Hi all! As the year 2015 draws to a close, I decided to look back at the last year to see what tools and tech I still use on a daily basis to continue my happy life as a location-independent freelancer. I spent the last year contracted by Epic Games to build up the Unreal Engine Marketplace into an efficient and sustainable business, and I did it while working remotely from New York City three weeks out of the month. Being able to prove that I can be available, responsive, and always connected was crucial.
For a quick recap, here’s a speech I gave at the External Development Summit in 2014 where I laid out the fundamentals of the tech and tools I use to work remotely and securely:
Being a tech geek, I constantly experiment with new and better ways of tackling my day-to-day responsibilities and put out fires as they arise. Sometimes I’ll overestimate the utility of a particular app or set of hardware, and other times I’ll underestimate the importance of always having [x] on hand. Based on using the hell out of these on a daily basis for the last year, this is a list of the tech and tools I used to the job done most effectively in 2015!
Primary PC: 15.4″ Macbook Pro with Retina display.
I love this machine. Since I have to be portable, I can’t use a desktop PC as my primary, and that suits me well because this is a beast. Two tips that made owning this vastly more convenient:
- Buy a second power adapter, and keep it permanently plugged into your primary working space. Keep the other one in your go-bag. This makes it a LOT easier to pack up and head out in a hurry without having to re-fold and re-wrap all the cables.
- Buy a Kuzy brand laptop cover. It fits snugly, it looks great, and it protects the surface. I actually have two cases, one of which I put stickers on. I swap the top lid when I’m either traveling across borders, or want to have a more professional-looking device for client meetings.
Using the Macbook Pro also has the added benefit of not needing to use Windows 10, which is a horrific privacy nightmare I won’t touch with a ten foot pole.
Primary mobile device: Motorola Nexus 6 64gb.
Best phone I’ve ever used. It’s slightly too large to use one-handed, but it’s the perfect size for two-handed use, fast typing, and a large clear screen. When I’m using it, I feel like I have a universal communicator in my hands that can do anything. It’s a fantastic device. If you get one, I recommend finding the smallest case possible, because my first case for it made it unwieldy and bulky. This is the case I currently use.
Secondary mobile device: Samsung Galaxy Tab S 10.5.
Absolutely amazing tablet, beautiful screen, impossibly thin, and works well with my Microsoft Wedge Keyboard to have basically an instant laptop. I strongly recommend the MoKo brand tablet cases. They offer excellent protection, and can also easily fold into different positions to prop the tablet up so it can stand on its own at various viewing angles. The case is half the reason I love the tablet. Between this, my Nexus 6, and my 15″ Macbook Pro, I feel like I have the perfect spread of form factors from small to large.
- For transferring files on a flash drive to or from a mobile device, the Sony MicroVault drives are pretty awesome. One end is micro-USB and the other end is regular USB. Fast and easy. Not as fun as simply using BitTorrent Sync, but it saves you from needing to install an app to quickly share files in person.
- For charging your devices on the go, I use the LimeFuel Blast 15600mAh USB charger. It can charge my mobile device 3 or 4 times on a single charge, it can charge multiple devices at once, and it’s a very cool thing to have if you’re at a conference or out with friends and someone needs juice. Remember to bring the Lightning adapter!
- For audio, the best earbud set with a microphone I’ve found is the Sony MDRXB50AP Extra Bass Earbud Headset. Music sounds great, I can always hear people on conference calls clearly, the microphone has reasonable noise cancellation and has never caused an issue. They’re durable, easy to throw in a bag and retrieve without breaking them, and they prevent me from needing to switch to a proper headset if I have a sudden conference call and need to be on the line. I’ve had these since May and so far, they’ve survived my possession longer than any other set.
- When I need a mousepad, I’ve always got my 3M Precise Mouse Pad in my go-bag. It’s thin, has a grippy surface on the bottom to stay on the table and in my bag, and is always handy when I’m working on a glass table (like now) and want to use a mouse. Yes, I know there are mice that work on any surface, but I’m still very happy with my trusty Logitech M305 and haven’t needed to upgrade.
For communicating online, it’s all about Hangouts.
