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August 14, 2020

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15 minutes with Bob Gordon-Hancock

On working for a company based in Ireland

Interviewed by Liz Gordon-Hancock
Bob Gordon-Hancock was born in Chelmsford, England. He attended King Edward VI Grammar School. He got his Bachelor's in Social Anthropology from The School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London. He then got a Post-graduate diploma in Entrepreneurial Management from University of Wales, Lampeter, where he met his future wife, Elizabeth Beer (Bluffton).

After 10 years of living in England, during which they had two daughters, he and his family moved to Bluffton in January 2016. In April of 2017, they had a son, Elliot.

He's known to many as "English Bob."

Like Neil Hauenstein and Benjamin Stahl, Gordon-Hancock has the distinction of working remotely. His office and coworkers are overseas, so he cannot commute to work.

Who do you work for?
I work for a merchant acquirer based in Dublin, Ireland.  (A merchant acquirer is a company that processes debit and credit card transactions for merchants of every sort, from local grocery stores to major international airlines to online retailers.)

What's your official job title? What do you actually do?
According to my business card, I'm the Business Universe Architect.  Business Universe is our company's data warehouse that receives data from our processing platform, integrates it and uses it in all manner of reporting, from internal dashboards to merchant reports.  I built it from scratch, so my job is everything from keeping its lights on (she's a big old dear at 6-odd terabytes; if things go wrong it takes a lot of time to fix them, so I work hard to ensure things don't go wrong!) to handling all change requests, integrating processing platform changes into it, and planning for future enhancements.  We process millions of transactions a day and each of those has a huge number of data elements that must all reconcile, so there's a lot of 1s and 0s flying around.

How long have you been working remotely?  How did you manage to escape the office and start working from home?
We moved to the U.S. in January 2016, so since then. I recall telling my boss when I started the green card process that I was planning to emigrate, and his response was "So? As long as I can still get hold of you."  Joking aside, my employers' willingness to keep me on and "make U.S. payroll work" really helped with the green card process as I had an existing income to include on the application – my company went to great lengths to help me, for which I'll be forever grateful.

Given the nature of your job, how does working remotely help you do your job?
It actually works really well, mainly because of the time zone difference.  In Dublin they work 9 a.m. to 5:30 p.m.; I work the same hours but in Eastern Time.  It means Dublin is online for the first 3 1/2 hours of my day, so I can catch up on emails and phone calls with colleagues while they're around.  Then they go home and I can get on with the technical work uninterrupted.

Data warehouses do most of their work overnight: loading data, performing calculations and maintenance, running reports and generally getting things ready for the next day.  That means, if things go wrong, it's most likely to be overnight.  Well, we're five hours behind Ireland, which means I'm still in my working afternoon while Business Universe is doing most of its hard work, so I can fix most problems in office hours.  The servers send me a text if there's any difficulty; at worst I get those at 9 p.m.  Back in the UK that would be 2 a.m.!

Describe your work space, and where it is located.
I work in my basement.  I don't have a sealed-off office, but I have a quiet section of basement to myself tucked behind a wall, so I'm out-of-sight, out-of-mind.  It's also my nest of things-from-home: pictures and knick-knacks and the grandfather clock my father assembled when I was born, so it's a place I like being.  In summer months the covers are off the basement windows so I can even see things like sky and actual photosynthesising plants.

Describe a typical work day.
I'll take my eldest daughter to Bluffton Elementary school for 8:10 a.m., then usually go for a walk around Bluffton village park or Cob Lake.  Then I come home, unload the dishwasher (that's "my job"), pour myself a cup of coffee and start the arduous commute down the stairs.  It's catching up with emails for the first part of the day, then trying to take care of the small coding/enhancement jobs before getting back in to some of the bigger projects.  I'll break for lunch somewhere around 1 or 2 p.m., then back at it until the end of the work day.  I try to emerge from the basement a few times a day for coffee/tea refills and to at least look at what the weather is like in the real world outside.

How do you separate work and home life? What do you do to "switch off" from work?
Walking is my main means of re-focusing.  The hardest transition is walking back up to the kitchen at the end of the day, when I sometimes feel like a mole emerging, blinking, from its subterranean world into the bright, shining light.  That said, three kids under 7 help snap me out of work real fast!

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)?
That's the hardest bit of working remotely; you miss all the "water cooler" moments when you catch up on a more personal level.  Those moments would naturally create nice breaks in the working day - someone pops in to ask you a question, you use it as a time for a coffee break while you discuss both whatever it is they wanted to talk about plus the more personal "how are you doing?" stuff.  I'm not great at it, but it requires a deliberate effort to phone colleagues and talk about more than work.

I usually travel to Dublin for meetings and planning sessions about two or three times a year. Coincidentally that usually includes the Christmas party.  It's great to touch base with colleagues and re-experience the energy of the office – but also exhausting!  I'm getting out of practise at that social thing...

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 never work in my PJs – either I'm working or I'm not, there's not much in-between.  (It might be a guy thing, but I hate having to perform two roles at once – I can't be both daddy and the data guy at the same time without finding it really stressful!)  Because there's always something new to be working on and few natural interruptions, the hard thing is actually not overdoing it – I've had days where I've been sat coding stored procedures for hours and taken no break, without realising it.  Even at the best of times I'm rather prone to hypervigilance and perfectionism, which are unhealthy traits that can run riot when you're working on your own.

This interview is part of a series on the Icon; to read previous interviews in this series, click here.