Digital Nomads: Ally Basak Russell is Taking Work Worldwide

Ilya Leybovich Writer, KBS

Technology is profoundly changing how and where we work, as well as the very concept of professional life. Thanks to advances in mobile technology, a new generation of ‘digital nomads’ are building successful careers without settling down in one location. Is the traditional office being supplanted by the work-from-anywhere movement?

A recent survey from Elance-oDesk, a company that connects employers with millions of freelancers around the world, found that 90 percent of professionals say technology is making it easier to work wherever they want, and nearly 40 percent already consider themselves digital nomads. The days of having a centralized workplace may be numbered.

In our second installment of the Digital Nomads series, iQ spoke with Ally Basak Russell, who is actively enabling and helping grow the remote workforce in her role as director of international marketing at Elance-oDesk. She shared her views about the globally connected workforce, her favorite nomad-supporting technologies and the importance of finding a work-life balance.

How did you get started as a digital nomad, and when did you realize it was possible to work from anywhere?

My first job at oDesk was researching our largest markets, to see if they would be good locations for a local hire or regional office. In my first six months alone, I traveled to Manila, Dhaka, Berlin, London and Sydney.

Through our partnerships with co-working spaces and accelerators around the world, I met several location-independent entrepreneurs and realized that we share many of the same values: embrace and contribute to any community you enter, even if only for a short period. Stay with locals whenever possible. Pack light so you can fit in more sightseeing before or after business meetings. Build trust, relationships and effective processes that will hold up when you hit the road.

I felt very at home in these communities, even though my permanent home was back in San Francisco. Then, at a conference in Manila, I met Bernard Vukas. Originally from Croatia, he’s a world-class freelance developer who works via oDesk for global clients on his laptop (often from tropical climates).

He was the first person I met who actually deemed himself a digital nomad. I thought, “Hey, that’s me too! And a lot of the people I hang out with on the road. What a great term for this lifestyle.”

What surprised you the most when you embarked on your nomadic career?

What surprised me most was how many people live the digital-nomad lifestyle even once they start families or are at the peak of their careers. I had originally thought that I’d hang up my backpack (and retire my sense of adventure) once I turned 30, but there’s just no reason to do so. I’ve met lots of couples, some with kids, who make it work and don’t even keep a permanent home base.

So you’re saying it’s viable to have a successful career without settling down in one place?

Gary Swart has a great way of laying out the four factors that we all use to determine career success: 1) Your impact on the business and/or the world, 2) your growth and development, 3) your financial rewards and 4) your ability to find balance between work and free time.

The ability to have an impact is dependent on each digital nomad’s line of work and company mission. I’m fortunate enough to have an impact at my job on both levels. Specifically, #2 and #3 are dependent upon how hard you push yourself to learn new skills and expand your expertise. Finally, digital nomads and most freelancers have #4 nailed down. That’s not to say that I don’t work as many hours when I’m traveling — I probably actually work more. It’s just that there’s so much fun packed in between my work hours that I don’t notice.

Tell us about your work at Elance-oDesk and how it’s involved in the work-from-anywhere movement.

Our mission is to build an online workplace for the world. By that we mean that our technology helps millions of people work together via the Internet while also creating more freedom and opportunity for both professionals and businesses.

Our CEO, Fabio Rosati, always says, “Talent is distributed equally around the world. Opportunity is not.” The geographic distribution of talent could be by choice, as is the case with digital nomads, or it could be by birth. Luckily, more and more countries are getting widespread access to high-speed Internet. That’s great news for locals and visitors alike.

What specific technologies do you use the most when working remotely?

Beyond the obvious things like my MacBook Air, iPhone and Bose noise-canceling headphones, here are a few of my favorites:

The World Clock Google Calendar widget. When I’m on the road, scheduling is especially difficult because I’m often tempted to accept Google’s suggestion to auto-correct my calendar by shifting it to the local time zone. After a few botched meetings, I’ve learned to keep my calendar settings on my home country’s time, and then add my road-trip city to my World Clock list.

Google Hangouts. I’ve tried most video conferencing services (Skype, Tango, Viber) and have found that even with a weak Internet connection, I can usually get decent video call quality and sound with Google Hangouts.

A USB Ethernet adaptor. Many places in the world have not yet mastered the joy of an accessible Wi-Fi connection. The adaptor gives you a hard-line connection that is often much stronger than free or overcrowded Wi-Fi locations.

Mophie. Nothing is worse than losing your connection to the world during working hours due to a drained battery. A Mophie packs extra hours of battery power for chatting, tweeting and taking photos. It’s compatible with most phones and tablets, and charges up quickly through your computer’s USB port (no extra adaptor necessary).

Would it have been possible to be a digital nomad 10 or 20 years ago?

Would it have been possible? Yes. Would it have been really difficult? 100 percent yes. Technology today is leaps and bounds more advanced than it was 10 or 20 years ago, when many parts of the world didn’t even have an Internet connection. Those that did had mostly dial-up, which made it painful to send big files across the globe and impossible to collaborate online in real time.

Google Docs, Skype, Slack, Dropbox — these are all key tools I use every day that didn’t exist 20 years ago. I remember filling out my grad school applications from an Internet cafe while I was living in Ibarra, Ecuador. I had to walk blocks to find an Internet connection, and for a young professional it was pretty cost-prohibitive to spend hours submitting online applications. Plus, when anyone in the café was streaming a video, the connections for the rest of us slowed to a crawl.

How do you stay connected when you’re in remote or hard-to-reach areas of the world?

Sometimes it’s hard to imagine being somewhere without Wi-Fi, but as of 2013, only about 40 percent of the world (approaching 3 billion people) had Internet access. And it’s not only remote corners of the world that suffer from connectivity issues — I’ve experienced spotty Internet in major cities.

If I’m in a remote area, I stay connected as best I can. Whenever possible, I try to set expectations with my team regarding my reachability before I go anywhere. If there’s no Wi-Fi or the connection is too weak to get work done, I’ve had success tethering my smartphone’s data connection to my computer. This relies entirely on cellphone reception, which surprisingly can be available in the most remote corners of the world.

What are some of the most fascinating places you’ve been to?

The three most fascinating places I’ve visited are: Vilcabamba, Ecuador, for water fights and food fights during Carnival (legend has it that so many centenarians live here because the water has magical properties); a Sami community outside Tromso, Norway, (dog-sledding through the mountains and sleeping in a cabin blew my mind); and Civita di Bagnoregio, Italy. Our lovely Airbnb host in Orvieto told my husband and me about it. After a 45-minute winding bus ride, we were in total awe that such a place existed. We thought it was our own Shangri-La until I found out that Rick Steves had been there first.

What’s the one thing you never travel without?

My neck pillow. Once you try one for a long flight, you’ll never go back.

Do you think we’re seeing less need for physical workplaces? Are we entering an age of work-from-anywhere?

Definitely. We’re still in the first inning of the sharing economy — only just beginning to share our talent and available time as well as our tangible resources. Now that we can bring work to the worker, rather than the worker to the work, work-life balance is evolving.

As a person who really loves the outdoors, I appreciate how the Internet is enabling a return to country living. We won’t all need to move to urban centers to have access to the best jobs. Soaring skyscrapers and multi-building office parks can be replaced by home offices or intimate co-working communities. All of this is not going to happen overnight, but the seeds have been planted — the way we work is changing.


Images courtesy of Ally Basak Russell.


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