Traveling Makes The Globe A Designers Office

Great design has a knack of perfectly guiding us to a delightful result. It encompasses a whole experience as we interact with a product or service. Great design appears simple, but it’s only through a deep understanding of people and deciding to challenge complexity that great design is achieved.

being a world class designer

Travel helps us unravel that complexity by giving fresh perspective to ideas, as well as helping us experience issues that affect the world on a global scale – or even those tiny details which we might miss out on while sitting in a regular office. A delayed flight or how your cocoa is sprinkled on your coffee in that new city reveals a lot about great user experience and how to design emotion. Travel helps the understanding of whole ecosystems, and gives a comprehensive overview of how these often overlooked touches can completely change a mood, create a smile, and build a brand. The best brands are the brands that have empathy and know exactly who they exist for and how to deliver something that those people care about.

Take Airbnb for example. They designed a whole experience ecosystem to cater for joy by understanding the user journey from every perspective, exceeding expectations right from the start by adding those details such as free professional photography; and during the early days, literally immersed themselves in the user experience by sleeping on their early adopter’s floors to understand the problem they were passionate about solving from every angle. Designers need to experience pain points as well as the delight of the end solution to really deliver world-class work, and that’s what travel does for you.

Experiencing the World and Applying New Ideas

Seeing the world can make us more productive designers. Being on the road means that we can’t always be online. This forced periodic disconnection helps maintain focus, because there is simply no time for online distractions when every second counts. Thinking back to times when productivity was heightened, I’m taken to the moments in between when I had suddenly became excitedly inspired to whip out my notebook in the air, because of the way the sun had hit the monitor in front of me during my flight and had reminded me of this futuristic optimism which lent itself perfectly to the rebrand that I was working on. With added productivity, we get to solutions faster and with less stress. We’re doing our own minds as well as our clients’ products a favor. Plus, it’s been found that travel can actually make us happier and healthier.

Design solutions get better as we understand more about people, the world, and how we interact with technology. Sometimes it’s the small things in cities that give us big ideas and new approaches to problem solving. Usually, the more obscure the challenge, the more exciting the learning and application of the insight. Being in new cities and seeing how people use technology to facilitate their lives helps us design for culturally and contextually relevant design solutions. It was only after living in Berlin for a while that our team understood how the locals used technology, as well as their attitude towards it. At the time, we were designing an interactive alarm which wakes you up with live news audio content and played your favorite music.

global design solutions

After extensive user research and testing, we discovered that people had a tendency to turn off their smartphones as well as their wifi during the night, which obviously meant that our approach to the challenge changed significantly. We began building an experience which no longer relied on an internet connection to work. In San Francisco, it’s easy to forget that not everyone has the latest smartphone in their pockets and that just 42.3% of the world is online. But it’s also in San Francisco or Seoul that we get a glimpse into a seamlessly connected future, where content is contextual and relevant and even unlocking a new office space is barely a tap away. It’s as important to immerse ourselves in the latest in design and interaction trends as it is to experience completely offline systems. Take mPesa, which allows Africans to send and receive money with nothing but a basic mobile phone. No bank account, connection, or paper transactions required.

It’s a global perspective that gives us local insight.

Improving Global User Experience with Your Personal Perspective

Sitting on the metro in Melbourne is quite an experience. It’s the opposite of the tightly-packed and highly efficient transport system in Taipei, where everything felt automated and punctal. In Melbourne, the city’s sprawling infrastructure makes journeys long, and in addition the relaxed lifestyle makes the metro a social experience. It’s not uncommon to strike up a conversation with the person sitting next to you.

In fast cities like Taipei, London, and New York, socializing seems invasive. Commuters are absorbed in their headphones and interfaces and use their technology to create their own personal barrier. Understanding regional differences improves our design process by helping us understand what technology people are using and make us aware of their existing behaviors. An app that delivers food on demand would work perfectly in a location where convenience, health, and efficiency are important, such as in Palo Alto or San Francisco. However, it may be a complete flop in cities like Taipei where eating is a social and communal experience, driven by streetfood and local availability.

social and communal experiences

Paul Graham articulates the magical way that cities affect our every moment:

“A city speaks to you mostly by accident – in things you see through windows, in conversations you overhear. It’s not something you have to seek out, but something you can’t turn off.”

It’s the permeating way that new experiences shape who we are as humans and as designers that travel facilitates. Travel offers a rich cultural exchange and cross contamination of ideas to connect us with diversity. Being in a new place is like being a blank canvas for experience – and having an open mind usually leads to generating the best ideas and executing the freshest designs. Thinking on our feet by taking ourselves out of our comfort zones gives us new insights.

A Designer Can Learn a Lot from Advertising

One time, a completely new perspective was encountered seemingly out of the blue. I had woken up especially early one morning to catch a flight from Santiago to Atlanta, and had found myself at the airport well before the flight departed. With time to kill, I ended up striking a conversation with a gentle woman who was on a world trip. She told me about her fascination with the advertising that was on the metros in each city that she visited. She had said that she learned most about cities through the way that products were advertised.

“There is a lot to be discovered about gender roles, aspirations, and dreams just by looking at the ads on the metro. In Santiago, for example, there are lingerie ads of scantily-clad Latino goddesses next to diet tip ads.”

She had continued to say how these affect that screamingly silent voice of cities and help us understand what motivates people.

In fact, advertising can provide cultural clues which help designers stay up-to-date with the latest trends, as well as provide insight to what motivates a city. I sat in the back of an Uber and counted the billboards standing proud and high along the desolate freeway during the journey from The Valley to San Francisco. Visually sparse, I noticed a billboard campaign that had only a single line: “ask your developer”, with a small red Twillio logo at the bottom. The implication was clear. Non-developers would have to ask someone more “knowledgeable” than them to understand the billboard.

advertising and cultural clues

This is just one example of what such a campaign reveals about what drives San Francisco. Developers are clearly respected and in a position of influence, and the placement and content of the billboard shows that there is a clear demographic inhabiting the city which consists of both business and technology. I had certainly never seen a billboard that advertised anything startup or technology related in Santiago, where the content was driven by rather different aspirations. I would often see Becks or Corona ads which depicted young, strapping men with a bottle in their hand and a few beautiful women in the background enjoying a beer on the “Playa”. It was the carefree attitude that revealed a lot about the lifestyle aspirations of the culture, placing emphasis on friendship, beauty, and quality of life. The art direction of the ad showed a sunny lens flare, a trend currently evident in advertising and film.

Flat design has been another long-standing trend in interface design, overtaking skeuomorphism (as popularized by Apple), and has slowly been creeping into classical advertising in interesting ways. Especially in cities such as London, Paris, and New York, where integrated digital campaign strategies are paramount to the success of a campaign.

In fact, this campaign for McDonalds shows both flat design and lens flare effects. A simple print ad no longer cuts it, and creative campaign ideation is now tenderly referred to as “#hashtagthinking”, where complete on and offline strategies need to be considered. It’s these cities where creative trends are often set, taking inspiration from art, fashion, and culture. It’s once the creative trends hit mainstream popularity, usually provoked by being brought into the home thanks to the advertising and film industries, that they tell a visual story of what is important to a culture.

Staying in touch with advertising trends makes us better designers because:

  • We’re able to identify trends in designs and products
  • We can better understand what motivates a culture
  • We can learn from the clarity of voice in effective campaigns
  • We’re able to understand clear strategies in communication

Aesthetically speaking, there’s a whole lot of value travel can add to your design work by simply experiencing new places. I believe that being in a new location can help end the stagnation that even the best designers face occasionally. By trading the familiar with new sights, sounds, flavors, and smells, we become more receptive to the world around us – we switch on and perceive things with fresh eyes and minds. By using new parts of our brains, and the fact that we’re kept on our toes, we’re also more likely to approach problems differently or come to alternative conclusions simply because we’re more connected to the world in that moment. Sometimes it’s in the details of our new environment – the way the architecture in Melbourne makes you dream of geometry and encourages you to rethink the grid of the latest website design, or the way that that girl’s black hair shone in the sunshine with blueish tones, reminding you to add depth to your work.

