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Becoming a remote developer

A moon or two ago, at the alt.net Canada conference, Tom Opgenorth convened a session on working without pants. And since Tropical Storm Hanna is turning out to be a non-event for me, I have some time to expand on this in blog-form.

The topic of conversation has come up a lot recently. In particular, a few people have asked for tips on landing remote contracts. There’s also the aspect about how to work remotely once you’ve landed the job but that’s been done. I’ve got a few posts on it myself at my old trailer. Mostly, it’s a lot of common sense.

This is from the perspective of a consultant / contractor / someone paid by the hour who is tossed aside at the first sign of trouble. Some of it may apply to "permanent" positions but probably not.

Landing 100% remote contracts is hard

Landing contracts where you can work remotely 100% of the time right from the start is hard. In the five years I’ve been contracting, I’ve had exactly one contract where the consulting company didn’t know me and the client didn’t know me. Okay, that’s not entirely true. The consulting company had worked with me before but got squeezed out after a month. While they were aware of my reputation at that point, they still hadn’t worked too closely with me.

But even in that case, the consulting company had a technical lead on the project that was onsite. Everything was filtered through him. He assigned me tasks and I did them and sent him the code. He merged them into the main codebase somehow. As far as the client was concerned, they didn’t even need to know I existed (though they did). Only at the very end, did they invite me up to help with the transition for a week.

It should be noted that by all accounts, this was probably the most successful project of my career. I don’t mean to equate that to "remote developers == instant success". Only that my being remote definitely did *not* hinder the success. A year-ish later, when I talked with them again, they were very happy with the end product and I even did a small side project for them for a few months. I’m dancing around who the client was but now that I think about it, there’s no need for secrecy. It was a SharePoint 2003 project for Marriott. Their main office in Maryland.

On-site up front

Other than that, I’ve worked on one other contract where I was remote from the start. My current one. Working for Devon Energy in Calgary. They agreed to it because I’m a known commodity. I’ve worked with them before in the recent past. And that first time was a model that seems to garner more support.

In two cases, I’ve started a contract on-site with no explicit expectations past the end of the contract. In both cases, I was very explicit that I was *not* staying in the country past the end of the specified date. And in both cases, I was able to extend, one for another year and the other for about five months. In the first case, I stayed on-site for six months, the second, for three.

This is just speculation but my reasoning is that companies are more amenable to this model. You’re not as much an unknown to them by the end of the on-site period. They have a  sense of your abilities by then and have a gauge by which they can measure your offsite performance.

The major problem I have with this is the length of the on-site period. Three to six months is a long time to be away from your homebase. I was lucky in both cases in that it was in Calgary where I still own(ed) a house. And in one case, it coincided with my daughter’s summer vacation. Without those two saving graces (such as they are), I don’t know that it would be worth it.

As it is, I’m seriously reconsidering the maximum length of time I’d stay away from home at any given time. These days, it would probably be a month. My daughter’s getting to an age where homework consists of more than "what are your feelings about orange?" And Mrs. Hillbilly isn’t exactly the patient one in our humble clan.

In any case, this line of thought leads me to another option which, at this point, is still speculative

Trial period

With companworking from home lfmc061129ies being so jittery, an option that I’ve been considering is one where I go onsite for a very brief period at a much reduced rate, say about half what I normally charge. Certainly enough to cover my expenses at least. After that, they can cancel with no questions asked or continue the extent of the contract.

The trial period would ideally be around two to three weeks. Some have raised concerns that that may not be enough time to get anything substantial done which is true. But there are ways you can try to counter that. One is simply being productive. Another is inertia. The idea that unless you’re grossly incompetent, or incompetently gross, the company won’t go through the headache of having to hire someone else.

But this leads to the major shortcoming. Many companies *will* see this as a headache and as such, will avoid it. That’s the major stumbling block against any remote work, I think. There are so many unknowns involved in hiring someone, they don’t want to add to them with someone who has a tendency to be offline sporadically during hurricane season.

But it’s something banging around in the back of my mind for the next time I’m on the market. I also like it as a way to scope out possible landing points if we eventually leave the island. Whether or not I have any success with it is still to be seen.

