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3 tips for remote sysadmins

Finding your remote work groove isn't as difficult as it sounds. A few tools and adjustments can make all the difference.
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Remote work tips
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Working remotely as a systems engineer is an ostensibly easy thing. Our work involves logging into servers in some remote cloud or datacenter, so why should it matter if you're in the office at all?

Having worked remotely for over four years now, I can say that this is only partially true. While the hands-on keyboard work can certainly be done from anywhere and everywhere, there are some considerations to be made for making your remote work experience smoother, healthier, and more enjoyable. Below, I outline three quick changes you can make to significantly improve your day working remotely.

Float your remote connections with mosh and tmux

When working remotely, there's nothing more frustrating than setting up a bunch of SSH connections, setting up some long-running one-liners, and then having a network drop and losing everything. Additionally, wouldn't it be great if you could get your exact working environment on your laptop, phone, tablet, and watch? Okay, maybe not that last one…not just yet.

With a combination of tmux and mosh, you can have a practically magical user experience. Mosh is a remote terminal application, like SSH, that allows for roaming between Internet connections, gracefully handles intermittent connectivity, and even provides local echo for a much more responsive experience. Combining that with tmux on a remote server as your primary "workstation" means that you can bring your complete working environment everywhere.

To make this a little more streamlined, I use the following one-liner:

alias mux='tmux new-session -AD -s main

To log into my workstation, I run mosh mybox from any of my devices. I can perform quick one-off tasks from there. If I want my full windowed terminal setup, I run mux. This detaches any other sessions connected to that tmux instance and attaches my current device in one command.

This allows me to "float" both my remote connections and the workspace itself. I can pick up my laptop and run down to the local coffee shop without needing to close and restart the remote connection. I can step away from my laptop, grab my phone, and reconnect to everything I was working on with two commands. If desired, you could even have your terminal application auto-run mux on connecting to the remote server.

Make conscientious decisions about messaging tools

As a remote engineer, you have an important and impactful relationship with messaging tools. These tools provide your only method for interacting with your team and mediating these relationships. Therefore, it is vital that you keep a close eye on the impact of these tools on yourself and your interpersonal relationships. If you are feeling overwhelmed and need to focus on a ticket, go ahead and mute those notifications. Give yourself the time to do focused, detailed work without interruption.

Also, use those tools to their particular strengths. Having trouble explaining a difficult problem over instant messaging? Maybe a quick video call would be more efficient. Let stand-up run over for a few minutes and chat about that new movie you saw. These relationships are fulfilling and important, just as they would be if you were cubicle-mates, so give them due attention, and make sure you are using the right communication medium for each type of conversation.

Have a dedicated space for work

When I first started working remotely, I had a small corner desk in the bedroom I share with my partner, only a foot from the end of the bed and nowhere near the one, small window. At the time, I did not really see anything wrong with this setup. However, once we moved into a larger apartment, and I had a dedicated office, I realized just how much the mixing of spaces had impacted my health. Without having a dedicated space for work, I had been unable to mentally "log off" at the end of the day. This was ruining my sleep, which had significant knock-on effects on my productivity, health, and mental well-being. I had known something was off, but it didn't occur to me to attribute it to the lack of boundaries between home and workspaces. Even if you do not have enough room for a separate office, I encourage you to set up your workspace somewhere away from where you sleep or otherwise relax, if possible. Keeping the bedroom dedicated to sleeping was one of the best productivity "hacks" I have ever tried.

Conclusion

By taking the time to set up dedicated workspaces, having clear rules around messaging tools, and a little tech work to float your SSH sessions around devices, you can have a much more enjoyable remote work experience. That said, don't forget to enjoy the little things about work from home as well. Take a walk around the neighborhood on your lunch break or take that conference call from the porch. With so many systems engineers working from home nowadays, I hope these easy adjustments can help you!

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Topics:   Career   Sysadmin Appreciation  
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Jonathan Roemer

Jonathan Roemer is a Linux systems engineer with an interest in containerization, automation, and the human side of IT. He is currently an associate manager of containers and hybrid cloud at Datto, and can usually be found reading a book on his porch. More about me

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