Exploring is a huge part of design, and helps us come to outcomes which are both innovative and on-brief. Similarly, exploring the world means that in understanding global issues, cultures, and being inspired by new locations, we can effectively translate those new ideas into design that delights clients and the people using your solution.

Article originally posted on Toptal

Lead, Travel, and Remote Work

If you ask me, working remotely rocks. I’m currently writing from a small beach bar located on a remote island in southern Thailand. Looking up from my laptop, I see nothing but the endless ocean and its crystal clear blue waters. I’ll be enjoying this morning undisturbed and focused on my work because the rest of the team hasn’t even gotten up yet. Time zones work out really well for distributed teams.

My colleague Thomas recently talked to 11 thought leaders in project management about the impact of remote work on a company; some scrum experts argued that distributed teams could work together effectively while others came out strongly against it.

I understand the concerns; you can’t just open up the office doors and release everyone into the wild. It’s not guaranteed that you’ll end up with a thriving business. Marissa Mayer at Yahoo famously axed remote work in 2013 after feeling that some employees abused it.

So how does a tech company get this working remote thing right? Read on. The following is based on our story at Planio and how we made it work.

The author, Jan Schulz-Hofen, working remotely on an island beach.

Enter Planio, my remote company

There are a number of things which motivated me to start my current company. Breaking away from client work while retaining all the benefits of being a location independent freelancer was one of them.

In 2009, I was sitting in the shadow of a cypress grove situated in a beautiful Mediterranean-style garden overlooking the rolling hills of Tuscany, working hard on a new side project of mine: Planio.

It’s a project management tool for people like me: developers. Planio helps make client projects more organized and transparent all while reducing the number of tools and platforms needed to do the job. Planio is based on open-source Redmine (an open source Ruby on Rails-based software project), which I’ve used remotely with my own clients since its very beginnings. So, in a way, remote work is already in Planio’s DNA.

Fast forward to today, and my small side project has grown into a real company. We’re a team of 10 now, serving more than 1,500 businesses worldwide. We have an office in Berlin, but many of us work remotely.

In this article, I’ll dig into the principles, tools and lessons that have helped us along the way. After reading it, I hope you’ll be able to architect your software company so it’s remote-friendly right from the start.

“Talk is cheap. Show me the code.” – Linus Torvalds

Every Thursday we have an all-hands conference call where we discuss what we did the previous week and what’s coming up next.

At the beginning, we spent a lot of time discussing ideas before deciding on what to do, but we found that it’s a lot harder when some team members are on a poor quality telephone line and you can’t see them.

Now, we often just “build the thing” and then discuss it – we create a working prototype with a few core ideas and then discuss that. For instance, we recently hit some performance issues with our hosted Git repositories. Instead of discussing and analyzing all the possible ways in which we could potentially save a few milliseconds here and there with every request, my colleague, Holger, just built out his suggested improvements in a proof-of-concept on a staging server to which we directed some of our traffic. It turned out well and these ideas are going into production.

This method focuses everyone’s minds on action rather than talk. The time invested in writing code is paid back by less time spent talking in circles.

Use Text Communication

Real-time communication punishes clarity. Instinctively calling a colleague when you need something is very easy, but it’s not always your best course of action. I can’t remember the number of times I’ve started writing an email or a Planio ticket for a problem only to solve it myself just while writing it down.

Zach Holman, one of the first engineering hires at GitHub, agrees: “Text is explicit. By forcing communication through a textual medium, you’re forcing people to better formulate their ideas.”

Text communication also makes you more respectful of each other’s time, especially when you’re living multiple time zones away. Immediate communication can be disruptive; the person might be in the middle of figuring out why the last deployment went wrong. With an email, s/he should be able to consider your write-up at a more convenient time.

Be as Transparent as Possible

Time spent worrying about office politics isn’t conducive to shipping working software, and transparency promotes trust. It’s no coincidence that many remote-by-design companies, such as Buffer, have radical transparency. In the case of Buffer, it shares revenue information and the salaries of all its employees.

Automattic, the company behind, also emphasizes transparency. In his book, The Year Without Pants, Scott Berkun shares his experience working remotely for Automattic, and that all decisions and discussions are internally available to employees in its P2 discussion platform as part of its emphasis on transparency.

The chat feature in Planio works in a similar way. Discussions are open for everyone to see and chat logs are linked automatically from the issues discussed so nobody is left out; even new hires can read up on what previous decisions were made and why. When I started building the chat feature, I considered adding a feature for chatting privately with others, but when we discussed it as a team, we ended up leaving it out because we wanted to keep team communication as transparent as possible.

I think transparency is critical for remote teams. For example, imagine you’ve just joined a team of remote developers. Perhaps you’ve never met your new colleagues. You don’t know the unspoken rules of behavior. You might be worried about whether you’re doing a good job. Are your teammates actually being sarcastic or do they really mean their compliments? Is everyone privately discussing how good of an engineer you are?

Digitalize Your Systems

We choose our services based on what they offer by way of online platforms, from telephone providers to banks (many of them will even offer a small financial incentive for going paperless, plus it’s great for the environment, too). I’m lucky to have a lawyer and an accountant for Planio who are comfortable sending emails or messages with Google Hangouts instead of summoning me to their offices. (I strongly recommend you ask about this at the first meeting.) Bonus points for getting them to sign up with your project management tool and become a part of your team!

We’ve even digitized our postal mail; at Planio, we use a service called Dropscan that receives our letters, scans them and forwards the important ones to the appropriate person. You don’t want to your friend to pick up and read them out over Skype. If you cannot find a mail-scanning provider for your city or country, some coworking spaces offer virtual memberships to maintain a physical mailing address while you’re away.

For those companies sending out mail, there are services available so that you never have to visit a post office again. We use a German printing company with an API that automatically sends a letter along with stickers to each new paying Planio customer. It’s something people love, and we don’t have to print and mail a thing. International alternatives include Lob and Try Paper.

Digitalize Your Systems

Should You Have a Digital Presence Mandated?

In a co-working space on the tropical island of Koh Lanta, Thailand, I noticed that someone in a support role for a major e-commerce platform was constantly on a live video feed with the rest of the team. Sqwiggle offers a similar “presence” functionality for remote teams.

I suppose mandating that all employees are on video while working might be based out of a fear that employees abuse remote work arrangements. In my experience, that’s not the case. At the tropical co-working space, there’s a certain urgency in the air, despite the laid-back clothes and coconut drinks. People are quietly focused on their laptops; it’s as if they want to make sure remote work delivers results, so they can stay out of a fixed office for good.

We found that we don’t need a digital presence because we have a great level of trust among everyone on the team. I also think that it’s paramount to respect everyone’s privacy. If your company is moving from an all-on-site setting to remote work, a digital presence might help the more anxious managers to overcome any trust issues.

Choose Bootstrapping over Venture Capital

Most venture capitalists are looking for outsized returns, so they’ll prefer an intense short burst of 12-months’ work from a team over a more sustainable pace. Front App, a startup funded by the Silicon Valley accelerator Y Combinator, rented a house in the Bay area for their three-month stint in the Y Combinator accelerator program. The goal is to optimize for evaluating a business idea quickly.

Given the outsized return mindset, you may have a hard time convincing a venture capitalist to fund you when you’re working from a beach in Cambodia. This is why many venture-backed startups (such as Buffer or Treehouse) that use remote work built leverage first. Buffer was profitable before taking on investment while Ryan Carson, the founder of Treehouse, had already proven himself with a previous startup.

