Manu Cornet — Remote tips

I’ve had a lot of questions over the years about working remotely, so here’s my attempt at rationalizing it and describing what works for me. Much of it makes a lot of sense on paper, but overall creates arguably a pretty weird setup. It works absolutely beautifully for me though :-)

Trust, Transparency & Communication

This is the “theoretical” part. Feel free to skip if you want more practical tidbits.

I don’t think any kind of remote work can exist without the following:

Hardware

If the project you work on doesn’t require any special computing power (e.g. to compile your code), then any hardware will do; I would pick something like a thin laptop that’s easy to travel with.

If it does (as is the case for me), here is my sort-of-creative-but-pretty-weird solution:

In short, I’ve realized that the power supply is both the cheapest part of a desktop computer, and also the bulkiest and the heaviest. So I carry around a stripped down computer (motherboard, processor, memory, sold state drive, graphics card), without a power supply, and whenever I arrive at a new place, I buy one (usually around $20 to $40 max). I also carry a light keyboard and mouse. Wherever I go, there’s always either a computer monitor (if in an office) or a flat screen TV (in an apartment) that I can use as a monitor. So I carry this around, which is a lot more powerful and a lot lighter (no battery, no display, no power supply) than a “portable workstation” type of laptop (and maybe half or a third of the price).

I’ve also built my own silly little wooden case.

Software

I switch machines often (laptop, desktop, etc.) so I need an easy way to replicate the exact same setup everywhere. Here’s what works best for me.

Email

I know it’s a little sad after 8 years of working on Gmail and Inbox, but I don’t use web UIs. I do use a Gmail account, but I sync everything through IMAP locally (with offlineimap) and I use mutt. I also put my mail folder on Dropbox so it’s synced between machines without having to sync each one with IMAP (slow with Gmail).

The advantage is that 1) offline is not a problem and most importantly 2) I have a lot of local scripts to filter email, auto-reply, etc. Gmail has nice filters, but it’s nowhere near as powerful as Python scripts on local mail.

I also have an Outlook account where all my email gets forwarded to, because Gmail is blocked in some places (e.g. China).

Calendar

I use Google calendar extensively. One weird thing is that it’s always set to UTC. All my meetings are labelled in UTC, and my watch shows UTC. It avoids a lot of timezone-related headaches, but it is something to adapt to.

Data, Cloud & Connectivity

It’s important for me to check that any place I’m going to be staying at has fast internet. One way to check that, for instance with AirBnB, is to ask the host to share a speed test screenshot with me before I commit to making a reservation.

But while I’m on the road I heavily rely on my phone’s data plan, for which I use Google’s Project Fi. It’s probably a little more expensive ($10 per gigabyte of data) for each single country, but the fact that I don’t need to worry about whether I’ll have access to the internet in pretty much any country is a big relief. I make copious use of my phone’s hotspot capabilities.

I also carry two tiny wifi routers so that once I get a data connection, be it through hotel wifi or ethernet, or through my phone’s hotspot, I can put all my devices on the same wireless network without having to program a new wifi ID and password on each of them.

I use Dropbox to sync most of my stuff. No Google Drive because it doesn’t support Linux. Dropbox also has a nice command-line interface that I can use in scripts (make sure everything is synced, exclude some directories, throttle/unthrottle bandwidth, etc.).

Smart phone

I don’t care a whole lot about brands and looks, but I think some sane requirements for a nomadic use case are:

Music

I put all my music on Dropbox. I’m sure Spotify works well too, but I’m often offline and I dislike the idea of a monthly subscription to listen to music. So I buy all my music DRM-free and keep it synced everywhere. Maybe I end up paying more overall when I get a lot of new music, but at least I can stop paying and still have access to a pretty huge library.

Social

Of course I make connections wherever I go, and I regularly visit places where I have long time social connections and family, but most of the time the nomadic life style is fairly solitary. I personally love it, but it’s not for everyone.

“What’s in your bag?”

Having basically become what you could call a modern nomad, I have to think very carefully about what I bring around with me all the time. This also means I very, very seldom buy new things, unless they are replacing something else. Multi-purpose objects are preferred. Here is my current list. All of this fits in a single carry-on sized backpack. I never ever check in anything when I fly.