Software Developers Journey Podcast

#18 Kevin Keller on living the digital nomad way of life


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Kevin Keller 0:00

Tim Bourguignon 0:00
is developer's journey. My name is Tim Bourguignon. Thanks for joining.

Tim Bourguignon 0:10
Hi, everyone. Welcome to when you podcast new episode of dev journey. today. I have Kevin Keller online. Hi, Kevin. Hi, john. How you doing? I'm doing well. Thanks. You're in Southeast Asia, right?

Kevin Keller 0:24
Yes, sir.

Tim Bourguignon 0:27
in Manila grades. Great. I found this out right off the bat, because it's gonna be really important for our discussion today. Um, do you want to say a couple of words about yourself, where you come from, etc.

Kevin Keller 0:39
Sure. I'm from the US. grew up in New Jersey, moved down to Texas for a while, before I started traveling around, kind of got into the digital nomad. After I started up a company doing web development services for businesses, and I loved it. It's been a great ride.

Tim Bourguignon 1:00
How long has it been?

Kevin Keller 1:03
About two and a half to three years now? Wow. That's a digital nomad thing.

Tim Bourguignon 1:10
Yeah. Yeah. So that's where the the question about where you are right now was important digital nomad. So can you define that? For the listeners, please?

Kevin Keller 1:22
Sure. I mean, I define a pretty loosely it's anybody who is location independent. And using the internet as a means or technology as a means to generate income to sustain themselves.

Tim Bourguignon 1:38
So if I can rephrase that you have a day job that you created, it's your own company, right? And, yep, you don't really have a home. Maybe you do. But you're not really often there. Right?

Kevin Keller 1:52
Well, so yeah, there's different types of digital nomads. I have friends who bounce around, like, don't have a home, then you have me who is more like, I have two home bases kind of that I bounced between here in the Philippines. My girlfriend lives here. And so I'm back here a lot. Um, or I will be in Tbilisi, Georgia, which is like my second home base of sorts. Okay.

Tim Bourguignon 2:19
And you travel at other places as well.

Kevin Keller 2:23
Yep. Yep. And then everywhere in between, usually, but those are there's two central spots that I kind of like to call home a sense. Yeah.

Tim Bourguignon 2:30
Okay. Um, and you met people that don't have this kind of homes and just travel around?

Kevin Keller 2:39
Yep. Yep. It takes all sorts of different shapes and sizes. And there's down to the expats who they move here move somewhere, they love it. And they stay still considered digital nomads, I think in a sense. But there's others who just bounce everywhere there are somewhere different every week, almost, it seems

Tim Bourguignon 3:00
to be digital part of the Nomad is because you're working in it or it related stuff or because you're, you're working some kind of remote or how, how should we pick.

Kevin Keller 3:12
It could take, take different forms, you could be self employed, like myself, work on tracks or freelancing. Or you could be someone who has a full time job. They're just working remotely, if you're working for usually a tech company, or more progressive companies for half full time plays that they just say you don't have to come into the office just work where you want. And there's people who do that, too.

Tim Bourguignon 3:39
That's fascinating.

Tim Bourguignon 3:42
So how did you come up to trying this lifestyle?

Kevin Keller 3:47
Ah, so I started out in mid 2014, at hacker paradise, which was like a retreat for programmers and developers to kind of just three months to we just got together in Costa Rica, flew down, we were just working on projects, growing our skills, and it was a great time. At the time, I was working full time for a programming programming job for a company and I convinced them to let me go down to Costa Rica and work remotely. Okay. partway through the retreat, I got a job working with an NGO in Africa. So to the retreat, I went to Cameroon Africa for about three months worked in the rain forests. So awesome startup, rainforest connection. And after that contract ended, I decided, Well, you know, I really don't want to stop traveling. I'm enjoying this. So I had happened to have gotten freelance contracts at the time and kept side to keep doing the freelance thing and built it up. Company around it. kind of grew into itself into a sound like Mozart, I guess?

