Working On the Road

So you’re working remote. You have a deadline, and you’re saaaaay in Southeast Asia, like me. Where can you get it done? I know some people that work quite well from lobbies in hostels. Personally if I need to get more than three hours or so of work done per day I need someplace quiet to work. At hostels I always say that I get distracted by fun.

“Hey Noah, you want to go to the beach?”

“Wow, that sounds like way more fun than what I’m doing!” Clack goes the laptop shut.
I’ve tried a few different ways of doing this. I’m not sure if you thrive on chaos in a work environment; I’ve met a few people who do (ie. development bullpens shudder).

Coffeshops

I’ve was working in Kuta, Bali at a coffee shop quite a bit near the end of my time there. It was great. They had actual ice tea, yes that is ACTUAL ice tea. If you haven’t been out here before you don’t know how rare that is. Most of the ice tea is basically syrup. Aside from that it was some of the only decent WiFi I had found on the island.

This bares mentioning. Most hostel Wifi sucks. It’s not even an issue with the connection. They are using consumer grade routers with WPA/WPA2 encryption. Those routers were only designed to work with maybe 4-6 devices and a lot of the time they are supporting 30+ devices. In addition to that they are almost never configured by someone familiar with the idea of signal interference, or any of the other quick ways of increasing signal strength in wireless networks.

Back to the coffee shop though, I was working there every day for 5-7 hours. It was great. Aircon, good food (although pricey), not too long of a walk, and the internet was fast enough that I wasn’t waiting 20 seconds every time I clicked on something on a server I was remoted into. Also they gave me a cold towel to wipe off the sweat when I came in, and they had power outlets at the tables. The pluses were many, but there were some downsides too.

I was averaging $7-$10 per day while I was there. That was a big glass of iced tea, a small glass of iced tea (after lunch), and a burger. The burger was really good, they put beets in it sometimes, who knew that would be so good? I was hitting my deadlines and making money being there, so it didn’t really bother me, but that’s a bit of money in Bali. I was only paying $6/day for my dorm room, and street food was about $1 for a meal. It might not be worth it to you, depending on how much income you’re pulling in on those days. If I was only working one or two hours I might not have paid for it.

Mobile Data

I used primarily used mobile data to connect in the Philippines and India, although I used it a little bit in the islands in Southern Thailand. The data was not bad in either place, and it was much faster then the WiFi. I WiFi tethered my phone to my laptop to connect. It is pretty easy to setup and almost all smartphones support doing it. Just remember that you need an unlocked GSM phone to use it outside of the USA. Other countries don’t need to worry as much. BTW it’s almost impossible to get a SIM card in Sweden if you aren’t a citizen (if you can it’s super expensive).

In India most places are using a mobile dongle connected to an access point (router). So your phone will have as much bandwidth as the rest of the restaurant/bar/cafe combined. It’s a pretty easy sell. In Goa it ran me $20 USD/10GB of 3G. I was getting about 5-6Mbps, but the latency was pretty high. This was not in the major areas of Goa either. It was in a pretty small fishing village. Also getting an Indian SIM card is a bit of a pain. I’ll link to a walk-through on how to get one.

In the Philippines the SIM cards are cheap and so is the data. It’s not as cheap as India, but few places are. I paid $30/month for unlimited 4G when it was available and 3G everywhere else. It was pretty good. I used Smart based on some reviews I saw online. You can buy prepay credit almost everywhere, although the SIM cards can be a bit hard to find if you aren’t in the city. Grab one in Manila or Cebu if you go through there. I was able to get some work done in the hostel on my bed while tethered, but I kind of wish I had someplace quieter. Eventually I ended up connecting to my phone and combining it with the next option.

Hotels/Private rooms

Some hotels do have decent WiFi. The one I’m writing this at has excellent connectivity. Thailand in general has had good internet. Koh Lanta didn’t, but it’s one of the smaller, less developed islands. Phuket is fine here. They are connected via fiber. I lead with this because I paid $25/night in Cebu City for a hotel because I thought it would have good wifi. It didn’t. The room was nice though and they had room service, and McDonalds delivery (don’t judge me). Even if you are tethering to your phone it still might be worth spending the extra money on the room if you need to get a bunch of work done. I’ve been working full time here in Phuket, and in Manila and Cebu City I took a week or two each to get some work out the door and have a break from the craziness.

