Usually when you picture a coder, you think of a geeky guy sequestered in a dark room in front of a keyboard, cranking out code for hours on end. Kim Desmond, a former tech exec, is determined to change that perception — by appealing to aspiring digital nomads who want to travel and work remotely, while learning valuable skills at the same time.
Together with her software engineer husband, Ryan, Desmond has launched a new company called CodingNomads that teaches coding bootcamps around the world, from Bali to Thailand to Europe. And unlike many coding bootcamps in the U.S., which charge up to $20,000 for a three-month course, CodingNomads makes these experiences more accessible, thanks to a lower cost of entry, and fun.
I caught up with Desmond — who oversees marketing, recruiting, trip planning and accounting, while also functioning as the group mom and resume writing assistant — to find out what it’s like to be a disrupter in the tech space.
Laura Begley Bloom: Tell me about yourself.
Kim Desmond: I’m 31 years young, and I was born with travel in my blood. My paternal grandparents immigrated from Switzerland to Canada, and my maternal grandfather was a pilot in WWII and later for American Airlines, so I was lucky to grow up in a traveling family. I had my first taste of solo travel while studying abroad in Spain while attending the University of Texas. After graduating, I spent a year in Argentina and have had the travel bug ever since. I later moved to San Francisco with a mission to work for a cause and built a career in marketing/communications for clean technology and green building companies. Surrounded by the entrepreneurial spirit of the Bay Area, my friends and I were always tinkering with business ideas and side projects. In San Francisco, I also met and married my husband Ryan, who is a software engineer and my partner in both business and life. With his tech, my marketing, our shared love for travel and our passion for working for the greater good, we combined our skills and passions, became digital nomads and launched CodingNomads, which teaches accelerated coding bootcamps around the world.
Begley Bloom: What’s the concept of your company?
Desmond: Travel has impacted our lives in profound and wonderful ways, so we want to help others experience the joys and personal growth opportunities of world exploration. CodingNomads combines education and travel to help people enhance their careers while enhancing their lives. Our coding bootcamps start from scratch. We teach 12-week Java, SQL and Amazon Web Services (AWS) accelerated courses: eight weeks on-site, followed by four weeks online. We believe that learning software engineering skills can alter the course of a person’s life for the better through greater economic mobility. And by stepping away from daily routines, family and friends, our students are able to focus on learning to code, fast.
Begley Bloom: How did you get your start?
Desmond: The seeds for CodingNomads were planted over 10 years ago when my husband Ryan decided to learn to code, so he could work remotely while traveling. Over the years we both felt the pull of the travel bug, coupled with the push of rising San Francisco rent. At the end of 2015 we decided to take a break from San Francisco to live in Central and South America and figure out our next career moves from there. While abroad, Ryan and I worked remotely in software engineering and freelance writing, respectively. We constantly met people who longed for skills to also work remotely. Aware of the huge demand for software engineers and with Ryan’s background in software training, we thought of the idea to teach coding bootcamps while traveling. It’s like a foreign language immersion program, but with programming languages.
Begley Bloom: Where was your first bootcamp?
Desmond: Our first course was in Bali in March 2017. It was a nomad’s version of a garage start-up. Now we’re headed to Thailand for our summer course, and just announced our coding bootcamp in Playa del Carmen, Mexico for this September. Sometimes it all still seems like a dream, but we’ve worked hard, stayed true to ourselves and are incredibly proud of the results so far.
Begley Bloom: Did any other entrepreneurs inspire you?
Desmond: When building our brand, we looked to “workation” companies like Remote Year and Hacker Paradise. These companies made bold moves to help people travel while working and have spurred an entire industry of companies catering to digital nomads. We also researched reputable coding bootcamps and spoke with coding bootcamp graduates to learn what makes a great bootcamp. I am also constantly inspired by other digital nomads that I have met or read about. In Bali we were surrounded by passionate, motivated people who were following their dreams and working on interesting projects.
Begley Bloom: Why did you decide to incorporate travel into the bootcamp experience? Do you think travel has an impact on learning?
