How To Become A Remote Developer
Can you build apps, while sipping iced lattes, looking over a light blue ocean and pearl white beaches? Yes you can. Let’s talk about becoming a remote developer!
Hi, I’m Reinder. Since 2009 I’ve been a freelance iOS developer, next to creating LearnAppMaking.com and a few indie apps. I work remotely.
I travel abroad for a few months every year, and I’ve worked from coffeeshops and co-working places in New York, Prague, Berlin, Paris, Barcelona, Lisbon, Copenhagen, Oslo, Bangkok, Tokyo, Chiang Mai.
Here’s the office for the day, on the island of Koh Lanta, Thailand:
If you’re anything like me, you like to build things. You look up to the likes of Steve Jobs, Richard Branson and Elon Musk. You regularly zone out with an ebook about making money online, making an impact, or building indie apps.
You make money in US dollars, put them in a European bank account, then spend your cash in Thai baht. Not to mention you got a few crypots stored safely in an offline wallet, HODL’ed or waiting to cash in.
You don’t have a car, an office, and you don’t own a house. Instead, you travel around the world with a carry-on backpack that contains less items than the average toiletry kit. Good WiFi or 4G/LTE is crucial for you to work remotely, and so is strong espresso.
Your work is virtual: you’ve delegated small tasks to a VA you hired with Upwork, and you communicate with your clients and/or team with Skype, Zoom, Hangouts, Slack and Asana.
Want to know how? Let’s dive in!
- How Did You End Up Here?
- Crash Course: How To Make An App
- Case Study: Dating + Facebook + Festivals
- Crash Course: How To Become A Professional Developer
- Crash Course: Going Remote
- Further Reading
How Did You End Up Here?
A while back my former education institute, the place where I studied Mediatechnology, asked me to join a panel for highschool students, for orientation day. They always ask this one tough question: “How did you know you wanted to become what you are today?”
(They never ask this so elaborately. It’s more like: “Why did you become an app developer?” What they want to know, though, is how to find out what they want to “be”.)
I don’t know how I got here. I’ve always been interested in technology, but I never took a conscious decision to become a developer. Apps weren’t around when I learned to code. My first computer was a 100 Mhz i486 PC with Windows 3.1.
My mindset determines where I’m going. Said differently:
Your focus determines your reality
– Qui-Gon Jinn (Star Wars)
It’s how you think that matters:
- You’re independent and you’re responsible for your own purpose, happiness and results.
- You can improve every day to get better, to learn more, to find better opportunities, and to improve your circumstances.
- You challenge ideas and the status quo, and the world needs people who ask themselves: “Yes, but why do it like that?”
In his book Stumbling on Happiness, Daniel Gilbert explains how people imagine the future poorly. As a result, people suck at assessing what will make them happy.
Do you get happy if you buy a new car, or go on a vacation? Do you feel happy when you quit your job and go it alone as an entrepreneur? Do you get happy with thousands of followers on Instagram? When you try to imagine, you make lots of cognitive mistakes.
On top of that, and in my experience, people often keep dreaming. They read books and blogs about entrepreneurship, buy a course or two, and watch inspiring YouTube videos. But are they really inspired to take action? I don’t think so.
But… you’re not “most people”, are you? You’re here now, and that means you’re about to read the simple truth about getting where you want to go:
“If you want to be tougher, be tougher”
– Jocko Willink
Daniel Gilbert advises to use other people’s experiences to predict the future. Simply look at someone who has what you think you want, and ask yourself: “Are they happy?”
That’s a great idea, but what if you want to try out your future life for yourself? How do you try out working remotely? That’s what the rest of this tutorial is about!
Crash Course: How To Make An App
Let’s first start to figure out if building apps is any fun. Is it something you’d want to do?
It’s incredible simple – but not easy – to build an app. First, let’s talk about the product.
- Step 1: Find a group of individuals or businesses
- Step 2: Ask them what their biggest problem is
- Step 3: Solve that problem technologically, without building an app (yet)
- Step 4: Pitch and sell the problem, then take payments
- Step 5: Build the app and deliver the product to your customers
You can do step 1 to 4 in a day. Step 4 is the most important! You call this step validation; you test and prove that real customers want to pay for what you’re trying to build. You shouldn’t begin building an app that hasn’t been properly validated. Why risk building something no one wants?
Take a marketing-first approach. Marketing is simply the work you do to make change happen. You use it to help the transition from an old solution, to a new solution. And marketing is also about refining the conversation between you, the creator, and the customer.
Let’s go a bit deeper:
- Step 1: You do market research, and build connections with people in your target demographic. Your best options: local networking, talking in Facebook Groups, online surveying, chatting with peers on Twitter, and publishing a blog. You connect with an audience, and you build your tribe.
- Step 2: You listen. There’s nothing more to it. Open your ears, and listen. Marketing is 90% listening, and 10% making decisions on behalf of other people, like promoting your product or helping them make the transition from old to new. Ask your people what their biggest problem is, and listen.
- Step 3: Get creative. Solving a problem isn’t hard! A great idea is perfect the moment it pops up in your head. Getting creative means you stop wanting to solve a problem, and let it come to you. You can influence your creative thinking though. The easiest way is to habitually come up with 10 new ideas every day. Don’t build the app yet, at this point. Just build it on paper (for now).
- Step 4: Validate your business. You found the app idea, people with a problem, and a solution that works. Let them know you’re out there, offer to build this, and take payments if they want what you’re selling. Pre-sell lifetime access, or “beta group” access, to your app through your app landing page. Prove to yourself that this is an app worth building.
And the last step is, of course, build it. If your validation failed, give people a refund, adjust your strategy and start over. That’s how great apps are built!