Here’s a better way than venture capitalism: bootstrapping. It means financing your company with revenue from initial customers. In my opinion, it’s by far the superior approach because it enables you to build your company on your own terms and remain in control. However, it often requires working two jobs or freelancing on the side while you get your company started. It took me about two years working on both Planio and client projects (via my software development agency LAUNCH/CO) to get going, but it was well worth it.

Bootstrapping also forces you to build a business that generates revenue from the very beginning, which I find much healthier. Hint: Building a B2B SaaS makes this much easier than creating a consumer app because businesses are far more willing to pay monthly subscriptions if it adds value. You have to sell a lot of consumer iPhone apps at $0.99 to cover monthly payroll for even the smallest of teams.

Choose Bootstrapping over Venture Capital

Bootstrapping forces you to build a business that generates revenue from the very beginning.

Price your Products Strategically

One of our first clients was a massive technology company with billions in annual revenue. Obviously, I was delighted that they’d choose us over much bigger, more established competitors. They’re still a happy customer, but we have moved away from very large enterprise accounts; I’ve found that they require a lot of hand-holding and in-person meetings before they’ll become a customer.

As Jason Lemkin points out in his article on scaling customer success for SaaS, when you have big enterprise accounts, someone will have to get on a jet to visit them twice a year. If you’re a small company of two or three people, that person is going to be you, the CEO, the CMO and the CSO all rolled into one overworked hamster.

Keeping your pricing model within the rough bounds of a $49/$99/$249 model as suggested by developer-turned-entrepreneur Patrick McKenzie means avoiding having to hire an enterprise sales team, and having to earn the massive amount of capital required for it. You, the customer, don’t expect the CEO to pop in at Christmas with a box of chocolates when you’re paying $249 a month.

Build on Open Source

A venture-backed business based on proprietary software is great when your play is a “Winner Takes All” game and own the market. When you’re a bootstrapped company, open source software can give you reach and leverage you could never have achieved, otherwise.

There’s precedence of profitable tech companies building a business around open source software; Basecamp famously open-sourced Rails, guaranteeing themselves a supply of highly qualified engineers for the rest of eternity. GitHub has become a unicorn, leveraging the open source project Git that Linus Torvalds started to manage the Linux kernel sources. Our friends at Travis-CI started as an open source project, ran a crowdfunding campaign and then turned it into a remote-focused bootstrapped business (which also campaigns for diversity in tech through its foundation).

Planio is based on Redmine and we contribute many of our features and improvements back to the community. This works great in multiple ways; our contributions and engagement in the community help advance the open source project and Planio gets exposure to potential new customers. For us, it’s the most authentic way to build a brand; by showing our code and taking part in open technical discussions, we can demonstrate that we know our stuff!

Hire Proven Professionals

Hiring a fleet of interns every year makes sense only if you’re intent on scaling up your employee count as soon as you hit the next round of funding.

Outsourcing tasks is easy if it’s copy-and-paste, but you don’t want to outsource your DevOps to someone with the lowest hourly rate when you have thousands of customers relying on your servers. You’ll want proven professionals, such as those at Toptal.

Matt Mullenweg, the founder of the popular open-source blogging platform WordPress, stated that by focusing on quality means that his company, Automattic, predominantly hires experienced candidates who can handle the unstructured working environment of a remote company.

That means it “auditions” candidates by paying them to work on a project for several weeks, then hire them based on performance. Automattic has found this method is far more effective in finding the right candidates than traditional CVs and cover letters.

Emphasize Quality of Life

Work takes up a massive amount of our time, year in and year out. It should not be something that you just do to be done with; you’d probably end up wasting a huge chunk of your life. The best source of motivation and the main ingredient for great results is a work environment that’s inspiring, enjoyable and fun. Travelling, learning and engaging with people from different cultures makes work feel less of a sacrifice or necessary evil (at least in my life) than when working a nine-to-five office job.

Emphasize Quality of Life

Work takes up a massive amount of our time, year in and year out. It should not be something that you just do to be done with.

It’s not just about travelling the world, though, there’s the personal freedom aspect. Parents get to spend more time with their kids, thanks to avoiding a two-hour commute. You don’t have to live in Silicon Valley to earn San Francisco wages. Maybe, your significant other gets a great job opportunity abroad, too. You’re not faced with the painful choice between staying at your job and continuing your career or becoming a “trailing spouse” with limited career options.

At Planio, even though many of us work remotely, we all try to meet up at least once a year in a fun location. Last year, we spent a few weeks of summer in Barcelona, and several of us met here in Koh Lanta, this year. I’m still looking for ideas for the next destination, so let me know if you have any travel tips!

What tools, ideas or techniques have you found that make working remotely easier and more effective? Leave a comment below.

This article is from Toptal.

Boost Your Productivity With Clever Travel Hardware

Nevermind Game of Thrones, winter is not coming, at least not in the northern hemisphere. It’s summertime, and here at Toptal that usually means many of our freelance developers and designers are either on the road or getting ready to hit the beach.

When I started writing this, some of our people were in Portugal, trying to work out the math behind surfboards. Now it’s my turn, and I’m wrapping up my draft with a nice view of the Adriatic Sea, just a few miles away from the best windsurfing spot in Europe.

Yes, I’m a workaholic, so this might as well be a good time to cover the topic I had in mind.

I can probably guess what some of you are thinking:

This is a lifestyle post! This guy is going to talk about surfing, healthy food and excercise.

No. This is not a lifestyle post. As far as food goes, fresh fish and veggies are always a safe bet. Exercise? Well, cycling to a nearby village to try a marginally different fish dish and sample local wine counts as exercise, at least to me.

So, with all the lifestyle stuff out of the way, I can get back to my message and start discussing the logistics behind travel and remote work. You can buy capri pants, cheap flip-flops, and boonie hats everywhere, but beachside shops usually don’t carry quality hardware that can help you be more productive on the road, or save time and money for more enjoyable activities.

Caveat: If you’re an avid Apple user with a profound dislike of Windows, you may not like where I’m going with this. I don’t intend to bash Apple, but Cupertino simply doesn’t bother with cheap hardware that won’t be missed if it ends up in the water.

Travel Hardware: Myths and Moths

When you hit the road, what do you stick in your carry-on? And no, I’m not talking about shorts and Toptal shirts. You pack a fair amount of hardware, and I am assuming we all have our personal preferences when it comes to our kit. This is entirely subjective, so I’m not going to tell you your choice of hardware sucks.

If it works for you, stick with it. End of story.

Instead, I will focus on often overlooked gadgets and accessories that can make your life easier andcomplement your existing travel hardware. I will try to stay away from expensive or exotic hardware that may be hard to come by, and focus on cheap stuff that won’t burn a hole in your pocket.

Working on the road with spotty internet access can be a nightmare. Luckily, the hardware is evolving to keep pace.

Working on the road with spotty internet access can be a nightmare. Luckily, the hardware is evolving to keep pace.

The hardware industry has been making a killing on high-end laptops and notebooks for decades. They come in all shapes and sizes, from ruggedized Toughbooks that can withstand a low-yield nuclear blast, to sleek ultraportables that sacrifice performance and value for money, but look awesome and turn heads wherever you go. Whether you’re in the market for a powerful, portable workstation for virtualization and design, or a featherweight ultraportable that doesn’t skimp on performance, you are likely to spend loads of money on your primary laptop. I am not suggesting high-end computers are a bad investment because they cost a lot of money to produce, and in turn, they save time and boost productivity. Magnesium alloys, high-density batteries, powerful mobile GPUs and low-voltage CPUs cost a lot of money, and performance rigs will never be cheap. Virtually every major component in a high-end laptop costs much more than desktop components with comparable performance, and like all things in life, you have to pay a premium to get the really good stuff.

