Multiple Chat Windows in Teams (Workaround)

My company recently made the full switch from Skype for Business to Microsoft Teams. For calls, it’s fine and mostly feels the same if not better since I prefer the aesthetic of Teams. The one thing that drives me insane about Teams is that I can’t have more than one chat window.

This is particularly irksome when I’m on a call where somebody’s screensharing, and I want to have a side-chat or ask/answer a question from somebody outside the call. As soon as you open another chat, the screenshare is reduced to an unusably-small size, and switching back makes the other chat go away. There’s a similar problem with managing multiple conversations or team chats at the same time.

Here’s an easy workaround: use the Teams web client. Just login at, and you can have as many windows as you want. This works pretty well for side-chats on a conference call, for example if you want to have a parallel internal conversation while speaking to a client or customer. If you have frequent contacts, you can even create bookmarks to specific conversations.

Use bookmarks for conversations or contacts you access frequently

Featured image photo by¬†ūüá®ūüá≠ Claudio Schwarz | @purzlbaum¬†on¬†Unsplash

6 Tips For Remote Team Success!


I’ve been a full-time remote employee for more than five years now. There are lots of benefits to working from home, but it’s also easy to lose transparency or negatively impact the productivity of your team. Today I’m sharing my best tips for being successful as a remote team.

1. Be Visible

The most important thing you can do while working remotely is to be visible! Don’t make your team wonder if you’re showing up or question your contribution. In my opinion, the single best way to do this is to favor open channels of communication over private ones.

If you have a question, and you know who you want to ask, it’s easy to direct message them and have a private conversation. However, you could also ask that person in a team channel so that everybody can see. Having these conversations “in the open” is great for team engagement and knowledge-sharing. It can also lead to you getting your question answered sooner–for example, if the person you’re asking is away but there’s someone else who can answer. Before you direct message someone, think about what you’re asking. Is it something that needs to be private? If it’s not, consider asking in a more-public way that will benefit everyone!

Slack is my preferred “open channel” for these sorts of things, but you could just as easily use Teams or even Discord. It helps me keep track of what my team is doing, and it also gives me an opportunity to jump in on a conversation when I have additional context. It also helps with socialization so I don’t feel isolated, and the mix of work-related and non-work-related conversations help to build and strengthen relationships.

If your team doesn’t do formal daily standups, implementing “virtual standups”–as an individual or a team–can be another good way to keep your contributions visible. At the beginning or end of your day, send a summary of the things you accomplished, what you plan to tackle next, and highlight any roadblocks that are getting in your way.

2. Use a Webcam

Webcams are one of those things that everybody says is a good idea for working remotely but that nobody likes using. It’s easy to be self-conscious, and it can definitely be awkward to be on a call where you’re the only one on camera. I try really hard to embrace the cam, though, because the benefits are so important.

One great benefit is that it opens up a whole world of nonverbal communication. You can see when another participant is shaking their head, making a confused face, or raising their hand to get a word in. These cues make meetings more productive by providing feedback about the pace of content and helping to moderate the discussion. You can also see when somebody is talking while muted–because everybody stays muted when not speaking, right? (More on that in a minute.)

The thing I like most about webcams is that keeps me honest about paying attention. It’s hard not to get distracted by laptops and cell phones in regular, in-person meetings when everybody can see you, and it’s even harder when you’re sitting at your computer with all its alerts and notifications plus your phone’s right there and nobody can tell what you’re doing! Being on camera helps me resist the temptation to multi-task, and it turns out meetings are more productive when everybody’s engaged. Who knew?

3. Mute Your Mic

This one’s more about being courteous than productive, but as a remote team member you’ll likely find yourself on a lot of conference calls. Stay muted by default so people don’t have to listen to things like you munching on potato chips, your dog barking, or you yelling at your kids. I prefer to use a headset that has a hardware mute button on it so I can quickly mute & unmute when I have something to say. It’s a small thing, but it can be annoying to have “that person” on a call. Don’t wait to get shame-muted by someone else!

4. Keep Normal Hours

Keeping normal hours while working from home is an important anti-productivity preventative measure. Similar to the webcam, part of the benefit is just that it keeps you honest about your day and helps you resist all the temptations from things you’d rather be doing. More importantly, though, keeping sporadic hours poses a big threat to the team’s productivity, especially when there are multiple people doing it. It’s incredibly frustrating when there’s one person who has the answers you need, but nobody knows where they’re at or when they’ll re-surface, and it’s easy to lose a day when “the early person” needs something from “the late person” and the two don’t connect.

