Wednesday, August 31st 2016 10 months ago

Embracing Work Anywhere: Being a Digital Nomad

Years ago I used to worry about where I would eventually end up working, and unlike a lot of people, I always dreaded it. I didn’t understand why. I’ve always loved coding. I’ve always loved design. I’ve always loved playing around and making things. But I also love traveling. I love not being tied down. After I created what became the Music Player on Reddit, I began to worry that to have a career that made use of my skills, I would have to commit to some corporation and slap on a pair of golden handcuffs, like all my tech contemporaries, and lose my creative freedom in exchange for financial security.

Of course, this sounds like one of the most obnoxious “problems” to complain about. And far from being guaranteed a six-figure salary with seven-figure vesting options, it would take a significant amount of grinding in the “real world” and being a “business professional” to make this happen. I begrudge no one who does this. I’m jealous of their willpower. But still, whereas some people see a goal with steely-eyed determination, I kept wondering how long I could put off the inevitable when I would have to start my first kilometer of a marathon race on a treadmill. Did I really have to?

I fancied being one of those people allowed to work from home, but I also feared the fact that all it takes is one manager’s whim to nix that solution. What I hadn’t thought of is just how realistic freelancing is as an option for people with actual technical skills.

Anyone with a heavy tech background and a resume posted on multiple job sites are absolutely inundated with job recruiters eager to make a percentage off your placement salary, or at the very least, a large commission. And there is a reason for this. There is a greater demand for programmers, engineers, and developers than there is a current supply of them that are experienced and reliable.

If you have the knowledge and skills required, and you know you can hold yourself to a standard of reliability with any potential client: congratulations—you too can live the life of a digital nomad. It may involve the extra effort of networking a bit more for continual clients, or placing ads for your own services, but this is a small price to pay for the job security of working for yourself, knowing you can earn as much money as you have the drive to.

Of course, the money can be very good. But the reason corporations are able to lock down talent for so many years is because the money they can offer can be incredibly difficult to turn down. While I am able to make as much money as my schedule allows me to work and sell my services, what matters more to me is being able to hop off the hamster wheel whenever I want.

Although I’m now working with a few different startups (my own, and a number of clients’), I don’t feel overwhelmed. If I did, I could let any of my clients go, divorce myself from certain projects, and there’s no boss but my own personal satisfaction to stop me. In the hypercompetitive era of Silicon Valley and the “masters-of-the-universe” trope of entrepreneurs, I think living comfortably, being happy with your work, and being able to reliably produce great work is much more compelling than merely moving up a corporate ladder at a tech entity that, in all likelihood, might not exist in five years.

For every Facebook there are ten MySpaces and Friendsters. For every Mobile Game that makes it big, there’s a hundred more that flop. The “job security” of corporate work is honestly a bit more of an illusion than I think many of my peers realize.

The demand for web development from individuals seeking reliable, personal, and experienced technical freelancers however, will never go away. As more and more people can purchase domains easily, as more and more individuals seek applications for their own projects—the demand has only increased and that trend does not seem to be diminishing anytime soon.

Origin of the term freelancer

Freelancer:

“Although it is commonly attributed to Sir Walter Scott (1771–1832) in Ivanhoe (1820) to describe a "medieval mercenary warrior" or "free-lance" (indicating that the lance is not sworn to any lord's services, not that the lance is available free of charge)”

The etymology of “freelancer” implies a slightly more militaristic, or mercenary focus of one’s work. Becoming an online freelancer—available to lend a lance to anyone willing to pay for one’s skills, is not usually a career one seeks out from youth. In fact, I can’t think of a single individual who ever even knew “freelancing” was a legitimate option as a child. In history, “mercenary” forces are generally seen as unscrupulous. In fantasy works, “sellswords” are equally derided as those without allegiances. With no “home” but an ability and desire to work anywhere and everywhere, I’m a technomad—does this sound less pretentious than “Digital Nomad?” I don’t know, but it’s what it feels like, and it’s a life I can endorse.

But really, I’m just a remote worker.

A first choice through experience

I would come up with examples, but I don’t want to offend anyone working hard at a legitimate place of employment. Anyone earning an honest living is OK in my book. But working a job just to “make ends meet” is different than life as a remote freelancer. Many skilled freelancers explicitly choose this as their first option—eschewing the reliability of being paid a pittance for their abilities to a single entity for the option of being available to the highest bidder.

When we are children, we all dream of a life with no boss, an ability to succeed on our own merits, and being able to make our own rules for ourselves. Many may be unaware of the option of freelancing—being able to fire the very people paying you instead of being forced to mold yourself to an employer can be an enticing picture.

Often painted as one of stress, being a freelancer in a field you enjoy, have a passion for, and are genuinely really good at, can really be a lot of fun. And it’s extremely gratifying to have almost complete control over your life, goals, and success. Having pride in what you do is a necessity, and it comes easy when you can pick up and go wherever you want, taking your work with you. I went to Uganda. Spent time in Rwanda. Not your basic nine-to-five at a corporate job. But that’s the beauty of technical work—all that matters is your output. Not your ability to sit through Monday morning office meetings.

This is not to say that the secret to life is being a hedonist. You may still have to work, but you can work where you want to work — anywhere you want — and enjoy it more. Doing nonprofit and charitable work across the world is also much easier when you are able to still “clock in” at night in your hotel.

Or if you’re even more remote, and even more serious about being a real-life digital nomad (like I’m enjoying), you can clock-in from your tent in the middle of—well, anywhere, however rugged or remote you may find yourself. That is, if you’re willing to pay for the tech and service to get it. I constantly remind myself how lucky I am to be able to do what I do—work as a traveling freelancer.