Bangkok Underwater - Transplanting Our Office close

Luke Hubbard
17th November 2011
Bangkok Underwater - Transplanting Our Office

In August I flew north to Chiang Mai to attend Barcamp, a geeky gathering held once or twice per year. Looking out of the window of the plane shortly after takeoff I was shocked to see an inland sea. As far as the eye could see, sunlight reflected back off the surface of the water, roads were submerged, small villages and temples had become islands.

Prior to this flight I had seen news reports on TV, but only when witnessed from the air did the extent and magnitude of the flooding hit home. On the flight back I kept a close eye on the water and followed it right up to the northern edge of Bangkok. Over the following weeks slowly but surely the water progressed south, swallowing industrial estates, university campuses, and whole neighbourhoods in it's wake.

http://www.theatlantic.com/infocus/2011/11/thailands-disastrous-slow-moving-flood/100188/

By late October it became clear that those in power had little or no clue what they were doing. In scenes reminiscent of Monty Python, hundreds of boats were strung together and used to push the water down the river and out to sea. Daily there were assertions of "confidence" and reassurances inner Bangkok would be "100% safe". Once you have been in Thailand a while you learn that an assertion of confidence by someone in power means exactly the opposite. It was time to prepare for the inevitable. Bangkok was going to flood, and it wasn't going to be over in a few days.

We made a list.. sand bags, plastic sheeting, duct tape, boards, silicone sealant. I had nightmares about power cuts, or worse, losing internet connectivity! We sourced a generator, stored up water, and mentally prepared for the worst.

By now some of our team members homes were flooded or at grave risk of flooding. The water was putrid and they were forced to leave and stay with relatives. Our work continued without too much interruption thanks to distributed source control and a wide choice of communication options ranging from Skype chat rooms to Google hangouts.

Then one night it hit me. We didn't have to stay, we could do our best to protect the house then move our office. Once the decision was made we just had to work out on when to leave. I looked at satellite images of the flooding overlaid with elevation data and expert predictions. Based on my unscientific estimates it looked like we had about a week.

We booked flights and I found a few large houses in Chiang Mai and a reserve in the mountains. If you have to evacuate you might as well do it in style. Luckily I think we booked a few days before the main exodus started. As people left, Bangkok was transformed, the traffic jams evaporated and highways were lined for miles with parked cars seeking higher ground.

Moving our office isn't that hard. Everyone on the team has a Macbook and can live without hefty desktop computers. We packed a box with our office essentials:

  • Mac Mini - This acts as our dropbox server for file sync with London
  • Diskstation - Used for internal file share and backups
  • Apple Airport - So we don't have to deal with unreliable or unencrypted wifi
  • Android Phone - In case ADSL connection is unavailable we can fall back to 3G or EDGE
  • Power strips with surge protection - You never know how many sockets will be available
  • WDTVLive - Allows us to connect any old TV to our network
  • Spare Macbook power adapters - More the better
  • Network cables - A few short ones and a long one

Before leaving I setup some webcams and installed tracking software on the computers left in the office. If someone was to break in and make off with them we might as well have some fun tracking them.

The day the evacuation came was not without minor drama. Over night water had overflowed the canal and was within 500 metres of our house. In times of flooding a friend with a pickup truck is a friend indeed. Luckily our designer Nor had such a vehicle and that day was a saint coming through the floods to transport our family, luggage, and french bulldog to the airport.

Upon arrival I discovered my beloved laptop had been left outside the house! If you are a geek you will understand the terror this caused. Nor rushed back and thanks to the lack of traffic on the roads was able to return to the airport before our flight left. Phew!

Later that day she made yet more trips to the airport, collecting Jirasak from his flooded neighbourhood with his two cats and getting them out safely. We are all grateful for her help.

Once we arrived at the rented house in Chiang Mai we plugged in our network and settled right back into work. We spent a week working out of a house in the suburbs then moved to an amazing reserve in the mountains where we were reunited with the rest of the team.

We have been here for a week so far and its the best office I've ever had. The internet connection is a bit lacking but the view more than makes up for it. I grew up in Snowdonia,North Wales and so feel a certain connection to mountains. Waking up in the morning and watching mist roll over mountains while drinking your coffee beats commuting through busy city traffic any day.

I feel this break from our routine has been productive. We mix activities with long quiet periods of sustained focus. Fresh air, walks down country lanes, and wood fire under stars provides the perfect setting to discuss what really matters to us and has helped us define our strategy for the year ahead.

Next year be there floods or not I think we will return here. Arthur C Clark described a future in which knowledge workers have the privilege of working from anywhere. We are lucky to live in the future and yet we seldom get up from behind our screens to make the most of it. Just because we work as a team doesn't mean we have to be stuck in an office. If your team is small and your systems are lean you can work different.

We have one more week in Chiang Mai before we are scheduled to fly back to Bangkok. When we left I felt a little guilty leaving friends to face the floods but in retrospect escaping the mental stress and relocating the team was the right thing to do. The flood waters will recede and Thailand will rebound as it has done many times in the past. No amount of water can wash away the character, resilience, and pure ingenuity of the Thai people.