Be honest with yourself about how you should be spending your time, and hold yourself accountable. Have a predictable schedule so teammates know when you’ll be available, and say something if you do need to be a way for a bit. Be visible!

5. Virtual Office

The concept of a virtual office, or persistent team call, is something that’s becoming more prevalent at my work. One of our teams has a recurring all-day meeting, and people just join it throughout the day. Usually someone shares their screen regardless of whether others are actively working on the same thing or not. It’s great for socialization and relationship-building, and it also drives engagement through knowledge-sharing and collaboration.

Another team uses Slack to create open calls when they’re working on things. I love Slack calls for this because you can set a title or topic that’s visible in the channel allowing people to pop in & out. Slack calls are also great because they give the ability to draw on a screenshare. It’s fun for doodles but also great when you need to say, “Right HERE!”

6. Have Fun!

Fun’s important for in-office and remote workers, but it can be harder to find the fun when you’re on an island. You can’t walk around and look for a conversation, and you can only see what others choose to make visible. So, how can you keep it fun?

Slack is a great way to spread some fun with its emojis, reactions, and gifs (used sparingly!). It’s easy to share a joke or tell a funny story about your kid that’s melting down upstairs.

My team used to use Skype’s whiteboard feature to make the most ridiculous drawings before our daily standup. Somebody would make something, and everybody else would just keep adding. It was a good way to flex creativity and almost always made us laugh.

Webcams can also be good fun. We have a few people that use green screens to replace their backgrounds or apps like FaceRig to replace themselves with avatars. Even just holding up a hand-written note at the right time can be hilarious.

What are some things you do to keep it fun while working remotely? And what other tips do you have for being a successful remote worker? I’d love to hear your ideas and experiences!

New Home Office & the IOGEAR Dual View Dual Link DVI

I just recently moved back into my house, and a lot’s changed since I was here. Perhaps the most notable difference is that home and work have combined. So, when it came time to configure my home office, I wanted to make sure I had everything I needed to adequately work and play in the same space while also keeping them sufficiently separate.

Let’s talk needs. Two monitors is a minimum for work. Some people like a third display, but it’s give-or-take for me. I find that I’ll be looking at the far-left monitor and not notice something important that’s happening on the far-right. I’m not anti-third display; it’s just not something that I particularly care about. I like two displays for home for some of the same reasons. If I’m learning something, I want to have a page up on one screen while I work on the other. Or, maybe I want to poke away at some code while watching some TV. Either way, two screens makes life better. The old home office had my home and work computers in different rooms because I didn’t have a proper office, but it was time for them to unite.

This union created a dilemma: two computers, three monitors, two keyboards, and two mice. Seems like a perfect job for a KVM, but I was surprised to find that multi-display KVMs aren’t cheap. After a night of research, I decided it would be worth it to splurge and get an IOGEAR 2-port MiniView Dual View Dual Link DVI. On paper, it’s just what I needed. Two monitors, a keyboard, and mouse could be shared between the two computers. The third monitor would be hooked up to a DVR for some entertainment on the side, but it could also be used as a third display for either computer if desired. (I’d change the third display manually using its built-in source selection.)


The MiniView is a cool piece of hardware. It’s got some decent weight to it, and the metal case and buttons look nice–essential for a desktop peripheral! I ran into some hiccups hooking everything up, but I think it may have been because I was hot-swapping everything instead of turning everything off like recommended in the user manual which, of course, was not read until after the fact. The functional shenanigans during setup caused the initial configuration to take the better part of 2 hours and was really frustrating. I was definitely feeling some buyer’s remorse and considering sending it back, but I got it working after a few reboots and do-overs.

Okay, initial setup was done. Displays were working; keyboard was working; mouse was funky. I’d read some reviews about issues with wireless mice, so I wasn’t entirely surprised by this. I had a nice gaming mouse, so I decided to just roll with that, but I couldn’t do it. I missed my Logitech Performance MX and had to go back. Fortunately, the MiniView has a USB port to share a single peripheral between computers. I plugged my Logitech universal receiver into it, and the mouse worked just fine. Boom, problem solved.

I was all done, or so I thought. I ran into another problem a day or two later, this time with the keyboard. The “t” got stuck, and even unplugging and re-plugging it in didn’t solve the issue. So, I grabbed a cheap 3-port USB hub that I had laying around, plugged it into the single shared port on the KVM, and plugged my mouse, keyboard, and wireless headphones receiver into it. Now I’m not using either of the KVM’s dedicated USB keyboard or mouse ports, but everything works perfectly. I lose out on the KVM-specific keyboard and mouse commands, but the KVM is front & center on my desk so I probably wouldn’t be learning or using those commands, anyway.