Tim Bourguignon 5:08
And is there something something special do you have to do to get really Remote Jobs only or this kind of freelancing jobs that are only on the remote side? You don't have to be on the location. I mean, it's a completely foreign to me, I've been only on the on the spot jobs. I mean, I'm mostly coaching stuff and doing coaching and mastering and stuff like this. So you have to be really in contact with people that might be explaining away. But it's, it's a, it's a conservatism that's completely foreign to me. So how do you how do you get that kind of jobs?

Kevin Keller 5:44
Um, it's a conscious choice. I think, if you're not looking for a job that's remote, you probably won't find them because they are the minority of jobs. Still, most employers are not, you know, rushing out to start the route mirbeau thing. But if you are consciously looking for it, there's a couple jobs boards that are created just for Remote Jobs. Think remote ok.com is one of them. But yeah, so it's there's job boards like that where you can get full time jobs or, for me, it was reaching out through past employers and clients to kind of it took a while to for people to warm up to the idea. It's gotten easier. I think as time has gone on. Clients are more open to working with developers or contractors remotely. The first year or so though, I noticed it was definitely harder to be like what remote? Oh, okay. You're not going to come into the office? No, no, no, I'm not gonna come to the office.

Tim Bourguignon 6:46

Tim Bourguignon 6:49
I'll just still some kind of

Tim Bourguignon 6:53
technical debt resistances. So people reactive reacting negatively about it, and you have to explain them? And what are the biggest fears when you when are you only getting people that already jump on the remote environment?

Kevin Keller 7:08
I think the the prejudices, I guess you'd call it or the the fears that they have are. And they're the same, I guess, in some ways, as if you were working in person. So you know, a contractor is going to disappear on you, you know, does, it's more likely to disappear if they're just an email away, instead of, you know, around the corner in the office. So that's here. And I think there's still some kind of a stigma surrounding remote work in the sense that I know, for us centric companies, we think of remote work as like outsourcing it to India or some other giant it firm where your quality of service might be lower, versus working with developers who are really passionate, and they're, they're looking to deliver great products to them. So there's some there's still some sickness stigmas. But I think it's I think there's, we're seeing a shift away from that a little bit, hopefully,

Tim Bourguignon 8:14
is there something you can do as a remote worker to address those fears?

Kevin Keller 8:22
For me, it's been just being very available to my clients. Because the biggest fear that I've still come up against is the timezone differences. They're like, well, you're in, you're in Southeast Asia, you're in, you know, Europe, you're wherever most of my clients are in the US. Seems like we can't get you on the phone or so I try to make myself available and be as flexible as possible to accommodate them, provide great service to them. But yeah, just I think, for me, at least, I found getting on the phone with them getting on a Skype call with them, just trying to be as present and available. So they don't notice as much of a difference, you know, even if it's setting up an email autoresponder or something saying, Hey, you know, thank you for your email, I'll get back to you in x hours or something just so that they know that they got it and you're, you're thinking about them.

Tim Bourguignon 9:23
So it's not only long hours in the night shift, to do juggle with the time difference. Some some small tricks just to uh, to make your availability, visible and present.

Kevin Keller 9:38
Yeah, and it's a trade off. Um, so like, while I can, most of my clients are asleep around by like, you know, lunchtime or so around here. So I head out to the beach, I can, you know, go to the mall, I can do whatever. But with that in mind, there are nights you know, 12 o'clock, one o'clock in the morning where I know I have to pick up the phone and I have be awake for a call on the east coast. So it's a trade off, but I do like the freedom the freedom I think for me is why I do it.

Tim Bourguignon 10:10

Tim Bourguignon 10:12
you were so you said you have a girlfriend and in the Philippines? Oh yeah working there. Um, it's looking at a family I would say well with kids and everything Have you seen people doing this this lifestyle was families how that worked

Kevin Keller 10:26
out? I have not personally met anybody doing it with family other than you know, seeing a blog, a couple bloggers that have that have done it. But no, I have not met anybody Personally, I'm not sure how that would factor in once I have a family. I'm pretty sure I've become a little more stationary. But we'll see. We'll see.

