Interview with Technomadia

Interview with full-time software developers Chris Dunphy & Cherie Ve Ard of Technomadia.

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The following is the complete text from our interview with Chris Dunphy & Cherie Ve Ard of Technomadia, as featured in our How to Make a Living on the Road article.

Wand’rly:
The basics, for our dear readers. Can you give me your names and ages?
Technomadia:
We are Cherie, age 38 and Chris, age 39.
Wand’rly:
It sounds like you were both pretty set with your jobs before you became full timers, and I think I can get most of the info I need to set things up in the article from your various sites, so lets start somewhere around the months just before you got on the road, Chris, though this applies to you as well Cherie. How much preplanning did you do from your initial “I want to live and work on the road” notion to actually clocking your first mile?
Technomadia:
Our stories here are different.
Chris:
I’ve always dreamed of living nomadically, especially after I encountered the idea of technomadism (you can take it with you!) when I stumbled across Steve Roberts (the original Technomad– see www.microship.com) in the mid-90’s. But the time was never right – I had a string of jobs that were just too good to leave. And though I was able to travel the world for work – the whirlwind there-and-back-again pace of business travel just isn’t the same.

When PalmSource began to implode and my projects were canceled, I found myself making plans to hit the road full-time but procrastinating about actually making it happen. I jumpstarted the process by calling my landlord and giving him two months notice. That deadline lit a fire under me – I had to quickly find and buy a trailer, track down a tow vehicle, and pair down my years of accumulated belongings to cast off and hit the road.

Fortunately, I was debt free, had a nice severance package, and ample savings accumulated – so I was able to concentrate on getting on the road, trusting that I’d be able to figure out the “generate an income” thing later. I’ve been on the road now since April 1st, 2006 – with no end in sight.

Cherie:
I had worked from home since 1994, and was already integrating in remote work days with personal travel as early as 2002. So for me, the work part of hitting the road full time wasn’t that big of a leap – I was already used to working from a laptop using a tethered smartphone for internet access. After meeting Chris and realizing we were destined to be life mates, we both moved into my Florida home to figure out a plan of action.. including taking several extended road trips to test out the living space for two. It was around mid March 2007 that we decided to give an extended several month road trip together a try, so I set to gearing up my entire life to go mobile and sold most of my stuff. Meanwhile Chris started making modifications to the solar powered trailer to accommodate two power hungry laptops. It was May 10, 2007 that we pulled out of my driveway in Florida and didn’t return for 7 months.
Wand’rly:
What would each of you say was the biggest obstacle, the one thing that you feared the most about leaving behind your stick houses and becoming nomads?

Cherie:
I didn’t fear leaving behind a house, however I do miss my hot tub tremendously. I did fear leaving behind my support network of friends and family – I was quite used to having a continuity of community. The ebb and flow of in person community is still an aspect of nomadic life I struggle to find balance in.

Chris:
I don’t remember any particular fears, only excitement. Going nomadic isn’t an irrevocable life decision – so what is there to be afraid of? If something isn’t working, just change course. And you can always return to a fixed-place existence – perhaps even in a new city. The one important thing to always remember is that changing course isn’t a sign of failure – that sort of flexibility is a core point of the journey. If you keep that in mind, the fears just fall away.

Though it wasn’t a fear – as a single guy setting off alone, one thing that I thought I would be putting on hold when I hit the road was my dating life. The last thing I expected out of my first year on the road was finding a woman who wanted to sell her house and join me – especially considering I was living in a tiny 16′ trailer lacking even the most basic plumbing at the time! But in the end, what a perfect test of compatibility!

Wand’rly:
Thinking of the transition period, the first couple of months working from the road, what were some of the biggest changes you experienced in your daily routine from what you’d been doing when you were stationary?

Cherie:
Our first year on the road we lived primarily off-grid in a super tiny teardrop travel trailer powered by solar. We hardly ever stayed in campgrounds with hook-ups, as we just didn’t need them. We had no bathroom, no air conditioner and no refrigeration. So it was a huge shake-up in a daily routine – from having to carefully watch our battery monitors to make sure we could compute through the evening, always looking for a cellular signal for our internet connection and even where to take a bathroom break.

We also had to convert our bed to a table if we wanted to work on anything resembling a desk – we soon learned that wasn’t sustainable, especially given our slightly offset natural sleep rhythms. There was one evening Chris needed to work through the night on a project, and I ended up sleeping curled up on a cushion on the floor at his feet. That was biggest factor that drove us to having our second trailer, a 17′ fiberglass ‘egg’ by Oliver Travel Trailers, custom constructed for us – so we could always have a bed and a separate table. We traveled in the Oliver for another 3 years, and then subletted a cottage on the US Virgin Island of St. John for a winter. When we returned, we bought a 35′ vintage bus that provides us ample space!