Everything’s been good for another day or two at this point, and so far, so good. I’m feeling good about this configuration and hope it keeps working!

Oh, and if you’re curious about the monitor/computer connections, my two monitors connect to the KVM via HDMI-to-DVI cables. Computer 1 is connected to the KVM using the KVM’s provided DVI+USB cable and a DVI-to-HDMI cable. Computer 2 uses the DVI+USB cable and an additional standard DVI cable. The third display connects to Computer 1 using a VGA cable (Computer 1 only supports 3 displays if one is VGA), Computer 2 using a standard HDMI cable, and the DVR using a standard HDMI cable. I’m generally keeping the third display disconnected from the computers (through their display control panels) and just using it as a TV, though.

Mountek nGroove Snap 3

Back before everybody’s cell phone had built-in GPS, I had a TomTom GPS. It came with a suction cup so you could stick it to the window, but that never really worked that well for me. It would constantly fall off the window, and it drove me nuts. So, I bought a beanbag friction mount that I could stick it to, and it would sit nicely on the dashboard whenever I was driving somewhere that I needed directions.

Fast forward to present day. I use my cell phone for directions when I need them, but I prop it up in a little groove below my car’s¬†instrument panel. If I turn too fast, it goes flying, and it’s low enough that I’m constantly looking down for the next turn. The solution is a cell phone mount, and I’ve been shopping for the perfect one¬†for a long time.

I didn’t want something that used a suction cup because of my previous bad experience, and I didn’t want something that used an adhesive because I worry about it doing permanent damage or failing over time. The vents in my car are not in a good location, so any clip-on mount’s not so great. I was considering going for a suction cup to re-use with my beanbag, but I was turned off by storing it. I wouldn’t want to leave it out all the time because the rubber could melt on a really hot day, it’s too big to store with the base & mount assembled, and the idea of disassembling & reassembling with each use is less than ideal, too.

Enter the Mountek nGroove Snap 3 magnetic car mount.


This thing is great. First, it attaches to the CD slot in my car which is perfect. It’s right where I want it in the middle of the instrument panel, and I don’t think I’ll ever put another CD in there, anyway. The mount is small and reasonably unobtrusive, so I won’t have some big, bulky bracket that’s either out all the time or being stored with each use. It’s magnetic, so I just stick a metal badge under my phone’s case and it just sticks–super easy to mount and remove with one hand. There are no brackets, so I can put it in any orientation with whatever cables I might need (charging, stereo). It’s universal, so it’ll work with phones or tablets or anything else that’s light enough to be held by the magnet (which is pretty strong). It can also be used as a desktop stand for your phone, if you’re into that kind of thing, too.

The only thing that I can even think to complain about is that my phone blocks the clock a bit when it’s mounted, but I can still see the time by leaning a little to my left. (So be sure to think about what controls or displays it might be blocking.) Other than that, it’s amazing. Even my wife was impressed, which is really saying something. Best mount ever.

My Year in Gadgets

I like gadgets, and so I tend to buy a lot of them. Some are life-changers, and some fizzle out after a few weeks or months. Here’s a rundown of notable gadgets I’ve acquired this year.

Bose SoundLink Mini Bluetooth Speaker

This little guy ended up on my wish list after playing with a demo at Best Buy. I definitely had a “whoa” moment when I heard it for the first time. So, when I moved into an office at work, I decided it was time to pull the trigger. I mean, it would be silly for me to listen to headphones in a room all by myself, right?

This is one purchase that I have zero regrets about. I use it almost every day. I listen to music in the office, NPR in the kitchen, and have toddler dance parties in the living room. It’s also great for being outside. The battery life is really good. I can’t tell you exactly what it is because I think it’s only gone dead on me once or twice. (It has a charging dock that I keep on my desk, and that’s it’s usual resting place.) I think you get a good 10+ hours on a full charge, though.

JayBird BlueBuds X Sport Bluetooth Headphones

After going to the gym for a few weeks, I decided it was time to invest in a pair of quality workout headphones. I wanted to go wireless because I’ve never really liked having the cord flopping around while I run, but I also wanted great sound since I could be using them 5-10 hours each week between workouts and other uses.

