Part-Time Digital Nomad: Remote Work and Worldschooling

By Matt Braun | Mar 5, 2020

Two things I knew when I was a kid in the early-1990s: 1) the Internet is totally amazing, and 2) being able to work from anywhere sounded like science fiction and at least 20 years off.

As an adult I realize that the Internet is still totally amazing, and that being able to work from anywhere is now pretty normal. The percentage of people globally who are able to work remotely at least one day per week is 70%1.

In 2019 my family and I spent nearly 1/3 of the year traveling and abroad, teaching our kids about other cultures while I worked remote on a few contracts building iOS apps as a senior mobile engineer. It was one of the most exciting and fulfilling times in our family’s life so far.

I’ve been running an app making and consulting business for awhile. I’ve always alternated time between contract iOS development and working on my own ideas – like SketchParty TV – whenever there’s a brief lull. When I’m on a contract I work for some really incredible companies in industries like news media, consumer retail, genetics and life sciences, communications, architectural glass, tool and component manufacturing, and more. I believe the diversity of knowledge of various industries makes me a better developer.

We homeschool our kids. When I was in school, I used to think homeschool families were a bit odd. As I got older, I came to a realization: everyone is a bit odd.

The combination of being able to work from anywhere and homeschooling, along with my wife’s love of French and European culture, has meant that we’ve been fortunate to spend multiple one month or longer stints traveling abroad. We’ve given our kids a very good sense of what it’s like to live in France, Spain, Italy, Austria, and Quebec, having spent weeks to months at a time in these and other places. We started doing this in 2011 and have managed to do it about every two years since then. We refer to it as worldschooling.

When you work remote, your clients are often in a different time zone. I live in the Midwest, and while many of my clients are also on Eastern time, some of them are in different parts of the country, including the Bay Area. While in Europe last year, this meant anywhere from a six to nine hour time difference for things like Zoom calls and Slack messages. It wasn’t unusual to have a sync with one San Francisco-based client at 3pm Pacific time, which meant midnight in Paris for me while everyone else in my family was sound asleep. (Fortunately for me I’m both a night owl and an early bird.)

One big advantage to working remote from a time zone more than three hours ahead is being able to flexibly time shift your day; it was beautiful to get to spend the occasional morning with my family visiting museums like the Louvre or Château de Vincennes and parks like the Luxembourg Gardens or the Tuileries, and to start my work day around 2pm as or before my client on Eastern time was getting into the office. Other days I would start early, at a “normal” start time, if there were something we wanted to do in the afternoon or evening as a family. The key was to communicate with my team, to be sure to be on important calls, and to work as efficiently as possible. Being able to write well and communicate via email and Slack are critical skills for remote work.

Here are a few tips on remote work while traveling:

  • Have a routine. Exercise, make coffee, get dressed for work, and sit down to do it, every day. Some flexibility and routine change-up is good.

  • Work normal hours most days. Figure out the best time to work; if you’re traveling with your wife/partner and kids, this may mean working while they’re out doing other things.

  • Be prepared to answer questions while out. This may be controversial, but I found it helpful to be available to answer questions via email and Slack when needed. Even just telling someone you’re out and will get back to them ASAP is better than leaving them hanging. I was working on a large system with a lot of moving parts and was onboarding a new developer, and being able to answer questions helped keep things flowing.

  • Take time off. If you’re in a place you never get to go, clear with your team that you’ll be out certain days and may be unavailable, the same as you’d take a vacation day while at home. You need to be sure to enjoy being in another city or country, and not spend all your time working. Otherwise, you may as well have stayed home!

There are some who have decided to make a lifestyle of digital nomadism, traveling from place to place in Europe and Asia and nearly anywhere with just a few possessions and a laptop. They’re writing code, designing websites, and creating marketing materials, from coffee shops, bars, and coworking spaces around the world.

Some people think this is the future of work. And they may be right, though our family has been doing this for nearly a decade. (Maybe remote work is the future of work in the same way Dippin Dots was the “ice cream of the future”. For something like 25 years.)

When we tell people about our travels we get similar reactions: admiration, disbelief, maybe even some subtle envy now and then. Because not many people believe they themselves could do it.

Is it a challenge to leave home for weeks and months at a time to explore the world, to teach our kids about language, science, culture, history, and art while I’m also tasked with delivering quality work across great distances? Absolutely. But for us, the momentary trials always pale in comparison to the memories and growth.

Maybe you’ve been thinking about giving remote work, part-time digital nomadism, or worldschooling a try? Or maybe you think that with the global coronavirus pandemic underway that being a digital nomad is too risky. Either way, I’m happy to answer questions! Feel free to reach out on Twitter: I’m @mattbraun

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