Chris:
I’ve never been fond of daily “routines” – and even when I had a silicon valley job I’d intentionally seek out ways to break up the routine as much as possible. For example, I’d take different routes home from work, intentionally get lost, take pubic transit (4 different trains!) – etc. These games could easily double my commute (to as much as 2hrs each way!), but they made it into an adventure and that kept me sane. On the road, every day has elements of newness and adventure, and I love that.
Wand’rly:
How do you get your Internet access, and how does it compare to when you lived in a traditional house? Has the way you get Internet evolved over the years you’ve been traveling?

Cherie:
When we hit the road in 2006/2007, what we know today as 3G was just starting to roll out. In most of the places we traveled, we were lucky to get 1xRT speeds (dubbed 2G these days). After coming from a cable based internet in our previous homes, it was like taking a step back into the last century in terms of connectivity – back to when a 56000 baud modem was revolutionary. On days where we could barely get a whiff of 1xRT even with an external antenna, it felt very much like roughing it. And on days we could get some solid 3G – it was something to rejoice over.

Nowadays, 3G is in far more places and we’re witnessing the next evolution. The rollout of 4G/LTE is about at the same place that 3G was back then – available mostly in just more major cities. With our normal bar set at 3G, anything faster is simply amazing. But an even bigger change has been the increased prevalence of data caps, which really do limit the nomad who relies on internet connectivity to stay productive. 5GB of data just isn’t that much. So we seek other solutions, such as buying our bandwidth from resellers like Millenicom.com, where can go contract free and get caps that are actually usable.

In addition to our Verizon based Millenicom.com air card (hooked into a booster antenna system), we also utilize a WiFiRanger that can bring a distant open WiFi signal into our bus. A nice change has been more and more RV Parks offering WiFi, and it works more of the time these days than it did back then. We can also tether from our iPhones on AT&T when Verizon fails us (which they do). And if all else fails, we carry a satellite dish on a tripod that we can deploy and re-activate – we’re finding we really only need that option if we’re boondocking out west.

Chris:
I’ve actually been playing with mobile connectivity since 1996, when I was one of the first people using a Ricochet Modem (which provided wireless Internet in San Francisco and a handful of other cities). I actually canceled my home phone and internet service – for a while relying only on the Ricochet and my cell phone. Living on often unpredictable and unreliable mobile connections teaches you to really optimize your mobile usage – using tabs to load pages in the background, batching up big downloads for when you have bandwidth, and so on.
Wand’rly:
When you left, and even today, do you hold onto a large nest egg “just in case”, or did you just assume you’d be okay?

Cherie:
One of the many things that attracted us to each other was our similar approaches to personal finance. We were both in our early 30s, but unlike many of our peers we had both avoided consumer debt and built up some savings. Not needing to worry about making debt payments gives you so much more flexibility!

We don’t consider our savings and investments to be a nest egg for ‘what if’, but rather for funding whatever the future brings us. But it’s also nice to know that if we really wanted to and went into a similar minimalist/frugal mode like our first year of travel, we could actually go many years without worrying about an income source. That gives us a tremendous sense of freedom, and allows us to be very picky about the work we take on.

We do try to fund our daily living expenses entirely from earned income, and not dipping into our savings. But it is nice to have the option.

Chris:
If we ever need to replenish our bankroll and regular work is lacking, we know that we can always take temporary jobs too. There are lots of seasonal jobs and workamping jobs to be had for full-time travelers who come equipped with their own place to live. You might not make a lot, but it doesn’t take a lot to live a great life.
Wand’rly:
Do you feel more or less secure with the income you make now, as opposed to when you were working for someone else solely or living in one place?

Cherie:
Living on the road gives you tremendously more agility to choose your income levels and expenses. Don’t have work coming in this month? Unlike having a mortgage or rent payment that you must make, you can choose to stay still and find a cheap/free camping opportunity, house-sitting, workamping or other opportunities. Fuel costs going through a temporary blip in increased price? Unlike commuting for a job where you must still fill the tank without any increased compensation, you can choose to just not drive as many miles.

Chris:
I don’t feel particularly different. I’ve seen enough layoffs to know that traditional jobs are never as secure as they appear, and I there is a lot of freedom that comes from being able to control your expenses and even locale.
Wand’rly:
Do you consider your expenses to be higher or lower than before you went nomadic? Are the basics, food, shelter, etc. cheaper? Do you think you spend more while traveling simply because you’re more likely to try out a new restaurant or museum, etc?