First, the good. The sound quality did not disappoint. I was nervous that I’d regret not going for a pair of wired buds with better quality, but these were great. The battery life is pretty good. I charge them every few days, and that’s sufficient to keep them from ever dying on me.

There is some bad with these, though. It took me a week or two to get used to them. In the first few days, I was really disappointed. I had tried a few different configurations (cord over the ear, under the ear, different size buds & wedges), but they weren’t comfortable and kept falling out during workouts. However, I stuck with them, found a configuration that I like, and no longer have any problems–so don’t give up! The only problem I have with them now is that every now and then, I’ll have problems with the audio just stopping. I don’t know if it’s my phone or the headphone that’s the culprit, but I’ll be listening to a song and it will just stop. There is no indication that I have disconnected, but I can take a few steps to reconnect and everything will be fine. I have tried rebooting my phone, power-cycling the headphones, and anything else I could think of. Most days everything is fine, but it’s super annoying on that one day every other week where it’s being temperamental. There have been a couple of days where I’ve given up on them and just stuffed them into my pocket during a workout.

One final gripe is that when I’ve used these to watch Netflix in bed, the audio has been out-of-sync with the picture. The audio sounds great, so I don’t blame the headphones here, but it’s out-of-sync due to bluetooth. So it’s not a problem that I’d have if I’d gone with wired ear buds.

Despite this seemingly negative review, I’m happy with what I’ve got. I’m sure that if I’d selected a wired pair, I’d have regrets about the cord. I love the sound and they’re comfortable. Great for listening to music, not-so-much for video.

Jackery Giant+

A portable power bank is one of those things that I never seemed to think about unless I was in need of one. Before my most recent trip out to the west coast, I decided to pick one up. I was initially deciding between the Lumsing 10400mAh and the Jackery Giant. I liked the Lumsing because it’s super-economical ($25), but I ultimately went with the Giant+ because of–of all things–the location of the USB ports.

One of the reviews of the Lumsing pointed out that it was awkward to use the charger from a pocket. I don’t expect that I’ll be doing my charging from my pants (but who knows), but I like that I can stick the Giant+ in an inner pocket of my backpack and still have the ports exposed. When I need some juice on the go, I can easily plug-in without any fuss and toss the device in need of charging into my backpack. The Giant+ is also slightly bigger (12000mAh) and has a flashlight. The flashlight seems like it could be useful, but the question is whether I’ll have the Giant with me when I need it!

Microsoft Band

When the Band was first announced, I was very “meh” about it. I had been looking for a watch with a built-in timer or stopwatch to help me with my workouts, and so I convinced myself to try it out. I headed over to my local Microsoft Store and they were all out of stock. Now that I couldn’t have one, I really wanted one. So I got myself on a list and waited.

It came a couple of weeks later. I’ve had it for about a month now, and I’m pretty happy with it. The thing I like most is something that I did not expect: the email and text alerts. You can’t really read or reply to these messages, but it’s great to take a quick peek by flipping your wrist to then determine if the it’s worthy of bringing my phone out of my pocket and dealing with it. Payment notification from Verizon, ignore. Text from wife, address immediately.

I haven’t really tried the guided workouts, I don’t really go on runs, and I don’t really care about my step count. I like the workout tracker (essentially just a timer + heart monitor) and sleep tracking, and, as mentioned previously, I really like the email and text alerts. It’s still early with this one, but it seems like a win.

Kindle Voyage

The Kindle Voyage is my latest toy. I had a 1st generation Kindle Fire that was ironically lost in a fire. I like it for reading at night, but I didn’t use many of the tablet features (browser or apps) and the glare was not so good for daylight reading at times. So, I decided to go for a pure e-reader this time. I’ve read just one book so far, but the more I use it, the more I like it.

I decided to get the Voyage for the auto-brightness adjustment, and it works nicely. I also like the page turn buttons on the side but wouldn’t consider this to be any sort of killer feature. All-in-all, I’m happy with this. It’s definitely better for reading than my Kindle Fire was, but I can’t say how it compares to another pure reader like the Paperwhite.

Wagan Power Dome EX 400-Watt Jump Starter with Built-In Air Compressor

This is less techy, but it is no less awesome. I’m a stickler for tire pressure, but the condo that I’ve been living in does not have a nearby power source for me to connect my small air compressor. The gas station air is a pain since it’s usually not free, and I probably don’t have correct change. So, I wanted to find a wireless air compressor that I could keep in my car to use when I need it.

