Interviews / Software Engineers & Developers

Balancing the Grind with Joe Birch, Senior Engineer II at Buffer

Joe Birch is an Android engineer, currently working as a Senior Engineer II at social media management company Buffer, on the mobile team, primarily Android.

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1) To kick things off, could you tell us a little about your career background and current role?

Whilst I was fascinated by building computers as a kid, I’m not a person who started coding at a young age – in fact, it actually took me some time to get to grips with it.

I was always quite good at math but until I got to university, programming didn’t really click for me. But when it did, oh did it! As things started to make sense, I knew that was what I wanted to pursue for my career.

I started working as an Android engineer in 2013 after working with the platform for a few years whilst at university. Prior to my current position my main experience was agency work, I’m now working at a product company called Buffer as a Senior Engineer II on the mobile team, primarily Android.

I work 100% remote – we’re a company of around ~85, with the mobile team being made up of 6 people.

2) What does a day in the life look like for you? Can you take us through a recent workday?

When it comes to my job, I do the typical 9am-5pm, but my actual day starts between 4:45- 5am. When I wake up I do some reading from a physical book whilst eating breakfast and having a coffee, this allows me to ease into the day without any screens.

During this time I’ll also open up my bullet journal and set myself some goals for the day, this helps me to have control over what I want to achieve and stops me from getting carried away and trying to do too much.

At around 6am I’ll either do some writing for a blog post or engage in some side-project work. Things are pretty quiet at this time, so it allows for some heads down engagement in my own things.

I do all of this downstairs so that I can keep out of my office, this helps to create a separation between work and my own things. I don’t catch up on emails or Slack until my work day starts. I believe it’s important to have a clear separation of this and it can be unhealthy to start checking on things outside of work hours.

When it gets to 9am I’ll switch into ‘work’ mode. I have quite a structured day so I’ll start off by checking my emails, slack messages and any other form of events that may have happened whilst I was offline.

I’ll then check any pull requests from my colleagues – I like to do this first thing as it can unblock others and in-turn contribute to their productivity. If I do have calls, these will mostly happen in the morning – otherwise, I’ll get heads down in some of the tasks which I jotted down in my bullet journal.

When it gets to 12 o’clock, i’ll shut my laptop and head off for lunch. At this time I workout for 50 minutes every day, followed by having lunch. I tend to have Huel for my lunch, or something light – I’m not a big eater when it comes to lunch time.

I return to work at around 1pm and usually set my Slack to either away or do not disturb. I find getting back from lunch I’m super refreshed and ready to crack on, so being in full focus mode can really help with my productivity.

My day usually finishes around 5-5:30PM and when it does, I quit slack (you can also sign out of your slack workspace if that helps) and I am out of work mode for the evening.

Not only does this help me to switch off in the evening, but it will likely contribute to others’ in some way by me not being always-on and available – for example, helping to guide intuition.

With tools like Slack and the instant-expectations that we are surrounded by, this always-on effect can be damaging for our well-being, long-term productivity and growth of not only us but possibly those around us too. I like to think that by being strict on myself here, I am contributing or inspiring others around me to do the same.

Whilst I get up early, I’m in bed between 9:00-9:30PM – this means I always get at least 7 ½ hours sleep. If there has been an event or for some reason I’ve needed to go to sleep later on the rare occasion, then my wake up time will reflect this – it’s not worth sacrificing sleep for an attempt of productivity, as it never usually works out that way!

3) Does your current role allow for flexible or remote working? If so, how does that fit into your life and routine?

At Buffer we are 100% remote and working remotely contributes massively to my routine. Without remote work, I honestly think it would have been a longer road to achieve the level of community contributions and personal growth that I have done over the past several years.

Being remote (and working for a company that allows flexibility in my day) means that I can structure my day for how it works for me.

Being able to go and work out at lunch, taking some time out in my day to read or learn something new – I can fit this into my schedule without needing to worry about where my time may have been spent commuting.

For example, not needing to think about getting to and from a gym from an office during my lunch break means I can easily get to the gym 5 minutes from my house, saving me a huge amount of time.

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4) What does work-life balance mean to you and how do you work to achieve that goal?

Outside of my job I spend a lot of my time writing, reading or working on side projects. These are mostly usually tech related, so work-life balance means a couple of things.

Firstly, for me it means having a clear line between job work and personal work. I love what I do when it comes to coding and working on tech, but ensuring that outside of my job hours I am working on my own things is super important for achieving balance.

Even for things such as trying out a new Android library, writing a blog post or anything else that is for the benefit of your job, keep that inside of work hours.

In the past I definitely covered these things up with “Oh I enjoy doing this stuff so it’s fine to do it in my free time”, but this is a slippery slope that can cause you to miss out on a lot of personal development and contributions to your own projects / brand.

Another part of that balance for me is ensuring that I make time for things outside of tech. I have quite a strict routine for my days which helps me to ensure that every day I workout, read and also have some downtime.

I’m someone who is always switched on so I find things like watching TV difficult (or maybe I just don’t find too much enjoyment from it), but I make sure that the last part of my day is spent having that downtime with my partner and dog.