But does this principle apply to all portable hardware? It does not, and this is the myth I mentioned earlier. Useful stuff doesn’t have to cost an arm and a leg.

The commoditization of IT has turned the market on its head. Devices that used to cost hundreds of dollars a couple of years ago are now being sold on supermarket shelves for $99, and you can get even better prices if you take your time to look for online deals.

As I explained earlier, these cheap gadgets won’t replace your MacBook or ThinkPad. You won’t mothballthem anytime soon, but you could get some hardware that will supplant them. You won’t have your full development environment or Adobe CC suite on cheap, secondary devices. At the same time, you don’t need a $2,000 laptop to check Slack, write a few emails, or tinker with spreadsheets while you’re sipping your Mojito by the beach. A convertible or hybrid device can handle basic productivity tasks at a fraction of the cost, plus many of them offer superior battery life and can be charged by a powerbank in your backpack. Why drain the battery on your primary computer just to attend a Skype meeting and draft a few follow-up emails? It’s overkill.

Would you use a massive chainsaw to trim a couple of shrubs in your garden? Of course not. Well, I might, but that’s just because I dislike my neighbors.

To summarize, you will still have to pay loads of money to get a proper primary computer, but you can save money elsewhere, and you can get more flexibility. Luckily, mobile computing has never been cheaper, and just a couple hundred bucks can buy you a useful yet nearly disposable device.

Wait, What The Hell Are Convertibles and Hybrids?

I spent the better part of a decade covering hardware, and based on my extensive experience in the field, I can confidently say that I have no idea.

These are not technical terms, they’re marketing talk. Every few quarters, chipmakers and vendors have to come up with new buzzwords to appease pitchfork wielding activist investors and analysts, but you can only come up with so many pointless buzzwords before you blur the lines between all sorts of product categories, throwing all rules and definitions out the window.

New chips and form-factors are turning inexpensive hybrid computers into useful secondary devices. Check them out.

New chips and form-factors are turning inexpensive hybrid computers into useful secondary devices. Check them out.

So, convertibles, detachables, clamshells, 2-in-1s, hybrid tablets… What are they really?

They’re basically cheap computing devices, usually based on tablet hardware platforms. Their design and form-factor vary wildly. I know this is a very broad definition, but this is a broad product category.

Tablet hardware, Ewww! That’s not gonna work for me!

I agree, at least to some extent. These devices can’t and won’t replace your primary computer, but they’re not supposed to – that’s the point. They are secondary devices, stuff you can fall back on in case your primary fails, or if you need something lighter and more portable for menial tasks. However, if you think all these devices are underpowered and useless in a professional setting, you’re probably wrong, and once you try one of them you may be in for a pleasant surprise.

I had a chance to try out a few tablets, hybrids and ultraportable notebooks based on Intel’s latest 14nm Atom x5 and x7 processors (codenamed Cherry Trail). These processors are cheap and tiny, but they can still run circles around most 5-year-old laptops. Whereas a high-end mobile processor costs a few hundred dollars, the price of Atoms is measured in tens of dollars. This does not necessarily mean you end up with terrible performance. These highly integrated chips have four physical CPU cores and integrated graphics capable of handling everyday tasks, media consumption, and even running some casual games.

Don’t be fooled by the “quad-core” moniker. Yes, these are quad-core processors, but the architecture is different, and four Atom cores are usually much smaller than a single CPU core used in Intel’s Core-series chips. This means performance is much lower, but since these are 14nm parts, power consumption is ridiculously low. This means the processor can be cooled passively, and a vendor can get an Atom processor for the price of a beachside lunch. In fact, sometimes vendors pay next to nothing for them, because Intelsubsidizes its platforms, although the chipmaker tends to use different nomenclature for this controversial business practice. Last time I checked, they were referring to it as “contra-revenue”, and didn’t like people using the s-word, which is exactly why I am using it.

While a thoroughbred Core i5 mobile processor requires 15W to 35W of juice when it’s running at full load, tablet Atoms can get away with just a fraction of that, on the order of 2W to 3W. This obviously has massive implications on battery life. A few years ago, I had a chance to review one of the first Atom-based hybrids, designed by Asus. One of the biggest problems I encountered during my review was battery life. I had a hard time draining the bloody thing in my everyday routine. It was like a Duracell Bunny; it offered all-day battery life and then some. Better yet, it could be topped off using a standard microUSB charger, although it took a while to fully charge. Intel was clearly onto something, and its engineers from Israel to California obviously did an exceptional job designing this new breed of Atoms.

Atom processors aren't the toys they used to be. The latest generation offers sufficient performance for many applications and scenarios.

Atom processors aren’t the toys they used to be. The latest generation offers sufficient performance for many applications and scenarios.

That was three years ago, and things are even better now. The latest crop of 14nm Atoms is even more efficient, so battery life should not be an issue, even if you get a dirt-cheap “whitebox” device.

But what about the rest of the spec?

This is what a typical low-end hybrid/convertible/2-in-1 tends to have under the hood today:

  • Atom x5 or x7 series processor – usually an entry- to mid-level x5 chip
  • 4GB of LPDDR3
  • 32GB/64GB of eMMC storage – eMMC storage is slower than proper SSDs, but eMMC 5.0 drives can be quite fast and won’t bottleneck the system
  • microSDXC card reader
  • FullHD IPS touchscreen – usually ranging from 10.1 to 12 inches. Some devices also support stylus input, in case you need to sketch stuff or just doodle something
  • Optional 3G connectivity – 4G is still quite rare in this product category, but that’s changing fast
  • 6000mAh to 12000mAh batteries – this largely depends on display size and the form factor
  • Windows 10 – Apple users probably won’t like this, and neither will the Linux crowd
  • Proper full-sized keyboard with touchpad

Big brands usually market such devices at about $500+, but if you want something really cheap and expendable, you might want to consider Chinese vendors, as you can get something with this sort of spec for $200+, and you’ll usually get slightly better specs than if you go for a big brand device. Some of them use virtually the same components as big brand devices.

Personally, I rely on a compact 10.1-inch “detachable” based on a more powerful Core M processor, with a pretty good stylus which I use sparingly, mostly to annoy our illustrators with my half-baked ideas. Core M devices cost more than Atom-based hybrids, but they offer superior performance and can actually replace your primary computer in some situations (especially if you get a bigger device, as 10 inches isn’t going to cut it for most people).

Unfortunately, Apple users don’t have nearly as much choice.

If they insist on avoiding the traumatic transition to Windows, they’re limited to the MacBook Air series or the new iPad Pro, neither of which are cheap or expendable. Of course, you could use a standard 9.7-inch iPad for some tasks, but in my experience, the relatively small 4:3 screen and the necessity to carry around a Bluetooth keyboard leaves much to be desired. If you’re an Apple user, and if you can live with Windows from time to time, you’re probably better off getting a cheap Wintel hybrid with a proper, full-sized keyboard. It all depends on what you’re going to use these devices for.

Google apps and all sorts of web apps look and behave identically on Apple and Windows. This obviously makes a potential transition from OS X to Win a bit less inconvenient, given the secondary nature of these computers.

4G Stands for Gotta Get Global Gear

So, you packed your laptop, tablet, camera, Kindle, smartwatch, and a bunch of other devices, and hopefully, you didn’t forget the chargers. You’re good to go, but you’re traveling abroad and you’ll have to rely on wireless data when WiFi access is not available.

A few years ago, this was a massive problem, because cellular data plans were expensive and pre-3G standards did not offer a lot of bandwidth. This limited our options and forced us to be on the prowl for decent WiFi networks, or even use stone-age hotel Internet (I still have my sawed-off LAN cable somewhere).

