Football. CoViD-19, and distributed systems hazards

Looking at the latest trickle of Covid-19 cases in the NFL – specifically in the Patriots locker room – it strikes me that some of the challenges of public health safety are strikingly similar to the issues of distributed system safety in computer systems, and each can help highlight important lessons in the other.

Caveats:  I am not an epidemiologist, nor do I play one on TV.  There is still a lot we don’t have certainty on around Covid-19, from incubation periods and transmission mechanics, to testing reliability and safety protocols. I am also not an NFL insider, and most of my information about what the NFL is doing is inferred from the fantastic coverage of a number of NFL reporters, especially on the Patriots and medical beats.  But we can infer and assume some things for the sake of thinking about the safety of the NFL’s apparent distributed safety protocol.

Background:  There are two interesting classes of tests for Covid-19: qPCR and POC.  qPCR (quantitative polymerase chain reaction) is the more reliable test, but takes a number of hours to get a result; it appears a 10-12 hour lag from point of test to results being made available, based on available sensors (we see players get tested before practices, and we hear about results in that evening/night).  POC (point of care) tests are rapid tests – with results in minutes – but are lower reliability.  Reliability here is a combination of both sensitivity (a positive result means the person has Covid-19) and specificity (a negative result means the person does not have it). qPCR tests are more expensive, consuming scarcer resources than POC tests do.

The NFL protocols, in general, appear to be oriented around qPCR tests; given every day except gamedays; and once an outbreak occurs in a locker room, adding in POC tests for that team.

The Future of Work

Here we are.  Three to six months into CoviDistancing – call it lockdowns, social distancing, isolation, shutdowns – and, really, there’s no end in sight.

Let that sink in for a few minutes.  It’s possible that there’s an effective vaccine just around the corner – which generally means a year of human trials so we know it’s reasonably safe.  It’s possible that a cocktail of treatments which make CoViD-19 no worse than a common cold is also just around the corner.  I hope and pray that one, or really both, of those is true.

But hope is not a strategy.  And prayer is most powerful when it accompanies action.

Let’s also acknowledge that just about everyone has been wrong about CoViD-19 at one point or another.  Most people and organizations waited to distance their employees or isolate themselves until far too late.  Almost everyone – from the US Surgeon General down – has been wrong at one point or another about masks.  Treatments that we hoped were promising weren’t.  Institutions that we trust to guide us demonstrated their fallibility.  Ideas about how to “work remotely” ran headlong into the reality of juggling crisis-schooling.

But really, none of that matters today, except to demonstrate one powerful lesson – we’re learning.  And that’s the best option for the future.  To continue learning.  Because if there is no end in sight to living with CoViD-19, then it’s on us to learn how to live with it.  Because the world we end up with where we don’t learn to live with it is a nasty place – we will accelerate inequality while we degrade the quality of life for so many people.

My recent exp

Moving to Distributed Work

So, you're working from home …

For a while.

You've probably worked remotely before, and you're thinking, "I've got this!"

Odds are, you're mistaken. You don't have this. That's OK; this is an opportunity to learn new skills.

You can think of working from home much like someone moving into an entirely new environment. Your patterns of work might be optimized for working in an office, and they might not quite fit at home. You can think of this post as moving you from accommodating yourself to including yourself — reducing the friction that misspends your energy just to exist.

Now it's time to adapt. You need to adapt, your workday needs to adapt, and your environment needs to be adapted. So what can you do? Below is some advice — take it in the spirit of unsolicited advice on self-improvement. Some of these things will work for you; some of them won't. Many of these ideas work for me or people near me; they might or might not work for you. Give them a try, and be willing to learn and adapt.

Your Workspace
Maybe you've been getting by with sitting on the couch or on the floor in the corner of your bedroom. Those might be all the choices you have, but you should consider some changes:
  • Use an external monitor. One of the biggest productivity gains comes from useful screen real estate, so finding a way to get more is incredibly helpful to you. Paired with an external keyboard and mouse, you're also on your way to better ergonomics.
  • Use a desk and a chair. Sitting on a couch for a long period is probably not healthy in a lot of ways. Can you fit in a sit/stand desk? Maybe you do need a different ergonomic choice, but make it deliberately.
  • If you can dedicate a workspace, that's ideal. If you can't, consider a space that you can set up at the start of the workday, then tear it back down in the evening — so you have clearly delineated boundaries of when you're "in the office" instead of just chilling.
  • Even if you can't dedicate a workspace, make a conscious effort to not take a meal (be it lunch, dinner, etc.) from where you are working. If you have a dedicated workspace, leave it and go to your kitchen, another room, or, if possible, outside for your meal. This should be time to mentally recharge as much as physically recharge. If you don't have a dedicated space, still take the time to close your laptop and do something that is not work. Your brain (and your similarly stressed co-workers) will thank you.
  • Do you have a headset with a microphone to take meetings with? Gaming headsets can be an affordable and high-quality solution, or possibly Bluetooth earbuds. Anything is an improvement over just using your laptop's speakers. But also think about how your ears might feel after multiple hours using a device you're not familiar with. Maybe change between earbuds and a headset … or even just take a long break from videoconferencing.
  • Wired Ethernet makes an enormous difference for videoconferencing — and for many of our other tools. Even if the cable has to get unplugged when you roll up your desk at the end of the day, this can be worth the trouble.

