Posted 17 October, 2016 by Sam Slate

Digital butterflies and the weight of distance: a remote intern’s reflection

image by tatadbb, cc-by-sa

During the summer of 2016, we enrolled our first official intern, Sam. He spent three months working closely with the team, and in many ways made all of our professional and personal lives better. We asked him to write about this experience without a topic, angle or filter. 

[Content Warning: mental illness, depression]

The other day, around 5pm, my suitemate walked in to find me sitting at the kitchen table in front of my laptop. I was wrapping up another hard day’s work as an intern for The Engine Room, and as he came in I groaned a little. He asked me what was up and I told him that it’s hard to be in front of a screen for so long every day. I told him I hadn’t left the apartment or seen anyone all day. He paused for a moment, gave me a look of pity, and then said: if you are majoring in computer science, you might as well get used to it.

…if you are majoring in computer science, you might as well get used to it.

People there are actually nice

My time at The Engine Room has been nothing short of amazing. I could go into every little thing that has made me feel like the luckiest-intern-in-the-world, but I think a good overview is this: I’m treated like a human being (not a computer), and I’m contributing to work that a human being could be proud of. Beyond the occasional (or more than occasional) intern jokes, everyone within the organisation has been incredibly nice, welcoming, and eager to show me around and help me with anything I would need help with. I remember after my first phone call with someone from The Engine Room, I excitedly told my roommate “people there are actually nice.” Coming from internship interviews that felt like being a contestant on a talent show where all the judges were the disappointed, angry ones, seeing a group of people that cared for each other was and has been a huge deal for me.

That being said, working at The Engine Room hasn’t been entirely digital butterflies and 8-bit rainbows. This has been my first job related to computer science and the first time I’ve ever worked remotely on a dispersed team (a team without an office). The difficulties have been many, and although I’ve come out on the other side happy with what I’ve learned and how I’ve changed, I think it could be useful to voice some of my hardships as an outsider and as a baby in the tech world.

The sarcastic language of love

I didn’t really know what was going on my first day with The Engine Room. My contract was still floating around somewhere and I only really had the email address of my supervisor and a description of tasks in some unreadable tech language (even after this summer, I still don’t know what half the words mean in that document). They told me I was to be “onboarded”, which confused me because that word is usually an adjective, and soon after I was subject to a whirlwind of encryption tutorials, slack introductions, and never-ending google docs. I loved it. I learned so much those first couple of days and it was exhilarating; for the first time ever I felt like I was a real tech person doing real tech things (I had my own public key!).

It took me a bit to figure out that dry, deprecating sarcasm was the language of love within The Engine Room, but once I figured that out there was love aplenty. In the first month, I set up calls with every person working within the organisation to talk one-on-one about their path to The Engine Room and the work that they do here. These conversations (which we named what-do-you-do talks) firmly cemented my initial impression that everyone in The Engine Room is a) doing incredible work and b) trying to do way too much of it.

The sheer level of research, for example, that the research leads have at least a hand in is staggering and throughout my three months, articles and guides would be published that I never knew were in the works. Meanwhile, the Matchbox leads are leading or supporting ten different projects and reviewing the applications for ten more, and the admin folks are, for better or for worse, doing the work of a team twice the size.

Still, everyone made the time to talk to the measly intern. I was blown away by the welcome and support extended to me by everyone on the team, and the true interest in my own story and wellbeing.

Friends in the distance

Yet despite the warmth I felt from my computer screen, it was still, in the end, just coming from a computer screen. There was this separation I felt constantly no matter how many conversations, how many inside jokes, how much I felt truly part of the organisation. After a work meeting, instead of walking out of the room with a colleague, catching up or joking, making small talk, I am just staring at a computer screen. Most often, I am in the living room of my apartment or my bedroom. Most often, I hadn’t talked to anyone in real life that day.

Colleagues become usernames and email addresses. They become a label on a task on a Kanban board. They become their comments on google docs, a voice skipping on calls with bad internet connection, a funny gif on a slack channel. They are their work selves, and when they aren’t their work selves, they are their online social selves. Neither feel real after a while.

Colleagues become usernames and email addresses

Something you should know about me: I’ve been dealing with mental illness, specifically depression, since I was in seventh grade. I don’t like to talk about it much, mostly because I usually have it under control and I try not to let it be a large part of my life. This past year has been hard for me though, and I’ve had to think a lot about how I interact with people and ideas around me and which kinds of interactions are healthy or unhealthy.

Depression for me takes the form of long slumps that I can’t break out of. Normal me still has those slumps, but normal me can lift myself up by either addressing the root cause or just giving myself some time. Depressed me doesn’t know how I get into slumps, doesn’t know how to get out of them, and just tries to distract himself for as long as possible and hope for the best.