There you go. This is 100 business books and Udemy courses compressed into two paragraphs of text. Try it out this week and see if you like it!
What if you just want to build apps for your employer, or for freelance clients? The same principles apply: find a useful skill that you can sell for money. Instead of building an indie app, offer to build apps for businesses. Use networking, outreach and marketing to put yourself out there.
Case Study: Dating + Facebook + Festivals
In 2010, a long time before Tinder became popular, I built a dating app. You could log in with your Facebook and the app would match you with a potential date based on your Facebook likes. It also took in account your GPS location, which meant that you could date people near you with the app.
Online dating with apps wasn’t so popular back then. No tools for App Store Optimization were available, so all marketing we did was outside of the App Store: social media marketing on Facebook, influencer outreach on Twitter, and getting into local media with press releases. It didn’t work.
Then we marketed the app to summer festivals, and it was a major success. More often than not, startups lack customers, not a good product. We figured that if we went to a place where people were likely to connect with each other, and had their smartphones with them, we could convince them on the spot to try our app. Go where your customers are already looking!
Crash Course: How To Become A Professional Developer
Now that you’ve gotten your hands dirty with building an app, let’s talk about becoming a professional developer. This section is particularly helpful if:
- You want to get a remote job as a professional iOS developer
- You want to work remotely, as a freelancer, for your own clients
- You want to play it a little bit more safe, next to building your own apps
There are two approaches for becoming a professional developer. Here’s the first approach:
- Make a GitHub profile and contribute to open source projects
- Sign up for Twitter and pitch in on relevant conversations
- Update your LinkedIn profile and your curriculum vitae
- Find and talk to potential employers, clients and/or recruiters
- Practice for the technical coding interview
- Go to networking events and talk to career coaches
This is helpful advice, and I recommend it as the absolute minimum for getting hired. Except that this step-by-step approach is not about you. Anyone can follow these steps, because the barrier to entry is low.
Proficient developers are currently in high demand, but that’s likely to change in the future. And on top of that, right now there are enough junior-level developers, and not enough senior-level developers.
Chances are you’re not going to get hired with just 1 year of experience in iOS development. So, how do you stand out? That’s where the second approach comes in. It’s this:
- Build your app portfolio. This is about making work worth showcasing, compelling clients to add their project to your portfolio, and letting your work do the talking for you.
- Gain real-world experience. Use your skills to solve real-world problems, instead of learning how to code in the vacuum of some $10 online course.
- Deliver beyond spec. You deliver beyond spec when you make decisions on behalf of your client or employer, instead of merely building the app the way they want it. You need to learn how to make your mark.
When you build an indie app, as explained earlier in this tutorial, you’re about one-third on your way to becoming a professional iOS developer.
That indie app is real-world. Especially when you manage to get a few dozen customers who rely on you to build this app, you’re likely to find real-world problems that need solving.
- How do you roll out an app update without disrupting people’s workflow?
- How do you respond to an angry app review?
- What does it take to get your marketing message across clearly?
The skills you cultivate by working with questions like the ones above are much needed in our industry. Oh, and that indie app is one for your showcase, and by building it you’ve shown us that you can do work beyond spec.
The only thing you now need is to build two more apps, three in total, ideally for real-world clients. Take those three apps to your next interview or sales meeting, and I guarantee you it will go differently than that conversation where you just handed in your CV.
I wrote more about what it takes to do work worth showcasing: How To Become A Professional iOS Developer
Crash Course: Going Remote
Working remotely as a developer is as simple as doing a try-out trip for 2-4 weeks, and then extending that trip forever.
When I started traveling and working remotely, I hadn’t been away from home for longer than 2 weeks. Making the leap is far in the past now, and these days my clients regularly ask me: “Where are you these days?” They’ve totally gotten used to me working remotely – and that’s exactly what you’re after.
Where do you start when you want to travel and go remote?
The first step is to take the decision to try out remote work. It sounds a bit dull, but it’s important to commit yourself and take it slow. Don’t half-ass it by saying you will book that ticket tomorrow, because tomorrow equals never. Don’t put too much stress on yourself either, by thinking you need to burn all your ships behind you.
Step two is deciding if you want to travel alone or with others. You might have a friend who wants to join you. It’s also important to realize that most of your friends will stay home (forever). You’ll make new friends on the road, and traveling alone often helps to connect with fellow travelers.
Traveling alone is awesome! You’re your own boss, you don’t have to take into account anyone else’s opinion and you’re free to roam wherever you want to go. It can be lonely too, of course.
Traveling in a group is awesome, too. Consider joining a coworking or coliving trip. I’ve joined a couple of “workation” trips around the globe, and I can greatly recommend it. Traveling with like-minded people gives your (new) app business a boost, it fights off loneliness, and it’s a great way to have fun and meet new people.
Step three is booking your trip. And we’re talking about a trial here! Tell your client or employer you want to try out working remote, and agree beforehand on what you’re going to deliver during your workation.
In the 4-Hour Work Week, Tim Ferriss shares a pretty cool tip: save up some work deliverables before your trip, and “release” them during your trip. You can buffer against setbacks and low productivity, and give yourself some breathing room.
Pick a destination, like a metropole or a region: Barcelona, Southeast Asia, Australia, America, or just Berlin — it’s all good. Get the flight sorted out, and book 1-3 nights in advance. You don’t want to commit on long-term accommodation yet, so you can scope a nice lease when you’re on the ground.
Step four is actually getting on the airplane, going, landing, and getting your feet back on the ground. Brought your laptop? Open it in the nearest coffeeshop, connect to the WiFi, and continue working on your app. Write that line of code – you are now officially a location-independent remote developer!
Ready to go location-independent? Learn more about iOS development and building an app business with these articles:
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