Reddit Ask-Me-Anything Event
(AMA; 3/16/20)

Responses by Stephen Wolfram to an "Ask Me Anything" on Reddit about his experience as a remote CEO for 29 years.

Q: What would be the disadvantages from working from home that you have found? —Radish00

SW: Some people find that it's more difficult to get engagement in larger groups of people when they're not physically together. Personally, I don't find this. I think it's mostly a question of having energy in running the meeting; that's important in keeping people engaged. Also, realistically, there are meetings where not everyone has to be engaged all the time; you just want them there so you can ask specific questions when they come up, and you're perfectly happy if they're multitasking and doing other work the rest of the time. For this to work, it's important only to use audio+screensharing. As soon as you can see a bunch of people not paying attention, it's fairly deadly :)

I myself don't have trouble with this, but definitely other people can get distracted by things that are going on around them. When I'm in meetings with people and they have "audio distractions" it's sometimes annoying, but sometimes it's just amusing. Like our long-term employee who has a cockatiel who can sometimes be heard in the background ... and I'm just waiting for when it contributes verbally to the meeting :)

Q: What is the minimum setup to remote work, and what is an ultimate setup for remote developers? —danielscarvalho

SW: I've sometimes used what I consider the minimum when I'm traveling. For me, it's just a laptop and a good headset. The "next level" involves a secondary screen that I can use to do a bit of multitasking when I'm sharing my main laptop screen.

For longer periods, I find it helpful for some (but not all) tasks to have big monitors.

And depending on what I'm doing, I sometimes want a crunchy local machine. (Sometimes it's enough to do remote computing, but sometimes I actually need CPU power directly driving monitors to generate sophisticated graphics, etc.)

[As it happens, right now I'm working on a project I didn't expect to work on, having to do with finding the fundamental theory of physics ... and for that I have 93 local CPU cores, a very fast machine driving my large monitors, etc. But this is an unusual set of requirements for me ... for a very unusual project]

At our company, I'm surprised by the number of remote developers who seem to just have powerful laptops. When I see their screens, they've often got very small fonts. But it's just a laptop, not a big screen.

If you want the full be-as-productive-as-possible setup ... check out the long blog I wrote about this:

Q: We just started doing this today. We have our daily stand up in the morning as well as a casual catch up in the evening just before we finish. Is this a good way to go about it? —iFuJ

SW: Do it by audio. You don't need to physically have everyone there. Just make sure they all have good audio connections (no weird "people sounding like they're in caves" etc.). Personally I've never found video useful. (The closest I get is that if I think people are not paying attention, I'll sometimes threaten that we should switch video on ... but in all these years I've never needed to do it :) )

In meetings I have, I always like to have an agenda that we can screenshare ... even if that's just a list of people and projects to get reports on.

Another point is that I very often am visibly taking notes on a version of the agenda while we're doing the meeting. I find that helpful. Another thing is that quite often we record the meetings so people can go back later and figure out the details of what was said about something. (Something we just started doing is using our new Wolfram Language video and speech-to-text capabilities to make video and word-cloud summaries of meetings; this seems quite useful for going back to old meetings and finding details beyond the notes that were taken.)

Q: What can you say to reassure managers and CEOs who are concerned that if they can't see people working, they might not be working? —cahaseler

SW: For me, the most important thing is what people produce, not which particular hour of which day they did it. Sometimes there are things that need to be done on a short timescale, and I pay a lot of attention to whether they're done.

People in our company send out email reports about what they're doing (usually weekly or monthly), and I make a point of looking through them, and responding whenever I notice something where I think I can be helpful (usually comments about how what they're doing might relate to other company projects, etc.)

Q: How do you motivate staff that you know are dealing with their own anxieties and personal issues? —rrander58

SW: In general, I think it's my responsibility to make sure that people are doing things that are interesting and important (and to communicate why those things are important and interesting). And then it's the responsibility of me and our management chain to make sure that people are doing things which are a good fit for their skills, motivation, etc.

