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How I thought I wanted to become a digital nomad.

Written by: Alex Pszczolkowski on September 12, 2013


This post resonated with a lot of folks on Hacker News. Find the discussion here.

Around three months ago, the company I worked for got suddenly closed.

The reasons for this, are quite irrelevant to this article, but in short, the investor backed out and the ongoing development of a product I was mainly involved in, had been suspended.

I didn’t plan for this scenario. The timing was off, I just came back from vacation and had had a semi long-term plans based on a stable situation with my current day job.

But it had happened and, practically, overnight I had to figure out my next moves for the next couple of weeks.

The idea of working remotely has always been compelling for me. Somehow I always knew that at some point in time, I’d like to “escape the nine to five”, travel the world with my laptop, make money doing freelancing gigs, experience life to the fullest, and yet maintain the technical skills without becoming rusty.

And suddenly - here I was, without a lot of attachments, no mortgage, kids, with some savings on my account and no immediate plans for the nearest future.

Having said that, the decision was pretty simple - this was a great opportunity to do some traveling, that I’ve always wanted to do.

Choosing the location was also quite obvious and for a number of reasons I finally bought a ticket to Bangkok.

Southeast Asia FTW!

I’ve already done some traveling in Europe and wanted to see some other parts of the world.

I’ve spent a year in States and would love to come back, but I wanted to depart as soon as possible and American visa policy is both expensive and still quite hard to get for Polish citizens.

Australia is just too damn expensive for longterm travel on budget, especially when, like me, you’re into scuba diving, kite surfing and numerous other outdoor activities that are generally quite pricey, even in “cheap” countries.

So, Southeast Asia was an obvious choice. It’s the mecca of budget travelers. There are countless blogs owned by people who work online and travel this region and, I guess, that it’s just a thing that one has to experience at least once in his or hers lifetime.

Fortunately, I had some minor clients that I worked for after hours when I still had a job, so while much, much smaller, some income while on the road was pretty much secured.

After around one month of preparations (vaccines, gear, minor planning), me and my girlfriend packed our bags (42 liter Northface Duffels - highly recommended, although not the best choice if walking long distances) and was off to Bangkok with a general idea to travel around Thailand, Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia (which, by the way, we later corrected to Thailand, Vietnam, Cambodia and Indonesia, but this is different story).

I’ve been on the road for two months now, working online for the clients back in Poland. The gigs mostly include maintaining and modifying existing websites, but I’ve lately managed to secure one larger Rails project that needs to be done from scratch.

So far, this has been a very rewarding, educating (although not really in the technical sense) experience, but there are some major drawbacks to this kind of lifestyle, that I’d like to share.

They mainly involve two recurring, significant problems that I found I was facing:

1) Limited types of projects, you are able to tackle while on the road;

2) Illusion of freedom of choice concerning your location;

Only small, simple projects

This is a huge disadvantage for me. Initially I was OK with doing some minor gigs that would just keep me afloat, but the reality of this is that now, I have a constant feeling of underachievement and wasting time.

Yes, it’s fun to open your laptop in your bungalow on Koh Phangan, right next to a beautiful beach, chat with your client or hack around on the project, knowing that after the work is done, you’ll jump in a 30 degree (Celsius) warm waters of the Gulf of Thailand, or better yet, go free diving on numerous reefs around, but this comes with a price.

Also, I don’t believe that long-term travel is actually waste of time. There are numerous advantages and opportunities to grow while traveling, but you can’t have the best of both worlds all at once unfortunately.

If you like challenges and have the need of constant self development in your area of expertise, it’s just very hard to find the necessary balance here.

Of course it all depends on the kinds of projects you manage to get, and technical problems you face during implementation, but let’s be honest here - knowing that you’re on a constant move, quite often facing unpredictable internet access quality and desire to make the most out of your traveling experience you just can’t be doing some substantial, challenging work, that involves hours of analysis, discussions and complicated programming.

There are just too many distractors around and too much stuff to see after (and sometimes during) work.

I can already tell, that some people are now thinking that it’s just a matter of self-control, planning and proper preparation, but for me it never was the case.

I think of myself as a very self-motivated guy. My clients are happy with the work that I’m doing and I always manage to meet the agreed deadlines, while maintaining high quality standards I set for myself.

This is not the point. The point is, that having some significant experience on mid-sized projects, involving some non-trivial programming, I observe, that most of the kind of work I’ve been doing at my day job, would be either impossible or extremely challenging to get done while on the road.

This limits my options to taking only the kinds of projects that I know I’ll be able to easily handle by myself, within very predictable timelines and involving limited amount of research.

And to be completely honest, it’s just not enough. I believe that working with a team of people that are more experienced and smarter than yourself is crucial for your development, and as a freelancer, doing minor gigs involving some MVC/CRUD application programming, you just miss out on a world of possibilities to grow and learn.

Don’t get me wrong though - I keep busy, try to learn something new everyday and strive to continue to develop my skills as a programmer. For the past two months, however, I just felt I lack the exposure to real-world problems that you get to face, when on the job in an organization that everyday tackles problems way more sophisticated than you’d be able to tackle on your own. Whether it’s a small startup or a large corporation is irrelevant here.

The location independence illusion

Now, I absolutely think that working remotely is possible and it’s a great way for (a) developers to stay “location independent” and (b) companies to cut costs a bit, making use of available technologies.

The problem here is quite different though. Working on the road gives you a kind of illusion of location independence. While it’s true you can work for one company being physically “anywhere” in the world, in order to get some substantial amount of work done, you actually need a comfortable spot, good internet connection, peaceful environment and ideally some facilities around like a gym/yoga school park or a bar - whatever you’re into.

Even though it might be obvious, during my travels I found out the hard way that creative, meaningful work, requires some routine. Changing your location once a week, working from benches, hammocks, cafes, bars and hostel floors is a cool way to fund your vacation, but it certainly doesn’t help you when tackling hard programming problems.

Thinking about different possibilities and layers of these problems, currently I have a couple of solution ideas listed below:

1) get a remote-friendly job that fits your skill set and ambitions. Move every quarter or so. Stay in one place for a while. Immerse yourself in the culture and rhythm of the chosen destination, rent a nice room or apartment with a legit desk and a chair you can actually sit in for longer than 3hrs (unless you’re one of the standup-work-environments kind of guy, than forget it), get the routine going. Live somewhere you like, and when you feel like change, do some research and go for it.

2) get a real job, in real office, do stuff you love and challenge yourself (actually, always do that, ofc), negotiate long-term vacations and go traveling for instance, for two months every year or so (details irrelevant).

3) keep working on that “passive income” wordpress site and/or travel blog that makes you tons of cash and travel till you puke ;)

SIDENOTES:

  • I personally dislike the ‘digital nomad’ term. There is something inherently ‘douchy’ about this title.
  • If interested, please follow my travel adventures at airseasummit.com




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