You have probably seen the typical representation of programmers in movies and the media as worn out and tired individuals in some type of basement like structure without windows typing away. And in that same light you've seen remote workers on the beach sipping on cold-brew coffee while doing some form of coding on a single screen under the bright sun. And you might be conflicted as to which side is more accurate.
I've spent a decade in corporate jobs sitting in cubicles and about 3 years working remotely sitting in chairs in various places. I can safely say that the answer is a combination of those stories, though much less exaggerated. I will start of by saying that it is much more complicated than you would initially expect to work remotely and/or to work in a corporate environment.
The following is my overall general experience in remote work for the past few years. I'll go into the challenges that you will probably face if you decide to go this route, and also the many benefits that come with it as well. The one thing to note, is that this is based on my personal preferences and my personality type. As that will highly affect the way that you approach it.
Let's start here, since most folks seem to want to work remotely, but have no actual idea of what it means. What is remote work? It's essentially working from 'anywhere' that you can find where you can get your assigned work completed in a timely manner. That's it. That's where the definition starts and ends. It does not involve beaches or books or drinking anything. It's working, some 'x' distance from your company headquarters. Any distance really. Even downstairs in the coffee shop would count, if the employer allows it.
Which is another point that some people miss. You must have an employer for this remote process to work. Some type of incoming financial means. Not having an employer and being remote, isn't called anything. And that's the first hurdle. Finding an employer that is okay with you not being near their office. Luckily, this practice is becoming more popular and more employers are embracing it, since it reduces real-estate costs and increases the talent pool that they can choose from. Companies are no longer limited to hiring someone within a 15 mile radius these days, which depending on the city that you are in, can be a difficult challenge.
The next big hurdle to face is that you don't have a workspace. Yeah. That's a big one. You can take certain things for granted after a while, such as free brewed coffee, computers, an expensive chair with lighting fast internet and many other things that offices contain. But take those things away, and you are left to fend for yourself pretty much. Because again, you still have work to do. You are still accountable to your company or to your clients day after day from the usual start time of 9am to the close time of 5pm.
Most folks start off remote work in their home, as it makes the most sense and is the least hassle-filled. It's fun for a while, I assure you. You set up your work environment just the way you want it and you wonder how life can be so amazing. You wake up at your own time, make breakfast, sip coffee. Essentially, anything except work. At least for the first few hours. But the hours that you do work, do in fact feel like they are put to good use, so maybe this morning zen time isn't a bad idea. Fast forward 3-6 months, however, when your desk is cluttered, your flowers died, and you crave sweet sunlight and you'll start to feel some anxiety and wonder where you went wrong in life. You also do have to wake up early most of the time. Meetings don't go away simply because there is no conference room.
Inevitably, you will end up wandering outside looking for Vitamin D and end up in some local coffee shop. Again, phenomenal (and noisy), but a nice change of pace from the corner in your apartment. You will meet the locals at this point and make new friends. I've met lawyers, startup founders, non-profit organizers and all kinds of nice folks in coffee shops. Including clients. But eventually, as you order the same drink every day and fight for a seat with an electrical plug, you'll wander to new locations. Perhaps a new coffee shop further down the street. You will visit many coffee shops on this journey, I can tell you that.
The big plus here is that you will for sure meet the regulars wherever you go. You are not the only person who thought working remotely was a grand idea. Go to your local Starbucks right now and look around. Half those people have been sitting there for 4+ hours answering emails. And if you see me, say 'hi'. That's always nice.
You are not limited to coffee shops of course. You can mix things up. It's just that coffee shops tend to have everything you need in a remote office. They have coffee for one, wifi, electricity and restrooms, and food (kind of). And they have other people working as well, as mentioned above, adding this "getting things done" vibe.
So what's up with all those folks who fly around the world while working remotely? The thing is, work takes up a considerable amount of time in a day usually. Assuming you sleep 8 hours a day and you work around 8-10 hours, you are only left with around 6-8ish hours to do other things. And travelling, whether you are flying or even driving to another city, takes up a whole lot more time than that. And money.
I have known a few programmers that have made this work, but not in the way that you would think. They found a stable workbase someplace, for years at a time. They essentially moved to Mexico for 2 years while working for a client that paid them well. So it's not really travelling, but more like relocating. After 2 years, they ended relocating to another country. I happen to enjoy the city of Los Angeles, so I stick around and work here. It's a great business hub, if you know where to look. You can end up collaborating with some very talented individuals and currently the tech scene is pretty alive.
