Tech Nomads

By Kurt Cagle
January 14, 2009 | Comments: 5

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I have a terrible secret. I'm ... I'm a ... well, a tech nomad. On any given day of the week, you stand a good chance of finding me at Starbucks, plugging away on writing articles or hacking on code. You'll find a lot of us here, tech nomads ... I suspect that we single-handedly keep Starbucks afloat in these hard economic times, laptops out, heads down, plugged into our respective iPod soundtracks. In my case, baristas throughout the entire greater Victoria area know me by name, occasionally even giving me my drinks for free. They know a tech nomad when they see one.

"What do you do?" the more curious of the customers ask.

"I'm a writer and an editor," I answer circumspectly. That explains it of course. They get a pitying look on their face and shake their heads - another tech nomad then.

There are other nomads here, hunter-gatherers of the electronic age. Some are students, tech nomads in training, trying to get their papers done in an environment away from noisy dormies or dusty libraries, little aware of the perilous road they're now upon. Others are professors, some of whom have very nice places indeed (Canadian professors are compensated quite well, it seems), but who have fallen into bad habits. Most, though, are programmers, writers, editors, designers, lost souls all, the apostates of the corporate world.

A friend of mine shows up here occasionally - Starbucks two hour card, then over to a pizza parlour which has free wifi in the afternoons, or to the library if he's looking for quiet. He's a programmer consultant for Nasa, and we occasionally compare notes on VPNs and security idiocies.

There's a certain etiquette among tech nomads. A three or four prong multi-outlet is a gesture of goodwill - I will share this rare outlet with you, even though I was here first. You help the newbies get online, share the secrets about where the best wifi is, the places to avoid. If a nomad has run out of power, they get access to the juice first, no questions asked.

On a conference call recently, I mentioned, much to my chagrin, that I was a tech nomad at Starbucks, and that my "office" was actually a thousand miles away in Sebastopol, California. One by one, the confessions came from the others - one was in Vancouver, but his main office was in New York, and his developer team was in Holland (where they often spent more time at the coffeehouses there than in the office). Another was working from home that day, her kids sick with the flu. The last was ... gasp, at another Starbucks, this time in Portland, Oregon. His office was in Seattle, though he hadn't been there for months.

We're the misplaced generation. As companies encounter the wall of this recession, it's releasing whole new cohorts of tech nomads into the wild. We don't have a lot of loyalty to our employers ... they are increasingly faceless voices on the other end of the phone, the ones who write the checks so long as you get what they asked done. Many nomads are consultants, guns for hire, often with four or five different clients at various stages of activity, but not all nomads are by any stretch.

I have no doubt that we must give bureaucrats at the IRS conniption fits.

We live in a twilight word, we tech nomads. In the emerging techno-feudalism of the day, the tech nomads are the emissaries, the jongleurs, the story-tellers, the traveling tinkers and wandering friars. Some are affiliated - I'm Kurt of O'Reilly, you're Sue of IBM, he's Mark of Microsoft or Tim of Sun. Such labels are frequently necessary camouflage - like Medieval names of old, giving our feifdoms, usually at tradeshows, helps to lend legitimacy to those who judge us by who employs us, but we tech nomads know the truth - such affiliations can change without warning, and that the lack of loyalty that we have is no more than a reflection of the lack of loyalty that these fiefs have toward us.

Perhaps it is safer this way. We've seen what happens when one's life becomes so tied up in that of a given corporation that there is little room for anything else, and when those corporations fail you, you're left with almost nothing else to build on. I like to think that the rise of the tech nomad is a healthy response to the rise of corporatism, a taking back of dignity and control over one's own life. Then again, perhaps it is simply a concession to reality, the final dissolution of the social contract that's been ongoing for the last half century or so.

So I sit here and write, watching the noontime crowd make its way through here, nodding to the other tech nomads as they grab a cup of coffee and head off to their respective tables. It's an odd sort of life, but I can think of worse ways to spend the day.

Kurt Cagle of O'Reilly is an editor and author. You can subscribe to his newsfeed or follow him on Twitter.


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5 Comments

All of my long term goals over the past few years have been leading to a "tech nomad" lifestyle. I'd say it's pretty much my reason for getting up in the morning, and has been for quite a long time.

And while I do much of my Ruby on Rails learning, and web designing in local coffee shops, I hope to change my definition of local to wherever my finger stops on the globe.

Great article. Tech nomads are the lifeblood of the tech industry.

Great article... My 2 cents: I prefer a billion times being a tech nomad, than living in the Cubiconia!

The subject of the financial crisis still seems to be on everyone's mind. Many financial companies have turned to Business Process Outosurcing in order to solve some of their problems, like bankruptcy. but what do you think? Can BPO provide a solution for the crisis affected market? We've even put together a white paper on the subject http://www.outsourcing-factory.com/en/stay-informed/white-papers/bpo-financial-crisis.html . Looking forward to hear your professional opinion on this topic.

excellent display, can't wait to make my way out of the corporate jungle and ride the tech-tundra...

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