I’ve yet to find a communication tool or IM app that can match Google Hangouts’ ease of use and seamlessness across devices. I’m constantly switching between my phone and my laptop, and occasionally my tablet, and being able to effortlessly continue the conversation and maintain the history (extremely important) is a lifesaver. I’ve tried iMessage, Adium, Pidgin, and others, but nothing can beat the simplicity of Hangouts. It’s especially powerful if your clientemployer uses Google Apps so that everyone is accustomed to working within the ecosystem already. It’s easy to hop on a voice chat, paste filesimages, link people to content in Google Drive, share links directly to a contact on mobile, and easily add people to a group conversation for quick troubleshooting of issues.
That being said, my primary criticisms of Hangouts are:
- Searching for a name on your contact list searches ALL of Google+ by default before looking through your contacts, and even then it sometimes can’t find it. It’s infuriating, completely nonsensical behavior.
- Its tab management for multiple conversations is very clunky. When I’m working I’m frequently in 5 – 10 conversations at once, many of which are ongoing group conversations, and keeping track of that can get tricky. To fix this, I highly recommend checking out Common Hangouts, which creates a really nice iMessage-style tabbed layout for all your conversations.
I strongly prefer Hangouts to Skype, which is messy, unreliable bloatware. I have frequent issues with low call quality, dropped calls, broken contact syncing between web and mobile, not receiving messages or calls, IMs getting stuck trying to perpetually send, and heavy memory and cache usage on mobile. It’s a mess and gets worse over time. If it wasn’t a professional necessity to maintain it and take calls via Skype, I’d uninstall it and never look back.
For typing on my phone, Fleksy has become my favorite keyboard.
I’ve found that even great keyboards like Swype still slow me down when all I want is responsiveness to my finger-pecking and ease of switching between words. It’s highly customizable and very fast to learn, and I recommend giving it a shot. However, whatever you do, don’t connect it to your Gmail account when it offers. It’s ostensibly to give it the chance to scan through every email you’ve ever sent to learn your vocabulary and typing style, but really, it’s a terrible idea letting any third party app access your Google account for any reason.
For a powerful unified notification center that makes using multiple devices a breeze, use Pushbullet!
Pushbullet is pretty amazing, and I’ve grown increasingly fond of it over time. In short, it connects all your devices so you can easily send files or text to any of all of them, mirror phone notifications on your PC, have a shared clipboard across all your devices (select and copy text on mobile, paste on PC), and generally make sure important data gets routed to you no matter what device you’re currently using. Quickly sending links or files from my phone to my PC is something I do frequently, for example. No need to email files to myself or drop them in Dropbox or Google Drive when I can Share it from my phone and immediately bring it to the foreground on any of my other devices. If those devices are off, then the links I send open up as soon as they’re powered back on. Nothing gets lost.
Not only that, but it connects with IFTTT, my favorite task automation tool, to connect to other services so you can be immediately notified of… well, basically anything. Pushbullet + IFTTT is slowly becoming an all-in-one, customizable notification center that’s seamless across all of my devices. Here are some examples of handy Pushbullet + IFTTT recipes:
For jotting down quick notes, I prefer Google Keep.
I’ve tried for years to find a place for EverNote in my workflow, but it just doesn’t work for me. I usually do long-form writing in a text editor (I’m using Sublime Text right now), and I’m more comfortable there. If I’m on my phone, I’m probably not writing something long-form, and I really just want to write something down quickly so I can remember it later. For this, I use the Google Keep widget on my phone so I’m always one swipe and a tap away from rapid note-taking that’s instantly synced to the cloud. I’ve ultimately found this to be faster and more legible than keeping a pen and notebook on my person at all times like I used to.
For reading news, it’s gotta be Feedly.
Ever since Google Reader was shut down, I’ve switched over to using Feedly for all my news consumption. I spend enormous amounts of time reading news about game dev and technology, and Feedly is incredibly slick and easy to use both on web and mobile. It integrates cleanly with tools like Pocket and Buffer, it makes sharing content or saving it for later very easy, and it’s simply the best there is at what it does. Give it a shot! Also, here are some nifty IFTTT recipes that work with Feedly:
For simple paintovers and documenting process, Skitch has long been a favorite of mine.
