Learning Uruguay

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Working from Uruguay

Posted by urufish on August 26, 2007

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Several years ago, it was practically speaking impossible to do your job remotely.  I know, I tried.   Starting in the early 80’s for 3 weeks at Christmas I would try everything possible to be able to work when I was here on holidays.  Dont get me wrong.  I wasn’t (and am still not),  a dyed in the wool workaholic.  I’m just very practical.  My work is done by me.  No one else.  When I get after 3 weeks out of the office, there is 240 hours of work to catch up on.  Try fitting that into a 168 hour week.  If I was lucky, in the 80’s I’d be caught up by the middle of February. 

In the 90’s things started to improve.  I could receive calls on my cellphone.   That didn’t reduce the work built up while I was gone, but I could solve major problems myself, so there wouldn’t be a mess to clean up when I got back.  Once, because I was on a plane, our main supplier ‘corrected’ a problem while I was in the air.  The correction involved taking apart everything I’d carefully put together, which of course, I had to put back together again on my return. 

When faxing became reliable in Piriapolis (my refugio), I began asking staff to summarize the previous days events and questions and faxt them to me each morning.  I would hand write responses and fax them back at 4pm.  Worked pretty good.  Cut down my backlog nicely.   Could be caught up by end of January. 

Of course, by the mid 90’s I had computing power on top of San Antonio… no more handwriting responses.  When the internet hit Uruguay, I thought I had been saved.  I was able to respond to emails every day.  The backlog got less.  By the early 2000’s, in many areas, it was as if I hadn’t left.  I even took to NOT turning on the vacation auto-reply.  I could respond to most emails within a few hours since I was around the house most of the time. 

But until the past 2 or 3 years, to actually do the job full time from here, was impossible.  In my situation, the critical components are reliablility, consistancy and cost-effectiveness of:  

1.  Voice communication.  Working in a large corporation means being available at your extension (your REAL extension) during business hours.  Conversations have to have the same quality.  You cant have dropouts, static or clipping.  If someone calls you or you call someone from up north, it has to be the same exprience, identical. 

2.  Data.  Same requirements as above.. Your screen efficiency must be identical to what it would be if you were sitting at your desk in your office up north.  Same access.  Same productivity. 

3.  Reachability.  If you’re lucky, your job involves time out of the office.  If you’re not so lucky, it also involves in being reached after hours.  Your reachability has to be equal to someone working up north. 

Fortunately, these 3 things are now very close to being idential to how they are up north.  

Voice:  In the past several years, VoIP has gone from a great idea to a solid technology.  I’m not really talking Vonage.  I’m talking corporate America’s adoption of IP telephony.  Major players like Nortel, Siemens, NEC, AT&T have IPX’s now (Internet based private exchanges).   Staff take their desktop phone with them (or their code – like a domain) from office to office in the same city, or across the country or across the world.  Plug your IP phone into any broadband connection and you have your extension, wherever you are.  You can even have a wireless extension.  Older PBX’s have IP adaptors that your comm people can hang for  you, sitting on an analog extension, so you can still have an IP extension even if your company uses an old style PBX.  If you can do your job with a simple one line extension, you can go Vonage or dozens of different other providers to choose from. 

Data:  Years ago, we had all sorts of remote control software.  But overhead was awful.  I tried to use a few with my ‘straw’ connection here in Uruguay and it was disastrous.  Yes, you could look at and even work on a spreadsheet.  But you’d be at wits end trying to work on 3 or 4 per day.  Productivity (bandwidth/reliability) wasn’t there yet.  In the past few years, the reliability factor has gone way up.  The lines back to North America are stable.  Trip times are often down below 400ms.  And they are consistant – with some exceptions.  Quality of service has gone way up (thanks to VoIP requirements).  Microsoft’s Terminal Services products (called Remote Desktop to the public) are rock solid and work almost as fast as the real thing.  You have to be a real power user to notice the difference between navigating your work desktop and the one here.  A very simple and almost cost free solution for a remote employee working out of Uruguay is to connect to one’s desktop back at the office from your laptop/desktop here and run a TS session.  There are all sorts of advantages to this..  Citrix is not needed.  But you can use it if you want.  Cost… nothing.  Comes with the XP license.  Once you have a fast, reliable connection to your desktop back up North, it’s obvious you have the same access you have sitting at your office several thousand miles north.  Our whole international organization is based on this technology.  We use it from Canada, the US, Chile and now from Uruguay.  Works perfectly. 

To get reliability and consistancy, you need to use 2 different backbones, 2 different suppliers for your internet connection.  Fortunately, Uruguay has this.  Anteldata and Dedicado.  The first uses Antel’s modern network.  The 2nd uses Telefonica’s impressive South American and worldwide facilities.  Both are good, but Dedicado gets the edge because they provide symetric connectivity.  For data and voice needs, 512kb in each direction for U$S75/mo is a good deal.   Ancel has higher downpipe speeds but for VoIP, carrying on 2 or more conversations, you really should have >384kb up.   Depending on your needs,  you can split these for different purposes, or manually switch back and forth as needed or you can use a ‘load sharing’ device to ‘bond’ these into one, to give you more and more reliable connectivity.  I’ve done this all over the US and Canada.  It’s cheap and it works. 

