Elgan: You can be a 'digital nomad' (no, really!)

Have you ever dreamed of traveling while working? Here's how to turn that dream into a reality.

You may have heard about the extreme telecommuter lifestyle and thought to yourself, "Wow, I would love to do that, but, nah, I could never make it happen." Wrong job. Young kids. Can't afford it.

Extreme telecommuting is possible because of the Internet and electronic mobile devices, software and services. Thanks to the revolution in digital communication, you can for the first time in human history work on the other side of the world as if you're on the other side of the office.

With conventional, traditional work, you're supposed to spend the best years of your life commuting in heavy traffic every day to an ugly building where you slave away at a desk under fluorescent lights. Once a year, you get a two or three-week vacation, where you go somewhere nice and live a little. Later, when you're too old to climb volcanoes, you can retire.

Extreme telecommuting turns all this around. You take that vacation time and sprinkle it over your entire year.

I'm here to tell you that you can make it happen, and also to give you some very real advice on what it takes to turn your dream into a reality. I'm not going to sugarcoat it. I'll tell you the good news - and the bad.

What is an extreme telecommuter, exactly? Well, the reality is that you may already be one. Here are the "extreme telecommuter," lifestyles in order of least to most extreme:

  • The Starbucks homesteader: Someone who works occasionally at a local restaurant or coffee shop for a change of scenery.
  • The road warrior: A person who travels for business and does normal work on a laptop in airports, hotel rooms and coffee shops rather than postponing work until returning to the office.
  • The working vacationer: Someone who goes on a regular (say, one or two-week) vacation, but works while away. Often, this happens when one spouse has more annual vacation time than the other, or when someone has the kind of job that doesn't allow vacations, such as small business owners.
  • The neo Bedouin: Someone who needs to work collaboratively with people who don't have offices, and so meets colleagues for work at coffee shops. This is increasingly popular among low-budget, high-tech startups in Silicon Valley where companies are formed without leasing any office space.
  • The extreme telecommuter: Someone who temporarily "moves" to another city or country for more than a month and keeps working as if he or she were "working from home."
  • The digital nomad: Someone on the move constantly, traveling the world and finding Internet connectivity where it's avaialble and working from wherever.

If you're reading this, chances are you're already one of the first two types of "extreme telecommuter," and if you're unlucky, the third type as well.

I'm here to talk about how you can become one of the last two types - an extreme telecommuter or a digital nomad -- which require the biggest lifestyle changes, but which can also be the most rewarding.

Mike Elgan's 'office'
Mike Elgan's 'office,' with a view of the Aegean, in his pension on the Greek island of Santorini. (Photo by Mike Elgan)

Right now, I'm leading both of these two types at once. I'm spending two months in Greece. I've established a "home base" in Athens, then I'm taking trips to various Greek islands and other locations here and there. (The picture shows my "office" this week in Santorini.) Looks too good to be true, right? Well, in a way, it is. It took me years to get into this position, and I've made sacrifices to get here.

Here's a realistic list of what you need in order to become an "extreme telecommuter" or "digital nomad."

The right job. My career had been in editing print publications, which requires working in a physical office. In order to live my "extreme telecommuting" dream, I changed careers to write full time, which required less job security and also a cut in pay.

Many general career paths have "extreme telecommuting" options, often doing something similar but on a consulting basis. Some careers can be enhanced by a willingness to telecommute. For example, if you have consulting jobs that involve working with a company for three to six months at a time, you can "move" to the client's location. As an American or Western European, your skills and experience might be valuable to companies in sunny developing nations like Brazil, Thailand, Sri Lanka or elsewhere.

Generally speaking, if you can work from home, you can work from Tuscany.

The right finances. Like just about everyone else, I lived for years in the most expensive house I could afford. After years of talking about it, my wife and I decided that our dream of traveling the world was more important than the niceness of our house. So we downsized to a home that cost us slightly more than half our previous house.

We're keeping our aging Prius when in the past we probably would have upgraded. We did all this to free up finances so we could keep a home and also travel constantly.

A sense of adventure. "Extreme telecommuting" is not holiday making. My experience has been that working abroad while traveling is most rewarding when you live, eat and travel like locals do. The further outside the international "tourist bubble" you go, the cheaper, more interesting and more challenging it becomes. Fewer people speak English. Air conditioning is harder to come by. Transportation becomes less comfortable, reliable and less safe. It takes a sense of adventure.

