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August 10, 2020

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15 minutes with Benjamin Stahl

On working from home and being on the Bluffton council

Interviewed by Liz Gordon-Hancock
Benjamin Stahl went to Pandora-Gilboa along with his future wife, Terri Bishop - class of 2006 and 2005, respectively. They got married in June of 2009 in a small church in Columbus Grove, right after Bishop graduated from Wilmington College. Stahl graduated from The Ohio State University with a BS in Computer and Information Science.

The day after his graduation, they flew to upstate New York so he could begin working for IBM. Several years later, IBM sold their semiconductor chip manufacturing facilities (and all the associated employees) to GlobalFoundries.

They moved back to Ohio in 2016 and had a son, Samuel, born January of this year. Stahl still works for GlobalFoundries; he just works remotely. Working remotely means you work somewhere other than the office.

This is different from someone who runs a business out of their home, or who works from home sometimes. Working remotely, means they do not even have a desk or space allocated to them by their employer.

What brought you back to Bluffton?
We never intended to stay in New York forever and eventually started looking for the best place to live within roughly a 20-mile radius from the intersection of Roads 5 and M in Putnam County. Naturally, that led us to Bluffton and we've been happy here ever since.

What's your official job title? What do you actually do?
Member of Technical Staff - Software Engineer. I write internal, web-based applications to analyze and display processing data from almost a dozen semiconductor chip manufacturing facilities located across the United States, Germany, and Singapore. Terabytes of data come out of each manufacturing site every day and I’m part of a team that helps organize that data and make it accessible to the larger manufacturing engineering community of several thousand employees.

How long have you been working remotely?  How did you manage to escape the office and start working from home?
I moved back to Ohio and started working remotely in June of 2016. Several of my coworkers had been working remotely for years - in fact, I had met two of my coworkers only one time during the five years I worked with them - so the idea wasn’t unprecedented. I filled out the necessary HR paperwork and, over the course of about six months, worked out an arrangement with my manager.

Given the nature of your job, how does working remotely help you do your job?
When I tell people who I work remotely, almost everyone responds the same way, “oh, I don’t think I could do that! There’d be too many distractions.” But the truth, for me at least, is actually the exact opposite. I highly value having large blocks of uninterrupted time to dive into a problem and create a well-crafted solution, but there’s hardly a bigger interruption than someone showing up unexpectedly at your desk with a dozen questions they could have asked through email. Working remotely allows me to turn off my notifications and really focus for as long as necessary on the task at hand, fairly confident that no one is going to make the 10+ hour trek (from the nearest facility) to see me in person.

Describe your work space, and where it is located.
My “office” is a spare bedroom here in Bluffton that I’ve furnished with some bookshelves and a desk large enough to accommodate the handful of computers and monitors that help me do my job. Because I’ve gotten spoiled with a nice dual-monitor setup, you won’t find me working at the coffee shop or under a tree in the park.

Describe a typical work day.
I log onto my computer around 8 a.m. and run through my daily morning checks: my email for messages that came in overnight, the software logs for any issues, and the data latency in the production data warehouse to see how angry the users are going to be. Once that’s done, I spend most of the morning making progress on whatever large project(s) I’m working on, breaking for meetings as necessary. I have lunch around noon, either leftovers from the night before or something from an establishment here in Bluffton. Then the afternoon is usually spent working through smaller requests or problems our users have submitted before shutting down around 5pm

How do you separate work and home life? What do you do to "switch off" from work?
I’m fortunate that I don’t need to use my office for anything other than work; so when I’m in that room, I’m working, and when I’m not in there, I’m not working. I’ve also seen people burn out while working remotely because of an inability to “clock out” and so I’m extra vigilant to make sure that I get my fair share of “life” in the daily “work/life balance.”

How do you interact socially with your co-workers? You don't automatically meet up in the break room or get to attend work parties, so how and when do you get to hang out with your colleagues (if at all)?
I haven’t been back to New York since I started working remotely and my management doesn’t have any expectation of seeing me in person any time soon. However, we are extensive users of Google’s video chat functionality, so I "see" most of my department every day throughout the course of doing our jobs. And we’re a relatively small, close-knit team, which means that even chats about technical questions often turn into social calls catching up with what’s going on in each other’s lives.

I imagine many would think that working remotely would be wonderful. You could stay in your pajamas all day, or take your laptop to the coffee shop and work with a latte and donut nearby. What would you say in counterpoint to that? What are the pitfalls of working remotely?
I would say those people are absolutely right, it is wonderful! And that’s not even taking into account never having to spend any time commuting or not having to use headphones to listen to music all day. However, there are some downsides: chiefly the lack of built-in daily social interaction with your coworkers. During the depth of winter or the dog days of summer, I may go days at a time without leaving the house or seeing anyone except my wife and son. Sometimes I make a conscious effort to get out and wander throughout the village before I go stir-crazy and start re-enacting scenes from The Shining!

You were appointed to Blufftonouncil last year. How is it going?
It's going really well; it definitely helps stave off the isolated hermit problems of working remotely and gives me a good outlet to invest back into the community I spend almost every waking hour in. Having attended council and committee meetings regularly for over a year before being appointed, I had a pretty good idea what to expect; however, in a lot of ways, the work isn't like I imagined.

I had grand plans of changing the world and bringing radical change to Bluffton, when the reality is that these things need to go through committee and you still need to convince the majority of the council that it's a good idea. The wheels of progress can turn slow, even in local government, but the progress we are able to make is very satisfying.

Chairing the Parks & Recreation committee and also being the village liaison to the Pedestrian Pathway Board and the Tree Commission gives me opportunities to help coordinate the efforts of those groups when they overlap. I'm also on the Safety Services committee, which oversees the fire, police, and EMS departments. I feel it's taken most of this year to find my footing and I'm looking forward to continuing to provide input and guidance in 2019 from position of greater knowledge and experience.

This interview is part of a series on working remotely. To read the previous interview, with Neil Hauenstein, click here.

To read the next interview in this series, click here