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October 1, 2019 How A Topcoder Copilot Made $5,000 While Traveling for Two Months – Topcoder Nation Ep. 10

Back in April of this very same year, Topcoder announced the dates of the TCO19 India Regionals, a very exciting event held in Jaipur in July. There’s this person who had a dream of visiting India, as well as other Asian countries where most of his online colleagues lived. Do you know what happens when you write down your dreams and set deadlines? You create something magnificent called a plan. With this magical tool, you can turn your dreams into actionable items, execute them and be exhilarated with the outcome. Alongside two fearless friends, a plan was made to visit India, Philippines, and Indonesia during the TCO19 India Regional dates; two months of travel.

There are several elements that the travelers shared in common. Two of the most relevant for this article are that they work together as Topcoder Copilots and Designers, and they needed to work during this trip as their freelance spirit permits. They needed to sponsor their travel somehow, right? Since money doesn’t grow on trees, this guy and his friends needed to come up with a solid plan to be able to work and travel in such conditions they were about to face. We’ll call this guy Luis, we’ll call his fearless friends Ravi and Viki, and we’ll call the three together the Three Idiots, as it is briefly explained in the first episode of this series.

 I’m Luis by the way, the Topcoder Copilot, if you didn’t catch my drift – and I didn’t earn the money by playing blackjack.

This is the part where I talk about finances in Topcoder –  a controversial topic among freelancers in the gig economy; let’s get real! Foremost, a fair warning: this is not a story to showcase how to get filthy rich using Topcoder as main income. For that you need to ask Sky_ who recently reached the amount of one million dollars in earnings. Nor is this about how to compete in this community or how to get decent curly hair, (well, maybe it is). I intend to share with you my framework, tools, and mindset that allowed me to work remotely while traveling, by consequence making $5,290 to pay for the trip and have extra money to buy souvenirs for my dear ones.

You will see a lot of numbers and outrageous amounts in this article, however, I don’t want them to distract you from what’s more important: time awareness and mindset. If at least 5% of this content sticks in your brain it would make this article the best one I’ve ever written since Topcoder had the horrible idea of granting me access to the blog. Get the popcorn and enjoy the show.

SHOW ME THE MONEY
Without further introduction and less than my usual chit-chat, straight to the numbers:

🤔 $170 per hour?

Long story short, I worked on 11 projects for a bit more than two months, leading efforts in development and design challenges or tasks for Topcoder clients. This infamous framework allowed me to make $5,290 while working only 31 hours, which means the production income was $170 per hour.

To be honest, I was shocked to see the outcome of the new framework I’ve been using. I literally felt like I hacked Topcoder, but no, I was just managing time and energy wisely. How did I save such an amount of work time? 11 projects in 31 hours? If I put this in terms of 9 to 5 office time it means I spent barely four (4) workable days to make $5k, which I would not normally do in my wildest dreams. I’m aware there are other Topcoder copilots, designers and developers who make a lot more money than I do per month –  way more – but, if I may ask, how much time do they invest? If there’s a way to hack Topcoder even more, I’m very interested to learn and exchange knowledge 🤓

It’s time to answer so many questions, this is where the story gets long. Since the moment I took the first plane to Paris, I kept a special eye on the income and invested time for work. I used my regular tracking tools, paying more attention since I wanted to measure what the outcome of my new framework was going to look like. Remember, what’s measurable is manageable. I use toggl for logging my activities, it’s just fantastic; it tracks the time you invest when you perform your activities.

Time tracker log
Payments from Topcoder for work performed during travels

Topcoder copilot work was clearly the medium to make the cash, but how did I manage to handle all the related tasks in such a short amount of time while facing the possible difficulties that traveling represents? I wrote a couple of articles for the series explaining some planning techniques that might be useful, however, those tricks are just the tip of the iceberg. What lays below it is a foundation of a framework based on a particular time awareness mindset which I’ll try to explain below using my poor English skills. This is the actual ‘how’ which entitles this article.

CAN’T BUY ME LOVE 
In September 2018, I was sitting on a fancy couch of a luxurious hotel room in Madrid, sponsored by Amazon. I was having serious thoughts about a sensitive moment in my life, whether or not to accept their job offer. By that time I had taken things too far and finished all the interviews even though I wasn’t sure I would accept a possible offer. Too late, it was on the table; time to make a decision. It was a difficult choice to make. It represented a total lifestyle change, from north to south pole, which was very sensitive for me considering I would have to stay in one city for a very long time, no more traveling. Those types of difficult decisions are good to have, they are opportunities to unveil your character. Putting aside the reasons why I was searching for a job, this was the time I embraced my mindset, making one of the most important conscious decisions I’ve ever made in my life: choosing time over money. I feel confident I can make money whenever I want as long as I have health and a set of skills, or something to sell. On the other hand, I haven’t heard of anyone yet who is able to create time out of space.

Can’t buy me time – New hit from The Beatles, Live from Bali.