Tim Bourguignon 10:49
I saw I saw a report from Rob Connery

Tim Bourguignon 10:53
one of the

Tim Bourguignon 10:56
the founder of a tech pub was it I think he travels through Europe and the whole world was family was mostly him working in the family having big giant vacation or homeschooling for the for the his daughters, I think. But it's still something that the ducky I would love to do this that I have, we have two kids right now. And the kinds of starts being a bit harder to organize. So let's, let's jump in the in the ocean. And I think we're not ready to make right now.

Tim Bourguignon 11:28
It's, it's weird, but I really admired. Um,

Tim Bourguignon 11:33
I didn't want to ask you. You touch a bit on this. So this is this. This lifestyle started when you were Cameron away when you stopped working in Cameron, and you say, Well, I want to continue this. How did you realize that this was your thing?

Tim Bourguignon 11:51
I mean, this could have been working for this rain forest.

Tim Bourguignon 11:55
company or could have been something else? How did you realize this is the the thing I love about it?

Kevin Keller 12:01
Um, well, for me, I think it was a, I mean, being in rural Africa, West Africa was like, earth shattering as far as like my conceptions of third world poverty. And, and it was it was a very interesting, life changing experience. Um, but so for me, getting to experience cultures and the people and the places. And just having the freedom to be able to direct where I want to live and how I want to set my life up are kind of big driving factors for me, which is, which influenced my decision to try to keep doing the freelancing thing and keep keep going.

Tim Bourguignon 12:50
Where did you go from there? What are the Happy Places you stopped that? Okay.

Kevin Keller 12:57
I was in France for a couple months. And everyone to Morocco. For a month bounced over to Thailand for a while. And I went to Vietnam, Japan back to Vietnam. I went back to the US to Austin for a couple of months. Canada, Mexico, Colombia. Goodness, trying to reach back here. Yeah. All over the place. Um, and then Georgia, mostly this year has been Georgia and the Philippines.

Tim Bourguignon 13:31
Is there in this list of countries? One would you would say this is a great place to start this lifestyle. It's easier or maybe you have less problems with the culture but with the infrastructure or some some place that might be more

Tim Bourguignon 13:54
easy to get warmed up was the who the idea?

Kevin Keller 13:57
Yeah. Okay. So there's a lot of considerations that go into traveling to a place for me, at least I know. I'm always thinking about the internet. It's how available is the Wi Fi and wherever I'm going, um, that's a big thing. infrastructure support is good, too. So I think a couple of easy places to get started. For me, I'd love to Vietnam. Great internet. Good food. Foods an important thing that's another reason why I travel to end fairly easy visa process for most countries for a month to three months worth of a visa in here

Tim Bourguignon 14:44
I'm sorry. That's a really important point. Quite often forget that she kept to get a visa. Yeah.

Tim Bourguignon 14:52
Sorry, I guess you were saying about Europe.

Kevin Keller 14:56
Europe. Um, see I liked I liked Friends a lot. But I found the Wi Fi wasn't as as available as I'd hoped. But it just comes down to how easy. How available are things like Airbnb is Airbnb, there's, Uber and Airbnb are there, I know I can get from the airport to to my Airbnb, you know, no problems. There's the the days of, you know, worrying about, you know, shady taxi drivers are kind of a thing of the past. If you just push your Uber button and you're off, you know, you've got to trust the driver. And so technology has helped a lot of things as it's come along. But yeah, Wi Fi is really the big concern. The ga ga has got good Wi Fi. Pretty good Wi Fi. It's very convenient. That's why I like it. Yeah, but Vietnam is a good starting place. I think if you're if you want to go to Southeast Asia, I'd say Vietnam.

Tim Bourguignon 16:02
And generally, people that started actually, from their hometown, I would say or almost working remotely, so not leaving the

Tim Bourguignon 16:14
foreign country lifestyle, but still the road.

Kevin Keller 16:18
Oh, yeah. Yeah, absolutely. And they count as digital nomads to it just just not no travel aspect. Yep, I have friends who did?

Tim Bourguignon 16:28
Is this something you would you would encourage to start getting the hang of it?