The private room is a good compromise, if you don’t want to become a hermit like I tend to when I’m working a lot. You have your own space to work, but you can come out in the evenings and see people and socialize. I did this for a few days in Manila before I went to Nepal. It was nice. The hotel can be more social if you know people in town, but it’s much harder to meet people traveling outside of a commons area, and hotels don’t have those. If you’re lucky they’ll have an overpriced bar.

Restaurants

I personally can’t stand working at restaurants unless I don’t eat anything. They sometimes have decent WiFi because people are usually just checking FaceBook instead of talking to their friends and they’re not streaming movies. The one exception I’ll put on this is hotel restaurants. People tend to leave you alone and people don’t talk. I still don’t like eating while I’m working somewhere else, but I feel more comfortable doing it at my hotel, although I did eat every day in Bali while I worked, so maybe it’s a comfort thing. It feels weird to me to work at a restaurant. Even at a hotel I’d prefer just to get room service or have something delivered.

Apartments

The closest I got to an apartment, so far on my travels, is an apartel (apartment/hotel) in Manila (specifically just outside Makati). It was pretty nice. the WiFi was bad, but the mobile connectivity was good, and they delivered a lot of fast food (you can see that Manila was not good for my health). I had one of the nicer rooms I stayed at in the Philippines, and it was only $20/day. I even could have cooked there if I had felt like it.

Co-Working Spaces

I know some people that love co-working spaces. I’ve never used them much myself. I was in Koh Phagnan and was right next to one. I went up to it, because I figured the internet would be better then at my hostel. It had a dog in the lobby that hated me, and kept trying to bite me, which was weird because dogs usually love me. No one knew whose dog it was, and nobody was working the desk. I thought about going back later, but it didn’t seem like a place that was conducive to concentration. Other than that it looked quite nice and apparently had dual fiber hookups for fail-over.

I am going to be looking more into co-working spaces if I stay in a city long enough to justify getting setup at one, but I haven’t so far. If I find one I like I’ll be sure to post about it. I did a preliminary check in Bangkok, but the reviews were ho-hum. I’ll check them out if I end up grabbing an apartment there.

Hostels

Now we’re back to hostels. I mentioned before that I can’t get a full day of work done at hotels, but I can get some done. I worked maybe 20-30 hours/month through the beginning of my trip in the Philippines, and I did work in Goa, but that was a two bed private with my buddy.

When I say hostel I specifically mean dorm rooms. The issue for me was that when people walk in and see you on your laptop they feel the need to engage. They think that you are a shut-in that won’t leave your room due to some issue. It’s an admirable reaction because they’re trying to help, but it’s also annoying when you’re interrupted every hour or so by someone talking to you. I mean if I’m on my bed with headphones and a laptop I probably don’t want to talk. Maybe other people don’t have that issue, but if you’re social and get to know the people at the hostel they will talk to you no matter what. It sounds weird, but if you aren’t on the first floor, or next to the commons area it’s less of an issue.

Internet Quality

I’ve done a bunch of talking about where I’ve found the best internet, but I haven’t went into how I judge it. I have pretty specific requirements, but this should give you a good guideline for checking. My requirements are that I need to VPN (secure connect) to a server back in Portland, OR, access servers there, websites, and general web browsing for research.

I have an app on my phone that’s a speed tester. It’s called Ookla. It’s the speedtest.net app, so if you are on a laptop you can also just go to Speedtest.net There is an Android and an IOS version. It doesn’t give all the data I’d like in a speed tester, but it’s free and easy to use. I’d prefer to get package loss and jitter, but we can’t have everything. I take the throughput (higher is better, but 3-5Mpbs is generally enough) as well as the latency (lower is better). I also bring up my FaceBook and see how long it takes to load the news feed. I sometimes bring up a youtube video and see how long it takes to buffer. I also like to go to a couple of blogs that I read and see how fast they load (arstechnica, hackernews, etc).

What I Used

Here is a breakdown of what I used in all the places I’ve been. This is for work. If I was just messing around on FaceBook then it doesn’t really matter how fast the internet is, just that it runs at all.