Now, it’s not only possible to get relatively good cellular data abroad, it’s something that we take for granted, and the cost tends to be negligible. You’re usually just a Google search away from a cheap pre-paid SIM card that can get you online at 3G or 4G speeds, depending on where you’re traveling (4G coverage is still spotty in some regions, and may be limited to impractical or expensive post-paid mobile plans). You can also get inexpensive portable 4G routers and modems, as well as unlocked dual-SIM phones.

4G/LTE is the fastest mobile broadband standard. Dozens of different standards are employed around the globe, resulting in compatibility issues.

4G/LTE is the fastest mobile broadband standard. Dozens of different standards are employed around the globe, resulting in compatibility issues.

However, there are still some pitfalls to avoid.

Just because a device is 3G or 4G compliant, that doesn’t mean it can use every 3G and 4G network. In fact, the vast majority of them can’t. These are very broad standards, and telcos use different frequencies and bands in different countries. Things get exponentially more complicated if you travel overseas. Instead of explaining how and why we ended up with loads of different spectrums and standards, I’ll just suggest you do some research on your own. Here’s a good place to start, and you can check out this LTE frequency bands sheet on Wikipedia while you’re at it.

Unfortunately, I cannot help you here, because there are too many variables in play. I could write a huge essay that still wouldn’t explain it well enough. You will have to check the frequencies and bands for every device and potential destination yourself. Once you figure out where you’re likely to travel, and which standards your mobile devices need to conform to, you can start shopping.

The next question is whether you really need a mobile 3G/4G router. What about a cheap phone for tethering instead?

Hardcore geeks and geekettes may be inclined to take the router route, just because they tend to focus on specs. Dedicated routers have a number of obvious advantages, and since this is an engineering blog, I see no point in explaining why proper routers trump smartphone tethering.

However, that does not mean we should dismiss unlocked dual-SIM smartphones because they have quite a few things going for them as well. In fact, they’re probably a better choice for most people. They tend to be cheaper, more compact and offer more functionality and flexibility. If you don’t need to connect loads of devices at once, and don’t expect to go through a few gigabytes of data a day, a simple smartphone should suffice. Your AirBnB or hotel room will have WiFi anyway to take care of “heavy” stuff.

There are a few points you need to consider:

  • Are you going to travel with a few coworkers or go solo?
  • How often will you be away from WiFi access and for how long?
  • Will you even consider accommodation without broadband access?
  • Would you rather have a dedicated device or a smartphone Swiss Army Knife?
  • How much money are you willing to spend?
  • Can you live with 3G connectivity rather than full 4G speeds?

Personally, I prefer backup phones over routers because I rarely find myself in a situation that would necessitate the use of a mobile router on the road. While routers look better on paper, I simply don’t need them, but that’s just my routine and may not be applicable to everyone. A good “world-mode” 4G router usually costs $200 to $300, and for that sort of money, you should be able to pick up a great backup phone. Cheaper routers are available as well, but they usually can’t deal with 4G bands, whereas most cheap phones can.

Dual-SIM phones are a good alternative to mobile routers. They are cheap, unlocked, and can prove very useful on the road.

Dual-SIM phones are a good alternative to mobile routers. They are cheap, unlocked, and can prove very useful on the road.

Android phones are clearly the more frugal option, yet they can augment or even replace your primary phone in an emergency. You also end up with a lot more choice.

For example, you can buy a very compact phone, or an oversized design with a 5.5- to 6.5-inch screen that can double as a tablet. If you’re an avid outdoorsman, you can get a ruggedized smartphone that can take a lot of punishment and won’t die if you soak it in mud and water. Some vendors offer smartphones with oversized batteries, rated at 6000mAh or even 10000mAh. These devices are designed to double as powerbanks, allowing you to top off your iPhone or Nexus anywhere while providing tethered connectivity. However, that’s just marketing. This is why you really need a big battery in your cheap travel phone: 4G connectivity consumes a lot of power, especially if you are going to tether more than one device and use up a lot of bandwidth.

I recently bought a backup/travel phone and decided to go for a dual-SIM all-rounder: a big-brand device that doesn’t skimp on performance yet doesn’t cost much. It packs a 5.5-inch display, aluminium body, 2GB of RAM, 16GB of storage (expandable), 4000mAh battery, and a mid-range Qualcomm Snapdragon 650 processor under the hood. It’s even got a fingerprint scanner and a decent 16-megapixel Sony camera with PDAF, although these are hardly priorities for a backup device.

It set me back about $150. Do you think I overpaid? Because I don’t.

Getting Online and Staying There

No matter what you do and what sort of platform you prefer, you are bound to need extra power for your gadgets. This is the great equalizer between iOS and Android, Linux and Windows – all toys need a socket.

Luckily, the industry has done much to standardize DC chargers, so the days of worrying whether or not your device will work on a different continent are long gone. You do, however, need a multi-socket adapter if you are traveling overseas, but I guess that goes without saying. As far as smaller devices go, USB is the ubiquitous standard. All you need are the appropriate cables or adapters and you’re good to go (micro-USB on most devices, USB Type C on next-gen devices, Lightning for Apple devices).

It sounds simple, but there are a few things you need to keep in mind.

First off, please don’t buy the cheapest power supply units, adapters, cables or anything that plugs into your DC port. It’s just not worth the risk.

For example, with cheap USB cables and chargers you can face the following headaches:

  • Lack of support for fast-charging standards, namely Qualcomm Quick Charge 2.0 and 3.0
  • Lower than declared output
  • Horrible cables incapable of handling 2 amps or more
  • Questionable reliability
  • Safety/security concerns

Before Apple users start making fun of their Android counterparts and their cheap micro-USB chargers, they probably need to consider the following: Apple’s own chargers and cables tend to get the worst imaginable reviews of any Apple product, and here’s a good (or bad) example of what I’m on about. So, if you want to bash non-Apple users, I suggest you just show them your MagSafe connector and you’ll win by default.

With chargers out of the way, let’s take a quick look at so-called powerbanks. These cheap and practical devices come in a variety of capacities and form-factors. Every self-respecting geek should have one in their travel bag, period.

You should be able to get a good powerbank for $20 to $40. This should be enough to get a unit with dual USB output rated at 2A or more, with capacity ranging from 10,000mAh to 20,000mAh, and Quick Charge support to boot. Many are based on 18650 batteries, so a unit with four 18650 cells on average delivers 10,000mAh, which is enough to charge an average phone three or four times. Some DIY designs also allow you to charge 18650 cells, which comes in handy if you have other devices compatible with these cells (flashlights, laser pointers, bicycle lights, and so on).

While many people may not be familiar with this battery standard, it’s actually been around for ages. Laptop batteries of yesteryear were basically three to eight 18650 cells soldered to each other, so chances are, you already used them without even knowing.

A lot of new powerbanks also support Quick Charge, USB Type-C output, while others feature integrated wireless chargers. Also, if you’re an iPhone user, or use a big-brand Android device, you should have no trouble getting ruggedized cases with an integrated battery, which will protect your device and give you an extra day of battery life.

The Ultimate Travel Hardware Guide

Sorry, but I haven’t got one. It all depends on your needs, your hardware, and lifestyle. It would be presumptuous to assume otherwise.

Must-have gadgets for every geek backpack: check out what they can do for you.

Must-have gadgets for every geek backpack: check out what they can do for you.

However, I can think of loads of inexpensive must-have items for every geek backpack.

  • High-quality multi port USB charger
  • Extra USB cables and adapters for all your devices
  • Universal AC socket adapter (or two)
  • 10,000mAh+ power bank
  • SIM card removal tool, nano-to-micro SIM adapter
  • MicroSD to SD adapter and/or compact MicroSD USB reader
  • HDMI adapter (hardware dependant)
  • Spare phone and/or mobile router
  • Spare flash drive, memory cards
  • Backup headphones
  • Bluetooth mouse with spare batteries
  • Cable and hardware travel organizer

All items listed above should weigh just a few hundred grams and take up a little space in your bag, provided you organize them properly. Their overall cost, save for the spare phone or router, should be around $100. A secondary dual-SIM phone should add about $150 to the total. All of these items are readily available online, via Amazon, eBay, or Chinese e-commerce platforms like AliExpress.