Most of my weekends are spent outside of tech – I get several hours of side-project work done on a Saturday or Sunday due to my early rise habits, but the rest of the days are spent with my partner, walking the dog, DIY, days out etc.

The weekends are an important time to reflect and refresh – if we are constantly doing things day in and day out then it can be difficult for us to grow.

I often look back at an article I wrote in 2016 on some reflections around this topic – getting out of this short-sighted approach to my growth allowed me to shift gears and focus on how I want to be in the long run.

5) What do you think are some of the best habits or routines that you’ve developed over the years to help you achieve success in your life?

Having a daily routine has really changed my productivity, the bullet journal really helps with this. I used to live my days quite ad-hoc previously – I’d get up whenever, work out a different time each day, my work hours would constantly look different and constantly lose out on time to do certain things.

Having a routine has allowed me to shape my day how I want it to look and make sure that I carry out everything that I want to. Because my days are now more predictable, it makes it easier to build those habits for doing certain things.

It also makes it easier to say no to things and achieve my goals for that day, rather than getting wrapped up in other things and feel crappy at the end of the day because I haven’t done half of the stuff I had intended.

When days are unpredictable, it’s easy to put things off or not do them because you are still doing something else. Regardless of what I’m doing, I know at 12:00 (lunch time) I’m going to work out – so I’ll drop what I do and go workout.

With this, I know that I will workout every day – in turn I end up reading every day too and achieving most of my goals – which when it comes to wind down time, I feel pretty content and happy with how my day has played out.

Having this routine kick in and stick around has also really helped my resilience over the past few years. Being able to accept that things won’t always get done, finished or even started has been a big help in training my head to keep cool in stressful situations.

Knowing that the other things I planned for today will just have to get done tomorrow allows me to keep focus on the more pressing issues that may have popped up, resulting in a clearer mind and quicker resolution coming up.

Joe speaking at mDevCamp 2018, the largest conference for mobile enthusiasts in Central Europe.

6) Do you have any favourite books, podcasts or newsletters that you’d like to recommend?

I recently read a book called The Effective Engineer. Throughout reading it my approach to work and values felt completely validated – whilst I picked up on some new thoughts here, it’s always great to have perspective on your approaches shared, even if they are similar. Regardless of where you are in your career, I would highly recommend this!

Over the last year I’ve also become a big fan of the books by Ryan Holiday (Ego is the Enemy, Stillness is the Key). They are modern philosophy books and really helped contribute to my ways of thinking and working, so I would recommend checking those out also.

When it comes to podcasts, Feel Better Live More by Dr Rangan Chatterjee has been really big for me over the last 6 months. It touches on a range of topics from mental wellbeing, anxiety and other topics around our mind & body. Would definitely recommend checking it out.

7) What is the number one thing you do to make sure you get the most out of your day?

Utilise my bullet journal. I was always skeptical about to-do lists – I usually have high expectations of myself so I had often ended up giving myself an unrealistic amount of work to do in a day.

However, I’ve become more disciplined here, as well as more accepting of my list. Each morning I will plan my day, make a list of the things that I will do both inside and outside of work – both aspects here are really important so that we don’t just relate our success and progress to what we do within our day job, and being aware that we are more than that is important.

Throughout the day I’ll check things off – I will also add things to the list that pop-up throughout the day, regardless of how small they are, as that’s another important thing for me to reflect on my progress in the day.

If things don’t get done, they don’t get done – there will always be things that don’t get finished. With bullet journaling, I think it is key to learning to accept that some tasks will get moved to the next day.

Rather than staying online, working a few extra hours just to get that extra item ticked off, I’ll mark it as moved and add it to the next day when it comes to the morning. And if that keeps happening for that one task, you can question whether it’s really a focus for your time.

8) If you could read an interview about work-life balance by anyone, who would that be?

Great question! I’d love to have an insight into some of the folks over at Basecamp – for example, Jason Fried. Basecamp have had a huge success with their products and also are big advocates of wellbeing at work. For that reason, I’d love to hear about how Jason balances work with life not only now, but how that was shaped over time.

9) Do you have any last thoughts on work, life or balance that you’d like to share with our readers?

Regardless of where we are in our careers, it’s easy to feel overwhelmed with everything that is happening in our field. There’s always something new and in some cases, people may experience pressure felt by how much everyone else is doing.

Over the last several years I’ve worked to focus on the things that I’m doing and avoiding comparison with others. When reading this it might sound like an obvious thing, but with concepts such as imposter syndrome it can be natural for us to think this.

There is always going to be more to learn, more work to do, things we don’t know or understand – our time will come to learn when it’s needed. If it’s never needed or something that would not shape us, then it’s probably a good thing we didn’t invest our time in it!

As we get better at this practice, it ties into so many things. We can become more focused in the work that we do, be more engaged in things that really matter to us, reduce our overworking habits, build our resilience in our day to day tasks and appreciate more from those around us.

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About Author

Hey there! I'm Hao, the Editor-in-Chief at Balance the Grind. We’re on a mission to showcase healthy work-life balance through interesting stories from people all over the world, in different careers and lifestyles.