For those who know me, you realize how time-obsessed I can become. I like having and enjoying this unique gift from life. While you read these lines you’re using this unexchangeable currency, and I appreciate the time you use to read what my crazy brain writes. Making a conscious decision to appreciate the value of time was a turning point, the mindset origin. It was like telling myself: “Hey Luis, you claim to appreciate time, how come you spend five hours a day surfing the web just doing nothing productive or meaningful? Cut the 💩” … That slapped me with reality right there. I started prioritizing things I wanted to do, at the same time realizing I needed to search for weaknesses in my daily routine, things that took more time out of my schedule. If there were ways to reduce those things, by any means, it was the moment to do so. It meant I would then have free time to do the things I had pending or had been wanting to learn that make me feel excited about life. One of them is, guess what, traveling in semi-immigrant-mode. I like to stay for long periods of time in places, around 3-6 months, try living like a local while learning something new there (e.g. language, painting, farming, winery, anything exciting). I’m doing that right now, writing from Argentina after two months living here. 

After this thorough examination, particularly with my Topcoder duties, I found out that there were several factors that consumed time and focus on the tasks I normally perform. Among them were preparing documents for client review, endless Marvelapp management requests, and distractions from notifications. All these concepts combined, among other things I won’t mention to keep this short, are the essential core of the framework I used to optimize my production time for Topcoder projects. Let’s break down how I counter-attacked the effect of these elements.

THE ART OF FOCUS
What do WhatsApp, Slack, Facebook, and Instagram have in common? They are millionaire ventures that rely on one thing only you can provide – your attention; without it they are broke. There’s something they produce quite often, something called interruptions, a horrible phenomenon that prevents you from completing a task. I can’t count the number of times I was nicely focused working on something then an email notification jumped right at my face. I would read a message, follow a link there, then another one, and in the next 10 minutes I ended up reading an article in Wikipedia about a flat planet theory – how did this happen? Where is my original task? This is where it gets tough, to get back to that previous focus level it will take you at least 20 minutes of your precious time. Ask Mr. Csikszentmihalyi about it, he is the expert, not me.

I hope the email you’re reading is good enough to ignore the beauty in front of you! 😂

There is so much written about focus and flow state of mind, but something I would like to point out is the importance of focusing on a single task at a time, demystify the multi-task trend which makes you feel you are productive when actually you might be accomplishing less. I’ve experienced that what really makes you more productive is prioritization, so I focused on that. I also reduced the time I spent on previously mentioned tools, eliminating some of them completely. No more incoming notifications, instead I bulked them in times dedicated for checking emails, Slack, etc. During the time I didn’t schedule checking them I was working, finishing what I prioritized. Depending on your typical duties, there can be a range for bulking notifications, in my case, every three or four hours (sometimes more frequent). You may come to the realization that many of the emails you get don’t actually require an immediate response. If you bulk them you can invest an uninterrupted amount of time replying to them all, unlike what I used to do before: work on a task, get an email, get distracted, 20 min later come back to the task I was originally performing, not even remember what I was doing, then repeat this cycle the whole day and realize I did nothing productive 🤦🏽‍♂️

If you take this to the next level and apply this in your personal relationships, you’ll notice how different it feels to completely pay attention to a person while he or she is talking without checking your phone. Don’t get me wrong, I have no argument against any of these mentioned ventures, in fact, I find them very useful, it’s just a matter of being aware of how much time you spend using them and the purpose they have in your life or work. By consequence, this uninterrupted mental focus allowed me to finish tasks faster, improving my performance by  70%! It really helped to focus on what was coming next, the automation explained below.

WHEN COPILOT MEETS AUTOPILOT MODE
Sometimes I wonder if Turing thought about being able to outsource computer tasks using bots one day as he was cracking war codes using the first computational models known in history. Automation is mostly used for testing frameworks, however, I think it’s a very underrated technique in modern computer science since it’s one way of outsourcing those repetitive tasks that can replace human effort. I mean, if there’s a task that your 8 year old self can do or an automated service can replace, then why not give it a try if it releases you to perform some other tasks that require more complex thinking?

As mentioned earlier, there were two tasks that consumed a considerable amount of human time for running projects in Topcoder competitions: Marvelapp management and review document preparation. According to my records in toggl, Marvelapp management consumed 1.5 hours average per project. Review documents consumed 1.2 hours average per project, making a total of almost 3 hours per project that could be saved. That’s massive, considering the particular case of design competitions, which took seven (7) hours average for completion. Saving around 3 hours meant reducing almost 50% of the required time, leaving me free for more demanding activities like brain required analysis, consulting or writing meaningful specs. These two tasks were my main target to outsource somehow, in this case, to automate. I call them my savior bot friends.

Once the decision was made, the rest is history. By October of 2018 I had already coded a bot to manage Marvelapp requests thanks to the magic of Selenium. I had estimated one month to do the whole thing but it took me just one week. I guess eliminating the interruptions had something to do with it, right? It’s open-source and available for improvement if interested:
https://github.com/mahestro/tc-marvel-api
https://github.com/mahestro/tc-marvel-app

The other savior bot is a CLI that creates the review documents on my behalf using Google and Topcoder respective APIs. They save me around 3 hours per project. Now, I only spend around 10 minutes per project for these two tasks, just overseeing and triggering some processes. This one is a bit tricky to use, not very user-friendly at all since some Topcoder API features are still in progress. I hope I can share this bad boy when the conditions are more stable.