Your Family
There's a good chance you're sharing your space with other people — a partner, some children, maybe roommates. Their needs will matter, too, and it's better for you to plan ahead with your schedules so that no one is disappointed.
  • Do you have to homeschool small children? What does your plan look like for that, and how are you trading it off with your partner?
  • Do you need to add daily household meetings to identify any issues?

Your Commute
You might be really excited about not having to waste time getting to the office because you can just hit work running. But take a moment to think about what you also do during your commute. Are you thinking about your schedule for the day? Working on a hard problem? Thinking about your kids? That's valuable mental time, which you should consider how to keep in your day so that you can gracefully transition between parts of your life.
  • Can you go for a walk around the block (or further)?
  • Can you set aside quiet time at the start and end of your day, before you dive into email?
  • Make sure you take time for lunch. This might make a good time to check in with your colleagues in your co-working space or take quiet time for yourself. You might want to think about planning for those lunches to make sure you're making healthy choices rather than just grabbing whatever is available.

  • Make a hard break. "Bye, kids, I'm headed to work!" can be a really powerful boundary to set.

Your Meetings
Meeting culture is very location-centric, especially when that location is your headquarters. Some of that is a product of enterprise tools (many video solutions makes it hard to see more than a few participants at once, and the slight added latency over the Internet interacts with the human desire to jump in as the next speaker), some is a product of our organizations (meetings where 80% of the attendees are physically in one place), and some is a product of habit (sitting in a circle, which then excludes the video participants). This is an opportunity to work on more-inclusive meeting structures.
  • Consider nonverbal cues for meeting participants to use to call for attention. If everyone is visible, that can be a raised hand; if that's not the case, then a chat backchannel can help.
  • Work more on pauses between speakers. There is rarely a need to jump in instantly, and that's often seen as a behavior that is exclusionary anyway, so this is a good opportunity to evaluate it. Past three people, a moderator helps enormously — perhaps defaulting to whomever called the meeting or wrote the agenda.
  • Consider working off a shared document with an agenda and notes so that some information flows can be faster-than-verbal. This might rely on everyone having more screen real estate.
  • Think about the lighting. You should be able to clearly see your face, which generally means lights and windows should be in front of you, not behind you. It's always possible to learn from one call and revise or improve for the next one.
  • Thirty-minute blocks are not fundamental to the universe. You can meet for 5 minutes or 15 — and jumping from chat to a video call for 5 minutes can unlock great work for you or your colleagues.
  • As a last resort, disabling video can improve audio distortions, jitter, and latency in meetings.

Your Physical Wellness
When working from home, it can be really easy to fall into a rut with no physical activity. Perhaps you roll out of bed, grab a quick bite, and hop on a call. For a day, that's only a little bad, but that's a bad long-term pattern. Schedule your exercise time.
  • Maybe take that long walk at the start of your day or after lunch.
  • If you're fortunate enough to have a treadmill or stationary cycle in your house, maybe you take a walking meeting with a colleague.
  • Look at how you can keep your body from stiffening from a lack of movement or poor ergonomics. Take stretch breaks. Take a 20-second break every 20 minutes and look out at something at least 20 feet away to prevent eyestrain. Consider how to incorporate physical wellness into your everyday routine.

Your Emotional Wellness
Odds are you get some value out of occasionally talking to other human beings. Find ways to take care of your need for connection, even while you're practicing social distancing.
  • Schedule open office hours. Open up a video chat and let colleagues join in. Maybe it's just a "hallway chat" that people can drop in for. Perhaps you have a tea-time theme and let people use tea as a conversation starter.
  • Connect with people that you usually sit near but don't have meetings with. Check in with them.
  • Think about what errands you run and how you can incorporate a little more social interaction into them.
  • We're all saving on commute time. A work-social event, such as a knitting group or a distributed board game (for example, Words With Friends), may even be helpful and appropriate during your day.

