Traveling, Writing and Programming (2011)
In a nutshell, my year so far has consisted of:
Traveling for 10 months around the world through 17 countries covering Africa, South East Asia, Australasia and North, Central and South America. The trip was centered around surfing and photography
Presenting in Hong Kong, Japan, the US and London
Writing another book on CoffeeScript, soon to be published by O'Reilly.
Building a startup prototype
Presenting at FOWA
And finally, landing a job at Twitter
So, let me start a year ago, in September 2010. I had just left a startup I’d co-founded, and whilst the experience was useful, I was feeling bit burnt out from the incredibly long working hours involved. I was back in England and needed to make some decisions. A long held dream of mine was to move (if only for a few years) to the US, so I wrote the following in Google Notebook:
Choices in life: Do a bachelors at Columbia in NYC Downside - v expensive, not much to learn practically, boring? Upside - it's a uni in NYC! Write a book and apply for an O1 visa Downsides - very time consuming, risky Upsides - good for career, interesting Wait. Just go to NYC for a holiday (3 months). Wait for startup visa. Easy option - not very interesting Maybe do 2, falling back to 3?
If you’ve never been to Africa, you should. Its scenery is raw and beautiful, hard to describe eloquently to those who haven’t experienced it. I had fallen in love with South Africa the previous year, doing a surfing tour up the East coast for three months. This time I only had time for one month, traveling through the Transkei up from Cape Town to Durban. As I travelled North, I started writing, fleshing out some of the chapter ideas I’d proposed to O'Reilly earlier.
The Transkei is an extremely rural part of South Africa, consisting of rolling hills, small villages and mud huts. They still have a chieftain hierarchy and a king, and most locals survive off the land and by fishing. It takes about two days driving on a heavily potholed road to reach my favourite spot, a beautiful cove called Coffee Bay. From there I would charge up batteries and save some articles offline in preparation for further expeditions up the coast.
I vividly remember walking miles down the untouched beaches, traveling from village to village, alone apart for the sand and the waves. At one stage I came across a swollen river, and rucksack held aloft managed to swim across it without drenching my Nikon and iPod. Africa is a place to lose yourself, to free up your mind, and to work out what’s really important in life.
The next stop was Hong Kong, where I had my 21st birthday, and then I traveled by land from Singapore to Hanoi. What most people don’t realize is that Hong Kong is 70% national park, and I had a great time hiking some of the spectacular routes, such as the Dragon’s Back. Some days I’d hang out at boot.hk, a co-working space, and teach a fellow traveler Ruby. Then, at night, I’d party with some couchsurfers in Soho till the early hours.
Traveling through Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam was probably my favorite part of the trip, and if you have never been through Asia, you really should. The countries are beautiful, the weather fair, the food delicious and the people friendly. Angkor Wat is one of the wonders of the world, and should be on everyone’s bucket list. It was Trey Ratcliff’s photographs that inspired me to go there, and indeed many of my other destinations. That man was a catalyst for the trip in the first place.
On some obscure blog, I’d heard tell of a remote and beautiful island off the coast of Cambodia. It spoke of a bar in Sihanoukville, where I could organize a fishing boat out to the place. I, along with some really good friends, took the night bus to the town, and started looking for this legendary bar. The search lasted most of the day, each bar I’d inquire at sending me to another. Finally, I found the place, and organized a shuttle to take us the next morning.
The photo above is of the beach outside our $10 a night shack. Apart from the local inhabitants, our group was alone on the island, free to rein as we pleased. During the day we’d laze on the beach, eating incredible fruit salads the island’s chef had prepared, then at night we’d swim in the sea amongst all the glowing plankton.
Next stop was Vietnam, and we traveled along the Mei Kong’s tributes to reach a border town. There, we were the only westerners, and communicating was definitely an issue. Luckily we found what must have been the only English speaker in town, and he gave us a tour on his bicycle. His help was especially useful when my credit card got gobbled up by an ATM!
Our group parted ways, and by the time I’d reached Vietnam the book was well underway and coming along nicely. I stayed a few extra weeks in Saigon to really make some progress on the chapters, and was around for the Chinese New Year’s celebrations, which were truly spectacular.
Next was Japan, Australia, New Zealand and Hawaii. I can’t possibly cram into this post all the experiences I had, but suffice to say it was the time of my life.
It’s incredible that so much beauty can be packed into one country, but that’s New Zealand for you. Some of my fondest memories are running at sunset around the lake at Wanaka, or hiking for days through the mountains along the Routeburn, carrying all my food and supplies. I made some lifelong friends traveling around that country; it’s truly a piece of paradise.
By the time I’d circumnavigated New Zealand’s South Island, the book was practically finished and submitted to the technical reviewers.
Next up were New York and San Francisco, two incredible cities containing some brilliant developers, some of whom I’m lucky enough to call my friends. Techcrunch Disrupt was awesome (I can highly recommend the hackathon), as was ‘adopt a coder’.
During my stop-over in New York and San Francisco, I did a ton of interviewing at various companies and landed a job at Twitter where I’ll be working on the front-end. I’m absolutely stoked to be working there with such an awesome team, and also by the move to San Francisco, a lifelong dream of mine.
When I was in Costa Rica, I got a tweet from a guy called Roberto, saying he’d read the book and was I interested in doing a surfing tour. Of course I readily agreed and took the bus to San Jose, meeting him a few days later. During the day we’d hack on Spine and Ruby projects at his beach-side condo, using the mobile dongle and car batteries to power our laptops. Then, when the power was low, we’d go out surfing as the solar panels did their work.
I can highly recommend writing a book, especially combining it with traveling. Indeed, if I didn’t have my sights set on San Francisco, I have a feeling I’d still be traveling, consulting and making startups. Being an author won’t make you much money directly, but it will definitely raise your profile and provide you with many more opportunities indirectly. In fact, what I most enjoyed about the process was being able to research and know a subject matter really deeply.
The last year has been the best year of my life, and I have a feeling the next will be better still. While I’ve settled down for the time being, I don’t think I’ll ever shake the lure of traveling; I still carry my passport in one pocket, and my wallet the other, ready to leave at a moments notice.
However, this post is not just about my travels, there’s a message to it:
The peculiar thing about programmers is that they’re the one profession that can easily work remotely and travel, and yet they’re the one profession that doesn’t. Of course there are exceptions, but on my travels I didn’t meet another programmer doing anything similar; a sad state of affairs. My message to fellow programmers is stop making excuses, man up and do it. You only live once, and I guarantee that you will have the time of your life.
As for me, I feel incredibly fortunate to be in the position I’m in, to have found my passion and to be doing what I love every day. That said, much of my current situation is no accident or fluke, but rather the result of planning, goals and work.
The harder you work, the luckier you get
The point of this post isn’t some self-aggrandizing narcissistic pontification, but rather to demonstrate that setting goals works, and to inspire people to do likewise. Work out where you are now, where you want to be in a year, and set-down a series of concrete steps that will get you there. Follow your dreams.
This is a repost of an article first posted in November 2011