Computers have been one of those distractions for depressed me. They allow me to zone out, to numb myself, to take myself away from all the terrible feelings. When I turn the screen off though, I never feel better. I always feel dizzy, disconnected, and drained. I feel alone.

During the bad times, I need to go outside and exercise, go talk to someone, be moving in some way. I’ve known this about myself for a while.

My relationship with technology

It’s kind of funny then that I’m now studying computer science in college. Even though I know computers can mess with me, I’m still obsessed with them and spend a large amount of my time plugged in one way or another. With computer science, all the time I would spend just zoning out on a computer I am instead creating. I’m solving puzzles and building ideas. There is definitely power in that shift, in turning something that has been harmful to something I enjoy and that I can use to accomplish the work I want to accomplish.

I mention this all because I think people have a lot of different, weird relationships with computers. For me, my different, weird relationship has to do with mental illness, but for others it could be a wide variety of associations, experiences, or emotional baggage. Some things may be easier or some things may be harder for us, sometimes for reasons that are hard to explain. I think it’s so incredibly important though to talk about the emotional side of working with technology, especially when, for a workplace like The Engine Room, everything we do is done through computers.

About midway through the summer, I planned and gave an organisation-wide Github tutorial. I was incredibly nervous, having never done something of the sort before (and feeling only slightly confident with the material). I’ve done some public speaking and have done a fair amount of teaching, but something was very different about talking into a screen. When teaching, I rely a lot on feedback from the kids to show me that I am or am not getting through to them. Whether that be head nods, dazed expressions, hands raised, or anything in between, there is something vital about the visual and physical feedback I receive.

On a computer, it was all different. There were too many people for a video call, so I didn’t get any faces. There was a chat going but I was sharing my screen and couldn’t switch back and forth easily to see comments.  Everyone muted their microphone when I was speaking, so I couldn’t even hear static or shuffling through my headphones, just silence.

There was one moment, when I was trying to describe the notoriously complicated and befuddling branching features of Git, that I stumbled over my words, lost my train of thought, and stuttered for at least twenty seconds straight. I’ve usually been able to maintain my composure in similar situations, but in that moment I suddenly felt alone. I felt like I was speaking only to myself, and any confidence I had earlier went out the window.

I’m not exaggerating when I say that I felt total panic in that moment, and although I was able to keep going and finish up the tutorial no harm no foul, that sense of solitude, of panic, has been stuck in my mind ever since.

Computers, confidence, and community

Something that I deal with and I know others struggle with a lot in the computer science field is a lack of confidence. This is especially common for those dealing with depression or anxiety like me; a lot of times bad feelings are associated with insecurity, self-deprecation, and self-doubt. At The Engine Room, being the (only) intern, the youngest in an organisation, and new to computer science as a whole, I felt that lack of confidence pretty hard when I was first starting out. 

Being miles away from almost everyone you’re working with doesn’t help. Building confidence for people who are not used to having it requires a lot of positive feedback from others. Affirmations, physical displays of affection (like hugs), even just smiles are huge in making someone feel capable and confident.

Everyone at The Engine Room did everything they could to translate smiles and hugs into gifs and emojis, and for that I am forever grateful. But there’s always something missing with the distance.

I believe the moment in which I truly understood what I was missing working alone was when, all of a sudden, I wasn’t. There was another New Yorker, the amazing Anca Matioc, working at The Engine Room at the time, and we had attempted to schedule a meet-up for about a month and a half before we did finally meet in a coffee shop in Manhattan.

Even though we hardly got any work done (I blame her entirely) and she spent most of the time alternating between mocking me and paying for my food, I honestly felt for the first time that The Engine Room was, in some sense, real. That there were people out there working and they had human bodies with bones and flesh and hearts (maybe not in Anca’s case) and not just usernames and voices. I would talk about my supervisor with her and halfway through realize that she, of course, knew him too. Something clicked then, and I instantly felt actually part of something human.

Anca and I co-worked a bit in the following couple of weeks, and I felt a shift in how I approached the work I was doing. Even knowing that at some point I would be having human contact with a coworker made me full so much more connected and less alone.

Feeling at home

One thing I can say definitively is that despite the difficulties I’ve had navigating both cyberspace and my mental space this summer, The Engine Room has done everything to make that navigation as easy as possible. I think it’s truly a testament to how deeply grounded the organisation is in ideas of compassion and community that I felt so at home from so far away.

Even goodbyes are hard working remotely. So much more can be said with a smile and a hug than a thousand awkward goodbye Slack calls. I realised that there are ways in which I show appreciation and love that can only happen face-to-face, and it’s hard trying to recreate something so physical and emotional online. I can’t possible put into gifs and emojis the ways in which The Engine Room has changed me. Not even four cute gifs of dogs waving goodbye. 



Via Giphy

Via Giphy






It was worth a try though 🙂 See you around Engine Room.


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