August 12, 2015
“I love it when things don’t go as planned. Sometimes you can get upset; maybe you get lost and it’s hot outside, but maybe you find a beautiful beach, or meet someone, or find a great restaurant. These days, I tend to roam cities without a map and get lost, and I love it.”
Roman Urbanovski, a senior core team member at the completely distributed tech company Toptal, expounds on his relationship with working while traveling during our Skype interview, and I’m slowly learning that Roman is talking about more than a schedule, a mentality, or the lifestyle of the “digital nomad.”
What Roman is articulating is a philosophy of life.
The life of a digital nomad
Roman is one of many workers embracing the life of a digital nomad, a life of working from his computer while traveling all over the world. These days, you can find nomads everywhere from the beaches of Bali to cafes by the Rhine river, and many of them find this adventurous lifestyle addictive.
“The exchange of ideas, learning bits of new languages, trying new cuisines, puts you in an uber creative mode. I love the thrill of it.”
Roman isn’t kidding about those thrills and exploring new experiences. As I try to keep up with Roman, who speaks a mile a minute, I am overwhelmed by the many anecdotes that pepper our interview. In under an hour, he recalls everything from a near arrest in Moscow to a dinner with a Toptal developer at an Adriatic restaurant that ended in a late-night party with all the restaurant’s employees, topped off with rose petal brandy made by the restaurant’s owner himself.
Outside of your comfort zone
While these kinds of experiences are parts of exploring new cities, or at least part of the experience for the adventurous and daring, there is another side to traveling that I slowly tease out of Roman during our talk. Not all of travel is happy-go-lucky; there is hardship, but so too there is growth.
“Travel takes you out of your usual four corners and the environment where you usually do things, so you lose your regular mindset. You’re in a situation where your brain has to work more creatively because you don’t know the language and have to string together words. You get different ideas from different people, so when you talk to people from three to five cultures and language groups, you start to think about work differently, about yourself too.”
Given his animated expressions and borderline outrageous stories, Roman certainly likes traveling for the new experiences that come with it. But there’s more to Roman’s philosophy than just the love of travel itself. It’s not easy having new experiences on a daily basis, and being in a new country can force uncomfortable issues of personal identity.
“Travel can be lonely, but you can turn that loneliness to your advantage if you examine the root of it. If I’m lonely or sad, maybe I am just traveling physically not mentally, maybe I’m not growing up enough, maybe I’m the one with the prejudices. You need to understand that sometimes loneliness is your best ally and friend. It can tell you what to change, how to improve in life, yet people run away from it.”
The freelance economy and remote work
It is this personal confrontation and ensuing growth that has encouraged Roman to lead this lifestyle since first taking a traveling job doing quality assurance for mobile phones back in 2003. That same exposure to new cultures and ideas is also what draws him to Toptal, a company that screens freelance developers all over the world for the very best and then matches them with projects uniquely suited to their skillsets.
“Toptal is like a melting pot. I know that metaphor is overused, but it’s true. Okay, let’s change it, say Toptal is like a mixed salad. You have people from places like Brazil, Italy, Hungary, Croatia, everywhere around the world, and they bring parts of their own culture into the mix. Ideas start to pop out, and progress happens much more quickly.”
Roman joined Toptal in 2011, only one year after the company was founded, and in the following years, Roman has been something of a chameleon for Toptal, learning new skills and working on all different kinds of projects within the organization. Roman is something of an expert in Toptal’s screening process, an extremely thorough procedure that takes weeks to months.
“It’s a very cool process. We are not here to eliminate candidates, but to learn a lot about good candidates. The process is complex because we want to know what candidates are good at and what they should brush up on.”
“I really enjoyed screening developers because I saw firsthand the beautiful story that Toptal creates for some people. Imagine a developer in Croatia who has a growing loan that he can’t pay off because he doesn’t have access to opportunities to use his tremendous skills. Toptal gives him that access, ensuring that in a couple years, he will be credit free. People I recruited over the years will call me and say that they can pay off their car or put their kid through school. There is nothing better than that. Seeing some person, or family, grow. It’s fabulous.”
But Toptal’s impact goes beyond affecting individuals and their families. The company also affects local communities, an effect that is caused by the fact that Toptal is a completely distributed company.
Remote work prevents brain drain from local ecosystems
To consider how a remote company affects a local community, let’s first examine the effects of a non-remote culture. In the United States, for example, the tech industry has a clearly condensed hub around San Francisco, the famed “Silicon Valley.” Most startups will migrate to the Bay area to find funding, and as a result, the top US STEM majors move there as well in the hopes of finding work. This effect can be seen in all of the major cities. This talent migration is called a “brain drain,” in which the highly talented or trained move away from their home to pursue jobs fit for their skills elsewhere.
Brain drain has many negative effects, among them depriving local communities of talented, trained individuals and their resources, while also hurting the migrating individual with higher costs of living and the psychological strain of leaving home.
Remote companies prevent that migration and brain drain due to their very structure. Companies like Toptal allow talented individuals to remain in their hometown or local community in which they currently live.
“The sustainability of the distributed system with remote businesses is much better. It is better for developers because they make great money while living in places that they love.”
Toptal’s presence in Croatia has grown significantly since Roman joined, and while he cites the benefits to the community, he also places particular importance on what that means for the individual. With remote work, employees can relax the way they want to because they are working from home. In the end, this benefits their work too because happiness leads to better productivity and better results.
“What we want to do at Toptal is prevent this brain drain phenomena and keep freelance developers in their local communities. This benefits everyone because brain drain is a real problem in rural communities that damages them in the long term. Imagine you’re a student, and all of your mentors leave to work somewhere else. Who are you going to ask for guidance if everyone with experience has gone? How are you supposed to learn?”
It is partially this desire to prevent talent migration that inspired the creation of the Toptal community, an effort to connect freelance developers with a support system that encourages them to live the lives they want to.
For a time, Roman was heavily involved in many Toptal community initiatives. Today, the community flourishes with regularly-held events all over the world and has recently even launched the Toptal Global Mentors initiative, aimed at mentoring disadvantaged students looking to enter the tech industry. The Toptal Engineering Blog, which Roman tells me has 100,000+ subscribers, is also sustained by the passion and expertise of the community’s members.
“The idea with the community was just to have fun. With a remote company, you don’t always have the daily opportunity to socialize, and we wanted to compensate for that element.
“These Toptal events are fantastic because people get experience and are able to learn before they even go through screening. Overall it builds this healthy community that helps the company, but just as importantly helps the individuals that are a part of it too.”
The online community of developers
As relationships blossomed between Toptal developers, they began ignoring geographic distances and started traveling to visit each other. Roman himself is in the midst of this traveling community, regularly visiting old friends or meeting new Toptal developers. Now, he and several Toptal employees are planning a trip to Natal, Brazil in September, where they will work and spend time together simultaneously for several weeks.
“When you stare at the big blue sea, or whatever beautiful sight you may find in the world, your mind relaxes. With that relaxation, solutions to some very old problems come to mind, so in a way, we never take vacations. It always ends up being Toptal-related.
“I enjoy getting different job offers once in a while, some of them even offering better pay than what I get at Toptal, but Toptal is a place that I’ve been a part of for a very long time. I’ve managed to build a culture that I’m proud of, and that’s more important to me.”
Pair Roman’s passion for his work with a tumbler of that rose-petal brandy, and you’ve got an intoxicating combination of fulfillment and satisfaction.
“Do you know what brandy made with rose petals tastes like?” Roman asks me, leaning into the camera. “Like poetry.”
Image Credit: Flickr/rcgtrrz
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