There were mixed reviews about this, but I decided to take a chance. I’m glad I did–I love it. Low pressure? I just pull this puppy out of the cargo area, and I’m back to normal in no time! It doesn’t fill up super fast (about 1-2 lbs every 30 sec), but it definitely gets the job done. Putting a few pounds of air into all four tires is easy work. There are gripes about the valve cord not being long enough, but just tip it on its side and it’s plenty.

It’s also got a jump starter. I haven’t had to use it, but it’s nice to know that I’ve got it. (I’ve been burned by jump starters in the past, so I’m keeping regular jumper cables around, too!) It has USB ports for charging devices, a radio, a flashlight, and both AC and DC power outlets. Plus it looks cool and seems to impress dads and grandpas. I’m happy with this thing just as a portable air compressor, but it does a lot more!

Sorry if I look dumb, this was sent from my phone

I’m sure this isn’t anything new, but it’s something I’ve noticed several times in the past few weeks: email signatures that say, “This email was sent from my phone, please excuse typos and brevity.” I already find it borderline offensive when somebody sends me a sloppy email with misspelled or abbreviated words and broken sentences, but to then suggest that I overlook these “mistakes” is enough to set me off.

Yes, it’s harder to type quickly and accurately from your smartphone. There’s nothing that prevents you from reading what you wrote to determine whether or not you sound like a moron, though. Nobody’s reading your horrible email and then getting to the signature and saying, “Ohhhhh, it’s just because they sent it from their phone. Whew! I was beginning to think they were dumb or didn’t care about the quality of what they produce, but it’s actually because they’re being ultra-responsive to my needs by replying on the go.” What people are¬†really going to think is that you don’t know better¬†or don’t care about your mistakes, and I’m not sure which is actually worse.

So, instead of letting the world know that you probably know better–and I assure you, the world doesn’t think you do–but you just don’t care, how about you take the time to READ what you’re sending and correct¬†mistakes that you notice? Yes, you’ll probably make a typo here and there or misuse/forget to use a comma, but that’s bound to happen regardless of how you’re communicating. It’s okay, and it’s better than acknowledging that you probably sound like an idiot but just don’t care.

At the end of the day, people who care about spelling, grammar, and professionalism are going to judge you¬†regardless of what your email signature suggests.¬†What you should really do is just¬†slow down and review what you produce. If you find that you just can’t write a high-quality email from your phone, I suggest you stop trying and reserve yourself to only sending emails from a computer. If it’s something that really, truly can’t wait, email is probably not the most effective means of communication, anyway. (Hint: It is¬†incredibly¬†likely that your phone has a phone feature.)

Why are you doing that?

We’ve all been there before: the boss approaches and asks you to do something that seems useless. You don’t ask questions. You just do it because they’re the boss, and that’s what they asked you to do.

“Why are you doing that?”
“I don’t know.”
“It seems dumb, doesn’t it?”
“Then why are you doing that?”
“Boss told me to.”

Ugh. Don’t you see? Everybody loses when this happens! You’re doing something you perceive as useless, so you probably feel like you’re time is being wasted. You’re also¬†probably not putting forth your best effort since you’re doing something you think is useless. Plus, you¬†don’t understand the reason you’re doing it, so there’s a good chance you might overlook something that’s relevant to the actual goal. So even if you’re trying your best, you might not be as effective as you could be. Maybe there’s a better way to accomplish the goal than what you’re being asked to do, but how can you know without having any awareness of said goal?

I see this all the time, and it drives me CRAZY. It’s sad, too, because the solution is so simple: ask questions. Don’t do something without understanding why you’re doing it.¬†The worst reason you can have for doing something is because somebody told you to do it. The next worst reason is that it’s what you’ve always done. If you’ve been given an assignment, and you don’t understand why you’re doing it, don’t just do it: ask some damn questions! You’re smart. You have ideas. If you understand the problem you might be able to come up with some smart ideas about how to solve it. (And if you can’t, at least you’ll understand why you’re doing that dumb thing you’re doing.)

You might be able to do an okay job by just doing what you’re asked to do without knowing why you’re doing it. You’ll probably do a better job if you know what’s trying to be accomplished,¬†but you’ll do your best work if you can somehow find a way actually care about¬†the problem. Mindlessly doing what your told is a fantastic way to be mediocre and not have a satisfying career. Being engaged plays an important role in both performance and satisfaction. You must understand a problem in order to care about it, and only when you care will you become truly engaged–unlocking your full potential, producing your best work, and feeling maximum satisfaction for what you’ve accomplished.

