Tag Archives: laptop

Coding my way around 100 countries

Running a software company from a laptop while travelling the world sounds like a dream lifestyle. But what is it really like? Steve McLeod was kind enough to share his experiences as a nomadic software entrepreneur.

Running a one-person software company while travelling doesn’t work. And yet I’ve been doing it for years. I’m writing this in Patagonia, in a hotel lobby. There’s pop music playing too loud to fully concentrate. The Internet connection is sketchy; in fact I’m writing this now because the Internet is unavailable again. The chair is not good for my posture. The table is too high for comfortable typing. My productivity is abysmal.

I’m partway through adding a new feature to my software, and doing it in this environment is unproductive. There is a big glacier an hour’s drive from here that I’d rather be viewing. I know that tomorrow or the next day, when I see the glacier, I’ll come back to the hotel too exhausted to code or to deal with customer support.

What does this mean for my business? Low productivity and poorer-than-intended customer support response times, which lead to lower sales. My alternative to spending a decent part of each year travelling would be to stay in my home city, working better, selling more software and earning more money.

Here are some real problems I’ve faced working on the road:

  • In Ukraine my MacBook Pro’s screen stopped working. I didn’t intend to return home for another week. I had to choose between returning home earlier; trying to get the computer serviced promptly in a foreign country; supporting customers for my Mac software for the next week on Windows computer in Internet cafes; or buying a new computer and trying to get all my development tools on it.
  • In Turkey, YouTube was blocked. Which was mostly a good thing for productivity, but as my video demo was hosted on YouTube at the time, I couldn’t monitor it.
  • In Syria, Facebook was blocked. Okay, that was incontrovertibly good.
  • In Turkmenistan there was no Internet in my hotel. Or any hotel, just about, except on age-old computers in one hotel’s inaccurately-named “business centre”. No WiFi in cafes. For a few days my company was getting no attention.
  • Travelling in a shared taxi for hour after hour between obscure locations in Iraq (true story!) left me utterly spent. All I wanted to do after getting into a hotel is to relax. But that customer support backlog is nagging, nagging, nagging at me.
  • Skype is blocked in Qatar and in some other countries. This really ruins the conference call you had planned.
  • In Lebanon I needed to update my product with a critical fix. The Internet at the time in Beirut was so bad, it would take an hour to upload my 20 MB software. An hour! During which time I’m hoping not to get a network disruption, from one of Beirut’s daily 3-hour power outages. My 2-minute scripted solution for building and uploading updates, followed by a 5-minute smoke test turned into a 2-hour task, during which time I need to keep ordering coffees so as to keep the staff happy in the cafe supplying me with WiFi.
  • Coding while sipping a cocktail in a beach-side bar in the Caribbean is difficult. The brilliant midday sun makes the laptop screen hard to read. Actually that doesn’t sound too bad at all.

A very real risk includes getting my computer stolen, which, by some miracle, has not happened yet.

How do I make this running-a-one-person-company-while-travelling thing work? Here’s some things I do:

  • I keep everything in multiple online places. I use DropBox for documents and code. I use GitHub too. Without excuse, everything needs to be recoverable without drama if the computer breaks or gets stolen.
  • I set aside frequent rest periods where I can get through a backlog of harder customer support issues and work on new features or bug-fixes. It is actually nice sometimes to not climb Andean glaciers nor to see orang-utans in Borneo, and instead to do something prosaic like working for a day or two.
  • I try to be disciplined in keeping my customer support inbox empty. When I arrive at a new hotel after a long, dusty trip, before rewarding myself with an ice-cold beer, I’ll force myself to tackle the inbox.
  • In recent months I’ve been outsourcing customer support. I pay my support representative a monthly fee in return for which she deals with what she can handle herself each day. This helps so much.
  • I aim to spend my months in my home city in high-intensity bouts of feature-adding, taking advantage of having a good work environment.
  • I produce desktop software. Not SaaS, which would be terrible to support and monitor in these environments.
  • Moving source control from Subversion (which needs an Internet connection to be usable) to Git has helped a lot.
  • I concentrate on keeping my software as solid as I can, and the user experience as smooth as possible. These two things help reduce the customer support load.
  • I try to keep things in perspective. Yes, getting my computer stolen would be a minor catastrophe. Yes, a sketchy Internet connection is annoying. Yes, some customers might get irritated at the occasionally slow support. But here’s the other side: Three years ago the city I grew up in was destroyed by two earthquakes, killing hundreds and destroying a significant amount of the city. A year before that I suffered a terrible personal tragedy. Do other things matter so much that I should sit at home to keep customers as satisfied as possible?

