Extra-Remote Work (like really, really remote!) - and how it can make you a better product person
Updated: Oct 25
On this episode, Zachary Hanson joins to discuss his very unique version of remote work - living and working in Atlanta, Idaho, USA, a town with a population of 35 people. Yes, 35! The closest grocery store is four hours away. He has learned to live without instant connectivity and share some lessons that has come from that...
Learning to find value in no meetings and lots of focus time
Communicating succinctly and effectively
Forced heads-down time can make all the difference
Zachary also just published a book about his unique lifestyle: Turning Feral. Be sure to check it out!
atlanta, calendar, product, idaho, wife, people, moved, meetings, product managers, stress, live, purging, rural, communication, internet connectivity issues, heads, unavailable, management, company, ibm
Welcome to Product Voices, a podcast where we share valuable insights and useful resources to help us all be great in product management. Visit the show's website to access the resources discussed on the show, find more information on our fabulous guests or to submit your product management question to be answered on our special q&a episodes. That's all at product voices.com. And be sure to subscribe to the podcast on your favorite platform. Now, here's our host, JJ Rorie, CEO of Great Product Management.
Hello, and welcome to product voices. We have a really interesting conversation today. So most of us in product management in tech are working, at least partly, virtually remotely at this point, wherever we're zooming in from, if you will, but I would venture to say that most of us still live in somewhat urban or urban rural areas. Well, my guest today has a very interesting story. And so we're gonna be talking about extra remote work like really, really remote work, and how he has been able to harness that, and really become a better business person and a better product person. So even if you don't live in a place like where my guest lives, I think he's gonna bring some really cool things to light. So Zack Hanson is my guest today. He's an expert in artificial intelligence and machine learning Product Management. He has experience in AI solutions for Fortune 500 companies such as IBM Capital One Wells Fargo, and most recently bright Cove. He holds degrees from College of Charleston and Johns Hopkins University. Personally, he's a back country and choosiest committed to sustainable living. He lives with his wife and two children at the base of the Sawtooth Mountains in rural Idaho. Zach, thank you so much for joining me.
Oh, thank you for having me. I'm excited for the conversation on remote work today.
Absolutely. It's gonna be fun, and I can't wait to hear more about your story. So let's just start there. I mean, tell us more about your story. Where do you live? You know, tell us about that area in Aurora, Idaho, where you and your family live?
Yeah, I mean, to answer that question, we'll probably take a little bit of googling or most of the listeners part. So if you're listening, if you're pull up another tab, and you go to Google, and you type in Atlanta, and you might be thinking, Atlanta, Georgia, but you would be wrong, and you would type in Atlanta, Idaho, and where my wife and I live is actually what is deemed the most rural livable community in the lower 48. The town of Atlanta, Idaho. It consists of 35 people who live out there year round, there's a probably about you know, 20 or so cabins, we run our own electricity, our own water, you know, we all cut our own wood for burning and heating our own homes and live at the base of the sawtooth wilderness. So literally, our back doors of our little cabin, where we have our two kids opens to 3000 acres of public land, which is pretty awesome. But to that point, it is so remote to get there and takes about a four hour drive down a dirt road that is often either avalanched in or snow slid in in the winter. And you know, it takes a lot of planning to get to and from the nearest grocery store, which is four hours away from us.
That is just fascinating. I mean, it's it's almost hard for me to imagine. And I also kind of want to come visit. So that is so cool. So but I have to ask, like how do you? How do you work? I mean, do you obviously have Wi Fi connection you are or some sort of connection to the internet and to the outside world? Like tell us a little bit about the logistics of how that works?
Certainly. And to be fair, you know, my wife and I have been living up in Atlanta over the past three years now. Things are evolving, you know, partly due to the advancements in Wi Fi technologies such as Elon Musk's Starlink, which we were able to acquire this past year, which has helped us tremendously. Prior to that we had what was called a rural telecom line, which was DSL, and that DSL was about at its best 10 megabytes per second of upload speed. And that was a little bit trying. So when we first moved out there, there was a lot a lot of internet connectivity issues that was coupled and amplified by are very, very frequent power outages. You know, we have backup generators, things like that. But there are times during the day, especially the winter and hot summer where things just stopped working. But yeah, we do have Wi Fi and it's very helpful and thanks to Elon for a satellite that works pretty much anywhere.
