Here at Journy HQ, we’re proud to have a flexible work-while-traveling policy. Because hey, it’s important to practice what you preach, right? So we caught up with Marc LeBourdais—a software infrastructure engineer who spent 19.5 months abroad while working full time—to learn what advice he’d give others, how engineering is uniquely suited for remote work and why, despite a few hurdles, he’d 1000% do it again.
When Marc LeBourdais began interviewing for various engineering roles that would allow him the flexibility to work remotely, it felt a bit, well, ridiculous.
“I was asking them if I could essentially have this lifestyle where I could just work and travel and do whatever I wanted, and it seemed very nouveau millennial,” he tells us, “and entitled.”
And for a long time, it was proving difficult for him to even find companies that allowed for remote travel. Because while structured programs like Remote Year were just starting to pick up steam by early 2015, LeBourdais was looking for something different. He wasn’t interested in 100% remote, completely distributed companies, as he had every intention of embarking on this work-from-abroad experience for one year, and one year only. What he needed was a company with a physical space fostering a palpable office culture that he could eventually return to.
Turns out Digital Ocean was his ticket, quite literally, to what would eventually become a 19.5-month experience working around the globe—from Central and South America to Europe, Canada, Asia and Australia.
But as LeBourdais will tell you, he’s been smitten with travel since well before even his high school days.
Growing up in a small town in New Hampshire, LeBourdais didn’t have much exposure to life outside of what he affectionately refers to as “that little bubble.” So when the opportunity presented itself for him to travel abroad in Germany for a summer during college, he jumped on it. And after almost five years working at Bloomberg in his first job out of college, he began to feel restless with the “fairly rigid type of lifestyle” that comes with a structured role—one where you’re expected to come into the office every day. While he had a decent amount of vacation days, he’d never been able to travel anywhere for a meaningful amount of time. So when a good friend suggested he explore opportunities that would allow him to work while traveling, it seemed like a no-brainer.
“It was kind of like this aha moment,” LeBourdais recalls. “How did I really never think that this was a possibility before?”
Fortunately, his would-be manager had just allowed a team of engineers to spend a month in Thailand. And while nobody on the team had ever embarked on fully remote work to the extent that LeBourdais was proposing, his manager was more than amenable to the idea—especially since engineering is a field uniquely suited to autonomous work.
“Engineering can be super collaborative, but it can also be very independent,” explains LeBourdais. “And even when you’re working in a team environment, it’s still extremely important to have that stretch of time where you’re heads-down. Where you’re not in an environment that’s talkative, or constantly in meetings, or constantly forcing you to tailor your schedule around how everyone else is working. And that’s what made traveling so great—to be in a unique position where my hands were tied, because I couldn’t take meetings all the time on video. So I found more inventive ways to figure out how to collaborate—to be more intelligent about how I coordinate projects and get work done in an efficient manner without necessarily being face-to-face or working on all the same time zones.”
Knowing he had to be in Costa Rica in December, LeBourdais chose to spend his first month in Mexico City—as much for its geographical proximity to his next destination as for the up-and-coming hype he was just starting to sense around the bustling city.
“I wanted to understand what it is about this place that is seemingly starting to get a little bit of notoriety,” he tells us. “And it’s honestly one of the coolest places I’ve ever been. The food is amazing; there’s art, culture, history—and everybody was super happy to meet an American putting themselves out there and living there for a month.”
If you’re thinking, isn’t there a name for this whole work while abroad-thing? You’d be right. Digital nomading. But LeBourdais prefers to stay away from the label, admitting that it carries a certain connotation that isn’t conducive to what he was trying to accomplish throughout the experience—namely pushing himself out of his comfort zone, challenging his opinions and practicing a sort of radical presence in a place that, he posits, wouldn’t have come as easily if he’d been part of a digital nomad “pack” traveling in groups through programs like Remote Year.
Recalling an experience at a bar in Split, Croatia when he struck up a conversation with a small group of people participating in Remote Year, LeBourdais tells us that it ended up confirming the assumptions he had about the program—that its participants, engrossed in “clique-y behavior,” end up “constraining themselves in terms of how much culture they are really absorbing by being in a group with people who are all so similar to them.” Plus, many of the people he met were freelancers, often in creative capacities, who didn’t maintain a 40 hour/week schedule, which was something LeBourdais knew he wanted to do.
“While there are avenues for facilitating this travel-while-working experience, it’s definitely possible to do it on your own in a way that allows you to be super productive."
In the beginning, part of that effort at productivity meant holding himself accountable to aligning his work day with NYC hours. And for the first six months or so, that’s exactly what he did. The only problem? Logistics would sometimes get in the way (think checking into Airbnbs, buying sim cards, navigating the world of international visas, finding food) along with what proved to be one of the biggest hurdles of all: internet connectivity… or a lack thereof.
Contacting Telecom companies was a way for him to get a general idea for the data speeds in any given country, but without a way to confirm if the network itself was reliable (or if the place where he was staying had a reliable connection), LeBourdais was often left hoping that the WiFi gods would be in his favor—learning quite quickly that the quality of internet connectivity is not directly proportional to the GDP of a country (Thailand’s impeccable download speeds and Australia’s lackluster ones are to thank for that).
While this is unfortunately not something anyone can plan for, LeBourdais believes that engineers are adept at finding solutions for these types of challenges—yet another reason why the roll is suited for remote work.
“The most important thing you can do is have the resolve to keep a level head whenever you’re faced with any kind of adversity,” LeBourdais explains, when asked what advice he’d give to an engineer hoping to work abroad. “Fortunately, problem solving in the face of adversity is a big part of what we try and do every day.”
When asked what other myths (besides universally reliable internet connection) he would want to dispel about the experience, he immediately mentioned professional upward mobility. Because while some may worry that a remote work environment can stagnate one’s career, Lebourdais assures us that that’s not the case.
“I was promoted about a year in, and at the end of the day what defines your experience is the effort you put into it. If I could go back in time, I’d 1000% do it again. In fact, I don’t think I would have changed anything.”