is waiting for me and get an idea of what my day might look like. Once the caffeine starts kicking in I move to my office in the garage and get on my laptop to reply to messages, look at my to-dos, and start on some of my easier tasks for the day while I work on a second cup of coffee.

I take a break to eat breakfast around 9:30 or 10:00 (I’m not really hungry until then) and then get into my meatier tasks.

9:00 am to 1:00 pm is usually my most productive time of day, so if I have lunch before then, I prefer to keep it short or eat at my desk because I still have momentum. I definitely get a slump between 1:00 and 3:00 or so, so I often do some lighter work then or read my personal email and check Twitter, etc.

I finish at 5:15. It’s the time that my wife and I have negotiated that gives me enough time to feel like I’ve put in a full day of work yet leaves enough time in the evening for family time and helping with dinner, chores, etc. Having no commute is such a joy. We’re done with dinner around the time that many of my friends who commute into San Francisco are just arriving home.

How do you stay efficient and engaged while working remotely?

Let’s just get this out of the way. I’m not efficient and engaged all the time. Is anyone? Is that even the goal?

Anyway, my secret is that when I’m not feeling productive, I don’t try to fight it. I’ve developed a part of my brain that keeps a lookout for when I lose focus. It usually speaks up once I start switching between applications on my computer without doing anything in any of them. At that point I try to just stand up, even if I don’t know what I’m going to do next. That’s usually enough to disconnect my brain from the screen and make a plan.

It’s better to spend 30 minutes taking a walk or doing chores than an hour mindlessly surfing the internet. You need a reset. That’s my other favorite thing about working remotely, not needing to “look busy”. In an office you can feel pressure to be at your desk all day. But that’s not a good way to get the best work out of yourself.

If I really have a lot to do and want to push myself, I’ll do the easiest part of a project first. That’s sometimes enough to build momentum.

What are the tools and workflow that you’re using to get things done?

Aside from the usual tools like email and Slack, I do a lot of writing, and for that, I enjoy writing in Markdown. My preferred tool is MacDown.

I mostly use Things for keeping track of my tasks, although I’ve found that my list inevitably gets out of control and whatever tool I use stops being effective. So I sometimes switch to writing my daily to-dos on paper or in a text file until I get on top of things and can prune my “official” list.

How do you think remote work will evolve in the future?

It’s hard to say. I wrote in our recent company newsletter that we’re at a tipping point, evidenced by new businesses emerging to help companies transition to going remote. Call it “remote as a service” or “remotification” if you like. That tells me that starting or going remote isn’t just a trend.

That said, I’m not a “the future is remote” zealot. I don’t think it’s inevitable that all companies that can will go remote. Working alongside colleagues in an office is still a more natural way of working and will always offer at least some advantages over distributed workspaces.

How to you stay in touch with your team?

We have employees in the San Francisco Bay Area, Chicago, and Europe, so time zones can be a challenge. We all try to be online together for an hour each day at the beginning of the day in SF/end of day in Europe. That’s where we can have back-and-forth conversations and larger meetings. But we’re generally grouped by department in nearby time zones so that we can work synchronously for our primary tasks.

We’ve had annual in-person company retreats for the past nine years. They’ve always been a great way to get some face time and build personal connections so that we get to know the person on the other end of the chat or video call. We also have occasional mini-retreats for specific teams and in-person social get-togethers for employees who live close to each other.

What do you enjoy most about working remotely?

It all comes down to being in charge of my own output. Balsamiq is a Results Only Work Environment (without the metrics and repercussions).

When you work in an office it can sometimes feel like you’re being paid to sit at your desk for eight hours a day. But when that restriction is lifted then it’s the destination that’s prescribed, not the path, and it’s up to you to figure out the best way to get there. It’s a double-edged sword though. You get the freedom to make your own schedule, but also have the responsibility to find one that works for you.

What is your office/workspace look like?

Can we be real for a minute? This is what my office actually looks like at the time I’m writing this:

Leon is leading a team at Balsamiq dedicated to helping their comm

If I tidied up and cropped the shot enough, it could look almost Pinterest-worthy. But this photo captures the reality much better. Most of the time, it’s a bit of a mess.

But what matters to me more than the clutter in my office is the clutter in my brain. That’s what determines my productivity.

I do like having a few different options for working through. I have an adjustable height desk that allows me to work while standing or sitting. And I also work from the couch in my office, often at the start or end of the day. There’s something nice about just being able to mix it up depending on what I need.

What are the challenges of being a remote worker?

I think there are wider extremes. There are spikes of amazing productivity that could never be replicated in an office. But there are also long durations of being incredibly unproductive that would be interrupted in a positive way in an office setting.

I’m lucky that I’m an introvert and that my wife is home with our young child now, so I don’t really get lonely or feel disconnected during the day. But when I’m not feeling good about myself or my work, I can distance myself from my coworkers. In-person office meetings and lunch outings can bring you back into the fold and I sometimes miss that, even if I don’t crave it.

Do you have any side projects? Can you speak about them?

I took up DJing in my late 30s. It was something I’d been wanting to do for a very long time. I occasionally play at parties and coffee shops in my area. It’s nice to have a hobby.

I also always have a few tech projects that I’m working on, usually when I want to learn something new. I created my current website – leon.land – to learn about HTML5, CSS3, and static sites. And I’m currently working on a website for my DJing – djleonb.com – because I wanted to try out CSS Grid (which is super easy and awesome!).

How do you combat feelings of loneliness, isolation and burnout?

Having my wife and kids around a lot is critical. It’s hard to feel isolated amid the chaos of young children.

As far as burnout, it does happen, although I’m not sure it happens to me any more than it would if I worked in an office. A couple of years ago I took a few weeks off to take an online course and also volunteer with Habitat for Humanity near me. It definitely helped. I also take plenty of vacation days.

What is special about the place where you live?

I enjoy that I live close to San Francisco, but not too close. The weather is great (not too hot, not too cold) and the scenery is legendary. But mostly I just really like the people and culture here.

Besides work, how do you like to spend your time?

I have a small DJ setup in my garage next to my office. I try to carve out time to practice. But mostly I spend time with my wife and kids.

Do you have any recommendations for those who want to work remotely too?

Just a few:

  1. Look for a company that is remote only or remote-first. It’s much harder to work somewhere where you’re one of just a few people not working from the office.
  2. Find a good culture fit. Feeling comfortable in your job is even more important when working remotely.
  3. My own bias is to be wary of startups, especially if you’re looking for a job to stay in for a while. A few of them grow into successful companies that are also great places to work, but the majority of them will either run out of funding, compromise their values to increase revenue, or get bought by a large corporation. Although they can be a good place to learn a lot quickly, it can be a rocky ride. As an alternative, consider “people first” companies.

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