Kevin Keller 16:33
Yeah, absolutely. Especially if you're if you're looking to freelance or start a side hustle of some sort. You know, while you have a job still, when that's that's perfect. I couldn't think of a better way to do it.

Tim Bourguignon 16:48
Yeah. Okay, I'm in the I read the book, remote from David Haye, my hands and then Jason freed last year. Have you read that one?

Kevin Keller 17:00
Have not No,

Tim Bourguignon 17:00
no. It's from the guys who wrote the book rework from 37 signals. So base camp, maybe you know them with this name. So they wrote this book about, they have a company with something like 4040 employees and 25 locations. So most of them are, I think they have 13 people in Chicago and the rest of the world. And so they wrote this book about, about remote work. And in there, they say something like, get this, right, again, a good remote worker is good worker. But the opposite is not necessarily. Right. So somebody that is used to working remotely, is used to very, to a very clear style of communication, being very explicit about what they want to communicate. And all the things that you have to do when you're not in person when you don't have when you maybe have synchronous communication, and when you have time delays, etc. And the opposite is not necessarily different. And this is true. But what puzzles me is how do you come to being a good remote worker? It's great if you have one, but if you're not what, what is important to be able to do this at all.

Kevin Keller 18:24
So, again, like they mentioned, yeah, definitely being concise and being able to convey what you're thinking what you need, when working with team members, or with clients over email, or, or slack or whatever it is that you're using is incredibly important. Because having bad communication could drag a project on for, you know, days or weeks longer than it needs to just because it's so much back and forth. So I think maybe having a required course in like effective technical communication is a good starting point for being a remote worker. But, but yeah, I found things like I shifting away from paragraph text shifting to bulleted lists to things like how can I convey this as succinctly and clearly as possible, to clients to other developers that I'm working with? Yeah. And other than that, just adaptability, I think, working remotely, you have to have a contingency plan in place. So I'm in the middle of a project and the Wi Fi, internet goes down at my house. What's my backup plan? So unlike if I'm at a company, you know, it's the company's problems to take care of. But when you're at home, or you know, in a cafe, you know, or here in Manila, when it rains, the internet sometimes goes out, so Yeah, backup plan. Whether that's like tethering to your cell phone and just working off the the LTE network or something, she's great. You just have to have backup plans for things, I think.

Tim Bourguignon 20:14
What do you do when the internet goes down in Manila? Because it's

Tim Bourguignon 20:19
a no.

Kevin Keller 20:23
Yeah, the LTE connection is a lifesaver. Sometimes, if I can't quit, usually, I have one or two coffee shops that I know in the area that have good Wi Fi, I can run down to there and keep working. But usually it's switch on the LTE network and work for half an hour after that before, you know, it comes back. Hopefully.

Tim Bourguignon 20:50
You never think about this.

Tim Bourguignon 20:53
That's a great point. That's a great point. Um, okay. Um, did you try all the things? I mean? Other I want to say crazy things, but it's not. It's just crazy, from my point of view, not from yours. How can you

Tim Bourguignon 21:12
relate to that? I don't know.

Tim Bourguignon 21:14
Some unconventional way of working. Have you tried to order things like this?

Kevin Keller 21:20
Um, I haven't. I've been pretty, like I found what works for me. Usually I have my morning, we'll be out at a coffee shop, or you know, until about lunch, work in a coffee shop, and then I'll be back home, take some emails, and maybe some calls in the afternoon and just relax. And then in the evening, everything ramps back up again, as the East Coast wakes up. But now, for the most part, it's been pretty it's been the work I do. And how I work hasn't really changed, the location changed. But other than that, it's the same as just about any any other kind of job or work, I guess. I mean,

Tim Bourguignon 22:11
how do you manage to to create a relationship with your colleagues on do you?

Kevin Keller 22:18
Um, so, for me, it's been important to stay in touch with other digital nomads. Usually, if I'm somewhere where there's a lot of digital, digital, digital nomads, I will reach out. There's a Slack channel we have with like, I think 500 or so or I don't even know what's that now? About 3000 of us, I guess. And you just reach out to people in x country, and hey, sure, I got I got I'm here. what's what's, you know, you can find out where the good spots are? Where's the good Wi Fi? Where's the good cafes, a book of bars out there? So it's been helpful to stay connected community of creative people who don't really have a home this?

