Yield Thought

it's not as hard as you think
formerly coderoom.wordpress.com

A year ago I said goodbye to my trusty MacBook Pro and started working exclusively on an iPad + Linode 512. It was an experiment at first - one that I never thought would last.

Twelve months later and I find I’m still working like this. A combination of Vim and GNU Screen for development, Pages for writing, Keynote for presentations, Jump and VNC for unavoidable X windows work, Mobile Safari for web apps and a hefty dose of python scripts to smooth off all the edges. I use it for development, for presentations, for my side projects, for everything. 

I really mean everything, by the way. A high-speed baby bottle demolished my MacBook Pro screen months ago and I still haven’t got around to getting it fixed yet.

I love this setup, but it isn’t perfect. I’ll be making some changes for in the coming months. Before I get into that, I want to share what this extraordinary year has been like.

In my original post - just one month after I started - I was still using the setup as a light, silent laptop replacement. Now I use it in ways and places I never even considered using a MacBook. It’s no exaggeration to say that, this year, the cloud has set me free.


It’s a crisp summer morning. The clear blue sky promises a hot afternoon, but there’s a hint of freshness on the breeze that ruffles my hair. I smile in the dappled shade of the tree and lean back against the rock. My fingers lazily stroke the screen, scrolling through the feature spec, but my mind is a thousand miles away weighing up design decisions for our new product.

I’m constantly surprised how readable the iPad screen is outdoors. Despite being glossy, it’s much better than the anti-glare MacBook Pro screen. It makes working outdoors not just possible, but enjoyable.

A fine mist of tiny droplets falls over the screen and I casually wipe it clean; working next to the fountain is refreshing but I doubt I’d have risked $2000 of hardware here. The iPad’s proven to be a rugged little thing; it doesn’t seem to care if it gets wet and as my files are remote neither do I.

A buzz from my iPhone tells me my build and tests are finished. I pull it out and glance at the push notification, courtesy of Prowl. New test failures. I finish jotting down my thoughts so far into the Pages document I’m using for the spec then swipe back to iSSH. The tethered 3G connection from the iPhone is great, there’s no noticeable lag as I flick to my Vim screen and hit a shortcut that opens and formats the test results.

Hm, the “quick fix” I came up with on the ride here this morning has caused problems elsewhere. I dive into the code for a while, effortlessly navigating around our million line codebase with an instant code search web app I hacked together using python and flask. Happily, iSSH allows me to forward ports through to the iPad, making it easy to securely use HTML for my scripts and helper tools without exposing any HTTP ports to the outside world.

I finish correcting the fix and push it to our main repository. Jenkins will tell me if it passes on the test cluster in due course. I glance at the time and realize I’ve been sitting here for two hours now. I find I can work almost anywhere for two hours at a time, but to stay in one place for longer I need more comfort than a jumper to sit on and a rock for a backrest! Our mid-morning devteam meeting will be starting in fifteen minutes so it’s a good time to go somewhere quieter for the call.

I throw the iPad and keyboard into my rucksack, wade back across the stream and hop onto my bike. A brisk ride later and I’m back on foot, strolling through trees and flowers with my hands-free headset on in a vast landscaped garden that cuts right through Munich. The call is taking some time to set up. As I’m on 3G, I asked the office team to call my mobile number, but one of our developers is at home and doesn’t have a landline in his study, only Skype. An unexpected hiccup - I feel bad; if I were in an office this wouldn’t have happened.

While waiting for him to start the call with SkypeOut, I discover a rose bush and spend a moment enjoying their rich scent. It feels almost like cheating, working in such a beautiful environment, combining meetings with summer walks through the park. And yet, it doesn’t seem to have affected my productivity at all.

I wish the rest of our team could enjoy walking and talking about the last and upcoming week out here surrounded by nature instead of being stuck in a drab air-conditioned box the best part of a thousand miles away.

Then it strikes me: they could. And yet I worked in that office for six years and I never did. There’s a beautiful castle near the office set in vast landscaped gardens; I could have switched to an iPad + server (one of the office servers would have been fine) and spent a day working there, or any of the other beautiful places I loved to be in.

Of course, back then I used a graphical IDE and the iPad didn’t exist, but surely it would have worked with a laptop, too. Well, unless I ran out of power after an hour or two of multi-core compilation. Or it got too sunny. Or it started to rain. And then I’d have had to worry about finding a nice cafe that also has a free space on a large enough table near a power outlet. So many conditions. So much to fear. 

The 10-hour battery life, 3G connection and small form-factor of the iPad + wireless keyboard combination frees me from so much; today I can work wherever I can sit.

A chime from my phone snaps me out my reverie and we begin the call. The wind has picked up, so I mute myself when not speaking and cup the microphone in my hand when I am. It’s not perfect, but the fresh air filling my lungs and the rustle of the leaves in the trees overhead are worth it.

After so much nature I feel like sitting down with a proper seat and table when the call is done, so I cycle down through the park until I reach the Chinese Tower - a beer garden with fantastic benches in the shade. The perfect place to finish my morning’s coding.