  • Sweden
    • Some tethering, but I was on international roaming so it was epensive and slow in the rural area where I was staying
  • India
    • Mobile 3G with tethering
  • Philippines
    • Mostly mobile 4G/3G
    • I used WiFi some before I left Manila because I was in the heart of Makati which has pretty good connectivity and was one of the only places with good WiFi I found in the country. The only other place was in Malapascua, which is weird because it’s a really small island.
  • Nepal
    • I was only ever able to get my email to work on the WiFi there. If you’re staying in Kathmandu it might be worth it to grab a SIM card. I spent a lot of time in smaller towns though so it didn’t seem worth it.
  • Singapore
    • I used WiFi, but was pretty underwhelmed. I had heard Singapore had great WiFi, but the place I stayed at didn’t. To be fair it was really cheap for Singapore.
  • Indonesia
    • I had a SIM card here and it worked okay, but in Jakarta my hostel had great WiFi, and in Jojakarta I didn’t do much work. In Bali once I found the coffeeshop I didn’t use anything else
  • Malaysia
    • In Malaysia I used mostly WiFi. I had a SIM card but data wasn’t cheap so I didn’t use it too much. In Penang it was pretty bad. In KL I stayed at an incredibly cheap hostel the first time, and the second time I was working quite a bit, but I was staying with a friend that had an apartment with fiber.
  • Thailand
    • The internet in Thailand is great. I had a SIM card too, and when I wanted faster internet I would use my SIM card, but the WiFi was good. It’s what I’m using now.

The Terror of the 40 Hour Work Week

So, I came out to Phuket in order to get back in shape. I enrolled in a fitness camp and did a meal plan and booked a room for a month. I have done about none of those things, but I have got a ton of work done as well as started to work on some side projects. I’ve been pretty productive even if my sleep schedule would make a doctor wince.

I was thinking about how my remote working situation has changed since I started this trip about a year ago. When I started I wasn’t working much at all because the internet in rural Sweden wasn’t very good, or it wasn’t where I was staying. Also the mobile was a pain/expensive to setup if you weren’t a Swedish citizen. In India I was working about 5ish hours a week over mobile 3g tethering. I’m going to write up a post on what types of internet I was using in each country, and where I got it.

Now I’m working more like 40 hours a week and it’s been a bit of an adjustment. I don’t do very well with a normal 8 hour workday. My working tends to be more in spurts then that. 12 hours one day, maybe just a few the next. I get on a roll and then go until I get out of the zone or get too tired to stay up. I’ve been told that this isn’t how most people work, but it’s always served me pretty well. It lends itself to having days scattered through the week that you don’t have to do a ton off work. Little mini days off help keep you sane. However I will say that if I’m working I tend to work more than 40 hours/week

I guess my point is that in our culture we have come to this shared delusion that all people work best in the exact same hours (9-5), and for the exact same amount of time (40 hours/week). People are a lot more complicated than that, and productivity/creativity is a lot more idiosyncratic to those people. I read once, and agree whole-heartedly, that motivation and creativity wax and wane. You shouldn’t feel the need to do mediocre work just because other people are. Don’t feel bad if you don’t feel the normal work week, and if your job doesn’t allow you to work in the way that you put out your best work then you might want to re-evaluate your working situation. Some of the best engineers I know put out a higher volume of higher quality work if they only work 30ish hours/week. This is heresy in an industry where 60+ hours/week is seen as pretty standard. Although that also isn’t an excuse to slack. If you miss deadlines or put out not much/low quality work then you have other issues.

Most people only work about that much anyways. They sit around, go to meetings, do email, and a cornucopia of other things that do nothing to drive quality or generate revenue for their respective employers. There was a time when I was in meetings for around 30 hours/week. I don’t really consider that work because it does nothing to push out product, or improve quality. I suppose you should take my hourly estimates with a grain of salt though because when I state those numbers I don’t generally include the previously stated activities. Although I will say that I generally prefer a quick Skype call to trying to hash things out over IM/chat. It generally takes a lot longer.

I’ve been ranting a bit, but I feel pretty strongly about this. I’ve been lucky that for the past several years I’ve had more flexibility with my work environments than most people. This has been a combination of luck, conscious choices, and having the pleasure of working with people that are way too good to be seen with the likes of me. Just remember that it’s more productive, and pleasurable, to structure your life around your work then the other way around.

A new start to the blog

A new start to the blog

So I was going over my blog and my personal website, and trying to get them both up to snuff. I finally decided, after much waffling, that having two sites didn’t really make sense. I imported all of my old posts from By the Moon and the Starts and tried my best to make my homesite not look too terrible. So I am planning on going ahead and posting more on this site going forwards.

I’m done with the jumping from one place to another thing for a while, and I’m going to be focusing more on work and other projects. Hopefully this will lead to me having some things to say about the projects I’m working on, as well as how it feels to switch back into a more traditional working mindset. Now granted, I say that as I lay in bed in Phuket typing on my laptop. So onward and upwards as they say.