I took the liberty of including a few bits that aren’t directly related to productivity, such as memory cards and corresponding adapters, since I assume most don’t rely solely on their smartphones for photography. I did not include toys and gadgets that many of us take to the beach, like action cameras or fitness trackers, but much of the travel hardware listed above should help you deal with them as well.

But what if you want a bit more? Well, having a secondary computer is always a good idea. I’m a fan of redundancy, and I hate having to sort out hardware issues on the road. At today’s prices, you just need a few hundred bucks to get a good Atom-based backup machine, provided you don’t insist on using a MacBook all the way. The same goes for smartphones. It’s always good to have a backup, but more importantly, a cheap dual-SIM phone can be used for tethering.

This article was written by Nermin Hajdarbegovic, a Toptal Technical Editor.

Digital Nomads Can Manage Teams, And Manage To See The World

You always read about those individuals who travel the world, freelancing their tanned asses away, enviously concluding that it is easy for them; they must be alone and well off, while you have a spouse and a dog, or a kid or two, along with a whole team of people working with you. You can’t imagine how it would even work if you didn’t come to the office every day and have your daily stand-ups with the team, and then have lunches together and gossip about the latest developments in the endless iOS vs Android battle, debated in comments beneath a Techcrunch article.

OK, if you have a kid and a dog (or maybe a cat), I agree you might have a few more obstacles to overcome, and in the end, digital nomadism might not suit everybody, although, nothing is impossible when you really want something, right? Besides, you might not like moving that much and going through the ordeal of adapting to a new culture and new sets of rules. Or, on the other hand you might get so distracted by all these new, exciting things and forget that you actually need to work your 8 hours a day, and not just roam the streets, exploring.

Digital Nomads Working

Anyone who has ever worked from home knows that you get shedloads of work done without constant interruptions. However, many bosses still view remote work differently. Even if you really are at the beach, chances are you are super focused and productive, inspired by the waves and the sun. If conditions around you are relaxed and calming, isn’t that the best situation for doing a super neat job? Not to forget that you might even feel a bit guilty that you are having it too good in your life, so you put more effort into your work, to compensate for not being with your team.

If you are not there yet (at a beach, that is), this article is for you. It explains how you can also achieve the luxury of working while traveling the world in four easy steps, as a freelancer or as a part of a team, maintaining the same level of communication and productivity.

A Change Of Pace Often Helps

Some people like the known and predictable. They freak out when their daily routine gets disrupted. But, I’ll bet if you are doing any kind of creative work like programming or design, you are not one of those people. You like humanity’s evolutionary advantage of being able to adapt to new circumstances and actually get a kick out of it.

  • Remove yourself from toxic environments and into working remotely. Your sanity will thank you, even though clients will be demanding.

Ordinary day-to-day office work will kill you. It will eventually strip your motivation, creativity or flare for what you do. I’ve been there. It’s not that you don’t like your job, your colleagues or your office, it’s just that you don’t like it every day. You are a creative being and you strive to gather new experiences, learn new things, get inspired by new situations, new people, and new cultures. Two weeks of vacation a year just doesn’t do it. The good news is that you don’t need to be on vacation to travel or to change your daily routine.

  • Think no-one wants a remote worker? Ask any of the many freelancing sites what they think about that!

I know, I know. Your current job is your safe place. You don’t have to worry about anything. You don’t have to put yourself out there and find work yourself. Your bosses are doing that for you. They are taking care of operational stuff and making sure that you get your paycheck. The step of quitting and finding clients yourself seems as terrifying as Mount Fuji spewing lava all over you. Besides, you know your mother would throw a fit if you came to her with such nonsense ideas. If you like to play it safe, then you should definitely take a gradual approach. Try it out by doing some side jobs via one of the freelancing sites and see where it takes you. See if you are able to fight your own battles, bake your own bread, sleep with the wolves, and so on. If you manage to gather a team, even better. There is strength in numbers, and you will be able to find and complete jobs quicker.

Technology Makes Remote Work Efficient And Affordable

  • Technology, nowadays, provides everything you need as long as you have a good internet connection. There are no excuses left.

There is Skype, and Slack, and Viber, and Hangouts, and a myriad of other tools designed to make your life easier. There are tons of collaborative tools, project management tools, and virtual conference tools. You just need to pick the ones that best suit you and your team and voila! You are ready to go anywhere in the world there is a reasonably stable internet connection.

It is true that many things get solved and clarified faster when you are sharing an office with your team, but even if you are 2,000 miles away, you are just a video call away. I do believe that it is important to be able to look at a person, not just hear their voice, especially when important discussions are in order. For more routine meetings, or short questions, you can still use chat. You will be even more efficient because if you are in the same office, you would ask that question, thus interrupting everyone. But remotely, you ping your colleagues on Slack and they can quickly reply.

Here is a useful link with a list of top tools for remote workers.

  • No, you don’t have to win the lottery to travel.

You usually read about couples (even with kids!) who sold all their belongings and hit the road. They sold their house, their car, their furniture, even little Suzie’s teddy bear! I never cared much for such radical moves, which seems to be more common for people from in North America. We Europeans seem to be more in touch with our roots and rarely decide to leave everything behind; perhaps most Europeans who were in the mood to leave everything already emigrated to the Americas.

This doesn’t change much in the scheme of things. You might like the place you live, but still want to see the world. There may come a time when you’ll want to settle, so you might not want to sell your condo or your grandma’s house by the sea. Good. You shouldn’t! You can rent your apartment while you travel. If you fall in love with another place and decide to settle there, you can take care of your affairs later. Basically, if you have real estate, it can be a huge bonus in becoming a citizen of the world.

Recently I tried house swapping and that was the best discovery. I live in Zagreb, Croatia, but thanks to house swapping sites, I spent a month on Bali. We had a house to ourselves, all for free, pool included. These were some crazy times, I tell you. So, if you own real estate, try that and maybe save a small fortune. Also, traveling to countries with lower relative incomes is a good idea. There is a reason why Asian countries are the top choice for many digital nomads.

Good Management And Work Ethic Will Get You Anywhere

Having written all this, you probably noticed that I couldn’t decide whether to focus on freelancers or on remote teams. I believe all I’ve said applies to both, plus it applies whether you would be traveling alone or with your significant other.

You may also have noticed I didn’t make any difference between pure remote working, and remote working as a digital nomad. The only difference (admittedly, not a small one) is your location and how often you change it. Speaking of that, maybe we should redefine what a home is? Is home where your laptop and charger are? Add to it a WiFi connection you named, and you can definitely feel at home. Is home not a place, but a feeling? I’d agree with that.

I am not a freelancer. Sure, I get clients from Toptal sometimes, but I am actually the CEO of Mašinerija, a small shop developing mobile and web applications. Still, running a company did not prepare me to be location dependent. Managing my team and projects isn’t much different when sitting with my team in the same office or halfway around the world. I still get a business analysis of requirements the same way. I still discuss obstacles with my team the same way. I still plan tasks and delegate the same way. A project can easily fall apart having your teammates sitting across the room if you don’t communicate with each other often and thoroughly, and if you don’t organize your work well.

Productivity has nothing to do with miles, locations, or time zones.

You can be a full-time digital nomad, hopping around the world for several years, working remotely for your clients, or you can stay put and have clients many miles away and do your work for them remotely. You can be a sporadic digital nomad, as I am, meaning that sometimes I work closely with my team in our Zagreb office, or I manage my team remotely. Our clients reside in UK and US, so, for our clients, it doesn’t really make a difference whether I travel around or stay put. There is a time zone issue, but that can be managed with good organization.

