I’ve been working remotely since the beginning of my career. It all started in 2012 when I got my university degree in economics and management, but then decided that instead, what I really wanted to do, was to build software.
Instead of going through a bootcamp and getting a job as a junior developer at some local company, I spent the next year locked in my room, trying to learn as much as humanly possible. I devoured books, articles, and anything else related to software and startups. I was hell-bent on catching up to my friends, some of whom just completed their computer science degrees, and have been programming since their late teens. Almost every moment was spent acquiring knowledge; even while out drinking, I annoyed them with an endless stream of programming related questions. I created wireframes, designs, and spent hours coding late into the night. But most importantly, I was learning how to learn.
A year later I started running out of savings; I needed to get my first real job. I checked out local job boards and startup career pages but found nothing compelling. A few days later I received an email from a friend saying he was approached by a New York based company. They were looking for a front-end developer to lead a project-wide responsive redesign of their web application. I googled the company name and was presented with tons of articles on TechCrunch, FastCompany, VentureBeat, Elle and more; they were a fairly hot startup and had just received their second round of investment. My friend introduced us and we scheduled a Skype call.
I was super nervous. How could I with barely a year’s worth of experience lead a project-wide redesign of a complex web application? Fortunately, the Skype call ended up going well and the CEO decided to put me on a week-long trial. The pay she offered me was more than that of experienced senior developers in my country — the whole thing seemed too good to be true. Upon receiving the first task I was overjoyed to realize that it was well within the limits of my skill. I nailed the trial and continued working full-time; turns out all those nights spent coding amounted to something.
Since then, I’ve never stopped growing and have worked with companies and entrepreneurs from all over the world, mostly from the United States — all remotely, on a project-by-project basis.
Not being tethered to a specific geographic location vastly broadens the pool of potential engagements.
Depending on where you live, it can be difficult to find local engagements where your skillset sufficiently aligns with the project requirements — all the more so if you’re a multifaceted professional — for example a front-end developer and UX designer, who is also interested in conversion and retention optimization. Working remotely makes it easier to find projects where clients can benefit from a wider range of your skills; either directly, or by having you help with finding, vetting, and hiring other professionals.
And while we’re talking about delivering value, I produce best results when I work on projects that I find genuinely interesting, and from my experience, US based companies are often more fascinating than their European counterparts. I’m generalizing a bit here, but there’s simply more innovation happening in the US — Europeans tend to avoid risk taking and instead value stability. Here in Europe it’s all about internal SAP-like software written in Java, webshops, and US startup clones. However, the situation has started improving a bit lately and in the future things might be different.
Living in the EU grants me the opportunity to settle and work in any of it’s member states, in addition to some other countries like Switzerland. For example, I was born in Croatia which occupies the lower half of EU countries when sorting by GDP per capita. If I wanted to increase my rates I could move to Berlin or even Zurich, where tech salaries often reach San Francisco levels, and $1XX,000 earnings are the norm. However, when you factor in costs of living which in the example of Zurich often approach $8,000 per month, the idea of working there becomes much less appealing.
The truth is that there’s often a limit to how much you can earn, no matter where you move. Europe in general is much more egalitarian than the United States. Income inequality is less pronounced, and even low-skilled jobs provide enough for a decent living. People aren’t as entrepreneurial, they trust their governments to take care of them, and they value simple stress-free life. Such way of thinking makes for a stable society that takes care of the less fortunate, but it doesn’t promote innovation, healthy risk taking, and excellence in general.
This wide-spread mentality, albeit to a lesser degree, reflects in European tech scene as well. For example, salary differences between junior and senior professionals are often quite small, and employee value is rarely measured by the quality of output. Too much importance is placed upon corporate pecking order, and managers often equate team productivity with the number of chairs being filled.
Many US based companies think in a different way. Return on investment is the only metric that counts, and employees are generally compensated based on the value they provide. When you factor in the unceasing demand for senior talent, working with US based companies to me personally, becomes a no-brainer.
Of course, there are always exceptions to the rule; not all European companies act this way. In addition, US based companies aren’t the only ones who are willing to pay for quality. For example, I’ve worked with a South African startup and they were happy to offer San Francisco-like compensation to self-managing, high-skilled remote candidates.
Commanding higher rates allows me to take time off between projects, and to me, this is one of the biggest benefits of working remotely. Being a contractor, the average length of my engagements is six to eight months of full-time work. After each project, I’ll take a couple of months off to learn new skills and improve my existing ones.