The tools it offers — drawing lines and arrows and boxes, adding text, highlighting, pixellation for sensitive details, etc — are very simple, but can be used to great effect if you need to quickly make a point or demonstrate process. When I was managing outsourcing on Just Cause 3, I used it extensively for process documentation for both internal and external teams. For another example, here’s a quick how-to guide I created using Skitch on preventing your Facebook friends from sharing your data without your consent:
It’s not exactly pretty, but it’s also easy to understand and took me less than two minutes. And it works great on mobile devices, too!
For two-factor authentication, use Authy.
It works anywhere Google Authenticator does, and it has the benefit of letting you back up your two-factor authentication codes and switch between devices if necessary. It would suck enormously if you lost your phone and all your 2FA codes were lost to you forever, wouldn’t it? Dump Google Authenticator and grab Authy. And if you haven’t set up two-factor authentication on your apps yet, go to twofactorauth.org and start now. It’s literally the bare minimum you can do to keep yourself and your personal information safe online in the event of a data or password breach for any of the sites you visit. You don’t have to be targeted to be a victim.
For more information on this and how to take one-time steps to secure yourself online, have a look at my GamerGate Survival Guide. At the very least, follow steps 1 and 2, which should be mandatory for anyone using the internet today.
For reading saved articles on the go, use Pocket!
When I was still working for Avalanche Studios and commuting into Manhattan, I used to spend my entire commute reading articles I’d saved in Pocket. Since there’s no internet access on the subway, having offline reading material was a lifesaver. Anytime I wanted to have something to read on my commute, I’d click on the browser bookmarklet to automatically save for offline reading on my phone, then I’d be ready to go. Even better, it has IFTTT support, which lets you do a lot of really cool things, the simplest of which is connecting an RSS feed you like to Pocket so you’ll automatically have interesting things you care about waiting for you to read. Here are some more example recipes:
One additional bonus of using IFTTT and Pocket together that’s slightly more advanced is setting up IFTTT triggers to recognize tags you create in Pocket. For example, if I read an article about a cool tool I want to try out, I’d tag it with “tools” and an IFTTT action would look for that keyword, then automatically add a new line with its information onto an ongoing spreadsheet I maintain of tools to try out. Another tag-based trigger would be tagging my assistant’s name, which would send her an email with the content of the Pocket article I was reading.
Best of all, these tags can be added while offline, and when your device finds a cellular signal again, it syncs to the server and all the actions you set up immediately start working. This is especially cool because most apps that require some sort of internet connection force you into an offline read-only mode where you basically can’t work, but Pocket and IFTTT neatly circumvent that. It’s pretty awesome if you frequently enter and exit spaces with no internet access, such as a train or an airplane.
I’ve switched my cellular phone plan from AT&T to Google’s Project Fi.
Project Fi is a prepaid phone carrier offering by Google. It uses T-Mobile and Sprint for mobile data, switching intelligently between the two depending on whichever is fastest. Calls are automatically routed over wifi whenever possible, voice calls and texting is unlimited, and mobile data starts at 1gbmo for $10, and whatever data you don’t use is refunded at the end of the month. The net effect is that I’m paying $40mo now for what used to cost me $85mo with AT&T. It’s fast, reliable, and I get to use the fantastic Motorola Nexus 6, which is the best phone I’ve ever used.
Even better, I’m writing this article in Mexico right now, and I get the same texting and data rates that I do in the US. It’s still only in a limited rollout and the phone compatibility list is very short, but coverage and support are growing steadily. I’ve been using it since July or so, and recently cancelled my service with AT&T and I’ve been very pleased with the service, the phone, and their customer support when I needed it. Go Google!
That’s the latest!
Aside from what’s mentioned above, the rest of my kit from the video linked above is pretty much the same as before. I’ll be putting together a guide in the near future on security basics for freelancers securing their clients’ content, as well as a few other fun experiments. Thanks for reading! For now, I’m going back to my vacation in Mexico. See you next year!