There are a few things you will do differently as a digital nomad than as a home/office-stay remote worker. When traveling, you need to be practical, you need to think about SIM cards, internet connections, power outlet compatibility and reachability, so there is some planning involved, but hey, not that much different than planning a vacation! There is plenty of good advice from traveling digital nomads. I’ll help you with the first link, and you should try googling for more.

So, there there are no excuses left for keeping your butt in your comfy office chair, longingly looking at your friends’ photos from faraway places. The only thing you really need for this endeavour is good health. Even partners come and go (well, it’s the truth!), but good health takes you places. And when in bad health… who wouldn’t like to be in a familiar place with loved ones taking the pain away. On the road, it might not be easily accessible. But not to invoke bad things, let me get back on track. Let me remind you why you shouldn’t put this decision off anymore! We – developers, designers, marketers, managers, basically anyone who can get their work done on a laptop – live in a digital era in which the world really is our oyster. Since my team is working remotely with clients anyway, I realized that my physical location doesn’t mean anything, not with today’s tools and means of communication.

The only regret I have now is that nobody told me sooner about remote working. If you follow the above listed rationales, I’m sure it won’t be long before I meet you somewhere along the way. For me, the next stop is London.

Potential Remote Work Issues for Digital Nomads

While I am an advocate of remote teamwork and digital nomadism, I have to conclude on a cautionary note: It’s not for everyone.

A lot of people find travel stressful enough, without the added burden of having to work 8 or 10 hours a day. Many others may find their productiveness goes down when the are in perpetual tourist mode, so to speak.

A nomadic lifestyle can also have a negative effect on personal relationships. While an extrovert full-time nomad will get to meet a lot of interesting people, there is no substitute for having a social safety net comprised of friends, family and colleagues.

This of course, is entirely subjective. Some people are bound to enjoy the new, nomadic lifestyle, made possible by technology. Others may not cope with it nearly as well, or may not be interested in spending year after year travelling the world, because they miss the comforts of home.

This article was written by Lora Plesko, a Toptal web designer.

Productivity On The Road: Work Full-Time, Travel Solo, Have Fun

I’ve traveled solo while working full-time for ten-plus months, across more than 15 countries. It’s one of the most fun and rewarding things I’ve ever done. My work breaks over the past year have included things like scuba diving in Belize, polo lessons in Buenos Aires, music festivals in Hungary, and more.

Working full-time while on the road is not easy, but it’s definitely a skill that can be mastered over time.

For those interested in the nuts and bolts of how to travel while working, there are already several great articles out there explaining how it’s done. If you’re not familiar, I recommend starting with Toptal COO Breanden Beneschott’s guide.

In terms of logistics and planning, pulling off a full-time work schedule while on the road is much easier and cheaper than you probably think (at least in my experience), and the infrastructure for doing so continues to grow rapidly.

However, the following problem is far more difficult to solve, especially when traveling solo: Can you fully enjoy your travels while not sacrificing the quality of your work?

Striking The Right Balance

Can you navigate travel logistics, work full-time, and take care of yourself physically and mentally, all while setting aside enough time to explore the places you’re visiting, find fun things to do, and meet new people?

Since you won’t have much of a support system when you’re alone in a foreign country and (usually) don’t speak the language, finding the right balance is critical. Your routine has to be sustainable in the long run, and if you aren’t careful, things can go downhill in a hurry.

As I’ve been traveling, I’ve gotten a lot of questions from friends and colleagues about the psychology of this lifestyle, including everything from how to avoid loneliness to how to maximize productivity.

It’s not for everyone, but this lifestyle can be both incredibly fun and extremely productive, provided you figure out how to do it in a way that works for you. As I’ve traveled, I’ve noticed some key habits, mindsets, and tricks that are important for anyone who is considering working and traveling to keep in mind, regardless of their occupation or interests.

This post covers some of the most important strategies I’ve picked up while on the road.

Go To X To Do Y

When you have the option of living anywhere, it can be difficult to choose a destination, and going to places to see/do touristy things can get old fast. I’m a big fan of going to places to do specific (non-touristy) activities, as opposed to just going to places that sound interesting on paper.

In the past months, I’ve gone to:

  • Portugal to learn how to surf.
  • Berlin and Zurich for conferences.
  • The UK to take a trip through Wales.
  • Santorini to join friends who were on vacation.
  • Israel to visit family and work on my Hebrew.
  • Belize to learn how to scuba dive.
  • Brazil, Uruguay, and Argentina for the Toptal Roadtrip.

Working full-time and traveling the world might be easier than you think, especially when you’re traveling for a purpose.

Working full-time and traveling the world might be easier than you think, especially when you’re traveling for a purpose.

I’ve found that having a purpose to your travels leads to a few great outcomes:

  • It’s a lot easier to structure your time and priorities.
  • It’s easier to meet fascinating people with shared interests.
  • You learn amazing new skills that you’ve always wanted to learn.

When you’re traveling solo and devoting a lot of time to work, it’s important to limit the extent to which you’re “re-solving” the same problems on a daily basis. What I mean by that is, you don’t want to find yourself waking up every morning without any plans for where you’re going to work, what you’re going to work on, where you’re going to eat, who you’re going to meet, what non-work things you’re going to do, and so on.

Not only is it easy to waste a lot of time and energy answering the same questions over and over again, but it will also quickly make you feel like you’re swimming in circles without accomplishing much.

To be clear, I am just as strongly against doing anything that’s “too organized” while traveling. I’m pretty averse to resorts, guided tours, and so on.

As a good friend of mine likes to say:

“I always love seeing big cruise ships. The more I see of them, the fewer people there will be wherever I am.”

The adventure and uncertainty of traveling is half the fun, and it’s important not to lose sight of that by planning too much.

In short, don’t just go to Thailand. Go to Thailand to motorbike from Bangkok to Chiang Mai. Go to Brazil because you’ve always wanted to experience Carnival. Go to Nepal because you dream of hiking the Annapurna trail.

The possibilities are endless, and it’s when you go somewhere with a goal in mind that things begin to take off.

Set Aside Time Every Day For Learning

When you’re working at a startup, there are always a million different tasks that need to be accomplished, and you’re constantly in a race against time. You can easily spend all of your waking hours knocking things off of your to-do list, and with so much that needs to get done, it can be hard to justify investing time in anything that’s not the task at hand, or at least directly related to the task.

Being on the road is no excuse for complacency. You can work, play, and master new skills, just as you would from home.

Being on the road is no excuse for complacency. You can work, play, and master new skills, just as you would from home.

However, taking time each day for the explicit purpose of improving your skills and learning new things has a profound and positive impact in several important ways:

  • You become much better at your job. Whether it’s taking a data science course, reading case studies on hyper-growth companies, or learning SEO best practices, investing in developing a strong cross-functional skillset will invariably make you more effective at your job in the long run. Every time I read or watch something just because I want to learn about it, I always come away with a bundle of new ideas, even if that thing was only tangentially related to my job.
  • You’ll be happier. If you’re like me and enjoy picking up new skills and being productive, you’ll be a more outgoing, adventurous, and happy person when you’re learning new things. I usually feel pretty great after spending a few hours reading in a cafe or getting a machine learning crash course by the beach. But after binge-watching movies? Not so much.
  • It’s easier to meet people with shared interests. The more diverse interests you have, the more likely you are to have something in common with a stranger. More importantly, when you’re interested in learning something (especially if it’s related to tech or startups), you can almost always find groups on or elsewhere that are full of people who organize events centered around the topic. This is a great way to meet and learn from people who share your interests.

Much like the “Go To X To Do Y” strategy, setting aside time every day for learning is all about feeling like you’re moving forward. By carving out time to pick up new skills, I work more effectively, stay happier, and enjoy my travels much more.