My House Burned Down

My daughter's room after the fire.
My daughter’s room after the fire.

It’s been a while since I’ve posted anything, but I have a good excuse: my house burned down. Before I tell my tale, you should know that everybody is okay, including my dog who was at the house when it happened. Everybody in our lives has been incredibly generous and supportive. We’re settled into a temporary home while our house is being rebuilt. The whole experience has been quite surreal.

The Fire

I was at work, having a normal Tuesday morning. The day had started like any other day. My wife was up getting ready, I was taking the dog out and having breakfast, and my 10 month old daughter was sleeping. My wife left for work, and I took my daughter to daycare and went to work myself. Around 11 AM, my wife called me. She told me that our house was on fire and I needed to get there right away.

With a million thoughts racing through my head, I zipped across town. My house is at the back of a cul-de-sac, and I could see my street was packed with police cars, ambulances, and fire trucks. There were two big engines in the front yard spraying water. There was no way for me to know the extent of the damage, but it was clear that my house was no longer inhabitable.

A pair of firemen pulled me into an ambulance to ask me all kinds of questions. I assume this was all standard stuff as part of their investigation. What had I done that morning? Had I cooked anything? Did my wife use a curling iron? Did I leave the lights on? Shortly after that, my wife arrived, and they asked her all the same questions.

The First Night

When we left the scene, we felt like we had nothing. The only clothes we had were the ones we were wearing. The insurance company was going to pay for us to stay in a hotel until we could find temporary housing, but we opted to stay with some friends that lived nearby instead. Our daughter was scheduled to be at daycare for another few hours, so we made trips to Buy Buy Baby and Target to get everything we needed to get by for a few days.

We focused on our daughter first. It felt like registering for a baby shower, only we needed it all that day. So what’s everything you need to care for a baby? It’s a lot. Diapers and wipes. Stuff to wear: onesies, clothes, pajamas, socks.¬†Stuff to eat: formula, food. Stuff to eat with: bottles, bowls, spoons, bibs. Stuff to clean stuff that was eaten with: bottle brush, drying rack. A Pack & Play with a quilted sheet and a white noise machine.¬†A toy. A book.¬†Good? Probably not, but good enough for one night.

Now it’s time for us.¬†You know what you don’t want to do when your house just burned down? Shop. But you have to. Okay, but where to start? Something to wear tomorrow: jeans, a casual shirt, a zip-up hoodie, socks, underwear. Something to wear tonight: pajama pants. Some toiletries: toothbrush, toothpaste, deodorant. Cell phone chargers. Good? Probably not, but good enough for one night.

Going to sleep that night was hard. I was grateful to have friends that invited and welcomed us into their home without hesitation, but I wanted to be alone. My daughter was her usual happy self, and she made it easy to laugh and smile despite everything that had gone on that day. She went to sleep in her Pack & Play without¬†a problem, so that was a great relief. After she went to bed, I was sad and uncomfortable.¬†I wanted¬†the quilt my mom made¬†me and the slippers my wife gave me two Christmases ago. I wanted to be in my bed with my pillows, but I didn’t have a bed or pillows anymore.

The Next Day

The next morning, we met with the insurance company’s large loss adjuster and fire inspectors from the fire department and insurance company. The consensus among inspectors was that this was an electrical fire that started in the attic. I was relieved to learn that the fire wasn’t caused by something we did, and my wife was unsettled to learn that was nothing we could have done to prevent it.

The fire started in the attic above my daughter’s room. The cellulose insulation we had blown in several months ago was quite flammable, and the fire spread quickly in the attic above the second story. It burned through the roof which allowed the smoke to escape, so smoke damage on the first floor was remarkably minimal, or so I’m told. By the time the fire was extinguished, there was no roof or tresses on the second floor. The only remnant of furniture in my daughter’s room was the metal base from an ottoman. There was not even a¬†trace of her dressers, desk, bookshelf,¬†books, toys, or her¬†crib. It’s really scary to think about how things could’ve gone differently if we had been home.

Cleanup Begins

I didn’t really know how I expected cleanup and recovery to happen, but I was surprised with how it did. The insurance company brought vendors to deal with the different types of contents: electronics, textiles, and “everything else.” All three vendors operate similarly: they inventory everything then take anything that looks salvageable out of the home, use their restoration processes to clean each item, and store the items in a warehouse until a new home is ready to receive them. Items that are left behind or unable to be restored to their pre-fire condition are added to a “total loss” list for the insurance company.