That's awesome. Okay, so That's, that's a really good point about solving some, some problems, some real problems in the world. But I imagine, as you mentioned, you still have some, you know, access issues or have to at times live without access to many of your connections from a work perspective. So, I mean, what adversity has that caused and how have you handled it?
Yeah, it's funny, if we were on video right now, you'd be able to see that I'm bald. And I joke with my wife, that prior to us moving out there, for the first time, I had a full head of hair, which is not true, but it's a good stick. And then having all the internet connectivity issues, you know, really amplified stress, to be honest. So when we moved out there, you know, from my background, I've actually been a remote employee, my whole entire professional career, I spent a lot of time on planes, and obviously with a bag and was traveling to and from cities where my teams were at any given time. So the remote aspect of moving out there was not new to me, it was something that I was pretty well in tune with, you know, I'd had good relationships built with my teams when we moved out there to where they knew I was remote. But what was different was that connectivity issue, and that's where I really started to struggle, and have some real stress. And the reason I had that stress, you know, looking back on it now is that, you know, as a product manager, I think a lot of us are guilty of this, I know I was I've really worked on in the past three years is the idea of tying, not only self worth, but the work that you're providing to the company by how many meetings you're attending, and how many, where you can put your input to any given decision, which usually means you're going to have a bloated calendar. And when we first moved out to the rural woods of Idaho with our DSL connection on a rural telecom line, that was my measure of success, you know, aside from like, ROI hitting KPIs, but I felt self worth from that calendar of mine. And what happened is, it all got blown to smithereens, you know, I would be out there and middle of a call, you know, the power would go out, you know, not even Wi Fi connection, power would go out. But the problem is we don't have cell phone service. So when the power goes out, the Wi Fi goes out. And I have no way to communicate with my team, I am literally off the grid. And that causes so much stress to where I'd be going around to anybody in the town of 35 people who might have a satellite internet backup, just so I could send a text message to my boss say, Hey, I don't know how long I'm going to be out for. But that's the situation. And it was stressful. And that was the reality of our situation when we first got out to the woods.
That is really fascinating. But I also kind of want this whole scenario to be a sitcom. So I want a reality show about Atlanta, Idaho. So anybody out there listening, who's in media get this together, because we need to say this. But you know, what's interesting about that is, it's so it's poignant, almost that we all do that we all kind of assign our, our value to the company on how much output or how many meetings, I mean, literally, like, like you said, that we have on our calendar. And if we have a bunch of open time, on any given day, I can certainly speak for myself. And I think a lot of people out there agree that we feel like we're not working, which is nonsense. It also speaks to honestly, your companies that you've worked for, must have really seen the value that you were adding, because that's a very unique situation to just all of a sudden have no no connection, and not even being able to tell them why. But then, frankly, keeping you and allowing you to grow and be a leader and, you know, knowing that you are going to add that value outside of what we consider the norm. That's a very fascinating kind of element to your story.
Yeah, it was, it is. And I imagine there's probably some head nods going on about the idea of tying value to those calendar or those bloated calendars we all carry as product managers. But it was an evolution, right? I was stressed to your point of being fired, you know, the second that the power would go out, I'd look at my wife and I'd be like, Man, I don't know how many more times this can happen before I'm just canned. But what it forced on me was to be more poignant and more focused in my overall communication. Because as those patterns of outages started to arise and hit with relative frequency, I was able to take stock of that and say, You know what, if you look at 100% of my time I I can assume just based on, you know, the heuristics I've collected over the past year, that 40% of that I'm going to be unavailable. So I started to think what can I do to anticipate those outages, I can't anticipate when they'll happen. But I can anticipate that 40% of my time is going to be spent unavailable during working hours. So that forced me down this path of saying, How can I actually be more crisp with my communication, both verbal, and my asynchronous communication via email and slack. So ultimately, what it led me to was to start pre empting, this by sending out more succinct emails, removing calendar invites from my daily schedule that weren't impactful for me to be there, which was also a big ego check, because I really wanted to be at all of these. But I had to say, well, you know, one of my delegate things better, so I don't have to be everywhere at once. Because there's always a chance, I can't be anywhere at all.
