Being a digital nomad developer without a CS degree
Sander is a Dutch self-taught programmer who works from wherever he likes. He has been able to go out and snowboard in the morning before coming back and starting work.
He also makes Checkout Page, a no-code solution for makers who want to accept online payments. I chatted to him about how he got work without a Computer Science degree, where he has been travelling and about that time his van exploded while he was in it.
Many thanks for the interview! So can you give an introduction for people who want to know more about you?
Cheers, thanks for the opportunity! I’m Sander, I grew up in a small town in the south of the Netherlands. I’ve been working as a freelance developer across various stacks and projects for the past 5 years. I’ve also built a few products over the past years and am currently working on Checkout Page. Two years ago I decided to cancel my office rent and to start working remotely, which has been allowing me to live in various places in Europe since.
I remember you went around Europe in a van while working. Where did you go and can you tell us about how your van “ended”?
Yeaaaaaah. That was something! Last year I decided to buy an old converted campervan from my savings. My girlfriend and I used it to travel around France for the summer while working on the road. This year I added solar panels and more batteries to the build so I wouldn’t be tied to campsites as much.
Unfortunately the day after we set off, there was a gas leak. The van exploded in the morning while we were inside it. It was a really intense, near death experience but amazingly enough we weren’t harmed. The van was damaged beyond repair unfortunately.
Can you tell us about some of the places you have travelled while you working?
I’ve lived and worked from Gran Canaria, Tenerife, Italy, London, Bansko (Bulgaria), Lisbon, France (in the van!), Valencia, Budapest, Berlin in the past two years. Later this year I’ll finally leave Europe for the first time and live in Thailand for two months.
How did you originally get into coding?
About a year later I built a portfolio site for myself to display my coursework. A couple of months later a family friend was looking for someone to make them a website for their business and my parents had told them that I might be able to help them.
I looked up website prices, found out that you could charge €400 (that seemed like a lot of money back then) and decided to dive into the deep. I have basically repeated that since: bluffing my way into paid projects I wasn’t really capable of doing yet and learning along the way.
How did you get your first freelance clients without any experience?
It’s difficult to find clients when you’re just starting out. It will be hard to find any based on your coding skills, so use your network! Lots of people can use someone to help them with their sites or business and often agencies can use an extra hand too. Make sure you have a portfolio that shows your work.
Tell your friends and family what you do and what you can help with. Put it in your Facebook profile and post it on LinkedIn. It can also be helpful to meet people in related networks. I had a few designer friends from my course who often got involved in web design work, but didn’t code themselves. We teamed up and shared our networks.
Part of my university course was to intern at a company for half a year. I found a small marketing agency that did a lot of web development. I didn’t code very much during this internship yet, but they exposed me to git, Sass and some jQuery. I became good friends with the founders and after graduating a year later, I started freelancing for both of them!
What resources did you use to learn programming?
I didn’t follow many courses in my first years of coding. I did a little bit of freeCodeCamp and Codecademy but never finished those because I found the exercises boring. I mostly did client work. I find this to be a good way to learn as it causes you to run into problems first instead of into solutions first. That forces you to google a lot.
What advice do you have for someone who is learning coding but finds it overwhelming?
I think coding is a profession that quite quickly shows you that you will never be able to know everything. The field is enormous and changes so incredibly fast that it’s just impossible to achieve mastery. I understand how it can be overwhelming but most things in software development are abstractions. The core is always simple.
Even though there are tons of ways to build a site, you can still build a fantastic website with just an index.html and style.css. I believe it’s important to keep your eyes open to the changes in the industry, while simultaneously maintain focused on the topics you chose to study and the projects you decided to work on. It’s helpful to know a lot about a broad range of topics, but you will eventually have to go deep into something to become valuable as contractor.
Did you ever consider a Computer Science degree and if not, why not? Has it ever been an issue when looking for freelance work etc?
It never seemed necessary to me to do a CS degree as I was earning money already. I’m definitely not good enough to get hired at Google or Facebook right now, but that’s not my ambition anyway. None of my (potential) clients have ever asked me if I studied Computer Science.
Some companies require it for full time hires and the necessity of the knowledge being taught during a CS degree depends on the line of work you do. And if you really want to learn Computer Science, you can definitely learn it by yourself (if you’re motivated enough 😉)
I know you run Checkout Page to help no-code people take payments on their websites. How was that to create and how’s it going?
Checkout Page is the second web application I built after following the Wes Bos Learn Node course. It has definitely stretched my skill set at times but it’s incredibly fun to create something all by yourself completely from scratch and to have people actually use it! I’ve been on and off working on it in small sprints.
It’s doing alright for the amount of time I invest into it and I onboard new customers weekly. It’s making a nice passive income of around $300 to $400 per month with barely any effort at this point. I’m balancing it with freelance work and it’s sometimes easier to take on more freelance work, as that pays a lot better on the short term. I’m hoping to do another sprint on it soon, though!
I believe you are also a snowmad? (a Digital Nomad that likes snowboarding/skiing). Where are some of the best resorts you have been to while working?
I’m into snowboarding, surfing and skateboarding. It’s amazing to go to a place where you can ride a board one half of the day, and work the other half. I’ve spent two months in Bansko, Bulgaria, which is a great place to meet like minded people, live cheaply (useful if you’re learning to code!) and the ski resort is pretty good too. Alternatively I’ve found Las Palmas to be a great place to combine surfing with the nomad lifestyle. There are a lot of nomads around and there’s a pretty good surf spot in the city.
What are your plans for the future?
I’ve started working on more projects that I’m intrinsically interested in instead of client work that I’m being paid for. I feel like this is a good way to improve my skills and to go deeper into some technologies. When doing client work and learning on the job, you often learn just enough to do the job. When you’re intrinsically motivated to explore a topic, it’s much more rewarding and interesting to learn about it.
I realise that’s contradicting to how I learned to code and to what I described in the rest of the interview. I still believe that doing client work that’s out of your comfort zone is a great way to learn new topics and to get better at existing ones. It’s also an amazing motivator as once you’ve said yes to a project, you’ll have to figure it out. But at the same time you never get full autonomy over the projects and after these 5 years of freelancing that’s something I’ve started to care more about in my work.