Cherie:
The basics really aren’t all that different than they were before – we eat out/eat in about the same proportion as to when we were stationary. We have things like full-timers RV insurance (similar to a combined auto & homeowners policy), health insurance, auto insurance, vet bills for our cat, buying new technology (it’s our life blood), etc. Connectivity costs are a bit more expensive, but really not all that much more – afterall, we used to have a cable bill, phone bills, etc. We do discretionary things – like attend festivals, go to movies, run in organized races, visit attractions, go to the theatre – but these were all things we did before too. We probably do pay a bit more sometimes, as we’re often not able to access cheaper pre-registration prices as we hardly ever plan our travels more than a couple weeks out.

For us, our living expenses otherwise are significantly cheaper – combing our fuels costs and camping fees, they’re still less than what either of us paid individually to maintain our stationary lives (which we both also traveled a lot on top of.) All and all, living on the road is probably about 1/2 the cost of previous stationary lives. But keep in mind, Chris came from a downtown San Francisco penthouse apartment, and Cherie from a beachside home in Florida.

Cherie, you’ve mentioned online that you run a business that was initially started by your parents. Are they still involved in the business? How did they feel about this transition?

Cherie:
My father is a software pioneer, having started the business back in the late 70s. I took it over in the mid 90s, and my parents have always remained integral partners and teammates. However, we are at the moment going through a major transition to get my parents into their well earned retirement – which should be completed this fall.

As to how my transition to full time nomadism affected them – well, I had already been doing some personal travel and continuing to work remotely. So they were comfortable with the distinction between vacation time and travel (I actually started by simply not telling them I was ‘on travel’ until I got back – and once they noticed no difference, it became easier). So when Chris came into my life and I announced I was going to try living on the road full time, they were at first a bit skeptical. But over the years, they’ve seen it work really well. So much so, that my parents have become part-time digital nomads themselves – integrating in personal road trips, carrying a laptop and cellular aircard to work from the road. We enjoy rendezvousing with them in locations all over.

Aside from continuing to run that business with my parents, Chris and I have started our own projects up too – including launching a line of travel related iPhone/iPad apps, custom developing apps for clients and occasional technical writing and consulting gigs.

Wand’rly:
How have your careers changed over the years? Are any changes by necessity, or by choice?

Cherie:
My career has always been in flux as I’ve explored many paths. When I first entered my parent’s business, I was hired on to be a technical writer… which then morphed into me becoming a programmer, project manager and business analyst. I’ve pretty much abandoned coding myself, and concentrating more on the design and management side of things. But I’ve also explored going to back to medical school, being a personal organizer consultant and other income streams. I think the biggest change that being nomadic has had for me is not keeping set business hours. Even though I had worked from home, I always had it in my mind that I had to be at my desk from 8a – 5p. These days, I work when I need to and just make sure I’m accessible to my clients during their work hours. I’ve gotten far more comfortable being out and about during the day, instead of sitting in front of my computer waiting for an e-mail to come in – my iPad plays a big role in that.

Chris:
I’ve never followed a traditional straightforward career path – I’ve been a Programmer, Sys Admin, Tech Journalist, Radio Personality, Spy, Developer Relations Manger, Evangelist, Apologist, Marketing Guy, and all-around Geek… I started off with computer science and computer engineering degrees, only to leave engineering behind to head to San Francisco to become one of the founding editors of ‘boot Magazine’ (still on newsstands – now called ‘Maximum PC’). I left journalism to lead a developer evangelism group for a 3D graphics company, and then after a few other interesting jobs I ended up at Palm/PalmSource focused on mobile technology. I am enjoying working for myself now – and lately have been spending a lot of time getting proficient at iOS programming.
Wand’rly:
What were some of the most useful resources to you when you were first looking at how to transition from running a business in one location to doing so on the road?
Cherie:
I can’t really say I consulted any resources about how to transition, as I was already working from home for many many years, and already used to working remotely while on travel. For sure, I didn’t have any examples of others doing what we were looking to do, and it wasn’t until we were on the road for over a year that we even encountered a similar mobile professional.

