Lenilson Dos Santos is a young Brazilian web developer who at the tender age of 18 is already travelling the world while working remotely. I chatted to him about dropping out of school, learning to code, tips for newbies and what it's like working while being location independent.
Hey, so can you give a short introduction for people who don’t know you?
Hey there. I'm Lenilson, born and raised in Brazil. I work as freelancer developer and have coded since I was about 10 years old. I'm also interested in startups and SaaS business in general having helped co-found companies since I turned 15.
You travel around the world while working at 18! I know people who are 30 who struggle so it must be a huge growing experience for you! How are you enjoying it? Any highs or lows you want to share?
I like to joke that being location independent is my default. I left my parent’s home at age 14 to study in a different city, and again later to work, so since an early age I never really "settled" anywhere. The biggest high I can share is of course the adrenaline pump of always being in contact with totally different cultures, people and places, which makes all the stress (and often the loneliness) of having to move from time to time worth it. It's been about 16 months since I last had a fixed address and about 8 months since I left Brazil. I’ve never been more at peace with myself.
It's of course a challenge to find your own pace with this lifestyle. There's a lot of sensationalism and nonsense about working and travelling but the truth is that it's just another way to experience life, with its own set of challenges that might or might not make it worth it. It works for me, it might not work for others, and that's ok. The important thing is to always have critical thinking to experiment and make our own conclusions about how we want to go about life. 😀
Where are you based currently and what is your work environment like?
I am in Istanbul for two more months. I usually like to go out in the morning for breakfast and then move to one of my coffee shops of choice. I almost never work from co-working spaces. Usually I sit for long hours until my todo-list for the day is done and then leave to explore my surroundings or do something in the city.
I struggle a lot with concentration and focus. So I try to keep my smartphone as far as possible from me when I'm working, and I also have HeyFocus working in the background to block any distracting apps or websites.
I keep Things open with my todo list for the day (that I try to prioritize in the morning, before I start working) and go on to isolate myself from distractions and tackle it task by task. It's of course super hard and I can't always keep myself in line - fighting against procrastination is also part of my workflow, haha.
I remember seeing in WIP that you dropped out of middle school?! So Richard Blechinger left school at 16 but I think you got him beat here? Can you explain this period of your life and how you started working and travelling so fast?
I dropped out a year and a half before I was set to finish high school. Simply because school never made any sense to me. The biggest use I saw for school and college was to create connections with like-minded people but I quickly noticed that Brazil's educational system wasn't going to offer me much. For me it was clear that although I didn't know where dropping out would lead me, I had the inescapable idea that it would be better than anywhere else school and academia could take me.
My bet paid off really big looking in retrospect. Instead of losing respect for not having a high school or college degree, I gained respect, and went on to discover that a lot of role models I started following also didn't graduate.
There was no way to guarantee I would get here when I dropped out (maybe if No CS Degree existed back then, I would have more certainty, haha), but it was something I just HAD to try or I would have to live the rest of my life with this big "what if".
I was already familiar with coding and remote work. My first paid gig was at age 12. So I dropped out with a plan in mind: freelance to get money and build companies to guarantee your freedom. That's still my master plan.
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How did you start working as a freelancer? Are you making better money compared to being in Brazil?
My first paid gig was at the age of 12, to create a WordPress custom theme/website. I got 600 reais (about $160) for that and saved the money to buy a new laptop (I coded on a 5 year old HP Pavilion DV4150us that my brother was kind enough to pass on to me).
I kept doing a gig here and there in my free time from school and about a year after I dropped out, I got a junior job in a startup. That paid me 2000 reais (about $520) per month to work 6 hours a day (about $4.5 an hour, I got a raise of $100 after a few months though, leaving me near $5 an hour haha).
After I quit that job I decided I would no longer work for less than $25 dollars an hour. This was around the time I joined WIP.chat and the world of contracting opened up to me.
Today I make around $35 an hour (and lot of my contractor friends give me shit for not doubling this rate, haha) which is enough to cover my travel costs, not burnout working crazy hours, save up a bit and buy back my own time to invest in side projects.
How did you first learn coding?
I was born with the privilege of having a brother who coded for a living, and was willing to mentor me. I first started doing static HTML sites and then learned PHP and started doing my first gigs with WordPress. Resources like Code Academy, W3Schools and StackOverflow were crucial for me to get the basics.
What is your stack?
I love Ruby on Rails and thats my go-to framework for about everything. Nowadays I'm used to working with React on the front-end. I use others frameworks or none depending on the problem I'm tackling but that's usually the stack I feel most comfortable in nowadays.
What advice do you have for someone who wants to learn coding?
There's plenty of free or cheap resources available online (like the ones I mentioned). I usually recommend going on Udemy and buying a 10 bucks course on a topic that catches your attention (web development, basics of computer science, CSS, etc). Those usually have a lot of practical content that will get that fire up on you to seek more knowledge.
And last but not least, look for communities and don't be afraid to ask for help. Telegram, Twitter, StackOverflow, they're all there for you to use. Give and share knowledge (always important to not be just a taker), find your tribe and you'll set yourself up for success.
Do you have any coder inspirations you look up to?
Definitely. Every time I'm over-thinking something, I think about Pieter Levels. Everytime I'm taking too long to ship something, I think of Elijah Murray, and everytime I'm writing code I don't feel exactly proud about I think about Bruno Lemos.
What advice do you have for people without a CS degree who want to get a programming job?
My advice is, scream as loud as you can. Go to meetups, seek mentors, apply to jobs you don't think you're qualified for and seek to do your work with mastery and empathy. If you do good work, in a long enough timeline, good people will show up. And never fear showing ambition - having ambition, especially if you're not from a first world country, is crucial.
I remember you made a list of Telegram communities. Any other side projects in the works?
Most of my free time nowadays goes to a startup I've been working on for almost a year, together with two other cofounders. We're on our fourth iteration of an MVP in the Brazilian market and are about to go live somewhere in the next weeks. It's targeted to Portuguese-speaking customers and in the mental health space 😀
Do you know other Brazilians who are working while travelling the world or is it mostly Americans and Europeans you meet? Do your friends and family understand or think you’re crazy?
There's a lot of travellers in the Portuguese-speaking space, but definitely not enough location independent people. I can name a few people like Leticia Moresca, Heitor Alves, Lucas Morello, Debbie Corrano, Felipe César, Thiago Ricieri, Nathale Ethel, Felipe Pacheco, Guilherme Rizzo and others I can't recall right now, haha.
My family probably thinks I'm taking a gap year or something. I'm privileged enough to have a family that supports my endeavours no matter how crazy they are or even if they don't fully understand what I'm doing.