It's these are such important lessons for all of us to learn, communicate to simply, you know, communicate via, you know, async ways when you can, you know, not everything needs to be a meeting. I think, honestly, like, we all need to pretend that we live in Atlanta, Idaho, because I think it's really an interesting way a trick, right to make ourselves to force ourselves to communicate differently and better. And so I love that that part of your story that that's what has driven, you know, or one of the outcomes, if you will, that it's driven. But let me ask you this, what about I mean, kind of on the same kind of token, if you will, of sustained communication? And how you do that? What about focus, like, like, because you have somewhat limited access or time with the important folks that you work with? I assume you've got to really dial it in to what matters. So how have you learned to do that?
Well, it was a byproduct of these exercises. So you know, prior to my coming up with my own approach to communication improvement, it would be these times that my internet goes out, Right, I'm off the grid for three hours, all of a sudden, I popped back on, you know, people see my green light go on in Slack. And I'm stressed, and I'm reaching out to everybody that I knew I had meetings with that I missed. And, you know, everybody's like, it's okay, you know, we'll catch up, do this, do that. And I started putting together emails, things like that. But what it made me do was focus on the things that I can do offline. More critically. So you can work in, you know, Google Docs, Google pages, any of the really common tools that we as product managers use. So it actually gave me heads down focus time, so I was able to better quickly switch from normal business mode to okay, I'm unavailable. What can I tackle? Because now I have that hyperfocus time, right? No one's going to call me no one can call me. No one can slap me. So how can I still be productive, and that's when I would focus on those decks, you talk or hear a lot of people talk about putting locks on your calendar, like heads downtime, this was my inadvertent heads downtime, and I started to take advantage of that. And that became really religious. For me, I almost look forward to those times when, you know, the internet would go out, because I'd actually really get some progress on things that usually just kind of sit in our product. I'm gonna say product backlog, not the literal product backlog, but the backlog of things we need to do as product managers that gets shoved to the back, like working on a deck to present to stakeholders, things like that, all of a sudden got direct attention. And those work products became better. And that was really what kind of catapulted me to say wow, like, if I really do manage my calendar better and give myself this space to do real, what I would say is creative work, to tell stories, the things that we as product managers need to do, you know, really excelled me. And it was an interesting paradigm where I felt like I was falling behind everybody. But at the end of the day, I feel like I actually took two steps forward, instead of that feeling of taking one step back by building this repetition and building this ability to have real focus time to do the things that matter as a product manager.
That is truly amazing. And so many of us would would love to, to have that opportunity. So let me ask you this. We frankly do have the opportunity we're just not forced into But like you have been. And so we allow the, you know, instant connectivity, that continuous connectivity to still drive our, our lives and our work. So what advice would you give to someone who isn't going to move to Atlanta, Idaho and have, you know, 50% of their time not connected, but still needs to or would benefit from taking advantage of that heads downtown time? And really, you know, kind of being focused on the things that matter? What advice would you give to someone? How can they take a step or two, to almost, you know, replicate the world that you're living in?
You know, it's interesting. So we're talking right now. And sadly, I'm not up in our cabinet in Atlanta, we're down in Boise, Idaho, you know, my wife, and I just had our second child. So given that we have no health care facilities up there, we're waiting another month until our second child is closer to eight weeks. And then we'll go back up to the cabin shortly. But I say that to say that it's difficult. We're down in Boise, which is a metropolitan area, I have great internet connection, I have cell phone service, no matter where I go. And it's interesting to see the relapse, right. Like I've been down here for about a month now. And my, my habits have creep back to the point where I have a more bloated calendar, and had to talk to my wife and I was like, Man, am I going back to what I was doing before where I have had the privilege of hindsight to say that that's not the best way to work. But I'm, I'm just going back to it, it's like, it's like a drug. Now that I have that, it's really hard to disconnect. So what I've done the past several weeks up to the point where our child was born, was start putting my phone and do not disturb most every day, during working hours, to the point where I put a few numbers in, such as my wife or my family members who could get through to me if they need to. And then going through and kind of purging unnecessary meetings on my calendar, and making sure that I have time to go out and do things around our Boise place that might replicate what I'd be going through backup in Atlanta, which is maybe going out and, you know, throwing my steer rope at cooler, you know, just to kind of break up the day. But the answer is I don't know. And it's hard. So my experimentations are just putting my phone and do not disturb during working hours. You're really trying to comb through and do some calendar, purging, if you will, and finding time to get out and do the things that I like to do that promote energy for me. And then you know, making sure at least early in the morning I have some heads downtime to work on those things that that matter.