Emergency contracts

The last model is another intriguing one. Just before I landed my current contract, I was approached by an agency that specializes in very short-term, quick availability, high-rate contracts. Like in the order of two-week to two-months. Companies lose a key resource or have a key demo, they fly you in, you work your magic, you go home.

This has some appeal in that presumably, I could work less. Because the companies are generally desperate, they pay premium rates. And your travel expenses are paid as well. Also, you get known to quite a few more companies who will remember you the next time they need someone in a pinch, or even more long term.

On the downsite, there is still the travel aspect of it. As I mentioned, I’m trying to minimize this.

Building an online presence

At the alt.net session, John Bristowe came up with an awesome point. If you want to focus on remote work, you need an online presence. Which is easier than skinnin’ a possum these days. One of the ways he suggested this is simply to be online. Whether that be e-mail, IM, cell phone, LinkedIn, Twitter, a string and two cans, live streaming a la The Truman Show, whatever. Make sure people can contact you at all (reasonable) times. And remember that "reasonable" depends on your client’s timezone more than it does yours.

I think Doc List does an awesome job of this. His web page is more than the usual blog and About Me page. It shows not only his services, past clients, and contact info but stories, musings, and even a reading list (and his thoughts on each book). In short, you’d be hard-pressed not to get a sense of Doc from his website. This is a guy set up for remote work. By comparison, I did a whois lookup for kylebaley.com the other day and was indignant that it wasn’t available until I learned that I was the owner.

Conclusion

Closing point: I talked from the perspective of someone hoping to work 100% remotely for long periods of time. A more common alternative is one where you work onsite a couple days a week and offsite the rest of the time. This is probably the ideal scenario as you get most of the benefits of working from home, but still the necessary facetime one or two days a week to ease your client’s mind. Obviously, this works only if you live in close proximity of the client.

This should be obvious but I’m talking only from personal experience here. If it applies in the more general case, that’s not my fault.

Would love if people could share their tips for landing and maintaining remote contracts in the comments. I kind of have a vested interest in the topic.

Kyle the Distant

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  • Turiddu

    We are launching a new marketplace platform for remote that is completelly “skill centered” . Try this one http://www.devstaff.biz

    Bye
    Giovanni

  • http://Dan.Wygant.org Dan Wygant

    I saw this via Alan Steven’s Plaxo – hey, that was a great blip about the way to work this out. I just finished my first 100% remote project. I met the guy – the CIO of a smallish Nashville company – and he worked with me in an Agile way. We “scrum’d” each morning, usually. But it wasn’t what I’d call a scrum; we’d get off on tangents for all sorts of cool techie questions – we explored LINQ 4 Objects together, separately, sharing what we learned. We both gained from that. I shared my techniques (using Reflector is GREAT!) and tools and he learned a great deal from that. We both win! And he can carry his new techniques on to the rest of his team as he continues growing his talent. I love working remotely, but finding another gig is not easy… been out since just b4 Labor day.

  • Kyle Baley

    @Jonathan Don’t see any reason to keep it to myself. It’s oxfordcorp.com. I think they’re based in New England though I may be basing that on the accent of the guy I normally talk to rather than actual research.

    Re: agile project management with remote programmers. Would be interesting to see what you do differently from existing web-based project management tools. I didn’t mention it here but being remote on an Agile team has a unique set of challenges in and of itself.

  • http://www.geekswithblogs.net/starr Jonathan Starr

    Kyle,

    Thanks for writing this article! I really liked some of the points you brought up.

    As an aside, I am trying to put together some web tools for doing agile project management with remote prgrammers.

    Out of curiosity – what is the name of the agency you work with that does very short term contracts? I would be interested in talking with them.

    Thanks!

    Jonathan

  • Kyle Baley

    @Brendan Yeah, that’s ideal if you have the option to go onsite. Most of the time, it’s a luxury for me. Until I can get this country to realize its potential.

  • Brendan Tompkins

    I’ve just converted my main client from full time, to a few days on site per week.

    To me being on site is essential to keeping your foot in the door. When the decision makers are thinking about new projects, it helps greatly if they can see and touch you… plus, you get to have the hallway conversations that often lead to more work. When you’re off site too long, especially when you’re doing your job well, you may fade from their memory.