For example, a year and a half ago after finishing up with a project, I decided it was time to properly learn React and get familiar with Node.js and MongoDB. I took a month off to read dozens of articles, examine documentation, and to create this simple Trello clone. I then spent another month brushing up on my CS basics, and reading a couple of marketing books.
Taking a few months off to self-educate ties in incredibly well with having a larger pool of engagements to choose from. For example after taking a month off to learn React, I ended up choosing a project where I was to architect a complex React web application from scratch. And in case you’re wondering — yes — it went swimmingly.
Charging more also makes it much easier to start your own projects. In 2014 after spending a year on two back-to-back engagements, my partner and I started Movieo. We were able to spend most of the next year working on it, all thanks to our savings. If we had worked for standard European rates there’s no way we could had taken almost a whole year off. Apart from being incredibly fun and challenging to work on, Movieo proved itself as a valuable piece of our portfolio and has landed us multiple job and networking opportunities. It was a pure passion project but the next idea might be profitable, and instead of yielding power to investors I’d rather use a piece of my own savings to fund it.
In addition to starting your own project, you also have the ability to change your specialization, or even switch to an entirely different line of work. Say something exciting, for example augmented reality, starts gaining traction among the general public. With enough savings, you could easily take a year off to fill your skill gaps and become an expert in a new, thriving field.
In summary, charging more through contracting gives you certain freedoms. Freedom to educate yourself, to work with companies that are genuinely interesting, to start your own projects, or to even change your entire line of work. Taking advantage of these freedoms can have a powerful snowball effect on your career.
No commuting equals more working hours which in turn equals more savings. Alternatively, it equals more free time. Either way, it’s better than sitting in traffic and listening to podcasts.
One exception would be cycling to work — I love cycling.
In the early days of our career, my partner and I had rented a small office to work from. However, with time, we realized that working in the same room isn't paramount to our success. Nowadays, we work mostly from home and we both love it.
There’s also an option of joining one of many coworking spaces in my area, but I’ve never felt the need to do so. From my experience, having the ability to work in my own private environment with no random interruptions outweighs the benefits of having some people around to chat with.
The fact that I live in the bustling city centre also helps. In the unlikely event where I feel isolated or lonely, there’s always someone around to grab a cup of coffee with.
I guess what matters most is having a bunch of healthy relationships outside of work. A week consists of 120 waking hours, and only one third of those hours are spent working. There’s more than enough time left to hang out with friends, family, and significant others.
The truth is that for some people working alone is a blessing, and for others, it’s a curse. I’m slightly introverted and generally love spending time on my own, so take my experience with a grain of salt. To me, the 8 hours spent working alone are not a prison — but instead — they’re often a sanctuary.
If you’re ambitious and decide to only take on projects that captivate you, working becomes enjoyable and you won’t slack or procrastinate. You might however have issues with working too much — and yes — this is an actual problem for me. There will be moments where the work I’m doing is so engrossing, that I’ll have trouble stopping myself from working for free. This often happens when I’m trying to solve a tough, compelling problem.
In those situations, I’ll often go for a hike in the nearby mountains. Alternatively, if I’m really in the zone and if the project permits it, I’ll increase my workload for the week and charge accordingly. Clients are usually happy to go along with it because they end up getting the same ROI, but sooner.
In general, it’s important to create and follow daily working schedules, and stop work time from spilling over into the rest of the day.
The only time where working remotely becomes somewhat inconvenient is during brainstorming sessions. Having everyone in the same room together to hash things out face-to-face is superior to video conferencing. Especially when you need a whiteboard or a piece of paper to sketch things out. However on most projects, these moments are few and far between so it’s really not that big of a deal. In most other day-to-day situations, video chat works just as good if not better, since all participants can continue using their computers while talking.
Time spent on meetings and chats should be reduced to a minimum anyways. The same information can almost always be conveyed through project management tools, with the added benefit of no interruptions. That way, the information is saved in a structured format and is accessible to everyone at all times.
Working remotely broadens my pool of potential engagements, enables me to command rates above European standards, and makes it easy to forge a great career path.
While I personally find working remotely convenient and fulfilling, it’s important to keep in mind that there are different strokes for different folks.
If you have a hard time keeping yourself motivated or don’t have an adequate social circle outside of work, working remotely will prove to be tough for you.
However, if you’re motivated, self-managing, and have a clear vision of where you want to go, remote working might tick all the right boxes.
In any case, if you’ve never tried working remotely, take on a small project and see where it takes you.