Now, when I say “everything,” I’m talkin’ EVERYTHING. They took all the obvious stuff like furniture, pictures, computers, books, and things on shelves and¬†in drawers and cabinets, They also¬†took a lot of unexpected things like kitchen appliances, riding lawnmower, and snow blower. (And everything else in the garage, actually.)

At this point, the entire contents of our home has been removed and is tucked away at various vendor locations. We don’t really have an idea of what will be saved and what will need to be replaced. All we know for sure is that anything that was upstairs is gone. We may not know about the rest for several months. I’m told that the vendors typically store the items until a new home will be available.

Our Temporary Home

The insurance company helped us find a condo with a 6-month lease that switches to month-to-month at the end of the 6 months. Their paying the landlord directly, so the inconvenience to us is minimal. They’re also paying for furniture rental, which is really cool. I again didn’t know what to expect but have been pleasantly surprised. We have a fully furnished home, complete with dishes, cookware, coffee pot, toaster, bedding & linens, and televisions. We’ve been there for about two weeks now, and it feels very home-like. It’s weird because it really does feel like home, but we don’t own any of it.


The contents of our house have been removed, and we’re settled into our temporary home. All that’s left is to rebuild the house. We have a building contractor who will be working with the insurance company to determine exactly what needs to be done.¬† We already know that the second floor needs to be reconstructed from scratch, and the first floor needs to be taken down to studs. The entire house needs new electrical and, presumably, new heating & cooling and plumbing.

We are in no way excited about what has happened, but we’re optimistic about a happy ending with an improved, updated version of the house we loved and lost. We’ve been hearing estimates of 6-7 months, so we’re just planning on getting back to our home later this year.

Thanks to Everyone

The most surprising thing–aside from the fire itself–has been the amount of support we’ve received from friends, family, and our extended network of people we’ve never even met. Co-workers have collected donations, we’ve received care packages with clothes, gift cards, and toys for our daughter. It’s been overwhelming, and we’re so grateful for everything we’ve received from everyone.

We’re so thankful that the sequence of events leading up to the fire played out as they did. Nobody was home during the fire, and nobody was hurt. Our dog was home, but¬†she was corralled in the kitchen, as far away from the fire as she could be, before being¬†taken to the fire department. (And the women at the fire department¬†let her spend the day in their office and took good care of her there!)¬†We certainly lost some sentimental items, but most of what was lost can be replaced. Thank you, thank you, THANK YOU to everyone that’s helped us throughout this whole experience.

Speaking Skills in Engineering Careers

I recently visited a local high school to speak with a teacher¬†friend’s speech class. She’s trying to show her students that the skills they’re learning in her speech class are valuable in most careers. She gets a lot of pushback¬†from her¬†future engineers who believe they’ll be relying predominantly on their technical skills, not giving speeches.

I’m entering my tenth year of developing software. I use the presentation skills and techniques learned from my high school speech class almost every day. To an extent, I agree with my friend’s students: you can get by without these skills, but not having them will surely prove to be a significant career growth inhibitor. You might be an incredible [insert engineering career here], but¬†in order to¬†be fully effective, you must be able to¬†communicate your ideas to others, compare and contrast options, and convince your audience–whether it’s your peers, boss(es), or¬†customers–what’s best. This is where those skills come into play.

When I talked to the class, I gave several examples of how I use speaking skills everyday. I gave examples, starting with the most formal, speech-like events and moving to more common, everyday things.

The biggest and best example I have is presenting at my company’s annual customer conference. Customers pay to come to the conference and spend three days attending sessions presented by all sorts of different people, including developers like myself. This is a formal presentation and a direct application of skills taught in a speech class. Preparation is key. We’re required to submit outlines of our presentations months ahead of the event that are refined and built out as the conference draws nearer. At the conference, I’ll be behind a podium at the front of a room, possibly on a stage, giving a presentation or demo to an audience of 20 to 100+ attendees. I’m letting them know what’s new or how they can use my company’s products better. If I do a good job, customer’s get value from the conference. Their opinion of the company and it’s products improve, and maybe they purchase more software. If I do a poor job, the worst case is that a customer begins to question their decisions.