Tim Bourguignon 23:07
Um, did you reach out to some co working space? Or I guess that's how they're called.

Kevin Keller 23:14
Yeah, yeah, co working spaces I've had hit or misses with CO working spaces. So by and large, I tend not to use them. Just because for me, I like the variety that comes with shuffling it up a little bit. So I'll go to different cafes and I love coffee. So exploring the city that I'm in and seeing different coffee shops that that's part of what I enjoy. So but there is something to be said about working from the CO working space, it gives you a same desk every day, you can focus and frees up a little bit of mental space to just get work done.

Tim Bourguignon 23:52
I was also hinting at the meeting likewise, people that are probably doing the same thing just look on Slack, but in real in real life, I would say

Kevin Keller 24:01
yeah, yeah. No, absolutely that that's that's a that is a huge draw to co working spaces. Um, of course I found if the city you're in is either small enough or be there's enough digital nomads in the area. You can almost always find one of them at a coffee shop to the people hunched over their laptop, staring intently at the screen.

Tim Bourguignon 24:24
Is that how you you recognize each other?

Tim Bourguignon 24:28
Oh, yeah.

Kevin Keller 24:31
else's Yeah, relaxing, sipping a coffee. Reading a book. You see a couple people like their screen clearly working.

Tim Bourguignon 24:41
Okay, um, this is something you think you can do for a long time. Is this something as we touched a bit on the family side, but if this was not a problem in the future, do you think you can or you will do that? As long as you can?

Kevin Keller 25:00
And that's a difficult question. And that is when I really struggled with this last year or so. So, to backtrack a little bit, when I first started the whole digital nomad traveling around I, you know, loved it, it was so cool and exciting seeing all these new places. But now almost three years in, I'm slowing down, I'm traveling less. And my thoughts are, I will probably slowly stop traveling as much and pick a spot and then go out from there and come back. Just because you do lose a lot of time in traveling itself, and the timezone adjustments and everything else that comes with traveling, it's can get tiring. So for me, I, for me, personally, I see myself as probably slowing down over the next year or so. But that's not to say it can't be done. Because I know people who have done this for you know, longer than I have, and they're still going at it. So it's very, very much a personal choice, I think.

Tim Bourguignon 26:10
Um, I want you to, I want to ask another question a bit. A bit tricky. One, I will formulate it explicitly, explicitly in this way. Is this a single male stuff? I'm sorry? Is it a single, a single male way of leaving? So? Um,

Kevin Keller 26:32
no, I? I would, I would say no to that, um, I've met plenty of single females or couples who are doing this. I think predominantly, it tends to be single male. If you were to sample the population, I think you would probably see more single males. Yes. But I would be strongly against the statement that it is only for single males. Because I've met so many bright young women who are doing this, and couples who are doing this together as a lifestyle thing. So I think it's for everyone who wants it. Who wants it? Okay.

Tim Bourguignon 27:17
That was a trick question.

Tim Bourguignon 27:20

Tim Bourguignon 27:23
did you learn anything special out of this? What do you maybe didn't expect?

Kevin Keller 27:29
Ah, I found out that I can adapt to a lot more than I thought I could. So living in the third world kind of gives you a different perspective on some things and you realize kind of what you take for granted or what you took for granted. Living back home in a Western countries, let's say things like hot water or like, for electricity doesn't go out every so often. Um, but yeah, but adaptability, I think, is the one thing that I really learned how to just, and how to not get so upset when something doesn't go the way you planned. Because they're able, invariably, it will not go the way you planned. So, yeah, just have to let things go. And I find I let things go a lot, a lot more.

Tim Bourguignon 28:30

Tim Bourguignon 28:32
another question. I'm going over the places with this question.

