How to be a 'digital nomad'

With technology, it's possible to work from anywhere, says Mike Elgan

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.

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, travelling the world and finding internet connectivity where it's avaialble and working from wherever.

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.

There are several things you need in order to become an extreme telecommuter or digital nomad:

1. 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.

2. 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.

For example, 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.

3. The right laptops Everyone — especially "extreme telecommuter" types — should use two laptops for redundancy, performance and flexibility. You need a big one with a huge screen that can replace a desktop, and 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.

Check with your telecomms carrier for international plans, which will make your life easier and save you a ton of money. I also recommend choosing a cellphone 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 email, instant messaging and very light web surfing.

4. A good wi-fi locator Many of the best wi-fi hot spots aren't advertised, and many of those that are don't work as advertised. Make sure your finder displays the SSID, which often reveals the provider.

You can nearly always negotiate with a cybercafe or restaurant for steeply discounted access. A cybercafe 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.

5. 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.

6. 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 travelling all the way home.

7. 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.

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 .

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