Sep 18, 2013

Coding on the Road

For the past four months I've been a digital nomad, traveling and working remotely from wherever I am. As a programmer, I'm grateful to do work that largely doesn't require a physical presence and for which bits traveling wirelessly earn me an income. Though most folks claim it's an incredible time to be a programmer from a career perspective, I value the freedom/flexibility aspect of being a programmer in 2013 far more. I set out to take advantage of that freedom at the end of May, and haven't looked back.

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But, it's not all fun and games. Working on the road and in airports/airplanes comes with a host of challenges compared to your daily routine at home. Here's some issues I've run into and tips on how to be productive working while traveling:

Choosing the Right Coffee Shop

When you're in a new place, it can be hard to find a venue in which to camp out. I've been using mostly Foursquare Explore to search for coffee shops, which typically has lots of pictures from previous travelers. For me the pictures give the best indication of whether or not it might be work-friendly, and posted tips on the wifi also help. I aim for a local independent coffee shop with a medium-noise ambiance and some charm. Failing that, Starbucks is actually a great office-of-last-resort: they are virtually everywhere, have open tables available for camping, and have at least usable wifi most of the time.

Unreliable Public WiFi

As much as I often think we are "living in the future", I'm incredibly frustrated about the poor state of public wifi - whether paid or free. If a business advertises and offers "high-speed wifi with purchase", I think there's a reasonable expectation to have at least consistent latency below 150ms and throughput of 1mbps down. Many places don't even come close to this. It's an information assymmetry problem, because newcomers to a venue see the advertisement for free wifi (product bundling with paid goods) make purchasing decisions with this in mind, and incur a high degree of uncertainty whether it will work out or not. Here's what I do to avoid getting stuck with bad wifi:

Have a speedtest application on your phone, and check wifi quality before entering the venue and committing to buy something. This doesn't guarentee you're going to have a productive session, but you can at least weed our attrociously bad wifi beforehand.

Always have a back-up LTE tether. I can't stress how important and freeing it is to always have a last-resort backup. Pretty much no matter where I am, I can tether to my phone and at least get something done, even if it's bandwidth-limited.

Coworking Drop-ins & Day Rates

Many coworking spaces will let you drop in for a day, either for free or for a small price. This is a good alternative to public wifi venues like coffee shops, and it increases your likelyhood of meeting new people and getting involved with the local community. The wifi issue above is also rarely an issue in coworking spots.

Try to maintain a routine

When traveling it's easy to get distracted and want to go do things. Be honest with yourself when your most productive time of the day is. For me it's the morning fueled with coffee, which also happens to be a time I'm least likely want to go out and explore, so this works perfectly. I get in the routine of waking up wherever I am and getting a solid four hours of work done, usually at a coffee shop. With this minimal routine, I'm assured to have a productive block of four hours each day. I then give myself more flexibility later in the day when I want to put more hours in, depending on what I want to explore or alternative uses of my time that evening.

Make travel plans during leisure time only

Traveling nonstop means you'll spend a fair amount of time booking flights, finding hostels/hotels, and forming itineraries. It's easy to get drawn deeply into this and lose track of time. When you sit down to work, commit to work only - save travel planning for later at night or whenever your mind is less productive.

Quiet Places for a Phone Call

Public places are noisy, and it can be difficult to find a place to just have a distraction-free phone call.

If staying a hotel, get 4PM late checkout. This comes with elite status on some hotel chains, but even if you don't have status, it never hurts to ask. This guarentees you a quiet place to come back to for a phone call if you end up needing it.

Consider a coworking spot with phone booths. Not all of them have them, and they aren't great for long conversations, but it's often a decent place to hold a short call.

Selectively mute! I've held many phone calls from noisy airports and coffee shops, and unless I'm the one doing most of the talking, being able to mute myself when I'm not talking allows for a more pleasant call.

If all else fails, consider wide open outside spaces. I once held a phone call in the vast open space surrounding the Washington monument since I was staying a hostel with no quiet areas. An advantage of open spaces is that any noise is usually far away and far less audible over the phone. It's also easy to move out of the way if noise comes to you.

Call from your car. A few times while working at a coffee shop I decided to just return to my car to hold a call. With tethering you can still be on the internet, at least temporarily.

Working on Airplanes

I love working on airplanes - I find them focus-inducing and lacking in any sort of distraction. The constant hum substitutes well for the coffee-shop background noise I crave.

Get a small laptop. I could not live without my MacBook Air, which I feel comfortable working on in virtually any airplane seat. Being lightweight and mobile reduces the barriers to working.

Have a long-lasting battery. With my 12 hour battery, it's nice never having to worry about plugging in. I can have a fully productive day, then plug in overnight.

Consider flying airlines with wifi. Not all of them have it, but many do, and if you're going to be productive on a 6 hour flight, paying $20 really isn't so bad (or, consider a monthly subscription if you fly a lot). That being said, my most productive sessions are usually on planes without wifi (no distractions!), so do realize this can be a double-edged sword.

Working in Airports

With my mileage-running hobby, I spend a lot of time in airports.

Choose your connection airports wisely. Airports vary widely in friendlyness to working (outlets, quality wifi). If in JFK I'd much rather be in JetBlue T5 than any other terminal.

Get lounge access. Having access to lounges makes airports far more bearable, and many have tiny working cubicles for establishing your own temporary office. I have lounge access many places through my American Express Platinum card, Priority Pass membership, and Star Alliance Gold status.

Find gates without an upcoming flight. Most gates show the next departure. It may be empty now, but if a flight is departing in 90 minutes, it will be busy and crowded. During non-peak hours many gates go unused for hours on end - find one.

Don't overwork

The worst thing you can do is overwork yourself while traveling, because you're even more vulnerable to burn-out. Being active and busy with travel does not work well if you're having to put in 10 hour stressful days. Working while traveling works best doing 6-7 hours a day in productive spurts, mixed with some exploration. Always keep work-life balance in mind, and you'll find it's possible to work and travel successfully.

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