At 1pm I leave the park and cut into the city, spending 45 minutes chatting with Matthias from MunichBeta over lunch in a tiny little Chinese place he knows, followed by a visit to Munich’s best ice cream parlour across the street. Matthias lives much as I do, flitting around the city trying out new places to work with his trusty Macbook Air.

This afternoon I’m giving a webinar to prospective customers; I need a quiet conference room and a rock solid internet connection for Skype. My location of choice: Combinat56.

I find a change of scene and some exercise are perfect to ward off any post-lunchtime lethargy and when I arrive at the stylish Combinat56 offices fifteen minutes later I’m feeling refreshed and ready to go.

Running the webinar from the iPad works just fine - Cisco have an iOS app and in any case we’re only sharing slides and dialling in. Usually I just email people the deck and call them on the phone, though; it’s simpler for all concerned.

After the call I catch up with my friends from the Combinat over a cup of tea in the lounge area. You can’t explore on your own all the time; working from home and in cafes is isolating after a while and I enjoy the community here as much as the decor.

While I work, afternoon becomes evening and I sign off from our team chat servers. On a whim, I kick off another round of data analysis on the million song dataset for a side project, then close the iPad and drop it into my bag. Knowing the Linode will keep working away at it, uninterrupted, while I cycle home and enjoy dinner with my wife and children gives me a warm, fuzzy feeling - my tireless robotic assistant, working away out of sight.

Trouble in Paradise

And yet not everything is perfect. I love having my data on a remote server and I’m deeply happy with my indefatigable Linode. Surprisingly, the weak link in all of this has become the iPad. And not just because of what it by design can’t do, but because the internet is moving towards richer and richer web apps and Mobile Safari still feels like a toy browser. 

Using Google Docs has been a pain all year and it isn’t getting any better. 

Having used the fascinating LightTable on the desktop, writing Clojure without it feels like wading through treacle, but Mobile Safari doesn’t have what it takes. I’ve even looked at hacking the engine out of the source and integrating it with the console, for goodness’ sake.

Luckily, splitting my devices between the server and a client means that I am free to change devices whenever I wish. I can work just as well on the twisted remains of my Macbook, a 3-screen office desktop or anything else with a browser, a terminal and a VNC app. My switching costs approach zero. And switch I will.

You see, a surprising alternative has appeared: the Microsoft Surface.

Surface + Linode 512

For a while now I’ve been telling people that Microsoft will become the new cool, the inventive underdog, and I still believe that. Windows 8 may be a huge gamble for Microsoft, but Windows 8 RT is a clear win for me.

Microsoft understands the keyboard. I can start, switch and control apps without leaving the keyboard. The device even comes with one.

Sometimes it’s really nice to have two windows open, especially when using video output to a larger monitor. I think the Windows 8 side-dock idea will suit me very well.

Love or hate Internet Explorer 10, I have every expectation that we’ll see the real rendering engine on Windows RT. I don’t care what they call it, if I can run LightTable and Google Docs without gouging my eyes out, I’ll be happy.

Last but not least, the Metro vibe feels fresh and new and I’m intrigued by Microsoft’s choice to make Javascript + HTML5 a first-class way to develop for the system. I’m already looking forward to hacking my own tiles together to smooth my workflow and simplify my day.

Perhaps in a year’s time I’ll be switching to another client. It doesn’t matter, and that’s the beauty of this setup - its flexibility. For me, though, this coming year will be the year of the Surface.

The Experiment is Over

Last year I started this as an experiment, but it stopped being that a long time ago. Today the entire city is my office - its parks, its countryside, its cafes and its workspaces. I have worked on river islands, half-way up trees and on exclusive rooftop terraces.

My side projects are simpler, more flexible and more exciting now my development machine is connected to the internet by a big fat pipe, 24/7. Want to run statistics over 5 years of Gmail messages? Just do it! No need to worry about how long it takes or whether someone will reset the wireless router part way through. It’s simple. It’s pure.

Feeling free to set off into the unknown, assured that I will find a place I can work, to explore and enjoy my surroundings… no, this isn’t an experiment any more.

It’s liberating, rejuvenating. It’s a way of life.

I will not give it up.

Postscript: Intrigued and looking for more? Tempted to try it out one afternoon? I’ve decided to start a mailing list - I plan to write one or two emails a month about my experiences; the highs and lows of this desk-free lifestyle. I’ll also share more practical tips such as setting up a VPN or keeping in touch with the team. You can join the list here.

Breaking news: Today Allinea ordered me a high-end laptop with a massive SSD for doing CUDA development on. Stay tuned to see how the iPad+Linode combination stacks up against top-of-the-range hardware!

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  9. mylinuxrig reblogged this from yieldthought and added:
    Not especially Linux-related,...very interesting project.
  10. tobasaurus reblogged this from yieldthought and added:
    truly work remote when I want to.
  11. quasidot reblogged this from yieldthought
  12. justingodard reblogged this from yieldthought and added:
    (via @mistagrooves)
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