Also, my family and friends are here as well. And I tend to meet them every now and then to eat and laugh and live. So travelling alone randomly while answering emails and phone calls every hour just doesn't seem very conducive to my idea of a healthy career.
Not that travelling while working isn't possible. It just isn't what many people think it is. But if you have the travel bug, then for sure you can find a way to budget it in to your life and make your own path, assuming that you can find stable internet along the way.
Having my own clients and students, I tend to have a heavy speaking schedule for most of the week. And when you are out and about in the city, you can't tell the nice folks around to quiet down for your very important meeting. Depending on the time of day, and turns out, the school seasons as well, you will end up with severe background noise. So what do you do? You get a better microphone that has some type of noise suppression function. I personally use the Samsung Galaxy Buds as my go to headset, mainly because they are wireless, tiny and have a decent battery life and audio quality. That helps tremendously when dealing with my clients and students.
But I have also grown fond of taking walking meetings out in the sun. Because, even though we don't want to admit it, we do need Vitamin D to live pretty much. And unless you are downing eggs and liver every day, the sun is the very next most abundant source and it is free. It's also a good time to stretch the old legs, which we do so rarely in office settings. Steve Jobs was known for taking walking meetings to boost his creativity and I myself do find them to be much more stimulating to my overall creative process.
And this brings up my next point. Working remotely makes you more adaptable in life. There are a million and one challenges that you are completely unaware of before you begin this stretch of your career. And most induce some form of anxiety. Such as speaking into a headset in a crowded coffee shop for an hour while your laptop hangs on 2% battery. It sucks while you are in it. But you get through it, and eventually, you end up with a better headset, you show up earlier to get a better seat, and crowded noisy spaces just stop bothering you for the most part. You resiliency begins to grow exponentially.
You begin to ignore the little things that most people overly focus on, and you spend more time on what matters to you. Whether that be your career, your personal growth, or just having healthier life habits. And I think more importantly, every day is different. You meet different people. You see new places. You encounter new challenges. And you still get your work done and get paid for your time.
Improved my finances?
Let me circle back to the commute time benefit in working remotely, because it has been pretty impactful I think, but the least appreciated. My normal Los Angeles commute to work in the past was roughly around 45 minutes to 1 hour one-way. That's just LA traffic and you can ask anyone in this city and they will quote you around the same. My current commute time is probably 10-12 minutes per day and my fuel costs are negligibly smaller compared to what they used to be. Like substantially smaller. And that's mainly due to the fact that I can choose when I am going to be driving.
And because I've learned to eat at my own time and not at a set interval daily, I am more free to explore various alternatives around the city and not the quick-fix meal that I once rushed to before my next meeting.
And that has added up to a substantial amount month after month.
Building your brand
This is one of those things that is difficult to do when you are working for someone else. Mainly because in those scenarios, your employer is the brand, and you are a part of it. You are not responsible for their marketing efforts or for the clientele, just the work on your assigned list.
But when you are in a crowded coffee shop with multiple code editors open typing ferociously, people notice, and they ask questions. It turns out many of them could use a website, or some information on how to start an e-commerce business. And slowly, your reputation begins to expand. Most people walking around today don't personally know any programmers or web developers. Again, mainly because a good number of them are behind desks in a building somewhere.
I've handed out more business cards and made more contacts in 1 year of working remotely than in several years working in corporate. And my client list has expanded and continues to expand week after week.
That's a quick glance at what it's like to work remotely for 3 years. I've obviously left a ton of other things out that I will write about on a future post, or that you can ask me down below. I had the same image that many people out there probably have about working remotely. I too was going to drive across the country taking photos with townsfolk and eating different foods, while money poured into my bank account (somehow). Instead I got to meet the locals in my city, learned to reduce my anxiety, handle stress better and ended up with better healthy habits, such as getting sunlight, walking more and eating when I'm hungry and not at the scheduled 12pm-1pm.
And one last note. I've learned to take breaks more often when needed. The one thing about working in an office surrounded by people, is that you have this tension that you must be working 24/7 or people might think that you are slacking. Which is an important part of having a healthy work life I believe.
If you have any questions about this process or have your own stories to share, feel free to comment down below.
Happy remote working folks.
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Walter Guevara is a Computer Scientist, software engineer, startup founder and currently mentors for a coding bootcamp. He has been creating software for the past 15 years.