How do I become a digital nomad?
April 19, 2016 12:33 PM   Subscribe

I have been working as a junior developer/"data engineer" for about a year and a half, and while I enjoy writing code, I am unhappy with the 9-6 lifestyle and want to get to a place in my career where I have more freedom. Specifically, the freedom to work remotely and intermittently. What can do I to make that happen within the next few years?

After a year and half in an office job, I've come to the realization that I don't want to live my life this way. I've set myself the goal of being able to transition to a more flexible work situation within 2-3 years. This could mean being able to live and travel internationally while working remotely, or it could mean still having a base in the USA but with more flexibility, I'm not sure. But ultimately, the goal is that if I want to spend three months in Bangkok (or Buenos Aires, or Berlin, etc.), I'll be able to.

My programming skills right now are not extensive. Before I began this job, I had none at all. I started off writing shell scripts, moved on to Python scripts, then more complex programs (also in Python). All back-end stuff, I have no experience with front-end programming. There is some Linux sysadmin-type stuff involved in my job, but that's not a path I want to pursue.

I don't feel like I have nearly enough experience to jump into freelance now, but what I do have is the ability and time to learn new skills. I just don't know where I should be directing those resources.

Should I be learning a web-framework like Django or Flask? HTML, CSS and Javascript for a web-development path? Focus on developing my Python skills to become more of an expert? Learn a "real" programming language like Java/C++? For some reason, I feel like web development is the way to go, but I don't know if that hunch is based on reality or not.

Obviously there is no single right answer here, but I'd be very interested to hear from people in the field who have, or have had, the lifestyle I'm interested in leading. Both in terms of what skills and tools allow you to make a living, but also how you got there, made the right contacts, etc. And of course any resources, warnings or caveats that may come to mind.

Thanks in advance!
posted by dadaclonefly to Work & Money (12 answers total) 35 users marked this as a favorite
I think the closer your work gets to presentation-layer development, the more the job will require meetings with 'stakeholders' (product, ux, etc.) and client-services people. That's the kind of work where companies will discourage remote employees. My friend traveled the world for several years, working from cafes and anywhere with an internet connection, doing Java and C++ development. He mainly survived with contract work from tech startups who needed Android developers and they didn't care where he was as long as the code was checked in.
posted by homesickness at 12:53 PM on April 19, 2016 [2 favorites]

You've really got three options:

1) Contract work. This means you need to get your hustle on. Your work and/or rep needs to be out there and people need to have you on their short list.

2) Transitioning to remote work for your existing company. This requires less hustle, but your work and/or rep still need to be pretty stand out for most employers (even in tech) to even consider letting this happen. While I'm currently doing this - if my life circumstances were different, I'd honestly prefer being back in the office.

3) Look for companies/teams that are distributed by default. These are hard to find - but they're out there.

On the plus side - many workplaces are moving towards this kind of arrangement, but it's slow. That said, if I were younger/didn't have family concerns or a child to worry about and flexibility was my first priority - I wouldn't be looking to be employed by anyone, contract or otherwise. Instead, I'd be building something that generates income without need for my day-to-day input. More than a few of those digital nomad blogs live off of affiliate links/advertising, for example.
posted by NoRelationToLea at 1:03 PM on April 19, 2016 [1 favorite]

What can do I to make that happen within the next few years?

1) If you have debts, aim to pay them off before you jump ship.
2) Start paring down. If you have a typical American lifestyle, you need to rent a truck to move to a new place. If you want to be a digital nomad, most of your stuff needs to fit into a bag or two. Even if you only throw stuff out or give it away -- in other words, even if you aren't trying to sell things -- it takes time to get rid of all the junk you have accumulated.
3) Work on cutting your expenses. If you don't need to spend a lot, you won't need to earn a lot and that will make this idea a lot more viable.

I don't feel like I have nearly enough experience to jump into freelance now

Yeah, no. The very first thing you need to do is start figuring out how to make money as a freelancer. This should be one of your highest priorities. The whole "I don't have enough experience" or whatever is an excuse. You keep saying that and you will be back here in five years revisiting this dream that never got off the ground. Only then you might be married with a baby on the way and no real hope of making it fly.

Go to an online service, like UpWork. It isn't the only one. You can go to Hacker News and find other names. It just happens to be the only one I know off the top of my head. Get an account. Start learning the ropes.

This will take time. You will not be immediately making good money this way. You need some lead time to learn how to make money this way. Start today and in two to three years you might be good enough at it to feel like you are ready to quit your job and support yourself this way.

A service like UpWork will take care of billing your clients and a whole lot of other details and make it far easier to transition into doing freelance work. If you have job skills that an employer is willing to pay for now -- and you have a job, so the answer to that is "yes!" -- then you have skills people will pay a freelancer for. The challenge here is figuring out the freelance portion.

Don't put that piece off. That is key to making this happen.