IF ROBOTS HAD CONSCIOUSNESS
Now that these savior bots do a considerable amount of work on my behalf I can say I’m lucky to produce some time for me, to crack the code. As a personal insight, I know at this moment of my life, the way I use this new time is very particular and selfish, based on embracing the joy of calmness, living experiences that make me feel excited. I know it’s possible that maybe one day I will regret I didn’t invest more time producing more wealth, or competing more in Topcoder to become a Champion. But, there are things I’ll never regret and will always wish for: to have another cozy long talk with mom in Venezuela, another tear bursting fit of laughter with Ravi in The Philippines, to eat butter chicken with Harshit’s family in India, to sing “Perfect” out loud with Viki in Bali, to walk on glaciers with Juan in Argentina, and to race with my brother in Colombia, all in less than 5 months. None of that would have been possible if I couldn’t profit from remote work, time awareness and smart energy management. If life was a dance it should be danced slowly, the music will be over one day, you better enjoy it.

My reflection question to you: if you had more free time, what would you do with it? Let me know in Slack!”

img
mahestro
Topcoder Member

Peace out folks!


THANKS FOR THE QUESTIONS!
I recently added a post in our Facebook Topcoder Nation group asking fellow members to post any questions they had about our trip. They left some jewels worth framing here. Due to the length of the answers, I’m saving some of them for my next article.

Yoki: How much money did you guys spend on the entire trip?
Luis: All flights (To Europe, Asia, and local items), visas and travel insurance: $2,382. Food, accommodation, and adventures: $1,150; making a total of $3,532 to be precise according to my well-logged records.

Fajar.mln: do you still have that magnificent hairstyle?
Luis: wait for the next TCO official photos and you’ll see 😏 

Rachid Lajmi: What do you do for taxing and do you pay for health care insurance?
Luis: Taxing is very specific to each residency I suppose, but as for health care insurance it depends on the duration of the travel. I must admit I’m not very akin of purchasing insurance services, I just take the typical travel insurance that covers basic things, at least that guarantees they can bring my dead body back home in case of a major injury lol. Not advice, just how I do it.

Trivia79: What is the most memorable moment you experienced in each of the countries you visited?
Viki: Unfair question 😄 There are so many awesome moments that will stay with us forever.
India

  • The event and meeting with all the members.
  • The Himalayas even with all the connection struggles.
  • The foooood, incl. the dinner at the HQ of the BCS (Butter Chicken Squad)

The Philippines

  • Meeting the members, especially spending time with Toto and his family.
  • The beautiful nature (first time I saw turquoise sea).
  • Batangas and my shower in Starbucks.

Indonesia

  • The food and also cooking together.
  • The smell of incense and beauty everywhere.
  • The laid back style of life we had there.

Ravi:
India

  • Firstly, the Topcoder regional in India was breathtaking. I met so many incredible members.
  • Helping the people in the golden temple of Amritsar, making delicious chapatis was super fun. And then eating the same food with hundreds of people together in a huge langar hall.
  • The train journey we had from Jaipur to Delhi. The temperature was fuming somewhere around 48 °C | 118 °F and we were traveling in the middle of the afternoon. I got to know the real definition of gratitude after this 6 hours journey. The best part is, even during extreme heat levels, we made tons of jokes and laughed it off.
  • The adventurous 12 days in the Himalayas. Especially the last day when we took the most unusual road to reach Shimla. The road fits just one car at a time and we had vehicles coming from the opposite direction. There were moments when the car slid at the edge of the mountain. It was a free real-life roller coaster ride though.

Philippines

  • Meeting the legendary Topcoder members was very special.
  • I loved the trekking we did at Taal volcano. 
  • We were so lucky to have [tototpc] as our guide during the trip. Absolutely loved the times we spent in his house. Huge thanks and hugs to him and his lovely family.

Indonesia

  • I’m sooo freaking lucky to travel with the king and the queen of the kitchen. I can’t put it into words how good my travel buddies  Luis and Viki are in cooking. I had the privilege to eat some of the super delicious foods made by them during our stay in a lovely Airbnb in Ubud, Bali.
  • I will never forget the night when Luis sang a song from my favorite band The Beatles. You must have seen the video on our Topcoder nation group on Facebook. The entire hall was dancing around. Duuude you’re freaking talented. Can’t wait to see you singing at TCO19!
  • The long drives we had on our motorbikes in Bali. The lush green roads and serene temples were breathtaking.

TOPCODER NATION

Are you living the gig economy lifestyle at Topcoder? Want to join fellow members? Share your story, your travels, and experiences about the ultimate goal of working at Topcoder; the freedom, the flexibility, and the earnings that make it happen! Join Topcoder Nation.

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mahestro

Guest Blogger



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