Yeah, great advice and it is hard. And so I love the nuance of your story and that the you know last few weeks of being in Boise and by the way, congratulations on your new baby. Very exciting. You know it's it shows you that it's so easy to get back into those those habits those bad habits, frankly. So I like your advice just just try thing. So those of you listening out there just try something right so Do Not Disturb on your phone and then maybe the next week try to purge go for a walk or whatever is gonna work for you to get that not only heads down time, but the the the energy that we need to to disconnect and keep going. So awesome advice. I love that. So my final question for you is what I ask all of my guests is just, you know, basic resources that you found valuable across your career can be very specific to this topic and things that have helped you as you've kind of learned to live in this new world environment, or other just general product management resources that you found valuable across your career. Who do you like to learn from? Who do you like to follow?
Oh, well, I'm not a big social media person. I have a LinkedIn so I'm not a big follower of much. However, I will say I read a lot. I'm, I think is becoming a little trendy now. So you know, it almost embarrassed me to say to a certain degree, but I have been you know, since my undergrad days into stoicism, so stoic philosophy and you know, one of my, if you can call it a revelation during my time up in Atlanta, has been around taming that ego going back to the calendar like where I was drawing my own self worth, and what I thought my worth to the company was was being measured through calendar invites and meetings. The big biggest thing for me was learning how and I'm still learning every day I'm by no means an expert is how to tamp down my own ego, and really suss out what is value, and what is value to myself and what is value to the company. And that, if I were to guess 99% of that is not through meeting bloat, right? If anything that's probably going to the other end of the spectrum of making you as an individual less productive, less valuable to your company. So if you're looking to understand how to wrestle with your own ego, and understand what is important to you stoic philosophy, the author Ryan Holliday has a lot of great books. Even some of this the original prints of like Marcus Aurelius and others are great things to read. So that's one. The second is product focus. You know, I cut my teeth at IBM, specifically in IBM Watson were great company that does a lot for their product managers, or as they call them, offering managers, such as sending folks like myself to design school at Stanford, sending people to improv school things that just kind of make you a better communicator. But one of the things that IBM produce actually, while I was living in Austin, Texas, was the IBM Design Thinking Field Guide. That is something that I have suggested to so many people. And I still use today. It's like a 40 page document. But it really is product management 101. It shows you very clear exercises, to go from a broad concept area or a broad problem space, really dive down into how to build out really rough personas through making people understand what your persona says, Does thinks feels, and then how to start to think about what is the most impactful problem to solve. And then what ideas and big ideas you could do to help solve that problem, and then putting it on a spectrum. So you can start to do some prioritization exercises and ultimately get to an MVP. So not only is that great for product managers who are already in industry, and looking to just kind of sharpen skills, but where I've seen that IBM Design Thinking field guide helped people all across the board is in interviewing or trying to break into product management or entrepreneurship. And the reason being is it is a clear cut blueprint on how to go from a broad problem space, to an MVP, with clear deliverables along the way. And that is really what most of Product Management interviews look like. So it's kind of a little bit of a hack for people looking out there to break into this space on how to do that in a really quick and succinct way.
That's amazing, really great resources. And we will link to the resources on both product voices.com And in the show notes. So listeners, you'll be able to find that you can learn more about Zach at his LinkedIn, which will be on product voices.com And also his website, Zachary hanson.me. Zack, thank you so much for spending time with me for sharing your story. It's been fascinating and really good insights that I think we can all take from your story, even if we're not going to move to rural Idaho. Thanks for joining me.
Thank you so much for having me.
Thank you all for joining me on product voices. Hope to see you on the next episode.
Thank you for listening to Product Voices hosted by JJ Rorie. To find more information on our guests resources discussed during the episode or to submit a question for our q&a episodes, visit the show's website product voices.com And be sure to subscribe to the podcast on your favorite platform.
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