Reachability:  Until Uruguay launched Blackberry, I pleaded and begged with my staff to SMS me when they needed me.  It was a foreign concept to them.  We ended up using an email/sms gateway which gave them email access to SMS on my phone.  Not a great solution, but it worked.  With the Blackberry now, my position on this planet is invisible to anyone who SMS’s me, emails me, chats me, messengers me or calls me.  When it’s integrated with my desktop (many companies have Blackberry Enterprise nowadays), it will be competely impossible to tell where I am.  The point being, in business, no one likes surprises.  No one wants to know they’re talking to me in Uruguay.  They just want to get the job done, as quickly and as inexpensively as possible.  So do I. 

Other issues you have to deal with are time zone differences, holidays, where you want to park your email, whether what you want to and/or can do can be adapted to this setup, how you will be paid, how much you’re worth away from the office, (set up properly, you can save your employer a good deal of $ even paying you the same), how do you make this attractive to your employer or a potential employer, how will you connect yourself socially to your office up north, what are office politics when you work remotely, how can you ‘see’ what’s going on in the office, how can you nework with your far-off fellow workers, what are the tax implications, etc. etc.

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4 Responses to “Working from Uruguay”

  1. Ant said

    Urufish,

    I work remotely too. When my company initially wanted to set up remote connectivity to offices in 2 other countries (syncing 3 continents) last year, they had a tough time. There were times when the whole UY network crashed and there was nothing one could do about it except wait. From the time that I’ve come here, such instances have reduced drastically and connectivity is almost perfect. It is now irrelevant whether I work from home or go to the office as its totally transparent for my company’s clients. I have VPN, VOIP, Call forwarding. I attend meetings remotely. Its great. It also means that I’m available 24/7 (something that my boss is happy about, not me 🙂 ). I get a lot of questions from clients about where I am and why they don’t see me. Its a bit of a surprise for them to hear “I’m in South America” as a response.

    I still have a wish list for things I’d like here to make my life easier, but as things are, its not bad at all.

    Ant.

  2. urufish said

    Setting up a company’s global network (that’s what you’ve got there), can be challenging. There are so many different possibilities, you dont know what’s going to happen in advance.

    I set up ours… First, we crossed Canada, with 6 remote offices… Then we added the US, 2 remote office. Then we added individuals. 2 in the US. 2 in Canada. Then we added one in Chile and lastly, we added me, in Uruguay.

    The major changes made at head include

    a) the technology you will use to tie all the data requirements together… usually that means servers. Companies that did this long ago, using T1’s, etc. tend to be Citrix houses. I hated that crap, so the moment Terminal Services was ready for prime time, we put everyone on it. All staff, whether in offices or at home, log into TS servers.

    b) Telephony. The only practical way (IMHO) to tie staff together, like you’re in the office, is to have us all hanging on the company PBX. A company that wants staff working from outside the building has to upgrade or change their system to an IPX. If one’s needs aren’t extreme, a nice Asterisk box will do all of that. Our needs were extreme, so we ended up upgrading the top of the line NEC box.

    c) add a WAN to your LAN. We were a Cisco house and we stayed with it.

    d) Choose your poison of VPN (or none at all). We’re in a high security business, so we needed VPN. We also needed it because of the whacky NEC.

    All of this is textbook stuff. Anyone can spec this stuff. Heck, you can even hire consultants to spec it for you. The real deal isn’t until you plug all of this in and turn on your remotes and then the fun begins. It doesn’t work.. and then it doesn’t work reliably.

    I had so much experience with this in the past that Uruguay wasn’t a big deal. My girl in Chile was up in an hour. The thing that makes our remotes (and individuals) unusual is our requirements for redundancy. We set up our remotes on 2 connections – different backbones. Most of our sites use a load sharing device. When one provider craps out, the user doesn’t notice. It shows up as an alarm at head office, that’s all.

    I didn’t bother going that route yet. I will do that after 30 days on Dedicado. This is where you need more art than science. Many times the connection doesn’t go away, it goes flaky. You need a load sharing device you can program to determine level of service. When the criteria isn’t met, (doesn’t have to be loss of connectivity), it switches. The next problem is how long does it stay away. We had lots of problems with the butterfly effect until we figured that one out. Where the connections would flutter back and forth..

    Anyway, we’re like you. Staff spread all over the planet now and it’s going to spread even more as staff get older. We just had one person who quit the company at 60. They wanted early retirement. But they were excellent at what they did and we wanted to keep them. So we gave them a Cisco VPN router, a laptop and a corporate IP phone and told them to call us from their retirement house… in this case it was a seaside chalet in Nova Scotia on the Atlantic ocean. They moved there from our office in Vancouver, BC. Now they still work 8 hours a day, but they’re living their retirement dream… with extra cash. The world is changing.

  3. Ant said

    Interesting… Have you read the book ‘the world is flat’ by thomas friedman? You would know almost everything he has discussed there, but it makes for a good read never the less.

  4. urufish said

    I never read the book. Just discussed it with a friend who has. I have a real problem when it comes to reading what other people say. On one hand, it’s nice to either know that someone famous agrees with you or has a better idea (or a new idea) you dont have. On the other hand, when you do this, it stifles your own creativity. It’s hard to think up something different when you know how someone else has done it.
    The only time I would read was when I had a problem and couldn’t figure my own solution. I know it seems egocentric, but for me, it’s my whole business life. It’s my edge. Like most neurotic people (neurotic in this particular sense), you dont want to give it up if it works for you. This works for me.

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