Job Search Tip of the Week #30 (2018)

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Outdoor Coding and Living Small

The Story of a Professional Outdoor Coder




Ever considered the life of a digital nomad?

Software developer Piero Toffanin coded his way across the United States for a year, documenting his travels and tribulations in his blog
Outdoor Coding Stories. Fortunately, we caught him at a time when he didn’t have spotty Internet (“8 Things You Should Know About Coding on the Road“), and got him to take a break from his programming and exploring adventures to answer a few questions for our CareerJuice readers about his outdoor coding experience.


CareerJuice: We first met you through Twitter @pierotofy, so this seems only fitting: How would you describe who you are in 140 characters or less?

Piero Toffanin: I’m a software developer. I recently quit my job, bought a popup camper, and started traveling the United States.

CJ: School versus self-taught continues to be a hot debate in the IT industry. You claim to be largely self-taught, although you earned a B.S. in computer science from University of Minnesota Duluth. Do you think you need a formal education to be a strong programmer? To find employment?

PT: To be a strong programmer, definitely no, I don’t think you need a formal education. You need discipline, willingness to learn on your own and love what you study. In regard to finding employment, unfortunately, there are many companies that still favor candidates who have received a formal education.

CJ: So what is a “professional outdoor coder”?

PT: It’s a software professional (call it coder, software engineer, programmer, senior software engineer, architect, whatever, they are all just self-proclaimed titles anyways) who engages in the software writing activity outside, so not inside a building.

CJ: Was there a particular moment that inspired you to quit your job and become one?

PT: Yes! It happened almost by mistake. I was researching books on investment strategies, and this one popped out. I didn’t find many useful investment ideas there, but the authors explained how they decided to leave everything behind to travel, live small and trade for a living. I had read about digital nomads before, people who use technology and internet to make a living while traveling, but I was scared of the risks involved with such a lifestyle choice. That book helped me realize that risk is not something that we should be afraid of, but it’s something that we should embrace to enrich our lives with! [You can read more about the story behind Piero’s decision here.]

CJ: Some would say that your career move was extreme, considering flexible work arrangements like telecommuting and contract or part-time employment. What did you think the outdoor coding experience could provide you that the aforementioned couldn’t?

PT: Like I mentioned in one of my blog posts, pushing ourselves to explore towards the extremes of a spectrum is the only way to really get a perspective in life. I’m at a point in my life where I can afford to make certain choices, but I realize it wouldn’t be a feasible thing to do for everyone! I’ll quote directly from my post:

[…] traveling in a popup camper is allowing me to understand the left part of the spectrum. After having lived in apartments and houses with driveways, living in a small tent for a prolonged period of time is teaching me what’s on the left side of the spectrum. It’s teaching me that I do not always need electricity wherever I go, and when I do need it, I use it sparingly to conserve batteries or I use the sun to recharge them. I do not always need a high speed internet connection, edge speed coming from my phone (when I have enough signal) does the job just fine. I don’t need to watch cable TV or movies, a sunset or sunrise is much more appealing (and I almost forgot how it looked like). The space inside the popup camper is quite small, so the number of things I own and use for my everyday essential needs has been drastically cut down. And it feels great! I have fewer things to take care of, and less bills to pay. I code and write for a few hours every day (well, most days, especially if it’s rainy), then I’m off to hike a trail, view a panorama, play board games with my wife, read a book, practice martial arts or simply enjoy a sunset.

…Could you get this with flexible work arrangements?

CJ: Well how about this: Getting work as a freelance software developer is hard enough when you’re working from home, let alone on the road! How’s business been going for you, and what tips would you give other programmers looking to start up on their own?

PT: Getting work is tougher while on the road! Most businesses would not take the chance that you could be unreachable for days at a time because of no internet. What has worked very well for me is getting work through referrals or by meeting people in person. Once people meet you in person they tend to trust you, and once you explain that what you are doing is feasible (and cost-effective) [they’re on board]. And when there’s nobody to work for, you can always spend your time to make your own products (mobile apps, a website…) and put them out there for anybody to purchase.

CJ: What’s the best thing about programming in the outdoors? The worst?

PT: Best: the fact that you are immersed in nature and that the sky is your ceiling. Worst: sun glare and bad weather. [Check out how Piero’s dealing with his laptop sun glare problem here.]

CJ: What’s been your favorite place to code at so far, and where are you coding next?

PT: The Grand Tetons range was gorgeous! [Photo at right.]

We are in northern Minnesota at the moment, until mid September. After, my wife and I are thinking of going south-east, but we don’t have a destination written down yet. But we have lots of ideas from people on Twitter. We’ll figure it out!

CJ: And last but not least: what advice would you give someone considering the life of a digital nomad?

PT: Make a plan to achieve your goals, and start moving toward those goals today. Do not procrastinate. So many people seem to agree that this would be a very cool way of living, but keep saying things such as “maybe someday,” or “in a few years perhaps.” That’s a sure way to never reach your goals. Get in touch with people that have chosen a similar lifestyle! Chances are they wrote about it and they can give you helpful tips. I recommend “Mr. Money Mustache and Typical Programmer.”

That’s it for now – Connect with me on Twitter @pierotofy if you want to get in touch, follow along with my travels, or comment on this interview. Thanks CareerJuice for the opportunity to share my thoughts!


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