From Melbourne to the Beaches of Bali: Thriving as a Remote Developer

Andrew Humphrey, a.k.a. “Humpy”, is a Web Infrastructure Architect at Envato. He lived a normal life just outside Melbourne, Australia with his wife, Katrina, and three kids (6, 8, and 10), commuting to and from the Envato office, trying to raise a happy family, until he heard about a Balinese school that would change the course of their lives.

“My kids were struggling in the Australian educational system,” says Humpy. “Two of them have been measured as profoundly gifted, and the way that kids like that learn is very different to the way our school system is set up. My eldest child was a school refuser, he wouldn’t go to school in Australia. It was a fight to get him to go every time, with screaming and yelling. He now gets annoyed on the weekends because he can’t go to school. At school assemblies he gets up and leads people to dance. He’s a different kid.”

The school is called The Green School, a private and international pre-kindergarten to high school which sits by the Ayung River near Ubud, Bali, Indonesia. It opened in September 2008, founded by two expats in Bali, a husband and wife duo from Canada and the US who wanted to create a school that would treat children as individuals, not as replaceable units.

Humpy’s family made the decision to enrol all three children in the school. They resettled in a tiny Balinese town of 53 families, most of whom live as subsistence farmers, tending to their rice paddies and gathering water from running wells.

The Green School, Bali.

Though his circumstances would change dramatically, Humpy wanted to continue working for Envato from his new home in Bali, a four bedroom villa in the Balinese style with an open common area that the family now shares with various guests: ants, frogs, lizards, and the occasional giant snail.

“The way of life here is that your kitchen will be covered in ants in the morning, and you clean them up and away you go,” says Humpy. “We have a household frog called Jeffrey who lives in our bookshelf, which is interesting because one of our pembantus (household helpers) is terrified of frogs, hates them. She freaks out whenever she sees a frog.”

“Every morning we take Jeffrey out and put him in the fountain, so she can come in and do her cleaning without having a freakout. Every night he comes back and gets back into his bookshelf. We’ve got a fair number of photographs hanging on the walls, because we rented the place from a photographer. Every photograph has three or four lizards living behind it. At night all the insects come out, and so the lizards come out on the walls and go hunting.”

Jeffrey the frog.

Humpy now works from his home’s backyard bale, a small, comfortable pavillion common to Balinese properties. “I annoy the bejeezus out of people on Google Hangouts because they see trees in the background, and if you turn around you can see the monitor lizard that lives in my backyard hunting chickens.”

For the most part, Humpy says, working remotely from Bali is easy. His internet connection is excellent, he has solid access to electricity, and his hours cross-over with the core hours of 10am to 4pm at the Envato office. His workday usually begins at 7am, which is 10am in Melbourne. The team use a number of tools to make remote work and collaboration easy, from Trello boards to plan work and meetings, to ScreenHero (now part of Slack) for remote collaboration, to Google Hangouts and Skype for meetings, to Slack for company-wide chat.

Wild chickens in the backyard.

“I work at home. People ask me if I feel isolated, and I haven’t yet. But who knows, maybe I’ll get that craving to just be around people. And then there are co-working places in Bali that can scratch that itch. There’s one literally on the beach at Echo Beach.” Echo Beach is a Balinese tourist spot renowned for its beauty.

Humpy says that for him, working remotely has been a fantastic experience. “I’ve got four extra hours back in my day. I used to commute two hours each way to work. That’s four hours a day straight back in my pocket. I get up, have breakfast with the kids, send them off to school, and get to work.”

Humpy's office.

“I’m finding I’m getting more done now. Open offices are great for collaboration and creativity, bouncing ideas around, but for getting things done they can be pretty abysmal. You need the social contracts that we have at Envato where you can head off to a beanbag or put your headphones on and get things done without interruptions. When I’ve got stuff to do remote work is perfect, and when I’ve got collaboration to do it’s not so perfect. But most of the time I’d pick remote working, especially in the situation I’m in when it’s roughly the same timezone."

So far, the biggest adjustment has not been remote work vs. working in the office. Instead, it has been adjusting to a new way of living. He’s squashed an ant that managed to get behind the glass screen of his laptop, has been detained by an armed guard while trying to get an Indonesian driver’s license, has adjusted to drinking well-water, and has gone from living in a distant community to a place where community and closeness are paramount. What has struck Humpy most is the deep kindness of the Balinese people.

Echo Beach. Photo by marimaar.

“We moved to our village and had been there about four days when the power went out. We went down to the beach and came back and the lights still weren’t coming on, and it was getting to dusk. Other lights were starting to come on around the village. I wandered down to the local warung, which is kind of like a cross between a restaurant, a 7-Eleven and a local newsagent. I told them about the power outage. They explained that you have to buy what’s called pulsa listrik, prepaid electricity. You get a token you type into your meter, and that gives you a certain amount of electricity. We didn’t have a car, didn’t have a scooter. They explained that they couldn’t sell me what I needed and that I had to go to another place up the road, but I didn’t know how I would get there.”

“A guy sitting there told me to take his scooter and threw me his keys. I’d never seen him before in my life, didn’t know who he was. Someone else said they were heading that way, and I followed him. None of them spoke any English, it was all out of the goodness of their hearts. Someone needed help and they reached out and did it. Can you imagine in Melbourne, being stuck and someone saying here, take my car? Would not happen. Scooters are not cheap, he was giving me his livelihood. The Balinese people are just beautiful.”

Rice paddies. Photo by zsoolt.

Though it has only been six weeks since Humpy’s children started school, they are, so far, thriving. At The Green School, children are grouped by interest and ability rather than age. They work on local projects, and one of Humpy's children is working on the breeding program for the Balinese Starling, a threatened bird that sells on the black market for $2,000 USD, or three times the average Balinese salary. The children are encouraged to foster their interests, and the teachers (three teachers to a class of twenty) create customized learning plans for each child. By the time they graduate, each student will have gained an apprenticeship, or have started their own business.

For some reading this, life in Bali will sound difficult and confronting. For others, it will sound like a paradise. And for still others, it will sound normal. “I think people would very much struggle if they came to a place like where we are and didn’t try to fit in, if they just tried to recreate Australia. You can do it if you have enough money, but you won’t be part of the community. Going to another country and trying to make it like your own? It doesn’t make sense to me.”

For Humpy and his family, moving to Bali was the right choice. His children are happier and thriving at school, and Humpy and his wife, Katrina, are enjoying the adventure. His advice to anyone considering a similar move?

“It takes a degree of letting go.”

Post cover image by Aristocrats-hat.

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