So You've Decided To Start Consulting?: Digital Nomad Edition

Consulting. At some point, many engineers have done it, a lot have thought about going full time with it, and hand full of us have actually pulled the trigger. A lot of people I know have flirted with the idea after seeing me do it for awhile (I'm not currently), but I don't really think many understand what it takes to be a full time consultant, let alone a remote consultant.

I haven't been writing much lately, but I have recently been reflecting on my consulting experiences more. So, I decided to sit down and collect what I have learned over the years and bust a few myths while I am at it.

I think consulting is a wonderful position to create for yourself, but you have to be prepared for what it takes when you do decide to make the jump.

Let jump straight into crushing the most prevasive dream: The Digital Nomad.

Myth #1: The Digital Nomad Fantasy

Getting lost in Almaty, Kazakhstan. Just in the winter spirit this year.

A post shared by Bryan R (@bryanaka) on

I love to travel, as you can see above. And on my instagram, you're going to see a ton of cool travel pictures and me hanging out with my friends.

What you don't see is the 2 AM product call I took every Wednesday while I was consulting with my friend's company, Top.kz, in Almaty, Kazakhstan and a San Francisco based company at the same time. This is what creates the Digital Nomad Fantasy and I will admit, I am complicit in it (product calls don't get very many IG likes, trust me).

By becoming a consultant, will you be able to travel more? Possibily, but you have to remember that the client-contractor relationship needs to be maintained. I am not saying that becoming a bonafide digital nomad is impossible, I know a lot of awesome individuals that do just that. What I am saying though is that consulting is not a free pass to do whatever. Here are some helpful things to keep in mind for traveling while consulting.

Have Workspaces Planned Out In Advance

Maybe you are the type that likes to just walk around the new city and find what you find. Going with the flow, and getting lost in the unkown. Sometimes, this is the best way to discover some of the coolest spots.

Never do this with workspaces.

One of the worst things you can so is burn work time looking for a spot to work at. Then you get there and its too loud, so you go looking for another. Oops, no WiFi. Uhhh... ok this other one. No outlets and now my computer is going to die 😓😓😓

Four hours later and you have 30 minutes of billable work and back at your Airbnb.

man wearing black, white, and gray plaid sport shirt covering his face
I just wanted to finish writing my acceptance tests...
Photo by Ayo Ogunseinde / Unsplash

Do yourself a favor and when you travel, always have at least 3 spaces planned to work at. Research them - use Google, Foursquare, Facebook, and Work Hard Anywhere to find a place to work from that have decent WiFi, outlets, and appear to be worker friendly. If not cafes or coworking spaces, try libraries or universities.

Always Be Prepared For The Unexpected

It was October 2016. I had just landed in Denver, Colorado for a layover. This was the start of a 2 month long trip I had planned that started with a quick, small engagement in Copenhagen, DK and ending with another in Almaty, KZ. I was feeling confident, I had researched all the best sim cards to buy for my WiFi Hotspot and my Phone (which could also be a hotspot) in case cafe or AirBnb WiFi turned out to be bad. I had an external battery to charge my computer if my work spot had no free outlets. I had brought an extra back up computer charger in case one died on me (happened previously). With JIRA and Slack on every device, I was ready to take on the world of digital nomading!

I open my computer and see this:

Uhhh.... wut?

After furiously googling on one phone what this symbol meant and using the other to message my friend in Copenhagen to get me an appointment at the closest Apple repair near her apartment, I finally discovered what it meant.

My Airport WiFi Card was dead.

I couldn't tether too long or it would be extremely expensive (protip: never npm install while tethered 😭). Apple repair was pretty difficult - iFixIt showed all the steps and I knew I'd have to buy tools to do it myself and both me or the repair place would probably need to wait on parts while I was suppose to be working.

After about a good hour or two of panic on the trans-atlatic flight, I realized the answer was simple: Buy a USB WiFi Dongle. So I took a bus out to the huge electronics store in Copenhagen that still sold them and got myself not one, but two USB WiFi adapters.

The moral of this story is, have everything backed up. Have a backup of the backup of anything important, both when it comes to data and physical tools you need to do your job. You never know when you may need to replace your entire machine, so have the money and means to do that if necessary.

Oh, and one USB WiFi adapter broke 5 weeks into my trip, so I made the right call buying two 😓

Explore Slow

This is a simple one, but hard to execute on.

When you get to a new city, you may have a desire to go and explore everything as fast as possible. Instead, stay in one place longer and explore slower. This gives you a chance to not get as distracted by the novelty of your surroundings and produce quality work because you won't be worrying about FOMO. I reccommend to others at least a week in one place, but the more the better.

Make it a reward for yourself to finish some work, then get to go try that resturant you read about. Plan a route from your first work location to the next with some sightseeing. Live like a local and go to happy hour with someone you met at a coworking space.

I'll be honest, this one never gets easy because there is always more you want to see. The more you work this muscle though, the more you will appreciate the times you get to explore and the happier your clients will be.

A view of Vernazza, Italy from the Blue Trail
I worked early mornings and late evenings, then would hike during the day in Cinque Terre

Set Clear Expectations With Your Clients Around Availability

You are building a relationship with your client and part of any good relationship is setting clear expectations. This is especially true for when you are abroad and your availability changes from what they are used to.

I recommend being upfront and honest with your clients and accept that some may not like it.

A client I still keep in touch with previously told me he was considering terminating the contract when I told them I was going to be working from Europe and Kazakhstan for 2 months, but when the founder expressed that she really wanted to keep me on, he decided to give me a shot. When I was flexible with meeting schedules and continued to produce value, he told me he was ultimately happy he didn't terminate me. Oh, and he told me this while my mom was in the car, who was already worried about my consulting lifestyle 😬

Others (like my SF based client) were perfectly fine as long as I got the work finished and made it to product meetings once a week.

I think the key takeaway is this:

Ultimately, you are responsible for your own time accommadations.

And if the client is not willing to work with you on these accommadations, either scrap your travel plans or help them find another consultant who will work for their needs. That way, you can part on good terms and when you do come back, they may have more work for you waiting.

Well thats it for now! Next time I will touch on the second myth: Consulting Is Just Coding (spoiler alert: it's not).

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