Pack Light, Stay Mobile, And Make Logistics Easy

It’s no fun when an airline loses your luggage. It’s even worse when an airline loses your luggage and you’re alone in a foreign country, don’t speak the language, have no contacts, and have a long list of unread work messages that you desperately need to check.

You’re traveling solo, so you can maintain an amazing level of flexibility. You won’t end up using at least half of what you were originally going to pack, so ditch the suitcase, put that extra sweater you’ll never wear back in your closet, and go carry-on instead.

I fit all of my belongings into one Deuter 65L travel pack and 25L Marmot backpack. There’s plenty of space for everything I need, and I can carry everything comfortably on my back without trouble.

Stay lean with your luggage and dozens of roadblocks that would’ve become huge pains will never happen in the first place.

Road warrior essentials: Hardware, travel packs, and SIM cards. Don’t get carried away. Pack light, but pack smart.

Road warrior essentials: Hardware, travel packs, and SIM cards. Don’t get carried away. Pack light, but pack smart.

The final thing I’ll add here is that travel logistics are way, way easier than you probably think, especially once you get a prepaid SIM card. These usually only cost $10-20 for a few GB of data, and getting one is pretty much the first thing I do when moving to a new place (it’s also absolutely essential for working from the road). This Wikia page is a great resource for an accurate overview of pre-paid SIM card options in most countries. If possible, make sure you get a SIM card that allows tethering. For bonus points, you can also look into getting dual-SIM smartphones or 3G/4G routers.

With a working phone and the rapid global rise of Airbnb and Uber, not only can you typically find a nice, reasonably inexpensive place to stay within a few hours and get a ride there within a few minutes, but you can do all of this from your phone, without ever taking your wallet out of your pocket. Sidenote: It pays off to do a little research on Airbnb hosts; if you’re in a country where you don’t speak the language, finding a host who does (and who might share some of your interests) can make a big difference.

These solutions, coupled with the steady decrease in flight costs, mean that many of the pains associated with travel are quickly disappearing. You can decide to jump halfway across the world tomorrow and have everything planned out just a few minutes later without breaking the bank.

Take Care Of Yourself: Exercise And Eat Well

This isn’t exactly a huge revelation, but it’s important. When you’re abroad, your support system is minimal, so it’s critical that you invest in making your lifestyle sustainable. This goes both ways: Working non-stop is as dangerous over the long run as failing to work at all.

You’re on the road, but you’re not on holiday! Take care of yourself, eat healthy, and make sure you get enough exercise.

You’re on the road, but you’re not on holiday! Take care of yourself, eat healthy, and make sure you get enough exercise.

My colleagues at Toptal are extremely smart and impossibly efficient, and teams here strive to move very fast and execute ruthlessly. What may be high priority one week will no longer be relevant the next. Everyone needs to not just keep up, but actively push things forward, and the occasional psychological strains of travel can’t ever get in the way of that. In this type of environment, you absolutely must take the time to take care of yourself. Even small habits such as being mindful of posture or buying boxes of protein bars can make a big difference when you don’t have time to eat and need to be operating at a high level. If you’re working at a computer all day, you need to be taking a few minutes every hour or two to at least do some basic bodyweight exercises.

If you’re spending an extended period of time in a new city, a good habit to develop is to spend time familiarizing yourself with the grocery stores and markets in your neighborhood. Cooking regularly saves you time when you need to focus on work, and can really help keep costs down. If you’re concerned about food quality or have dietary restrictions, it will also pay off to do some research on destinations ahead of time.

Aside from watching what you’re putting into your body, taking care of yourself means that you need to carve out time for regular exercise and figure out a reasonable sleep schedule to which you’re going to stick. Note that this definitely doesn’t mean your schedule has to be “normal”—you don’t have to simulate an office-to-gym-to-dinner-to-bed routine. Being able to design your own schedule is one of the major bonuses of a flexible lifestyle, after all. There are people who do their best work in the dead of night and sleep in every day, but the point is that they choose habits that are sustainable for them.

Exercising while traveling can be very easy or very hard. While it can be annoying to find a new gym every time you move to a new place, traveling solo means that you can specifically seek out places where adopting a healthy routine comes naturally.

For me, this means getting an apartment by the pickup basketball courts in Tel Aviv or a place on the beach by a surf school in Lisbon. Figure out what you like doing that’s fun and also healthy, and then go somewhere that makes it really, really easy for you to do it.

Join Communities Of People With Shared Interests

As I pointed out earlier, the infrastructure that is available around this nomadic lifestyle is growing rapidly, and I’m curious to see what things will look like a year from now.

For people who don’t have a travel partner but are wary of going it alone, there are options such as Hacker Paradise or Remote Year that invite you to join small communities of people who are also working from the road. There are also many combined co-working and co-living spaces establishing footholds in exotic locations around the world, including the Surf Office in Lisbon and Gran Canaria, for example.

In terms of online communities and meetup groups, in addition to, groups such as InterNationsand the Hashtag Nomads Slack community are good ways to making friends in new places. However, in my experience, none of these compare to the Toptal Community when it comes to finding people to meet up with for trips, events, or just a nice dinner.

Regardless of whether you choose to be a part of such communities, it’s useful to know that they’re there if you need them. The infrastructure for making friends exists in most sizable cities around the world if you know where to look.

Spend Time Traveling With Coworkers

This is especially important if you’re new to a company, or if you are just starting your career and need to do everything possible to learn as fast as you can.

Every time I’ve visited or traveled with colleagues at Toptal (who are located in over 100 countries), not only has it been incredibly fun, it’s also led to immediate and substantial jumps both in my understanding of different aspects of the company and in the quality of my own work.

Travel with fellow Toptalers or go solo. We have communities in hundreds of cities all over the world.

Travel with fellow Toptalers or go solo. We have communities in hundreds of cities all over the world.

There’s so much to learn from spending full weeks traveling, having meals, and working with colleagues across the company, and it always leads me to intriguing new ideas. The Toptal Roadtrip and the Toptal Academy React Course (that 200-plus Toptalers are currently completing) are two initiatives that have been a direct result of spending time visiting colleagues.

Moreover, the chemistry you build by traveling with coworkers, while not as tangible as an exciting new idea, is just as important to the long-term success of you and your team. Proper communication is the lifeblood of distributed teams. By spending extended in-person time with coworkers, you’ll be able to accelerate how fast you get to know each other’s habits, interests, strengths, and weaknesses. The productivity gains will be apparent immediately.

There are plenty of opportunities to do awesome things with coworkers, including attending conferences, traveling to exotic locations, or simply visiting them in their hometowns. Doing so frequently and regularly is a great way to enjoy your travels while accelerating your personal and professional growth.

In Conclusion…

At the beginning of this article, I mentioned that it might seem daunting to try to do everything at once: travel, work full-time, stay healthy, make new friends, and find time to actually enjoy yourself while exploring new places.

It’s important to understand that it’s a balancing act, not a to-do list, and there’s definitely a domino effect. Spending quality time on one thing doesn’t take away from the others; it’s all interrelated. When you’re having a great time traveling, it’s easier to meet compelling people. When you’re spending time learning new skills, it’s easier to be hyper-productive at work and meet people who share the same professional interests.

It’s when you hit that sweet spot that this lifestyle really reaches the next level. Before you know it, you find yourself doing such things as executing high-impact company initiatives from rooftop beachside apartments before taking a lunch break to go jet skiing, or reading data science books between asados with new friends.

The possibilities are endless, and there are always new places to visit and exciting goals to achieve. The world is an amazing place, and I hope everyone gets a chance to see it. Good luck and happy travels!

If you have questions about anything in this post or are just curious to know more, you can reach me at

This article was written by DROR LIEBENTHAL, Toptal’s Director of Operations.