Always Get Better

Archive for January, 2008

Are You Thinking About Working from Home?

Saturday, January 26th, 2008

For many employees, the idea of working from home is like the promise of living in a dream; free from the trials of office culture, and hovering managers.   The ability to wake up in the morning and skip the commute to work seems like such a wonderful and alien concept.

Those of us who “live the dream” know there are caveats to watch for.  While working from home is certainly more flexible in some aspects than a traditional office environment, you are still employed and you still have to work.  When you work from home the place you live is suddenly, in a sense, partially owned by your employer – you blur the line that separates “work life” from “home life”.  The greatest warning I could give to someone considering this change is: Remember – you may be at home, but you’re not on vacation therefore you are still on the hook to be productive.

This article will outline the biggest issues I’ve had to face over the years while working from a home office: finding the discipline to work, the reaction of family and friends to your lifestyle, the work-life balance difficulties that arise, and the need for a dedicated work space.

Anyone considering taking the leap to this environment should really be aware of the situation they are thinking about getting into.  They should be certain that they have truly informed themselves of the facts pertaining to their new path and that they have the will it takes to make the changes needed to be successful.


We’ll start with discipline because this is the one area that can really make or break most home workers.  Webster defines discipline as a form of “self-control”, “orderly or prescribed conduct or pattern of behaviour”. (See:

What it boils down to is this: Are you able to focus on any given task early enough and long enough so you deliver your results on time and fully complete?

Put another way: Would you consider telling your boss that your report is “almost done” or is “ready, and will be sent shortly” when in fact you haven’t finished it yet or even started working on it, knowing full well they couldn’t check up on your status?

If you think you might take advantage of your satellite status by working fewer hours under the illusion that work is getting done, you probably do not have the discipline needed to succeed in working from home.

It’s happened time and time again – I’ve assigned work to another employee (particularly a new one) who also works from their own home office.  I ask if they have enough time to complete the work and am told ‘yes’.  As the deadline approaches, suddenly their work is plagued with unspecified delays.  The deadline comes and goes, the work is “done” but I don’t have it.  Two weeks later the assignment is delivered; that is, if it gets delivered at all.

Like in the office world, unexpected issues cause deadlines to be moved around.  If there is a problem getting your work done on time – say so.  Leaving your work until the last minute because no one is constantly checking up on your progress is a surefire way to find your situation escalated to the point of not being able to meet the requirements of your job, period.  Empty productivity leads to blank paycheques.

This is not meant to be negative.  Truly understanding the way you approach work is absolutely critical before going down the road of telecommuting.  You have to be honest with yourself and not make this move if there’s any chance at all you lack the focus to continually keep working without supervision.  If you can’t toe the line, you will hurt your chances of advancement, you may lose your job, and you will make your employer gun-shy about giving the same opportunity to another employee who would excel in this environment.

Family and Friends

The attitudes held by family and friends in your life, and how you deal with them, will also affect your success in working from home.  If the people who surround you don’t work from home themselves, they won’t understand your situation.  They may equate your being home to being accessible to them on demand, not realizing that the requirements of your job are just as real whether you perform your function from an outside office or from a home office.

It’s going to be up to you to set boundaries.  When you’re at an office, you’re not home and therefore not accessible to your family.  The same has to be true when you’re working at home – many people use a separate room as an “office” and close the door to shut off the outside world.

The flip side of this is you need to have “home time” too – so your family can have access to you.  It may sound simple at first blush but the line between home and work blurs very quickly (more on this later).

Another concern faced by home-workers is the perception that the work they do is somehow less challenging because they don’t go into an office.  The truth of the matter is in fact the opposite – but when you tell people you work from home your status is automatically degraded in their eyes.

It was even suggested to me on more than one occasion that I get an office job during the day “since I didn’t have to work during the day anymore”.  Our work doesn’t disappear because we no longer go into an office – we still have to put in the time.

Work-Life Balance

The biggest challenge for me has always been separating my “home life” from my “work life”.  When you go to an outside office to work, there is a clear distinction between being “at work” versus being “at home”.  You may bring work home with you, but when push comes to shove you can leave your job at the office and shut off for the evening or for the weekend.

When you work from home, you are always at work.  When you wake up, you’re at work.  When you go to sleep, you’re still at work.  It becomes much more difficult to turn off your work mindset when everything you’re responsible for is just a room away.

This works against you even more because of the perception that due to their flexible hours, home-workers don’t work as much as their office counterparts.  This boils down to you working harder for more hours to prove the work you do is as valuable as your office counterparts.  Since work mode is always-on, it makes having any other kind of life more difficult.

If you have a family, your spouse and children want to see you; at some point you have to find a way to “turn off” your work self and spend time with them.

Although working from home offers more flexibility in terms of hours so you can help with the daycare and watch daytime dramas, any hour you miss in order to meet home responsibilities becomes an hour you have to make up later.  This is where your self-discipline comes into play.

Work Space

If you’re considering working from home, look around your environment right now and find out where you can carve out a work space for yourself.  That laptop on the coffee table in the living room may be okay for browsing the internet a few hours every night, but you need something more dedicated than that if you’re going to spend in upwards of ten hours a day working from your home.

The best thing you can do for yourself is to dedicate a room entirely to your work use.  This has many advantages:

  • You can close the door and shut out the world if you need to focus on work
  • You can easily document the space used for tax credits (where eligible)
  • All of the materials you need to perform your job will be available in one location; this will help you to work most efficiently
  • You will be better able to separate your “work life” from “home life” because you have a true office space to go to, rather than sharing your workstation with other functions in your home

Do What’s Right for You

Not everyone is cut out to work from home, in much the same way as not everyone is cut out to work in an office.  There are as many “right” ways to approach careers as there are people in the world.  In the end, you need to decide for yourself whether you have the skills and most importantly the desire to commit your work days to a home office environment.

