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Thursday, February 18, 1999 Published at 17:30 GMT


Triumph of the teleworker

One man and his dog and wheel: Nick Shelness in Scotland

By Internet Correspondent Chris Nuttall

"Let us swear an oath, and keep it with an equal mind,
In the hollow Lotos-land to live and lie reclined
On the hills like Gods together, careless of mankind."
Tennyson - The Lotus Eaters

For the past eight years, Nick Shelness has been defying the conventional wisdom that working from home will damage your career prospects, rising to be Chief Technology Officer of Lotus while ensconced in a renovated 17th century corn mill in Scotland.

Nick's oath to spurn the United States and become a lotus eater in the hills of Strathmore brooked no argument: "I announced I was moving back to the UK and that was non-negotiable," he told BBC News Online on a rare visit to London to talk about the latest Lotus products.

The laird of Lotus

"I have an ISDN connection into Lotus's worldwide network, I obviously use Notes for everything and being five hours ahead of everyone in the US works really well," he says of his home office setup.

"Thinking, writing and reading, which is a lot of my job now, needs no or minimal interruption. I start around 6am and have about six hours to myself. After 1pm, I get on the phone and talk to people for the rest of the day."

Nick says the British reaction to his teleworking is still: Your company let you do what?

"People here still tend to feel their company is doing them a favour by letting them work for it, rather than it being an equal relationship."

Keeping track of homework

To instil the necessary discipline and sense of achievement needed to work from home, he has always written a weekly report on what he has accomplished.

"If you are in an office and go to meetings, you can have a false sense of your contributions. If you write down, once a week, activities completed, in progress, on hold and travel plans, I find it incredibly useful.

"If you feel you haven't done anything, you can go back and see. The benefit is greater, psychologically, for the person writing it down than for the one reading it. It's very easy to fall into feeling you're not doing enough."

Nick is not alone in telecommuting at Lotus. Other top executives operate from Canada, Miami, the New Jersey shore and Philadelphia rather than the company's Cambridge, Massachusetts headquarters.

Lotus gets more like the Web

He is a great fan of Lotus Sametime, an instant messaging program to identify and contact colleagues online at the same time. Lotus announced last month it would be interoperable with AOL's Instant Messenger product.

"I had given up calling our executive vice president for strategy because I didn't know where he might be. Now I notice Mike is logged on and I message him: Where are you, can you take a call?"

Lotus is also mirroring the Web portal Communities idea, pioneered by Excite, with its new QuickPlace software. It is designed so you do not need an IT department to set up group collaboration.

"The challenge was how do you create workgroups for smaller groups that come together on an ad hoc basis. We use a rooms metaphor for the Web and we have also announced a deal with AOL as the basis for their Communities offering."

Lotus Notes holding its own

The much-delayed Notes/Domino Release 5 - now due in March - will also have a Web-like headline/ticker feature which can include a calendar and other features. Domino is also moving towards universal messaging capabilities - getting e-mails and faxes in one place, with voicemail to come.

IBM's takeover of Lotus is also bearing fruit with Notes 5.0. Nick says he spends a significant amount of time with IBM research. The new spellchecker comes from IBM as does a full-text search engine and transaction logging - enabling better data recovery in the event of a crash.

The Lotus CTO feels the company is more than holding its own against rival Microsoft Exchange products. "Lotus Notes now has an installed base of 34 million compared to Microsoft's 24 million and they have already eaten their seed corn in that they have moved their MS Mail community, we are very bullish about our position."

Very excited about Scotland

After spending much of his life in Scotland, the only striking Americanism Nick has picked up is the "We're very excited about this" phrase used to describe each product.

He was at Edinburgh University's Computer Science Department in the 1970s, researching what was needed to run early Local Area Networks (LANs). He founded the UK arm of Soft-Switch in 1984 where he was responsible for its LAN gateway products and became its Chief Scientist in 1993. The company was acquired by Lotus in 1994 and Nick became the Lotus CTO last year.

He has also worked on Internet protocols and is a co-author of the Internet Engineering Task Force's MHTML standard for sending Web pages as e-mail. As well as championing open standards, he is also interested in the open source movement and says Domino will be able to work with the Linux free Operating System.

"We have a version in the labs of Domino working with Linux, but it needs a lot of research to make it robust and we need to try it in a lot of different environments."

As far as improving his own environment goes, Nick plans to make room in his cramped office at some point for a PictureTel videoconferencing suite. He already uses a boom mike and headphones for conference calls. Adding pictures, he estimates, would reduce his travelling by a quarter and leave even more time for meditating at the mill.

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