It’s amazing how stories mutate. What started as a simple ‘this is my setup’ post, then turned into a ‘what a day in my life looks like’. This morning I woke up and realised it might be more interesting, and less braggy, to look at how, and why, my workstation has evolved in the last two years, since I moved from office worker to freelancer.
A long, long time ago…
First, a little background. In 2011 I moved from being employed to being a combination of self employed (in the business my wife and I run together) and contract worker (at a local web development agency called Reamdigital). This meant I was working half the time from on office and half the time from home. This lead to me purchasing my first ‘developer’ laptop, a 17 inch Dell Vostro with a Core i5 processer, nVidia graphics, 16GB of RAM (manually upgraded) and a 750 GB hard drive. About a year later I upgraded the hard drive to a 500GB SSD and put the 750 GB drive into an external housing, but that laptop lasted me for a good 5 years in that configuration.
This laptop replaced my then current desktop computer, which I had custom built in 2010, while I was still employed at a company. Using my bonus that year I built a mid range gaming computer. The original specs aren’t important, but by the time I purchased the laptop it had the original AMD Phenom II 945 processor, 8GB of RAM, a 128GB SSD boot drive, a Radeon GPU, and a 1TB Hard drive for storage. My monitor was a 23 inch Samsung Syncmaster, which my wife had kindly purchased for me as a birthday present the previous year.
Other peripherals I had purchased for the computer over time included a Logitech gaming mouse, a Logitech 2.1 surround sound set and a Logitech gaming headset. Some years before my wife got me (another present) a Microsoft ergonomic keyboard, after my previous one died.
As this computer was originally built as a gaming rig, when I purchased the Dell laptop I turned this into a media streaming centre, and played the odd game on it in my lounge. Much fun was had with my oldest when I re-discovered the MAME emulator, and we had hours of joy playing the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles arcade game together.
The ‘dad-station’ days
So, fast forward to January 2016 and I’m 100% freelance/self employed and working from home with a 1 year old at home all day and a 4 year old at home for the afternoon. Part of the reason I left the agency was to be able to spend more time with my boys, so I had a bright idea.
Scouring the local online classifieds, I found a second hand (this will become a recurring theme in this story) computer stand and set the laptop and monitor up in what I affectionately called ‘the dad-station’. This allowed me to work in the house seated or standing. The standing option was so that I could strap the 1 year old onto my chest and work while he sleeps, or just keep him busy while my wife tries to get some work done, or just take a break for sitting down all the time.
In the picture you can also see the Microsoft keyboard, Logitech gaming headset and mouse, and the R2D2 bobble head I received from the Reamdigital for my last birthday there.
It was during this time that the first of a few incremental changes happened to my work setup.
Firstly, having never previously worked on the Microsoft keyboard for a full day, I discovered that the so called ergonomic keyboard I had was causing a repetitive strain injury. For whatever reason, the way I use my right little finger on the shift key on the keyboard was leading to the top joint of the finger being slowly bent to the right over time and causing pain. To this day that top section of the finger is not straight when compared to the other hand.
While I was at Realmdigital someone suggested I look into the Logitech Marathon mouse, which I had done, and discovered it’s not only amazing battery life, but the fact that it uses the Logitech unifying software to connect, meaning you only need one USB dongle to connect multiple devices. When the keyboard starting giving me issues I went searching for a Logitech keyboard that was similar to a laptop keyboard (as I’d never experienced the problem when working on my laptop keyboard) and found a keyboard that was very similar, and also used the unifying software, so I purchased the wireless keyboard and mouse to replace my current gaming set.
Side note, the person I sold the mouse and keyboard to, a friend I know through jiu-jitsu, recently let me know that he is still using them, so I’m glad they found a new home.
At more or less the same time I purchased a second hand 27 inch monitor to replace the 23 inch, and moved from the house into our home office space. I also purchased a Gigabyte laptop stand so that I could have the bottom of the laptop screen at roughly the same height as the bottom of the monitor.
Towards the end of 2017 the Vostro laptop was in need of an upgrade, having served me well for 5 years. I opted for another Dell laptop, this time a Core i7 Dell Inspiron gaming laptop, RAM upgraded to 16GB, and a nVidia GeForce GTX 960M graphics card. It came with a 128GB M.2 SSD and I took the 500 GB SSD from the Vostro and installed it into the Inspiron, dual booting Ubuntu on the 500 GB drive and Windows on the 128 GB. I had a 320 GB notebook drive spare, which I installed in the Vostro and sold second hand to help pay for the Inspiron.
Unfortunately, as the year progressed, and as my workload and stress levels increased, it became obvious that working at home wasn’t productive or beneficial to anyone. My sons, as much as I love them, don’t understand either what a closed door means, or ‘the headphone rule’, and the constant interruptions caused me to start looking for an office space within a few kilometres radius.
In September 2017 I moved into my current office. Here is the original Instagram post I shared when I started in the new space.