Tim Bourguignon 28:36
You said you your clients are mostly in the in the US. But have you worked with locals? So I think you're you started with the with an NGO, this rainforest? connection? Yep. connections, sir. There's an NGO, right? Yep. So you started more than a year on the NGO and social social side? So are you are you still active in the space? either in the US or locally when you when you travel somewhere and you get mixed up with the communities or something that's

Kevin Keller 29:08
not as far as clients go? No, I haven't really focused on the local communities. And that's, and partially, that's because I've traveled a lot. I think, given like the next year or two, if I start settling down in say, Georgia or in Taipei or here in Manila, more, it becomes much more feasible and easy to to build those connections and maybe start getting clients in a local community. But if you're when you're when you're here for, you know, a month, are you here for a couple weeks in a place, it's hard to really make those connections that you need. But yeah, no, that's, that's, that's the long and short of it. And I'm on the non client side, so user groups or meetups or something like this. Have you been up yet meetups have been great. Yeah, meetups have been really helpful to meet like minded people and yeah, and connect with locals. And yeah, absolutely.

Tim Bourguignon 30:09
And that was it from the from the technology side of things

Tim Bourguignon 30:14
I heard from from another digital nomad, that was her big eye opener, meaning she had this this European centric point of view saying, well, you have the US that is driving the USA driving the technology side of the Silicon Valley, and the rest of the world is some lagging behind. And so Europe might be might be lagging a little bit and maybe Southeast Asia, Asia should be lagging a bit more. And that was her big eye opener when she arrived there and lift for three or four months over there. I said, Well, they're not liking at all. They are exactly like in Europe, and which is exactly like in the zoo in Silicon Valley. her eye opener was working with communities there. So really helping with locals, create startups and doing some awesome web. web development, and realizing we're all being feminine. Oh,

Kevin Keller 31:06
yeah, yeah. Yeah. That that? Yeah. I would agree with that sentiment. Yeah, it they are just as driven justice. As Yeah, the startup scenes in places around the world are just as as hungry to go out and create something new and to build new products to better their own their own local communities and stuff. Yeah, I totally agree with that.

Tim Bourguignon 31:32
I'm not sure we will have the opportunity to do that someday. But if I do, oh, boy, we'll jump on it. That would be great. Um, well, um, we kind of reached the end of our time box. As a last question, and maybe this can be applied for an asteroid. Where does is the name of your company come from?

Kevin Keller 31:52
So the company is organized under a US company, grumpy code studio. And that was just kind of me sitting at a desk staring angrily at the goats outside my window at the time who were a bleeding. I was quite grumpy, quite grumpy at them. And they were both so it stuck. There's a cute name and it stuck. So okay,

Tim Bourguignon 32:23
that's a good sorry. That's a cool story.

Tim Bourguignon 32:26
Okay, is there anything you want to to plug where you're going to be next door? I don't know if you're doing public speaking if you have engagements in the future or something like this? Oh,

Kevin Keller 32:36
yeah, sure. Actually, uh, we are working on a small startup in Tbilisi, Georgia at the moment, called Nomad launch pad. The aim of this startup will be to be a community of developers and entrepreneurs who want to become digital nomads. So if you're thinking about doing a startup, and you want to be a digital nomad, the goal of this program would be to get you in, get some consultations with business advisors, tax attorneys, and have just a community of like minded people to grow your startup, get started the right way. Get your taxes and your structuring and all that stuff done. Basically avoid all the mistakes that I've made. About three years. Yeah, so that's that's kind of, that's the big project we're working on right now.

Tim Bourguignon 33:26
Okay. Is there a webpage hurry

Kevin Keller 33:28
up? Yeah, it's Nomad. launchpad.com.

Tim Bourguignon 33:32
Okay. And that's to the show notes as well. Yep. Well,

Tim Bourguignon 33:36
anything to add to the discussion?

Kevin Keller 33:39
I now have I just encourage everybody to give digital nomad thing a try, and it's a heck of a lot of fun.

Tim Bourguignon 33:48
I believe you'll never believe you have that. Well, Kevin, thank you very much for joining us this morning. And I hope you have great fun in your travel or not so much travel. Maybe next year we will see.

Kevin Keller 34:00
Okay, thank you so much for having me.