Chris:
Having worked at Palm/PalmSource, I was at the epicenter of mobile technology – so in one sense I was the resource. I’d actually speak at conferences and to the press about how to use technology and work on the road. As I mentioned above – a personal inspiration was the amazing technomadic adventures of Steve Roberts, as chronicled in his book ‘Computing Across America’. But Steve’s example was inspiring – but lacking in practical advice. Not everyone can integrate near infinite amounts of completely custom advanced technology into computerized bicycle…
Wand’rly:
How many hours do you typically work a week?
Cherie:
As far as how many hours a week we work … there’s really no typical. It can be a few hours a week to nearly a 100. All just depends on the project. We prefer working in intense bursts for a few weeks, and then having time where we don’t worry all that much about work.
Wand’rly:
How many hours do you typically work a week?
Can you describe a typical work day to us?

Cherie:
Again, we don’t really have a typical in our lives.

If we’re on a development project – it’s wake up, sit at the computer, try to remember to take a break to eat, take a walk together to brainstorm, more time at the computer, break to find something close by and cool, back at the computer, go to bed perhaps before the sun comes up. It’s not unusual for us to work 12-20 hr days when we’re deep on a project.

When we’re not on a project, most of our clients are on ‘maintenance and support mode’ – we concentrate then more on time with friends & family, exploring a new place, working on our own projects, writing for the blog, networking and being on call for our clients.

Wand’rly:
How many hours do you typically work a week?
Do you have difficulty staying focused on projects while you’re traveling? What do you do to stay on task when you’ve got a new and exciting place just outside the bus’ door?

Cherie:
After a while on the road, the concept of ‘new and exciting’ places diminishes greatly. Our travels are much more based around geographic flexibility to be around people and to attend events. Even when we’re on an intense project pulling long hours, we still have off time – just like anyone else. But instead of when I was stationary getting into weekly routines (ie. Wednesday morning yoga, Thursday evening belly dance, Friday evening dinner with local friends, etc.) – we have a new locale to explore. We’ve long ago gotten out of feeling like tourists in a new location and feeling we have to rush to see every spot quickly. We’re just simply not on vacation, this is a lifestyle. We like to travel a bit slow, being in locations measured by several days or weeks, so that there’s time to have work hours and explore/social hours in our schedule. It’s really all about balance.

Chris:
Being nomadic with no scheduled end in sight, there is no rush to see everything in a new place. We can always see it next time. It takes away the pressure to do all the touristy things, but sometimes that means that there is a cool and exciting place right outside our door that we actually end up missing!
Wand’rly:
How many hours do you typically work a week?
How do your clients feel about you traveling? Do you make it a point to tell them that you travel, do they ever even ask?

Cherie:
When I first decided to hit the road, I told all of my clients what I was up to. Reminding them that I had always answered their calls and e-mails from wherever I was at anyway. Most of my clients I’ve worked with for over a decade, so there’s a long history of trust… and they had all been in my home-based office before, or had me to their offices and seen that I still supported my other clients while there. So they were already comfortable with our remote work strategy. My clients have always been like family to me. Most of the time when I pick up the phone, they excitedly ask where I’m at today and what the weather is like. And if we’re coming anywhere near them, I always reach out and offer a courtesy visit – that face-to-face time is invaluable.

And we’ve caught some of them bragging about our cool lifestyle and workstyle, and how we’ve made an art out of working remotely. I’d say by and large, most our clients have a bit of envy.

Chris:
I’ve known other nomads who keep it secret, at least for a while. But what is the point in that? Trying to deceive your clients is always a bad idea. If they aren’t fond of working with a nomad, they aren’t going to be good fit long term.
Wand’rly:
How many hours do you typically work a week?
How do you find new work?

Cherie:
It finds us.

Not once have we ever sought out work, and nor do we advertise. We keep present, attend conferences and keep our work life as part of our conversation. Generally work opportunities come to us via word of mouth – either from existing clients, or via people we’ve talked to about what we do. We turn down a good number of opportunities simply because it’s just not a good fit, and we like being in the position of not needing to seek out gigs or take whatever comes our way.

And of course, we not only work for clients – we also create our own products. Having a line of apps gives us a residual income as well, which is always nice. So when we don’t have work lined up, we have an unending list of ideas that we’ll work on and get launched. And even if the apps didn’t bring in much revenue, they give us solid working examples of our development work to show potential clients. We’ve gotten a couple of client leads from customers of our apps who contact us.

When you live from an attitude of abundance, instead of scarcity, it’s amazing to realize just how many opportunities are out there if you’re open to them.

Wand’rly:
How many hours do you typically work a week?
I read that you also occasionally do various other odd jobs such as working for Amazon, volunteering for the original Obama campaign and organizing parties. Can you tell us about those experiences and why you do them? I would think that packing boxes and volunteering for future Presidents doesn’t pay nearly what software development does, so why do you do it?