I always think it helps when management knows at least a little about what people's personal issues are, so they have a chance to make suggestions and try to adapt things. But ultimately I think people's personal lives are a separate thread from what they do at the company. Though I certainly hope that people's work at the company represents a positive and satisfying activity for them.

Q: u/StephenWolfram-Real how do you avoid distractions in your home? —Vaminec

SW: Right now I'm sitting in my home office and there's nothing really to distract me here :)

Realistically ... I work on long projects where I seem to remain focused for a decade or more ... but locally I can be quite distractible. Like I just glanced over at my email even as I'm writing this. But I seem to have learned to always come back to the task after at most a short time away.

I know some people do things like listening to music while they work. I can't do that; I prefer complete silence, so I can focus as much as possible on what I'm doing. (The one exception is when I'm doing a task that is quite reflexive for me, but also quite boring ... and then I'll sometimes listen to rousing music to "encourage" me .... though I pause it as soon as I have to think at all hard.)

Q: What would you say to a manager who wants employees engaged in remote work to be on a webcam meeting all day so they can be monitored? This question may or may not be inspired by true events... —thechristoph

SW: One wonders what the manager is doing so that they are in a position to just be "watching other people work" :)

The only thing that I've heard is that sometimes there are groups where people like to have videos of each other running, as a kind of simulation of being in an office together. I think for me I'd either find it very distracting, or I'd quickly tune it out.

I think your putative manager should focus more on output than on whether people are making "I am concentrating" expressions to their webcams :)

Q: Describe your usual day, worst day and the perfect day of your work. —_swish_

SW: I have personal analytics tools that tell me how productive I am. A very good day is one where I type more than 100,000 characters. (I wonder how this AMA will contribute for today...)

On a good day I'll get on a roll and just start producing stuff. If I'm working on something on my own, I find my concentration period is about 1.5 - 2 hrs, after which I have to do something different for 30 minutes or so. (My minimum "do something different" is to walk downstairs and get a piece of chocolate :) )

Much of the time, my days are meetings from beginning to end. My meetings are almost always "actually do things" meetings, where I'm working with other people to figure things out, produce things, etc. A good meeting (that contributes to a good day) is one where there's good, real output from it.

Bad days tend to be associated with meetings where things are stuck. I like the problem solving of trying to unstick them, but sometimes they're firmly stuck, and it's frustrating. The challenge that I think I've gotten better at over the years is to not have one bad meeting infect others. Sometimes I'll start a meeting by explaining that I was just in a bad meeting, and asking for someone to "tell me something good". That usually helps reset my mood...

Q: Hello, I'm a math major at UCSB looking forward to graduating this year with a bachelor's degree as well as some CS curricula under my belt. I've been excitedly using Mathematica for the past 5 years, often following release notes and occasionally some of your internal design meeting streams. My latest project was to make these models of a projection of the torus T^3 into R^3 . What does it take to intern or begin a starting position working on the Wolfram Language remotely? —Xane256

SW: Go to!

A very good way to get involved is our annual Summer School We're not sure how this is going to work this year, but we expect to do something.

It's notable that almost all of the instructors at the Summer School (who are mostly R&D staff at our company) were alumni of the Summer School in previous years.

Q: Do you ever work from your livingroom or dining room table? Or is it important to only work from your "home office" setup to keep things productive? —rrander58

SW: Mostly I work in my home office because I have the best setup there. Sometimes (e.g at a meal time) I'll take a laptop to somewhere else in the house, though usually it's just "backup" in case my family gets out their laptops too.

I also have a computer connected to a treadmill, and I use that every day ... or at least every day when I'm not able to walk outside. I have a weird popcorn-seller-like contraption for "wearing" a laptop, and I use that to work when I'm walking outside. (It's not as efficient as working sitting at my usual desk, but it's good for some tasks.)

When I've been traveling, I've worked from some pretty exotic locations. I started doing some "remote work" back in the early 1980s, when my "portable computer" was the size of a suitcase. I really appreciate the development of technology since then. It'd be nice if satphones did data better though... But I think that's coming...

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