A way forward
How to lead a better life?
When I was in high-school, my answer was to study to become a software engineer and climb the career ladder.
When I reached college, financial independence became my new objective. I could either take a steady job, save money, and calmly invest it in index funds to live off passive income—or I could start my own business and figure out how to make money while living in inexpensive countries.
When I became a digital nomad, I was free to learn or try anything. I had total creative control, as long as I could figure out how to earn a living. I was a web developer, a marketer, an author, a technical writer, a blogger, a traveler, an entrepreneur, a maker, and an advisor. I looked far and wide for opportunities and shed light on parts of myself I didn't know were there as a result.
Then came 2020. I couldn't travel because of the pandemic, so I moved in with my aging parents and my recently-graduated brother from May 2020 till March 2021. As someone used to roam around and having every bit of autonomy, I felt trapped. In August, Jihadists murdered one of my cousins in Niger, while he was on a humanitarian mission. For my mother, it was devastating. A month later, my parents separated.
I was at an all-time low, struggling to take my projects off-the-ground, with no glimmer of hope for the future. I needed rest and quiet, so I decided to shut down everything I was working on in October 2020 to reevaluate my life as an indie business owner.
I took walks and studied new web technologies in search of possible business opportunities. For a brief moment, I was excited about a new product idea I called WritingStartup.com, but the feeling didn't last long. I was tired of doing the same things I had been doing for the past three year: making product after product, going through the same motions of coding, shipping, and tweeting about it, only to discontinue new projects because of the limited time there is in a day.
In December, I went on a digital fast to remove the noise negatively impacting me. I deleted Facebook, Instagram, Tinder, Linkedin, Whatsapp. I left all the communities I was in, be it on Telegram or otherwise. I switched from Twitter to Tweetdeck, installed Demetricator Twitter, and placed all the people I was following in Lists. I reached Inbox Zero and unsubscribed from every newsletter hitting my email address. Finally, I blocked Youtube and Spotify from my firewall, and left my phone in airplane mode by default.
After 4 months of research, I am ready to project myself in the future again.
In 2021, leading a better life means entirely different things for me:
- Using my work to have a positive social impact
- Living closer to nature
- Leaving more space for people I truly care about
This article details why I came up with these answers, and how I plan to realize them this year.
Circular Web Development
If the climate emergency is the number 1 issue of the century, it's the business owner's duty to ensure resources are best used. Performance is not a nice-to-have when the IT industry consumes more electricity than the aviation industry, while emitting just as much CO2.
I do not wish to raise kids in a world where nothing grows. I do not want to spend time on trivial work living paycheck to paycheck that only adds to the problem. I do not see myself having a future in a land torn by floods, tornados, droughts, and social tensions fueled by an ever-growing population packed in increasingly smaller containers. I want to wake up every morning with an inexhaustible will to live and create, knowing I'm doing something positive.
With the right programming languages and software architectures, I found we can divide by 100 the carbon footprint of most websites and web applications to address this long-term problematic. For example, writing web services in Rust or Go instead of Ruby or Python would result in 60 to 70 times less energy consumption. Offline-first architectures drastically reduce the amount of traffic generated by a given app, and web browsers now propose exciting features to create lightning-fast experiences.
Even if a digital product is short-lived, well-architectured code can be reused to scaffold pivots, or even unrelated applications: implementing a simple JSON Web Token authentication workflow or a payment gateway as standalone web services, and you would still be able to use them in your next product.
We could call it Circular Web Development, because every module of code can be reused and wastes are progressively eliminated through each iterative cycle. Web applications are optimized for performance and resource consumption by design.
Possibilities for greener web development workflows are now many, but we lack the tools, frameworks, content, and products to make it easier for developers to act upon them. I'm extremely disappointed in the current state of "Green IT", because it fails to take into account modern software architectures like JAMstack, single page applications, new browser and database technologies, and even sometimes blatantly ignores the resource costs of software like Wordpress (a charcoal factory, if I've ever seen one). Green hosting and image compression just aren't enough. And don't get me started on the FAANG monopoly over web infrastructures. Ironically, there wouldn't be indie startups without FAANG companies, because all of them use AWS, Firebase, or similar solutions.
Considering all of the above, the way forward is for me to create a venture studio specialized in circular web development. My new mission as an indie web developer is to shrink the carbon footprint of the Web, by making and fostering greener, faster, and fairer web technologies.
First, I'll document all the best practices I've gathered over the past months in this blog while providing the proofs of concept I implemented. In parallel, I'll work on tools and platforms to help developers and businesses seamlessly transition toward greener web technologies. I'll also more actively look for customers interested in using greener solutions in production.
To further my knowledge of general sustainable practices while sharing and researching my new findings, I decided to join The Catfarm, an off-grid community of makers in South-East France willing to explore an alternative lifestyle closer to nature.