What you can see in this image is the 27 inch monitor, the Inspiron laptop on the Gigabyte stand, the wireless mouse and keyboard, and the original gaming headset. As you can see R2D2 moved with me. The desk is a 6 seat dining table that was already in the office and the chair is an AllOffice contract office chair I used at home.
This is what my work space looks like now.
As you can see, quite a bit has changed.
Making the perfect space.
I replaced the dining room table with a second hand adjustable desk that I’ve made slightly higher then a standard office desk, to suit my size. I purchased an AllOffice Accent, which is a cost effective ergonomic office chair. I have definitely noticed the difference in purchasing an ergonomic office chair.
Next to my desk I have a small bar fridge and various coffee making paraphernalia, including a pour over coffee maker for when I want good coffee and a jar of Jacobs for when I just want OK coffee.
I upgraded the custom built workstation, to be powered by an MSI x470 gaming motherboard, 6 core AMD Ryzen 5 2600x, 16GB of DDR4 RAM and a Zotac Geforce GTX 1060. OS is taken care of by two 128 GB SSD hard drives dual booting Ubuntu and Windows, with the original 1 TB hard drive and a new one purchase for storage for each OS. This handles every thing I throw at it, including some down time gaming between work sessions.
My peripherals now include a new Dell 27 inch LED, the 7 year old Samsung 23 inch Syncmaster and a Philips 24 inch monitor I picked up second hand recently. My wife is currently using the other 27 inch monitor, as I found the frame around it to be too big when I wanted to add additional monitors. The side monitor stands are a combination of phone books and Dos 6.2, Windows 3.1, and Office manuals I found in the office when I moved in.
You’ll see my R2D2 bobble head stayed, and he’s joined by the Lego Mini-Me I got from WordCamp Cape Town 2017. Next to that is the travel mug we all got as swag from WordCamp Cape Town 2018.
The wireless mouse, keyboard and headset are all the same, and I dug out my Logitech 2.1 surround sound set. I was actually pretty happy to be able to use my speaker set again, as it’s been sitting in a cupboard for almost 7 years now, since the days of the ‘dad-station’. Because I switched from a laptop to a workstation, I had to purchase a separate webcam which, if you’ve not already noticed the trend, is a Logitech one.
Finally I also purchased a Samson mic for meetings and podcast recordings.
I had previously purchased a Griffin stand to replace the Gigabyte one after I moved into the new office, mostly to allow for more space. I keep it around for when I need to use my laptop at the office (mostly to copy something I’ve forgotten to sync to the cloud). In this picture it’s on my desk, but I usually pack it away when I’m not using it.
My main OS is currently Ubuntu 18.04 LTS, and I generally stick to the LTS version unless something cool is coming out on a newer version. The Windows 10 install is mostly for gaming (those games that don’t work via Steam on Linux) or if I need to test something in a true Windows environment.
I still use the Inspiron laptop, mainly when I’m travelling, either for meetings or conferences, or working from home. I took the 128GB SSD out of the laptop for the workstation and installed Ubuntu on the 500 GB SSD as the main OS. At the moment I am considering selling this laptop and replacing it with something lighter, slightly less powerful but with better battery life, as I still do some development on it, but not as much as I before, and definitely not enough to warrant such a powerful laptop.
The office is 5 minutes drive away from home and my morning commute takes me directly past a Vida, Xpresso and Seattle, so I can mix up my morning coffee flavours.
The office has a wall size street map of the Cape Peninsula, which is a talking point whenever I have video calls with folks from outside Cape Town and provides fun conversations when my 6 year old comes to visit.
There’s also a spare chair, if I ever have physical meetings, or the 6 year old is visiting. I like to keep the rest of the office as tidy as possible, but at the time of this photo there were a few boxes of stuff left over from WordCamp.
One advantage of my office is that because it’s actually at the back of my father-in-law’s home office, I get to enjoy the pool whenever the Cape Town weather gets too hot. This is helpful as the office itself has no air conditioning.
It also means that if my children want to visit the grandparents for a swim, all I have to do is make sure I have my costume and towel, and I can join them for some water fun.
And in case you’re wondering, all that is in the bar fridge is some long-life milk for coffee, and a few bottles of water. I leave the beers at home, to be enjoyed on my couch with my family, after a long day 😉
As it stands, I probably won’t make any changes to this setup any time soon. As previously mentioned, I might replace my laptop, but there’s no real need to yet. I will probably only start looking at upgrading the computer hardware in about 5 years.
During that time, the only hardware I might consider upgrading or replacing is my headset, to a wireless option, and possibly replacing the second hand monitors with newer Dell ones. I really like the minimalist build of the Dell monitors, but at around R3000 a piece for new 24 inch models, there’s no real desire to do so.
If I do spend money on the office space in the near future, it will probably be on air conditioning. Currently it can get quite hot in the summer and quite cold in the winter, and comfort is more of a current priority than computing power.
Either that, or a bean to cup coffee maker!