Although my lifestyle might seem enviable, it can be lonely at times. You don’t realise how nice it is to be able to regularly catch up with the same friends for dinner or a drink until you can’t do this for long periods. Luckily, I often manage to find someone I know well to join me for part of each trip. Here in Patagonia and beyond, my girlfriend is travelling with me for two months or so. I’d not be travelling for so long anymore without companionship.

On the other hand, my one-person software company has enabled me to reach a goal I’ve long had: to travel to more than 100 different countries. I earn a decent income from my work and thousands of customers love my software. And that is enough for me.

Photos copyright Steve McLeod.

Steve McLeod runs Barbary Software, a one-person software company. Barbary Software’s main product is Poker Copilot, hand history analysis software for online poker players on Mac OS X.

Further reading:

First impressions of the Retina 13″ Macbook Pro

macbook pro retinaMy table planner software runs on Windows and Mac. Previously I took a Windows laptop with me when I was out of the office or on holiday, so that I could provide technical support to my customers. But it isn’t (legally) possible to run Mac OS X on Windows, so this made it hard to give Mac customers the best possible technical support. For example I couldn’t send them Mac screenshots or replicate Mac-only bugs from a Windows laptop. However it is legally possible to run both Mac OS X and Windows on a Mac. So I decided to buy a 13″ Retina Macbook Pro for my new laptop, so that I could have access to both OSs when out of the office. I was also attracted by the screen and design of the new Retina Macbook Pro. I choose the 13″ model, rather than than the 15″ model, simply because it is more portable (e.g. more likely to fit in a hotel safe). I also paid to upgrade the SSD from 128GB to 256GB to have room for both Mac OS X and Windows setups. I have now had my Macbook Pro for a few weeks, so I thought I would share my initial impressions.

The good points:

  • The 2560 x 1600 Retina screen is gorgeous, both in terms of sharpness and colour. It makes the display on my old Toshiba Windows laptop look very tired.
  • With a 2.5 GHz Core i5 processor, 8 GB of RAM and an SSD it is very responsive.
  • The aluminium chassis is beautifully designed. Despite being only 19mm thick and 1.6Kgs, it feels very sturdy. The power brick is quite small and light as well.
  • The keyboard is nice. Automatically backlighting the keys in low light is a nice touch.
  • The power cable attaches magnetically. This means it is easy to attach. But, more importantly, accidentally kicking the cable just pops the cable out, rather than the whole machine crashing onto the floor.
  • Gestures work very nicely on the touch pad. For example you can drag two fingers up and down to scroll or tap with 2 fingers to simulate right click.
  • I have Windows and Mac OS X  stored on separate partitions. I can access Window either by booting into Windows or from inside Mac OS X using Parallels (cost approx $80). Being able to access Windows from Mac OS X without a reboot is very useful.
  • The speakers are surprisingly good.