Two years ago, I was attending an online hackathon looking for solutions to fight against climate change. My project was to create a modern website that would list all the ecovillages in the world to easily join one. Parsing the data lead me to the Catfarm, a community of artists, entrepreneurs, digital nomads, gardeners, and builders to band together in the pursuit of a sustainable lifestyle.
As a digital Thoreau-wannabe, I was instantly attracted by the concept. But the constant traveling and the impostor syndrome I was experiencing made me postpone my decision to apply.
Two weeks ago, I decided I had nothing to lose and sent my application. I passed the phone interview and arrived a week later. So far, it's the best decision I've taken this year.
I volunteer 25 hours per week. Anything from construction to gardening or cooking. The rest of the time is free for me to work on my own projects. I am offered a bed, 3 vegan meals a day, and the fantastic landscape surrounding Sète. All I have to pay is 4 euros per day to cover the costs of my meals. I'm currently living on 120 euros per month, which is more than ideal while I figure out a profitable business model for my company.
I also help the Catfarm with web development work. As a non-profit, the community has access to plenty of online programs to expand its activities. For example, Google offers us $10,000 per month in ads credits. It's not much, but interesting to learn more about online marketing or products that are typically paid-to-try. It's a great way to put my skills into practice while collaborating with others and expanding my knowledge.
While I planned to stay for a month, there is a high probability I'll stay much longer. Perhaps till September. Long-term volunteers are especially valuable to the Catfarm to foster sustainable projects and keep the community alive, so it's a win-win situation.
I have no reason to leave after a single month, except if I can't find a balance between my personal work and my time as a volunteer. After a week there, I don't think it will be a problem. I am free to work however I want and use the Catfarm's ressources to make myself comfortable. For example, I built myself a little laptop stand with tools and pieces of wood lying around.
The location is gorgeous. 15km from Brassens' Sète and its beaches, half an hour from Montpellier, and a minute-away from the small town known as Poussan. The farm is surrounded by hills and vineyards with plenty of rocky hiking paths. A few meters from the domain, 1.5 acres of land are being prepared for a permaculture project. With Spring, the days are becoming longer and hotter, and there is a peace in the air that calms the mind and the body. If you walk to the top of the hill, you have a beautiful view of Mont Saint-Clair surrounded by the Mediterranean sea.
More importantly, the people are fantastic. We are a group of 20 volunteers from a wide diversity of backgrounds and personalities. Even after a week, I'm still amazed by the synergy of the community. People come and go, so we also get to meet new people on a regular basis. In the current state of affairs, I feel extremely grateful to stay with like-minded people that inspire me and broaden my horizon. I'm particularly excited to use my skills to help them fulfill their goals and projects.
My social life has been almost non-existent over the past 9 months, so I am looking forward to spend more time bonding and socializing.
If we don't live for others, does our work even matter? Even though I learned a lot, I haven't put much work out there over the last year. Social isolation is quite the experience to go through, and it definitely impacted my productivity negatively.
If I had to describe my work ethics, I would say I am a shokunin: I want to master my craft for the sake of others. For the sake of the common good.
Mastery involves deliberate practice, but also thinking about what is unique about me and how it can shape my work to create a standalone masterpiece. My answer is at the crossroads between web development, sustainability, writing, nomadism, and engineering.
In a few years, I can see myself buying a plot of land in Sweden, living off it while helping people all around the globe from a little workshop with my web development skills. Sometimes, when the weather warms up, I would switch to a digital nomad lifestyle, bikepacking from Sweden to France while working from coffee shops along the road.
In terms of developing the necessary skills to act upon my dreams, I haven't stopped moving forward. But I have to stick to something and work on it. I have to hold the line a bit longer.
Money isn't much of a problem. I could stay 7 years at the Catfarm or a similar community without needing to earn extra money, or bikepack during Spring and Summer with very little living costs. I have my youthful energy on my side and the will to succeed.
The real challenge is mental and physical. Failing over and over again is tough for the nerves. It is no fun half of the time, but I'm aware it's a necessary step for growth.
I will do my best to find a profitable business model by September 2021. If I make no progress, I'll consider sending out resumes to avoid burning out.
As I previously explained, my first objective is to document all the techniques I've come up with to make better software. Then, I want to use these techniques to rapidly prototype different Software-as-a-Service products in public. The faster I can try out and tweak ideas, the more likely I am to find a viable product.
I still have to juggle my entrepreneurial projects with volunteer time at the Catfarm, but I think it's a net positive. I have 16 hours of non-negotiable activities: 8 hours of sleep, 5 hours of volunteer time I can use to clear my mind and exercise (gardening, construction), 2 hours to take care of my body (eating, hygiene, siesta), and 1 hour to nurture my mind (socializing, friends, and family). It leaves me with a full 8 hours, or 4 deep work sessions of 2 hours. If I schedule my days right, which I have the freedom to, I can perform my deep work sessions when I am at peak energy. I also have the whole week-end to myself.
Living the good life is simply about doing as much good as possible, while doing less evil. As long as I set my boundaries right and ruthlessly prioritize my daily tasks, I'll make it.