Are you ready to allow work into you private life?  Are you ready to lose the face-to-face contact that comes with the office environment?

I would recommend everyone, if able, should try the home-worker situation at least once in their career; but only if they feel comfortable with the idea.  There are a lot of benefits and drawbacks to any work environment you choose so the only way to really know what’s best for you is to try all the possibilities.

A Beginning

Thursday, January 24th, 2008

I had been running a short-lived site dedicated to the ins and outs of website scripting languages when I realized something about myself: I don’t know nearly as much as I once thought I did.

That revelation had several effects on me.  First, I began considering much more carefully everything I wrote.  Second, I learned a lot from being corrected by strangers with more experience than me.  Third, I became much sharper – the sudden scrutinization made me become a better programmer.

Finally, I came to understand no matter how good you (think) you are, you can always get better.

The purpose of this blog is to share the process of discovery that makes everyone better at what they do.  As an IT Professional, there really is no such thing as being at the top of your game because we all know the game constantly changes.  The push is to stay current, but you always have to stay knowledgable with everything that has already come to pass.  This could be why so many computer programmers constantly have scowls on their faces, even when collecting their $100k paycheques.

I invite you, dear reader, to suggest web and programming-related topics you may be interested in.  Correct me if something I write seems misinformed.  If we discuss and learn together, we will always get better at what we do.

How To Format Dates Using DataFormatString

Sunday, January 20th, 2008

During a recent project I was setting up a DetailsView control for a record’s tombstone information [note: this logic is the same in DataGridView, GridView, and anywhere else that DataFormatString is used].

By default, my dates were coming in this format:

04/18/2008 12:00:00 PM

I wanted to display dates without any time information and without leading zeroes on the month like this:


So I create my DetailsView like this:

<asp:DetailsView runat=”server” ID=”dvPatientInformation” DataSourceID=”sqlPatientInformation”>
        <asp:BoundField HeaderText=”Title:” DataField=”strTitle” />
        <asp:BoundField HeaderText=”First Name:” DataField=”strFirstName” />
        <asp:BoundField HeaderText=”Last Name:” DataField=”strLastName” />
        <asp:BoundField HeaderText=”Date of Birth:” DataField=”dtBirthdate” HtmlEncode=”false” DataFormatString=”{0:M/dd/yyyy}” NullDisplayText=”Not Yet Entered” />

There are a few key issues to consider here:

Data Format String

Using one capital M for the month causes ASP.NET to display the month as a minimum digit – so for months like April the leading 0 will be removed – displaying “4” rather than “04”. 

More information about data string format options can be found at the MSDN reference:

Null Display Text

The business rules for this organization allows for the patient’s birth date to be NULL in the system.  Rather than display a blank field when NULL, I chose to indicate textually that the patient’s birth date was not yet on file.


This is the critical part – if I did not set HTMLEncode to false, my date would not have formatted at all.

Why?  Because when rendering content, ASP.NET automatically takes data bound content and converts it into an HTML Encoded string in order to prevent pages from serving unintended – potentially malevolent – code along with expected text strings.

The problem – once a string has been encoded, the server no longer considers it a number or date/time information type, so applying the date format is useless.

The only way to get around this is by turning off HTML Encoding for fields whose contents must be formatted.

Yes, this does seem like quite an odd design issue – one would expect the HTML Encoding to come into play after all of the formatting had been completed.  That must be why .NET programmers get paid the big money – having to know tidbits like this eats away at your soul.

WordPress Source Code Syntax Highlighting

Saturday, January 19th, 2008

Because the program code I’ll be posting on this blog is hard to read when in the form of long colourless unformatted lines, I’ve looked around at various plugins to help make my work more readable.

WordPress suggests using a port of the syntaxhighlighter Google Code proejct by Alex Gorbatchev ( but I found this plug-in to be too robust.

For my purposes, I plan to demonstrate HTML, C#, C++ and some Java, so my goal was to have a very scaled-back method of posting code.

A Google search brought me to Sean Deasy’s blog ( which pushed me in the right direction.

The WP-dp.SyntaxHighlighter:source code syntax highlighting plugin supports a good breadth of languages and has a minimalistic look – perfect for my needs. It can be found at:

WP-dp.SyntaxHighlighter:source code syntax highlighting plugin

I recommend this plugin to anyone who, like me, needs a decent syntax highlighter without a lot of the bells and whistles found in other packages.

[Edit: The plugin file for this tool has 2 lines of whitespace at the end, after the “?>”. If you install this tool, you will want to remove these extra characters (you can do this from right inside WordPress’ editor page after uploading the file to your server).]

[Edit2-Feb8, 2008: I had problems getting the originally suggested Highlighter working the way I wanted. I eventually settled on this one from OpenSourceBrain: … it’s the same idea but implemented much more cleanly]

Blank Screen Loading GMail

Wednesday, January 16th, 2008

I noticed lately that I’ve been having issues accessing my GMail account.  These issues have come and gone in the past but in the last several days it’s turned into an occurrence every time I log into my account.

For anyone else sharing in this problem, here is my solution:

  1. Try clearing the URL (e.g. if your address bar reads, change it to simply  Sometimes this will “trick” your browser into re-loading the page.
  2. Go into your Internet Options and clear your browser’s cache.  On Firefox this works nearly 100% of the time; for Internet Explorer continue to step 3.
  3. Close all running copies of your web browser (after clearing the cache) and then re-load and log in again.  This is normally my last step and hasn’t failed yet.