The not so good points:

  • The Macbook Pro is expensive compared to Windows ultrabooks with similar specs.
  • There are a limited number of ports:  2 USB, 2 Thunderbolt, 1 headphone, 1 HDMI and 1 unidentified (SD memory card?).
  • There is no Ethernet port. So if there is no Wifi, you are out of luck.
  • There is no Kensington slot, so you can’t physically lock it down. This is especially annoying given the price.
  • As someone who mainly uses Windows I’m still struggling to get used to the Mac keyboard. For example there is a Backspace key, but no Delete key. Also there is no Home or End key. Worst of all the cursor sometimes  jumps to a different line while I am typing. I have no idea why.
  • Parallels and Windows don’t do a brilliant job of handling the very high resolution of the Retina display. Fonts are sometimes shown very small or very large in Windows. Some applications, such as Keepass v1, looks very fuzzy. Hopefully this will improve with new versions of Parallels and Windows as Retina-like displays become  more common.
  • Not all applications support gestures. For example Firefox on Mac OS X doesn’t support pinch zoom. But I expect this will improve as new versions of applications are released.
  • Not having a built-in DVD drive is a pain. I was able to install Windows 7 by ripping a DVD to a USB stick using Infrarecorder (free). But this didn’t work for Photoshop Elements 11, so I had to download it from the app store, despite having it on DVD.
  • I couldn’t get Windows 8 to work. I installed it into a Bootcamp partition, but when I booted into Windows I just got a mouse pointer and  blue bar down the side of the screen. Apparently Windows 8 is not yet supported by Bootcamp.
  • I am told the graphics performance isn’t great. But I’m not intending to use it for games, so that doesn’t bother me much.

Overall it is an impressive machine and I’m pretty happy with it so far. In particular it is great to able to support Windows and Mac OS X on a single machine. But it does have some annoyances and I wouldn’t have purchased it to just to run Windows. No doubt PC ultrabook manufacturers will have copied its more innovative features fairly soon.

A couple of tips:

  • If you are  in the UK, consider purchasing from John Lewis. They will price match other ‘bricks and mortar’ vendors that have stock. But (at the time I purchased) they were offering 2 years additional warranty. I got them to price match PC World’s £100 off deal. I got £100 refunded and 2 years extra warranty. The service at John Lewis is usually also very good.
  • You probably want to get some form of case or sleeve to protect your lovely and expensive new Macbook. Beware that many of the existing cases are designed for the old Macbook Pros. Consequently they might not be a good fit for the thinner Retina models. I bought this Cool Bananas case. It is a good fit and quite well made. I just wish it had a bit more padding. No doubt more cases and sleeves will become available to fit the new models.

Tips on travelling with a laptop

airbus a380I recently returned from a month’s holiday in New Zealand. As a one-man software company I still have to check my email every day, even on holiday. Here are a few tips from my experiences of running my business from a laptop whilst travelling.


In theory you can run your business from a Blackberry or a mobile phone that supports email. But it is impossible to answer some support emails if you can’t run your own software. So I took a Toshiba laptop PC with a 13 inch screen with me. I find a 13 inch screen is a good compromise between portability and ease of use. Much bigger and it would have been too bulky. Much smaller and I would have struggled with the screen and keyboard.

The laptop contained my licence key generator and customer database. I owe it to my business and my customers to keep these secure and the Windows password is no protection at all if someone gains physical access to  your machine. So anything sensitive was encrypted using the free Truecrypt software. Whenever I brought the laptop out of hibernation or restarted it I just had to type the password to mount the Truecrypt volume as a virtual drive[1][2].

laptop lockI took a combination laptop lock, but I rarely used it. The problem with laptop locks is that the only things strong enough to secure your laptop to are usually in plain view, and a laptop left in plain view is a bit of an invitation. Locked or not. I am also not convinced how strong the laptop security slot is. I suspect an attempted theft would wreck the laptop, even if it wasn’t successful. So I generally prefer to keep the laptop with me or hide it somewhere a crook wouldn’t think to look. I have since found out that laptop locks aren’t even very secure (see here and here). There are still occasions when a laptop lock is better than nothing though. Incidentally, don’t rely on that padlock on your hold baggage either.

The laptop was also invaluable for playing Thomas the Tank Engine DVDs (using Windows Media Player) to keep my little one occupied for part of the very long flights and for backing up photos from the digital camera. I also took a universal power adapter.

