A few days among the digital nomads

I spent the last few days on Jeju Island, South Korea at a meetup for digital nomads. A DN is a person who works both online and remotely, often in some kind of technology, while moving around the world. Some DNs (like my co-worker Steph Yiu) are completely nomadic, without any permanent address. Others (and I fall in this category to some degree ) have a definite home base, but nomad regularly, and work while they do.

There were some interesting folks at this meetup:  Pieter Levels, founder of Nomad List, a site that provides community and reviews for nomads, Kavi Guppta who writes for Forbes about the future of work and is working on all sorts of interesting projects, Youjin Do, who is working on a documentary about DNsPete Rojwongsuriya, a photographer, designer and adventurer from Thailand and Aloïs Castanino of Kickpush, a french designer based in London. Everyone, including me and Steph, gave short talks about our work, living remotely, traveling and the culture of this sort of remote work.  Steph and I were interviewed by several reporters from the Korean technology press.

Digital nomadism is strange enough in the West, but in a place like Korea it runs against quite a few deep cultural currents. The parents of the Korean middle-class generation now in their twenties and thirties worked hard to establish themselves in company structures (think Samsung, Hyundai, etc.) or professions (medicine, law etc.) that were the guarantors of family stability. Sadly, the desire for stability is often the child of trauma, and for many of the current generation’s parents, war and its results were a part of living memory for them or their parents. It is not hard to see why the idea of working in this new, remote, loose way from a beach, or a mountain, or a bicycle, is at the very least confusing and possibly threatening to the older generation and its accomplishments.

raw fish and conversation, Jeju-si

After the meetup, I sat drinking Korean beer and eating rather recently dissected raw fish at a low table with about fifteen others.  Besides our group of DNs, the other diners in this upstairs diner hidden deep in a fish market were mostly middle-age Korean businessmen.  They laughed loudly while drinking rice wine over steaming pots of spicy crab soup and piles of kimchi. I looked around the gathering at the pure energy and impressiveness of the group of global young people around the table.  I marveled for a moment at the privilege of it all (how fortunate each of us was to be here — how the hell was I here for that matter) but also the possibility and raw potential energy in the room. Soon, this new nomadic way of life will be less strange, even in East Asia. But for now, especially in booming, adventurous South Korea, the group around me felt less like nomads than pioneers.

A few days among the digital nomads

Coding in prison: Clallam Bay and UnLoop

On Monday I was privileged to join group of technology volunteers to spend the day at Clallam Bay Corrections Center in rural Washington State.  The trip was part of a program sponsored by UnLoop, an organization here in Seattle on a mission to build a pipeline of talent from prison to tech. It makes sense in the abstract right?  There’s a huge unmet labor demand in the technology industry.  At the  same time, we live in a country with almost unbelievable levels of incarceration.

Clallam Bay
Prison is the opposite of an abstraction.  To enter Clallam Bay, our group passed through no less than nine electronically controlled doors. We left the internet, mobile devices, the cloud, social networks and our own complicated virtual lives behind.

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Calibrating the robot
The workshop led by UnLoop was designed as an introduction to programming for students who had never coded before. By that measure, it was clearly a success — coding happened … lots of it.  We divided up into small groups, each a mixture of volunteers and participants from the inside, and hacked away at moving around little robots.  The time sped by.

But for me there was more to it.  While I’d heard about the prison’s programming class before the trip, but what I wasn’t prepared for was meeting its senior students.  These were folks who had spent a year or two of their lives learning to code. Several men had written complex video games from scratch.  Some had mastered non-easy languages like C and C++, and were moving on to C#.  Several had learned entire web stacks without the benefit of Google, Stack Overflow or anything else.

I met several developers inside who — incarceration aside — could walk in to most technology interviews in Seattle and end up getting a fair, stable job offer.  Right now this is clearly still a dream — the barriers to employment are serious and many.  But at least from the industry side, they are artificial.

I went to prison carrying nothing but emerged with a new burden, a new vision.  To build a prison-to-tech pipeline, we need only start judging developers by their ability and desire, and not just their history of incarceration.  We need rational strategies and perhaps new enterprises to build willingness, ensure security and  encourage stability.  We need to do all of this because it’s right and just — this is a problem, and we can solve it.

Most problems are opportunities.  And there a few greater opportunities than an artificially under-utilized resource.  The results of allowing incarcerated or formerly-incarcertaed developers to do what they were clearly put on this planet to do will be not only good, but profitable —  in every sense of that word.   More justice, more stability, less recidivism.  More innovation, more utility, more dedication and yes more profit.

Want to go to prison and see for yourself?  Contact UnLoop.

Coding in prison: Clallam Bay and UnLoop