The conference is a wonderful example, but¬†it only happens once a year. A more common¬†scenario occurs when I have a good idea. I need to socialize that idea with my boss and peers, and that requires lots of small communication. I need to make them understand the value of my idea. If I do a good job, they might talk to others. At some point, I might get a call. “Hey, Adam. Remember that idea you were telling me about? I’ve got some people with me that want to hear more. Can you come talk to us?” That’s all the notice I get. I need to walk into a room with an audience that I don’t know and sell them on my idea. If I can talk about the idea enthusiastically and confidently, I might convince people that it’s worth doing and get it onto a project plan. If I don’t have good energy, or the audience doesn’t believe that I have what it takes to see it to fruition, the idea might die there.

A more common (and less dramatic) situation involves my peers. There could be a team working on a problem, and they need my input.¬†Once I understand what they’re trying to accomplish, I use my technical skills to determine options and decide which¬†will be best. From there, it becomes an ad-hoc presentation. I need to present options with¬†their advantages and disadvantages to help my teammates¬†understand what I’m suggesting and get them to buy into¬†my recommendation. If my message isn’t clear, it could result in a bad solution or the need for rework.

And let’s not forget customers. When we create new products, it’s not uncommon to demo them to customers to get feedback. Good presentation skills help the customer understand the value that you’re delivering, and it gets them excited. Bad presentation skills destroy their confidence in you and the company. The same applies to training and conference calls. When you’re able to “speak their language,” customers will like you more and believe in you. I’ve been on calls with other software vendors that aren’t able to articulate their plans and ideas, and it can be really frustrating for all sides.

I certainly couldn’t do my job without the technical skills that I have, but a large percentage of every day is spent communicating with others. I couldn’t be as effective as I am without strong speaking and presentation skills. Those skills have given me growth and leadership opportunities that I wouldn’t have had without them. Standing in front of your classmates, telling them how to care for your dog may not seem like it’s going to be applicable to¬†your career, but being able to explain a complex¬†process to a group of your technical peers is an invaluable ability!

Guide Me, O Phone Gods

It’s been about a year and a half since I switched from Windows Phone 7 to Android. I was happy with Windows Phone, but I felt like I was missing out on a big part of the smartphone experience: the apps. WP7 was so new that there weren’t a lot of apps. The biggest and most popular apps generally came out for iOS first, followed by Android, and then, sometimes, they’d make their way into the Windows Phone store. I switched to Android, and¬†I felt like I was joining the rest of the world in terms of apps.

In addition to the apps, it was the ability to “unlock” features like mobile hotspot by installing¬†custom ROMs that¬†drew me to Android. The free mobile hotspot is¬†the main¬†reason I’m considering sticking with Android, too. I know that other carriers give you free mobile hotspot with a metered data plan, but I’m sticking with Sprint’s unlimited data for the foreseeable future.

Upon making my switch, I had been running a very stable, very good Gingerbread ROM, and I ran it for over a year. It started to feel stale, and I upgraded to Jelly Bean. I love the updated look and feel of JB, but I’ve had unreliable GPS, poor battery life, and other assorted problems as I’ve hopped from¬†ROM to¬†ROM in search of stability. It’s a tough spot to be in. On one hand, I’m free to upgrade as quickly and frequently as I like. On the other hand, there are always defects, and the quality is ultimately at the mercy of the development community for my specific phone. My phone’s not getting any younger, either, so that community that I depend on is shrinking each day. Getting back to a stock ROM isn’t an option. The phone–a Galaxy SII–is too old, so there won’t be any updates coming from Sprint, and I can’t go back to Gingerbread or even Ice Cream Sandwich after getting a taste of Jelly Bean. And there’s no way I’m¬†going to exchange my mobile hotspot for a bunch of Sprint bloat.

Windows Phone and iPhone are looking like¬†better and better options. I’ve been really happy with my Surface, and¬†I¬†liked¬†my¬†Windows Phone 7. But will I again be dissatisfied with the amount of apps available to me? My wife has an iPhone, and it always seems to “just work.” There aren’t a lot of people that I know who don’t like their iPhones, but what if iPhone has peaked? Is joining in the post-Jobs era a bad move?

My friend that originally convinced me to move to Android tells me that I just need a new phone, and maybe that’s the case.¬†And, to his credit, I’d be pretty happy if everything always worked on my Jelly Bean phone. If I stick with Android, I’ll probably keep it stock–I’m just not interested in keeping up with custom ROMs and the defects that come with them. I’m worried that I’ll be happy out of the gate but grow frustrated with the lack of updates over time.

I’ve still got a few more months before I’m eligible for a new phone, so I have time to sort it out. I’m confused, vulnerable, and directionless. Maybe I’ll just get a BlackBerry.