A day in the Life of a Computer Architect During the Pandemic

Night Before: My day actually begins the night before. What I mean by this is before I go to bed I check my Outlook calendar on my phone to get an idea of the next day’s meeting load. I then set my alarm to give myself enough time to be a functional human being by the time my first meeting rolls around. Most engineers will have regularly recurring meetings but there are many one-off meetings that might catch you by surprise so it’s a necessity to start planning the night before. This is especially true if you work across geographic regions and time zones. Most meetings are mercifully scheduled after 9pm but if you work with India or East Asia, 8am meetings are not out of the ordinary.

9:30am: On average, my first meeting is around 10:00am so I normally wakeup at 9:30am. This allows me enough time to throw on a pot of coffee, brush my teeth, answer the call of nature and finally saunter over to my workstation.

9:45am: I skim Outlook for emails that would indicate that something is on fire and needs immediate attention. If you have designs that you have worked on that are nearing production, there is a steady amount of reactive work. Depending on the product and where it is in the life cycle the type of reactive work can vary greatly. Some examples would be clarifying an architectural detail to another team, to helping debug a simulation waveform, to going to the lab to give support to the silicon bring up teams. We categorize items that are blocking the schedule as high extremely priority. “Fighting fires” as we call it can be disruptive to whatever work you had at hand but it’s part and parcel with bringing real products to the market. You do not want to be the person responsible for making a multi-million dollar project slip.

9:50am: If there are no fires then I have the liberty to make a rough schedule for my day and this usually involves scheduling the following

  • emails to send
  • meetings to attend
  • meetings to organize
  • data to analyze
  • things to implement
  • papers to read

The volume of these items can vary greatly so its important that I make a roadmap for the day to make sure each item gets enough attention. I employ Microsoft Onenote to keep a journal of my work streams to make sure that I have a record of what is going on. When you focus one just one project, juggling different workstreams isn’t a problem but often times there are several projects happening in parallel. Dedicating space to journal each work stream is tremendously helpful for context switching.

10:00am: Meeting time. I’ve got two meeting modes; active meeting mode and passive meeting mode. Depending on the context of the meeting and what is being discussed, I switch between active and passive meeting modes. Active meeting mode means I am 100% engaged, listening, and am reciprocating with discussion. Also, I usually take personal meeting notes in my Onenote to keep a record of what was said, jot down anything I need to follow up on, record any observations I may have. Passive meeting mode means I am mentally 10% present and just listening for my name to pop up or if the conversation veers toward something I am interested in. My attention in passive meeting mode is “on demand” and it lets me focus on other items like my email.

For example, if we are reviewing my data or a feature that I am responsible for or if I want to sway opinions on a topic I switch into active meeting mode. On the other hand, if we are discussing a topic that is only in the orbit of my interest I switch into passive meeting mode.

11:00am: After my morning meetings I get a chance to respond to my emails. I make a point to 1) answer all of my emails and 2) be as clear and as direct as possible. It is way too easy to get too wordy with emails and I am of the opinion that is not only ineffective but also can be muddle the main point of the email. Adding “flavor” to my communications via verbosity or colorful language is reserved for human-to-human discussion whether it be in person or via audio conference.

12:00pm: At noon I’m fiending for a caffeine refill so I throw some more coffee into my Mokapot and brew up some liquid productivity. By this time lunch is on my mind so I’ll cook something up or walk across the street to Wholefoods and grab something. I check my stocks, surf Reddit, or catch up with the news. I avoid social media.

2:00pm: When I return to work depends on my meeting load. If my afternoons are free then I usually saunter back to work after an hour or two. I’ve got no set standard for how much time I take and make the decision based on how I am feeling. Not having a set lunch hour type schedule helps keep my stress levels low which is vital to keeping my mind engaged when I do decide to work. Being liberal with my breaks also helps me avoid long term burnout.

When I do decide to turn on I consider my afternoon time more “core time”. This is when I am able to focus and bang out what I consider to be real work. This usually means I throw on my noise cancelling headphones, fire up Emacs, and start prototyping power features. This is normally the fun part of the job where I use my engineering knowledge to tinker, improve, plan, and design. What I do during my core time is incredible diverse. Sometimes I am writing firmware level C-code or sometimes I am running simulations. I can be reading academic papers or experimenting with a new tool. Sometimes I will go down the rabbit hole of automating something that I don’t want to do manually. Other times I am running experiments on competitors architecture for competitive analysis. It’s basically Candyland and I can’t believe I get paid to basically tinker and play in nerd paradise. In the end of course my core time has to have some output or at least have made some step toward progress.

5:00pm: Three hours of “real work” would be a good day. Some days I don’t have any time to dedicate to work and other days my schedule is wide open. In any case, I’d estimate that three hours of uninterrupted work is average. At 5:00pm, I am usually on the hook for my last set of meetings. A lot of my higher ups schedule meetings after five because their schedules are absolutely slammed. My evening meetings are typically of the “active meeting mode” type and if they aren’t I try to avoid attending.

6:00pm: After my last flurry of meetings I am usually closing out my day by sending out emails. If I have any open inquiries or requests for things to be done by the teams in Asia, I send them now. More often than not the Asia teams respond by morning.

6:30pm: At 6:30pm I am mentally disengaged. If we are in a critical time period I will occasionally monitor my emails but I usually like to have a hard divide between work and the rest of my life. It’s important that I compartmentalize any stress that I may have accumulated during the workday. If it bleeds over into my outside work time its detrimental not only to my work performance but also my quality of life. Being disciplined about my recharge time is just as important as my actual work time.

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