The dream of working in a coffee shop

Trying to enjoy remote work with someone else's coffee.

I used to be a restaurant chef. Before my night shift, I would sit in coffee shops and get caffeinated, listen to some music to get psyched, and people watch. I would watch the other people around me on laptops. They had their big headphones on, empty coffee cups surrounded them, and all of them were looking fiercely at their screens. IDEs and image editing were the norms in these San Francisco coffee shops. Sometimes I'd see someone writing in a word processor, but I paid little mind to those people. Visual stimuli were sparse in watching someone try to write the next great American novel. When I thought about working in tech, I'd pictured the perks of having remote days and sitting in a coffee shop with headphones on like these people I'd watched. Not being stuck in an office all the time sounded like a dream! To roam and work is foreign to a person married to a restaurant, a workstation, a stove, and a cutting board. Being able to take your work anywhere is not possible when you're a restaurant cook. I had the most growth in coding during a global pandemic. So really, I have never worked in an office before and don't have the experience to compare. Being that I am now gainfully employed, I finally went out to a coffee shop to work.

My brother has done plenty of freelance work and sits in coffee shops more often than I do. He told me some of the rules he follows:

  1. Buy something every hour. You're taking up space for other customers. The coffee shop needs to make some return on every seat. Here we have the basic economics of food service, so it was easy to justify.

  2. Bring a surge protector/extension cord. If others are vying for an outlet to plug into, you help everyone share the plug. Why a surge protector? If anything goes wrong, it protects the electronics plugged in from a power surge. Be a good community member.

  3. Headphones. Keep noises from coming in and from getting out.

  4. Go in with a plan for what you want to accomplish. Have an expectation and a focus for your time in a coffee shop. It's a nice change of pace, but you are there to work. Don't get lost in the different workspace.

A cup, a muffin, and a laptop

I look online for a closeby coffee shop. Something out of my neighborhood as I want to feel like I'm getting out. The shop should be independently run (not a chain) and not something that everyone frequents. I like to help spread some patronage around to smaller shops that have survived the shutdowns during the pandemic. There's a place in a fun part of downtown that also has a brewery my family has liked since they opened. So I head there.

I ordered my coffee and a mochi muffin and looked for a place to work. Walking up to the high counter, I spy a stool between two other folks working on computers with headphones on. "I'll make it three in a row," I thought to myself. Feeling giddy with the idea of passing as someone who works in coffee shops, I set down my bag and look under the counter for a plug and hook. Getting set up is pretty simple as I look around one more time for the WiFi password placed somewhere. Note to self: get the WiFi credentials at the counter.

I hear my name called by the barista, so I turn to get my coffee and the WiFi password. I think I'm ready to do something. Slipping on my headphones, I do redundant checks to make sure Bluetooth is connected. No one needs to hear the punk cover of a late 90's Britney Spears song I have next in my queue. I find myself spending the next 10 minutes reworking my workflow for one screen.

I have grown accustomed to working with an external keyboard, a secondary trackpad, and two additional monitors. A screen for my IDE, one for the browser and phone simulator, and one for Slack and DevTools. Is it any surprise that switching to "just a laptop" felt cramped? My sense of mise en place is off in a smaller space. It reminds me of moving from a restaurant to the crowded commissary kitchen of the Google Main Cafeteria, where I had to make what two feet of space I could claim work for the hundred pounds of everything to prep.

I get it worked out with multiple desktops to scroll through. It's not quite the same, but it does the job. Occasionally I find myself changing the configuration. I would need to balance the screen between IDE and browser and have DevTools in the browser window. Squinting and readjusting the windows, I find myself working my hotkeys and shortcuts more often than I do at home. It's good practice, but an undertrained muscle to flex for sure.

See rule #4

Is anyone else seemingly awkward about being in public? I write this is the time the world is reopening following the shutdowns of a global pandemic. Do I wear my mask inside here in between sips? Maybe I should have taken an outside seat. The sound of passing cars might be good white noise for me. Maybe being outside would stop my looking up to see who just came in. No, but there would be a glare on my screen. Oh! That old lady just walked by asking if there was a spare plastic bag in the cafe because her tiny dog did their biz and she doesn't have a dog bag. I think I have one! Who's distracted? Neurotic? ME?... yeah, most definitely.

Now that I think of it, I'm a bit of a people watcher. I enjoy sitting in coffee shops for people watching out the window or in the shop. I'd make up elaborate narratives for what kind of people they are and where they are from, what they're going to do after here. Sometimes I like to look out the window and picture a giant robot battle over the city like Voltron or Power Rangers. Working out in the world was a mistake for me. I need to get my head down and work.

Some work done, my coffee and muffin devoured, and I've been here about an hour. Have I overstayed my welcome? I'm not trying to have too much coffee anymore. The baked goods look nice, but do I need another one? I could go home to eat. It's not that far, and we have some leftover curry I've been craving. Maybe I'm just over the idea of working outside and looking for a reason to head back to my usual workspace. Someplace comfortable that lets me lay out everything the way I like. My workspace at home is where I think I can perform best.

I'm glad I'm in the tech industry, but working out in public isn't for me right now. I used to think that working in the Tech Industry would be in an office job I would want to sneak away from and hide in a coffee shop. I'm in a stage right now where I need to be with a team of people around me to bounce ideas off of, or at home where my workspace is the way I like it. Right now, some familiarity is enough.