A gearhead post for digital nomad coders

The standard issue tote bag for all new members of the women’s co-working space The Wing exuberantly describes us as:

T A K I N G . U P . S P A C E

That is indeed exceedingly accurate for me when I’m at the Wing, though more by coincidence of my digital nomad coder travel setup than an intentional effort to manspread. I have a widescreen monitor at home, but I’m so frequently away from home that I had to find a better solution than collapsing all work down to my 13″ MacBook Air screen. In particular, my coding workflow typically consists of having many screens of code from different files open side-by-side, white and fluorescent green on black background, very movie hacker stereotypical of me. I also like a couple other Terminal windows or tabs open for monitoring logs and build status, or testing code in an IPython shell. The 13″ screen only fits 2 columns, and it gets squishy if I reserve any space for my other shell needs.

Back in the days of being geographically fixed and working from an office where I had a beautiful Thunderbolt display, my primary concern was that my handbag be able to fit my laptop. Now I’ve come to terms with the fact that I must carry a sturdy backpack stuffed full of electronics all the time. Apart from being far less stylish and far more bulky, though, I’m quite happy with the setup I’ve landed on.

The core electronics:

  • 2019 13″ MacBook Air, which has a 1.6GHz processor and 16GB of RAM. It is gold and decorated with an Arya Stark sticker because
  • ASUS ZenScreen MB16AC, which is just a flat panel that connects and charges off the same USB-C to USB-C cable plugged into the computer
  • Apple Magic Mouse, in space gray for aesthetics
  • Apple Magic Keyboard, the one with a numpad, only because that was the one size that came in space gray, and again, aesthetics
  • iPhone 11 Pro, which is my main phone
  • Pixel 3A, which is on Google Fi and serves primarily as my international wifi hotspot, but also has a really nice camera with incredible Night Sight
  • AirPod Pros, necessary for the many video calls inherent to distributed work
  • Mophie external battery pack, Lightning charging tip built in, rose gold, obviously

Cables, chargers, miscellany:

  • MacBook Air charger, with a blockhead adapter for American outlets and a UK adapter for when I’m there
  • USB-C to Lightning cable for charging the iPhone off the MacBook Air
  • USB-C to USB-C cable for charging the Pixel off the MacBook Air
  • USB-C to USB-C cable for the ASUS screen
  • The shell of a metal pen that has lost its inky bit and whose sole function is to be inserted into a hole at the bottom right corner of the ASUS screen to prop it up. It came with the screen and I’m sure some industrial designer thought they were super clever when they came up with this. This is the silliest part of my setup
  • A global travel adapter with 1 one outlet that takes any wall plug, 4 USB-A ports, and 1 USB-C port
  • USB-A to Lightning cable for charging the iPhone off the wall adapter
  • USB-A to USB-C cable for charging the Pixel off the wall adapter
  • USB-A to Fitbit Inspire HR charging cable
  • USB-A to dual-tipped Lightning/micro-USB cable for charging the Mophie

Packing it all up:

  • Away backpack, large, light blue, designed with an open back flap that can be slipped over the handles of an Away carry-on luggage which of course I also have in matching light blue
  • Leather case for the MacBook Air, navy blue, from Apple
  • Standard-issue screen cover for the ASUS screen
  • A poorly fitting garment travel bag that I Velcro around the keyboard and mouse to avoid too much scuffing during transit
  • Small felt ProCase for the MacBook Air charger and the 2 USB-C phone chargers. If I’m dropping down to laptop-only for a lightweight work session, I only need this bag of chargers
  • Larger Herschel cosmetics bag re-appropriated to store the aforementioned felt cable case, as well as the ASUS screen connector cable, and sometimes the global travel adapter
  • The global travel adapter always has the 4 USB-A cables plugged in, and I use it in the States as well as abroad. It’s nice to not have to manage all those cables separately
  • Leather pencil case for my pens and very importantly the fake pen that is my screen stand

It takes a few minutes to do setup and teardown but the larger second screen and external keyboard and mouse do wonders for my productivity. I need it especially for coding but the extra screen space is useful for lots of other things as well, like reviewing designs and cross-referencing text documents.

I stood on a chair to take this photo. I know.

The things that don’t work so well:

  • The MacBook Air is slightly underpowered and occasionally Chrome or Slack chokes it up. Luckily I code in emacs which is much more lightweight than GUI editors; Atom completely destroyed my machine when I experimented with it
  • The MacBook Air only has two USB-C ports so when I have the external screen plugged in I have to choose between either charging the laptop itself or charging a phone off of it, plus the screen draws extra power so it is much slower for the computer to charge
  • The MacBook Air has issues with core audio services and the AirPod Pros have a lot of connectivity hiccups with the computer, though my previous AirPods (not Pros) were fine, and the AirPod Pros connect to my iPhone with no trouble
  • Google Fi service internationally is a lot less reliable than advertised, and God help you if you try to use the SIM in an iPhone. I set up dual SIM on my iPhone when I was still in the States and at first when I went overseas I liked being able to get the Google Fi data boosting on my iPhone, but then I started running into issues. Most importantly, Google Fi doesn’t support international data hotspots on iOS. I switched the SIM into the Pixel temporarily and was able to get things semi-working, but after that I couldn’t switch it back to the iPhone. Apparently the Google Fi SIM must be re-activated on the device in the States, so then the dual SIM situation was busted
  • With the Google Fi SIM relegated to a separate phone, it requires both battery and wifi hotspot management for that other phone
  • The Mophie I have doesn’t have a built-in charging cable for USB-C, only Lightning and micro-USB, so I can’t charge up the Pixel without carrying an additional cable
  • Back to the original point, T A K I N G . U P . S P A C E my setup is certainly guilty of and unless I’m at a co-working space or somewhere that it’s socially acceptable to pull out full coding equipment, I feel a bit embarrassed to use it. Come to think of it, though, I once saw someone with his desktop computer tower and full-size 25”+ monitor camped out in a 4-person corner booth at an otherwise completely packed Chiltern Firehouse; he had over-ear headphones on, hood up, computer glow on his face, and absolutely no concern about sitting in one of London’s most scene-y cocktail spots with dressy crowds around him paying 25 quid a cocktail and the deliberately sexy female serving staff in extremely clingy form-fitting pantsuits stalking around the dark and bustle. I thought he might be a Saudi prince or some such staying in a suite at the hotel and basking in the confidence of royalty or at least extreme oil wealth, but maybe I should just stop making excuses and learn to take up space so confidently

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