Cherie:
We do it because we are variety-o-philes. We love keeping it interesting and growing both in our careers and experiences. We also love a challenge of figuring out something new that we’ve never done before. And it’s downright exhilarating to take on an intense gig for a short time. We thrive on stretching our minds and capabilities – and you don’t do that if you always stick to doing the same thing.

For instance with the Obama campaign, we were both inspired to contribute. We called up the nearest swing state’s headquarters and told them we were RVers with high tech skills, and could dedicate the entire month before the election to the campaign. They directed us to the regional headquarters in Nevada, which would have more opportunities for parking an RV. We showed up in Carson City, went through about 2-days of training in their campaign office – and then were deployed to establish and run a field campaign office in the very conservative Fallon, NV. Neither of us had participated in campaigns before, and our political involvement up until that time was reading the news and voting. We went in expecting to be knocking on doors or working as data entry geeks. Instead, they recognized our skillsets as a team and had us establishing and running our own office. It’s still mindboggling to think about. It was a month of intense 12-15 hr days, and we gained a lot of confidence that we really are quite capable of doing anything we put our minds towards. It’s a contribution we’re very proud of.

After we came off the Obama campaign, we encountered a community member who was launching a new iPhone app and wanted a spectacular splash at Macworld. He was working with self-funded start-up money and could only cover our expenses of staying in San Francisco for the couple months we had to ramp up this new campaign. We managed the launch of the app into the App Store, getting media attention and then our big splash at Macworld – organzing a double decker bus with a DJd dance party on top around the convention center that gave attendees rides to their after parties while showing them demos of the app. It was a blast, and taught us a lot about the new world of social media, gave us insight into the app market (which we utilized to launch our own apps) – and dude… weeklong DJd bus party with a keg of beer!!

With Amazon, it’s just something we had heard a lot of fellow RVers doing – and we found ourselves with an open month and a facility right along our route. There was no cost to try it out – they paid our camping, and paid a decent wage for our hours. So we went in during the peak season. It was fascinating to be inside the machine and deconstruct it, and literally have our pulse on the consumer index. The work was grueling physically, which put us both in much better shape – we looked at the experience as being paid to go to a fitness bootcamp. And heck, for a month – we can make just about anything be fun. We ended up making enough to pay for the truck we just had to buy to replace our tow vehicle. So new fun experience and a new truck. Not a bad deal.

Chris:
I’ve always found that ranking opportunities based upon how much they pay is probably the worst way to decide what to pursue. As long as your basic living expenses are being met (which can be made very low), then focus on the job that will be the most personally inspiring, or which you can learn the most from.
Wand’rly:
How many hours do you typically work a week?
Finally Chris, what do you mean when you say you’re “an industry spy for Palm?”

Chris:
*laugh* — My official title was “Director of Competitive Analysis”, but unofficially I was Palm/PalmSource’s Chief Spy. My job involved traveling the world buying exotic gadgets, and attending every tech conference, developer event, and trade show – trying to figure out where the mobile industry and Palm’s competitors were heading next. Often this involved using my journalism skills to ask sometimes inebriated people just the right leading questions to get them to spill all their beans to me.

It was a fun job, and I was extremely good at it.

After the article had gone live, Chris had a few additional details he wanted to share with us. It was too late to incorporate them into the piece itself, but we wanted to share them here for posterity!

Chris:
[speaking to some confusion on my part as to when his career began] *laugh* — Indeed, my time at ‘boot’ was ’96 & ’97. And as I’m sure you know all too well, journalism and “hefty salaries” never go together. Taking the job to come to SF and write for boot was actually my lowest paying offer (by far!) out of college – it was going to pay barely more than I made as a part-time student employee, yet was in an area with a vastly higher cost of living.

Of course I said yes. 🙂

After ‘boot’ I gambled on a 3D graphics startup that offered a slightly better than journalism wage, but also stock options. Those options were worthless for most of my time there, but ended up eventually being worth a lot after Micron bought the company moments before it dove into bankruptcy. But I didn’t want to work for big dull corporate Micron, so I actually walked away from 3 years of easy very very lucrative vesting (they wanted me to move to Boise!) to join another startup – this one was conceived at the height of the tech-boom mania and very quickly ended up being completely worthless.

Anyway – it was a roller coaster, but fun. And I was always pursuing the most interesting jobs, never the most profitable (or secure). I eventually ended up at Palm/PalmSource in 2000. There I indeed eventually worked my way up to having a moderately hefty salary, but my stock options were issued at the top of the bubble so they were so far negative that it was laughable. But I was frugal enough to stash enough away that years later I indeed had a good amount of savings when I decided to hit the road.