Have kids? That's an even better reason to live abroad once in a while. They'll learn to function outside the soul-sapping comfort and ease of American suburbs, master a foreign language while their brains make it easy for them to do so, and will benefit from the best kind of education - foreign travel. But, again, a sense of adventure is required.

A sign in Greece offering inexpensive lodgings
One of many signs in Greece offering inexpensive lodgings. (Photo by Mike Elgan)

The ability to live without luxury or comfort. When you go on vacation, you might pay between $80 to $300 per night for a hotel. That's fine for a week. But if you're abroad for months, forget it.

Everywhere I go here in Greece, including the most fashionable Greek islands, I see signs offering "rooms to let" (see picture for sign on the Greek island of Rhodes) or pensions where you can pay between $20 and $50 per night. And that's in overpriced Greece during record dollar lows against the euro and the overpriced tourist season - in other words a worst-case scenario.

You can pay $200 per month for a very nice apartment in Antigua, Guatemala. You can live very cheaply abroad, as long as you don't need room service.

The right laptops. I've advocated in this space that everyone - especially "extreme telecommuter" types - use two laptops for redundancy, performance and flexibility. You need a big one with a huge screen that can replace a desktop, and you need a tiny one that can be used on a cramped Central American chicken bus.

You can't have enough battery life. Buy spares. I also recommend buying rugged everything, which is suddenly both possible and affordable.

The right phone and wireless plan. Check with your carrier for international plans, which will make your life easier and save you a ton of money. I also recommend choosing a cell phone that can work as a mobile broadband modem, which gives you another option for connecting. I've found myself taking advantage of my BlackBerry Pearl to connect my laptop to the Internet. It's slow, but fast enough for e-mail, instant messaging and very light Web surfing.

A good Wi-Fi locator. The one thing I don't have here in Greece, and which would have saved me hundreds of dollars and many hours of time is a good Wi-Fi locator. Many of the best Wi-Fi hot spots aren't advertised, and many of those advertised don't work as advertised. Make sure your finder displays the SSID, which often reveals the provider.

I've also found that some cheap living situations, at least in Greece, are located within the Wi-Fi hotspots offered by others nearby. A Wi-Fi hotspot locator can radically shorten the amount of time it takes to find this sweet setup. You can nearly always negotiate with a cybercafć or restaurant for steeply discounted access. A cybercafé that charges $6 per hour might charge you $20 for 48 hours of access. If you can reach the network from your room, you're golden.

An e-book reader. I like to carry a lot of heavy electronic junk. I just don't want to also carry a lot of books. An e-book reader is an ideal travel companion. Not only can you carry dozens or hundreds of books, but also get your regular newspaper subscription while abroad. The Kindle versions of the New York Times and Wall Street Journal hit Amazon.com somewhere between 2 a.m. and 5 a.m. New York time, so I can download them somewhere between 9 a.m. and noon Greece time.

Online backup. Losing or destroying a laptop can be especially disastrous for extreme telecommuters. If you rely on USB-based storage, you could lose your backup along with your laptop. It's best to use automated online backup. So if something terrible happens, you can buy another laptop and recover all your data without traveling all the way home.

A way to get paychecks and other snail mail. If you're a digital nomad type like me, you never know where you're going to be from one day to the next. But paychecks and other vital data oftentimes comes only through snail mail. That's why you'll want to embrace Earth Class Mail, which scans your mail and makes it available online, and possibly other services to deal with that reality. Earth Class Mail takes some getting used to, and a little tweaking, so I recommend that you start using it at least three months before you leave home, preferably longer.

Good information and inspiration. Once you decide that you're going to break the bonds that keep you slaving away in an office - even if that breakage is still years away - it's a good idea to keep yourself informed and inspired. (Warning: shameless pitch ahead!) I recommend that you read my blog, The World Is My Office, which is entirely about the extreme telecommuting lifestyle, to stay up to date with all the products, services and ideas that will help turn your dream into a reality.

Mike Elgan writes about technology and global tech culture. He blogs about the technology needs, desires and successes of mobile warriors in his Computerworld blog, The World Is My Office. Contact Mike at mike.elgan@elgan.com or his blog, The Raw Feed.

Copyright © 2008 IDG Communications, Inc.

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