Learning more job skills is not going to get you any closer to living as a freelancer. Learning how to freelance, whatever your current skillset, it the thing you need to tackle. Otherwise, you are just preparing yourself for a promotion. And after you get promoted, it will be even harderer to leave your job for the freedom of the road.
posted by Michele in California at 1:31 PM on April 19, 2016 [7 favorites]

Throwing this out there, even though it hasn't actually helped me yet. Some good resources, though.
posted by kevinbelt at 1:47 PM on April 19, 2016

I would be careful about equating remote work with the flexibility to travel anywhere and have fun while getting paid. Remote work is still often full time work. I have friends who work remotely and travel and many of them end up working harder to overcome the time zone shifts, etc.
Agreed with the advice to start building up your freelance portfolio now if that's the route you want to take. The hardest part of freelance/contacting is getting a portfolio of clients and learning how to manage irregular cash flow.
posted by ch1x0r at 2:01 PM on April 19, 2016 [2 favorites]

I've been doing this for the last four years, as have many of my friends and colleagues. We all have very different skill sets: blogging / writing for online publications (see AlexInWanderland for tips on that), data analytics, backend coding, UX/UI design, website design, app development, business consulting (that's me!), life coaching, and presenting at / stage managing / producing events. You need a good network to get clients, so once your skills are on point, building your client base and referral systems is essential. We all refer clients among ourselves, but there are lots of online networks and Slack channels for you to get connected to your own group like this.

The key factor for us is reducing your overhead to the point that you can work fewer hours yet still maintain a decent lifestyle: no debt, no rent/mortgages that aren't covered by subletters or tenants, etc. I can work ten hours a week and still live in a really nice house in a developing country. I do miss my non-nomadic friends though, so I'm working towards buying a multi-unit house in the States and having tenants cover the mortgage. The other trick is to get several air mileage credit cards for all the different alliances, and use them for all your expenses so you can fly for free or cheap.

As long as you have a USB modem with plenty of data (I have a whole collection for all the different countries I go to!), you can work literally anywhere. I've worked on beach pavilions in El Salvador, in a bamboo house deep in the Costa Rican jungle, on balconies overlooking Lake Atitlan in Guatemala, and many other beautiful places. More and more places around the world are catering to digital nomads and creating co-working spaces, which are great places to meet others on this path and to build your client / referral network.

It's a fun life :) Good luck!
posted by ananci at 2:09 PM on April 19, 2016 [6 favorites]

I've been a freelancer for a couple years, and was a "digital nomad" (though I hate the term) in various parts of Asia for about a year.

I definitely agree with Michele that being a freelancer in any field is a lot about mentality and the ability to sell the skills you do have. Someone's paying you to use them now, why wouldn't they in a non-fulltime context?

Here's the thing: in all client-services work, you get hired to do work you've done in the past. So, in general, you should have done at least one project of a given type before you can expect to be hired to do it again. Want to get hired to build apps? Better have built an app. Likewise for websites, Squarespace customizations, etc.

So in general, here are the two things I'd do if I felt like I was starting from 0:

1. Figure out a type of service you could provide, then go do it on your nights and weekends until you have a thing you can show other people / potential clients. Basically: just go make something where you're learning.

2. Sound out whether your own personal network can source projects for you. The best projects come in by word of mouth, as opposed to marketing. This might help determine what kind of thing to do for #1.

Once someone starts paying you, it's easier to keep the ball rolling.
posted by kindred at 2:12 PM on April 19, 2016 [2 favorites]

There's a whole subreddit for this that may help you out:
posted by I-baLL at 3:10 PM on April 19, 2016 [1 favorite]

Skill-wise, data engineers are much harder to find than web developers. There are also fewer data engineering jobs, but the fact that good data engineers are sought after probably beats out the loads of remote web developer jobs you can find on StackOverflow.

A lot of "big data" infrastructure is written in Java and sometimes Scala. Knowing some of one or both would be a good skill to pick up. I don't think we ever actually use Java at work--everything data-related is Python or Scala. Once in a blue moon there's some Ruby, but that's because the rest of the company is basically a Rails shop. Being able to put together a web app definitely is a good skill to have, but I think it's the weaker career move, though my perspective is admittedly biased.
posted by hoyland at 4:30 PM on April 19, 2016 [1 favorite]

I think you might already have the skills to start doing this, particularly if you a.know a little about marketing, social media or writing as well. Try (sorry on a phone, so no link). They post new jobs that require some of your skills everyday.
posted by CosmicSeeker42 at 6:26 PM on April 19, 2016

I'll echo the 3 options that NoRelationToLea wrote. I've done the contract work thing but have been happier since I started working for a company that consists entirely of remote developers. It allows me to not have to worry about all the client management and billing and just do what I enjoy - programming. So yeah, there are companies out there that do this, and it is becoming more common (link in my profile).
As you've identified, you'd need more experience in the requisite skills, but this is definitely something you can work towards.

(a fourth option could be to develop your own app/product that you sell, but this method isn't reliable)
posted by Gomez_in_the_South at 8:23 PM on April 19, 2016 [2 favorites]

Thank you for your advice, everyone! You've given me a lot to think about.
posted by dadaclonefly at 9:22 AM on April 20, 2016 [1 favorite]

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