The portable developer

Writing code away from your desk

I mostly work from a home office. Also co-working spaces. And coffee shops, friends’ homes, occasionally hotels, airport terminals, airplanes, even historic lakeside palazzos, and over rural satellite connections in Middle Earth. I’ve been writing this draft on the road in Philadelphia.

The freedom to work from anywhere you want can be wonderful but it’s mostly a function of having available wifi. Wifi is prevalent, it’s pervasive. Reliable wifi not so much. Learning how to work in anticipation of total downtime or unusable Internet not only makes those situations less problematic but will also help you work faster in general.

WiFi is an unreliable friend

The first rule of working on the road is do not expect usable Internet access. The second rule of working on the road is do not expect usable Internet access.

At home I can mainly ignore this rule. My overpriced, underperforming FiOS connection is at least incredibly stable. But on the road that connection will be slow, it will be expensive, it will not be consistent, it will not be available. It will somehow manage to be a combination of all of these things.

Okay, turn off your networking. Now try to work. What is failing? Is this going to be a problem?

The magical cloud

To the cloud! “Cloud” based services let you offload work and storage from your local computer to a magical realm of virtual machines. What you gain in sharing between devices you often lose in offline access, from mail to project management.

The solution here is to use a tool or process that at least mirrors this information locally.

Important emails? If not available in a local email client, ensure they’re in a notes application (e.g. Evernote). Sharing files? Use a tool like Dropbox, Box, or Spider Oak to sync files across devices and to publicly available shares, as opposed to an FTP server.

Make the most of distributed source control

Hopefully this one sounds blazingly obvious to you, but use a DVCS like Git or Mercurial. Get to know it and understand how to use its features.

Reference code

I keep local copies of projects and libraries I use. This is helpful anyhow, as ack is a lot faster and more effective than opening up a web based repository and searching there. For projects that bundle documentation in the project repository now I’ve got that too.

SSH with more than a remote chance of success

tmux

Intermittent wifi connections are the bane of SSH users. You’re going to lose your connection, and its going to kill your session in the middle of something rather important. This is where a terminal multiplexer is your friend. No, don’t run away, it’s much simpler than it sounds.

Think of a multiplexer, like tmux or screen, as another layer for your console. When you log into a remote machine via SSH, you start a terminal session that is associated with or attached to your SSH connection. Lose the connection, lose your terminal session. With tmux, you create a terminal session associated with a tmux deamon, a background process that is running independently from your SSH connection. Close your SSH connection and it’s still there. This will not only save you when your connection inevitably drops but lets you close your connection and walk away to let some job keep running.

Jump host

A jump server is in and of itself a great help. I keep a small (1GB) instance available on Digital Ocean with my SSH configuration synced and various deployment scripts, etc. If I need to initiate an SSH based deployment, I typically do so from there in a tmux session. I don’t worry about even a slight network burp interrupting it. (Of course the same could happen to my droplet, the data center, or something between the data center and the target machine, but I’m pretty confident the likelihood there is far less than from a coffee shop).

The benefit of a separate server over just maintaining a tmux connection on the target machine is that’s available for moving data between other servers, as well as long running processes that you might otherwise run on your local machine. For example, working from a hotel connection last night I could barely browse Yelp for a dinner spot, and I wanted to start working on some data found in a couple multi-gigabyte files. Downloading those to my laptop was out of the question, so I downloaded them to my server and unzipped them there to start working on them.

This might be quicker on a laptop, but this is now out of my workflow and I can close my laptop, walk the dog or get on a plane, and let the script do its work.

Documentation

No internet connection means no Stack Overflow, sorry. For a while I relied on local copies of major packages I used so that I could read the docs when I had poor connectivity (I still keep local copies! see below). Now my primary documentation source is a Mac app called Dash which manages numerous documentation sets in one place. I have Alfred connected to it so I can search documentation by name for module and function names.

Dash isn’t perfect. It’s best suited for lookup up documentation about named symbols. Even when how-to material is available it’s easier to browser than to search for it. But it’s incredibly convenient to be able to look up a function with only a few keystrokes.

Package caching

If you do any kind of work where you need to frequently rebuild environments or reinstall language-specific packages, look into a system wide cache to avoid downloading packages more than once.

As most of my work is Python-based, I also use devpi as a PyPI caching layer. The short of this is that if I try to install Django 1.6.5 in a new virtualenv but I’ve already downloaded it from PyPI, I’ll actually download it from localhost, skipping the hit to PyPI. This is faster, to be sure, but also saves a lot of headaches when there’s no network connection. It solves those edge cases where you want to add a requirement to a project that you’ve already downloaded, but moreover it makes running tox tests ‘safe’ to do without an Internet connection. I can add or rebuild all of my tox environments to test against different versions of Python, different versions of Django, and rest assured that I can do that without having to hit PyPI.

Databases

Use local databases whenever possible or at least set up your workflow in such a way that you can. It’s that simple. Even if you primarily use a shared remote database for development, ensure that you have a local version you can work with when necessary.

Originally published December 2014

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