Nomadic programming (part 2)

It’s time to re-visit nomadic programming. Read part 1 to get caught up.

nomad [noh-mad]: (1) a member of a people or tribe that has no permanent abode but moves about from place to place, usually seasonally and often following a traditional route or circuit according to the state of the pasturage or food supply. (2) any wanderer; itinerant.

As defined in part 1, a nomad is a freelancer who spends the day roaming between various wi-fi hotspots instead of working from home. This isn’t just about hanging out at a coffee shop like a hipster. This is about getting out of the house and into a more stimulating environment, creating opportunity for networking, and yes, enjoying some delicious food and drink in the process.

So now that you’re onboard with the concept, what’s the actual procedure for being a nomad? I’ve been nomading for 8 years and have picked up a few tips and tricks that I’ve found maximize enjoyment and productivity. Follow these guidelines for nomading success.

What to do

  • Bring a power splitter. Finding outlets is the perennial problem of the nomadic programmer. Most cafés and coffee shops have only a handful of outlets available. Instead of having to arrive early to snag one, bring a power splitter with you and politely ask to throw it on an outlet that’s already in use. If you get a big enough splitter, you can even offer power to fellow nomads who weren’t as forward-thinking as you were. This highly portable splitter is one of my favorites.
  • Bring headphones. Some people enjoy the noise at coffee shops, true. Even if you’re one of those people, it can be helpful to have a pair of headphones on you if the noise becomes too much, or if you need to watch a video or listen to a podcast. If your headphones have a boom mic, so much the better. It’s practically impossible to participate in a conference call in the midst of heavy background noise without a headset mic. I’ve used this model from Logitech for years. It’s light, inexpensive, and works well.
  • Tethering means freedom. Wi-fi hotspots are ubiquitous these days, but with that ubiquity comes increased unreliability. Slow wi-fi is the bane of the productive freelancer. That’s why you should always have a backup. Tethering to your iPhone, iPad, or Android device is the equivalent of “wi-fi insurance.” It’s a relatively inexpensive way to ensure you’ll always be able to get online, even when the hotspot at Starbucks is being rebooted. It also opens up a world of new nomading locations. I once ran a conference call with a client from beside a beautiful golf course. That wouldn’t have been possible if I hadn’t brought my own wi-fi.
  • Carry business cards. One huge benefit of nomading is the opportunity to meet and network with people. It’s amazing how frequently this happens. Don’t get caught without a stack of business cards. You need something to hand out to people you meet so they can follow up with you later. I actually landed a freelance job from someone I met at Bruegger’s once.
  • Bring a water bottle. Most cafes and coffee shops offer water, but the cups are usually tiny. Purchasing bottled water is always an option, but staff are usually happy to refill your bottle for you. I like these stainless steel bottles for their size, durability, and tactile feel.
  • A wireless mouse can’t hurt. It’s nice having an alternative to the trackpad, especially if you’ll be nomading for more than a couple of hours.
  • Use a quality bag. It’s important to have something to carry your stuff in. Don’t cheap out here. A good bag will serve you for years. I like 5.11 packs. They don’t have a fancy padded pocket for your laptop, but they’re practically indestructible.

What not to do

  • Don’t dress like a slob. It’s easy for us programmers to let our clothing choices slide into the gutter. When we’re nomading, though, we’re out in public. We’ll be meeting new people. Some of those people might be potential clients. So it’s important that our dress reflect our professionalism. I’m not saying you need to wear a tux to Starbucks, but you should probably reserve the ratty jeans and stained T-shirt for home.
  • No freeloading. It’s incredibly inconsiderate to park yourself at an establishment, use their wi-fi, and not buy anything. Don’t do it.
  • Don’t ignore the owner and staff. Along those same lines, building good relationships with the business owner and staff can be very rewarding. When you become a regular customer, leave good tips, and clean up after yourself, the staff will remember and you’ll get better service as a result (and even some freebies at times).
  • Make healthy choices. Modern America is sedentary. As programmers, we’re likely more sedentary than the average American. That’s why it’s critical to make healthy choices while we’re out and about. Pass on the morning bagel or doughnut doughnut and enjoy some bacon and eggs instead. You don’t need that soda, unsweetened tea has far fewer calories and won’t trigger an afternoon crash. And try to get out for a brisk 20 minute walk at some point.
  • Security matters. Whenever you’re using public wi-fi you’re taking a risk. That risk can be mitigated by using a VPN or, better yet, by always tethering to your own wi-fi connection. Portable wi-fi hotspots are inexpensive and provide an extra layer of protection.
  • Avoid peak times. Nothing is worse than trying to perform an emergency deploy to a production web server during the lunch rush at Moe’s. A technique I’ve found helpful is to hit the popular lunch spots during mid-morning, hop over to a coffee shop during the lunch rush, and head back to the café during the afternoon lull. I despise overcrowded places and this technique was quite effective at ensuring that my surroundings were relatively calm throughout the day.


Pretty straightforward, right? Take what you find useful from these lists. Discard what doesn’t work for you. Come up with some best practices of your own. Half the fun of nomading is the adventure. Where will you end up? Who will you meet? You never know what each new day might bring. So get out there and start identifying your favorite places to nomad.

If you’re not sure how to get started, consider joining a local programming Meetup like this one. Even user groups will occasionally host a social gathering at a restaurant or coffee shop. Just keep in mind that while nomading as a group can be fun, the real adventure resides in striking out on your own.

Have you tried nomadic programming? Did you enjoy it or despise it? Do you have any tips or tricks that worked for you? Share your experience in the comments below.