Your Team
Recognize that your colleagues are working through the same challenges that you are, and you can help them by both experimenting and by setting examples.
  • Consider checking in and out at the start and end of your day. Especially if you're a manager, you'll be tempted to squeeze in some extra time out of the afternoon commute; but even if you tell your staff that they're done, they won't really believe it if you don't show them that you're done. They can't see you walk out of the office, so you have to tell them you are.
  • Recognize that your colleagues may have to make different choices than you do. Maybe they're taking a few hours in the middle of the day to interact with their family. Maybe they're making food for more people. Perhaps they create a hard stop at 5 p.m. Honor their choices — and do so visibly — so they know you're supporting them.
  • Remember that you're now a guest in your colleagues' homes — things you say might be overheard by their spouse or children, so be a more-gentle human.
I'd like to thank the helpful Akamai humans who contributed to the content here.

This post originally appeared on
Dark Reading.

One company’s successful approach to gender balance

In an industry where 10-15% of staff are women, the InfoSec team at Akamai—a cybersecurity, content-delivery network and cloud-service provider—is now 40% women. Driving that change—from 28% two years ago—took only a few, simple practices that might work in many other organizations. We drove those changes in partnership between the talent-acquisition team and the hiring managers; they could have been driven from either side of the organization. Hiring isn’t the only area that needs attention, of course; career development and an inclusive work environment are critical to retaining the staff you attract. But if you don’t attract them in the first place, that’s a challenge.

Engaging the hiring managers, with support from upper management, is critical. They’re the front line, and the ones who have the most visibility into problems, and the ability to change. Start them with a simple question: “What does your hiring pipeline look like?” There’s a good chance that many managers haven’t looked in depth at the demographics of their recruiting pipeline, from application through screening through interviews. This gives you an opportunity to identify where bias or discrimination exists in the recruiting process, but, just as importantly, it can get those managers on board in understanding if the challenges exist before the recruiting process starts. When we did this for our team, it was pretty clear that our bigger challenge was in the pipeline; we were hiring women at the same rate they applied, but they weren’t applying at the rate we wanted.

So, we needed to source our applicants from a wider population than we had been approaching. We experimented with a number of different steps to do so, and all of them had some success. Our clear goal was to hire great people, who would both fit into and help improve our team’s culture and capabilities, but to have a demographic a bit more reflective of the wider population. We recognized that, in many ways, recruiters have to passively accept the candidates that apply. So, our task became more subtle: How do we get a wider variety of people to apply? Better marketing seemed like an answer, and our core marketing artifact was the job description.

Improving the job descriptions was both easier, and harder, than you might expect. One step was to reduce the number of required qualifications on positions; there is an increasing set of evidence that unnecessary qualifications correlate with fewer women applying for a position. Some of those can’t just easily be eliminated (for instance, degree requirements), because they are tied to criteria for visa eligibility for certain job families. But the language in the job descriptions can also be challenging, so some of our managers experimented with looking for subtle, gender-coded language to alter.

Another area we addressed was looking outside the security industry. A challenge that many security teams have is that, when they’re small, they have to hire people who can do anything and everything. For a three- or five-person team, that makes sense—you absolutely need an architect who can engage deeply about distributed-systems design with principal engineers, then pivot to program manage across multiple engineering leaders a safety initiative, and then walk into a customer executive meeting and manage a team on the side. But as a team grows, that breadth and depth isn’t necessary across the board (although it can be a career aspiration). What was interesting to realize is that, often, the needed depth in a position isn’t in a traditional “security” skill.

Our InfoSec team, like many, has positions that look more like “librarian” or “journalist.” Rather than hiring deep security experts, and trying to teach them those skills, we’ve hired actual librarians and journalists. Those are shrinking career fields, so there are skilled professionals available. Targeting those folks, directly and indirectly, has given us access to new populations; and some of those career fields have very different demographics from the security norms.

We wanted to 
be more active. One step was to open up our pipeline into new environments. We could take advantage of the Akamai Technical Academy program, which generally produces more candidates who are women, minorities and veterans. The ATA candidates also tend to bring in new and fresh perspectives from other career areas, which only made the team stronger.

These ideas are all about the hiring pipeline, but that isn’t the only area to work on! 
Building an inclusive culture to improve retention, developing your existing staff and having a flexible and accommodating environment are all important areas to pay attention to.

But our team made it past 40%. And that’s great progress.
This article first appeared in Human Resource Executive.