Laptop bag

I have a traditional Targus laptop bag with a shoulder strap. But I have found this uncomfortable for carrying a laptop any distance due to the uneven distribution of weight. It also makes it extremely obvious that you have a laptop. A fact I would rather not advertise.

wenger-swissgear-hudson-1wenger swissgear hudson laptop rucksack bagFor this trip I purchased a Swissgear Hudson laptop rucksack from Swiss Army knife manufacturer Wenger. It was much more comfortable to wear with the weight distributed across both shoulders and left both hands free for dealing with passports, boarding passes and a bored two year old. It was small enough to take on to an aircraft as hand luggage, but surprisingly spacious. It also had some useful extras, including: a carry handle, a breathable back and a compartment for an MP3 player. I was impressed with the quality of the construction and finish. My only quibble is that there wasn’t as much padding around the top and bottom of the laptop as I might have liked. So I wrapped my laptop in bubblewrap for additional protection. But on the whole I would recommend this bag highly for travelling.


As well a backup on DVD I also took a 2 Gig USB memory stick that contained everything I would need should my laptop malfunction or be stolen. This included copies of my licence key generator, customer database and various passwords. All the sensitive files were encrypted using the free Axxcrypt software, except my passwords which were encrypted using the free Keepass software. The memory stick also stored various third party software installers (including Axxcrypt and Keepass). I kept the memory stick on a lanyard around my neck when I wasn’t sleeping.

I also stored an additional encrypted back-up on a secure server.

Internet access

Trying to find holiday accommodation that was the right size and budget, in the right location and free at the right time was problematic. Insisting on broadband Internet as well was a step too far. I also wasn’t keen on relying on broadband at accommodation. What if it didn’t work? Relying on Internet cafes seemed an even worse idea. What if I couldn’t find one? And the security issues of using Internet cafes are very real. So I needed my own mobile Internet access.

The roaming charges for using my UK three networks mobile Internet in New Zealand are an outrageous £6/MB. Vodaphone has more sensible roaming charges for some plans, but I couldn’t justify the high monthly price for the occasional trip abroad. So I tried to find a company that would rent me mobile data access in New Zealand for a month, without success. In the end my brother-in-law very kindly sorted me out with a USB mobile modem and a 1GB/mo data plan with Telecom New Zealand. He picked the modem up cheap second-hand on trademe.co.nz and the data plan was of the order of $70NZD/mo, with no minimum term. So, rather than paying >£1000, I ended up paying about £50 (thanks Derek!). There is definitely a business opportunity for someone there.

I am glad I didn’t rely on broadband at the accommodation. It turns out that most of the New Zealand ISPs have restricted SMTP access to prevent spam. So I could receive email via IMAP when plugged in to an xtra.co.nz broadband cable, but I couldn’t connect to their SMTP server to send email. Thankfully I didn’t have this problem with the mobile broadband or I would have been stuck with webmail for a month (the horror!).

Mobile coverage is patchy outside the bigger cities in the South Island of New Zealand, due to the low population density (sheep can’t afford broadband). But I was able to get some sort of signal everywhere we stayed. This might have been helped by the aerial attached to the mobile modem. During the month a I used approximately 40% of the 1GB allowance. I could have used quite a lot less, if necessary.

Stopping over in Singapore I just purchased wifi access from the hotel. It was quite expensive, but I didn’t need it for long. Wifi and hardwired Internet access are available for free in Singapore airport (I couldn’t get the wifi to work, so I just plugged in a network cable).


Running an Internet-based business while travelling isn’t that difficult, with a bit of planning. I doubt my customers even realised I was on holiday. What are you waiting for?

PS/ New Zealand is lovely.

[1] Truecrypt can also encrypt the whole OS, but that seemed excessive for my requirements and I wasn’t sure what impact it would have on performance.

[2] If Truecrypt is so easy to set-up and use, why is it apparently beyond the capabilites of the UK government to encrypt sensitive data?

Photo of Airbus A380 by Claire Brice