Desmond: The initial inspiration behind CodingNomads was a coding bootcamp for digital nomads by digital nomads. The picture quickly became much bigger than that, as some of our students simply wanted to learn skills for jobs in their hometowns, as well as our larger goal to expand educational opportunities within developing countries. Regardless, we thought the experience of attending a coding bootcamp abroad would bring so much more value to someone’s life than attending one at home. While traveling may seem distracting, the novelty wears off quickly and students are really able to focus more on studying while living abroad. Perhaps the most special aspect was the bond everyone formed on the road. The students really became a team while learning and traveling together, with a group of friends there for support and weekend adventures. When travel challenges inevitably arose (like figuring out how to get a large toad out of your bathtub in Bali, or acute motion sickness from winding mountain roads and rough boat rides), the group grew to be more adaptable and creative problem solvers, as well as team players. All of these are incredibly valuable soft skills that aren’t as readily taught in a regular curriculum.
Begley Bloom: Any downsides to working remotely?
Desmond: There are upsides and downsides to working remotely, but overall I love it. With a more flexible schedule, I can have a slow morning if I want, do yoga in the middle of the day, and work till 11 p.m. when I have that late night burst of energy. Working remote requires discipline, but I am more productive when I can work on my own schedule rather than the traditional 8-5. There are also simply more hours to work in a day when you eliminate commute time and getting ready for the office. Another downside of working remotely is loneliness, which has spurred the workation movement. Coworking spaces also provide remote workers a place to get out of the house, be productive and meet new people. Every coworking space is different, with some being more like a social club than an office, so you just need to understand your work habits to choose the best environment for you.
Begley Bloom: What’s it like being a woman in a male-dominated field?
Desmond: Although tech is male dominated, I feel it has much less masculine ego than other industries I’ve worked in, like construction. Even still, women in tech statistically make less money than men, but are capable of just as much. I’ve experienced times when my ideas aren’t heard, but the same ideas get praised when suggested by a man. I’ve been criticized as being defensive and emotional when speaking up, but have seen men who speak up be praised as an assertive leader. It can be frustrating, but I do my best to surround myself with positive, supportive people of both genders who respect women in the workplace and reciprocate that support to the women in my circles. While there’s still a long way to go, I’m very encouraged by the women’s movement across tech and all professions, and the response of companies trying to diversify and decrease the wage gap. On CodingNomads’ part, we offer scholarships for women, and are proud that 50% of our students so far have been women. We are excited to help level the playing field and uplift women in tech.
Begley Bloom: How do you help women overcome the hurdles they face across all professional roles, not just tech?
Desmond: Throughout the years, I have met so many women who were leading amazing careers, but still felt frustrated by the gender hurdles they face. I’ve been very lucky to be exposed to inspiring women professionals in the Bay Area and beyond, and I am personally motivated to help women overcome any internal and external boundary in her way. I’ve hosted mastermind workshops for women to discuss some of the social, cultural and biological barriers women face, as well as ways to overcome them. For example, many women feel extreme pressure to do it all — cook, clean, raise kids and be a successful business woman. Many women are afraid to fail or delegate tasks to others. In my workshops and daily interactions, I discuss the importance of prioritizing, saying “no,” letting go and even embracing failure as an opportunity to learn, grow and ultimately be better professionals. I’m also active in online groups like Tech Ladies and Digital Nomad Girls, which are wonderful networks and support groups for professional women.
Begley Bloom: What are the challenges of doing something like this?
Desmond: Walking the line between being an education and travel company. We want our students to enjoy their time abroad, while also staying focused and serious about learning. We are not trying to burn students out, but we’re very much a work-hard-play-hard bootcamp. People get tired, homesick, sick of the local food or the quirks of living abroad — including us! But it’s our job to maintain a positive attitude and make the best of things, whether we’re all drenched from getting caught in a jungle downpour or stuck on a particularly difficult coding problem. It’s challenging, but we love it.
Begley Bloom: What’s the best advice anyone’s ever given you?
Desmond: KISS — Keep it simple, stupid. Ryan and I dream big and are guilty of having several complicated business ideas that we just couldn’t implement. Not that hosting intensive software engineering bootcamps while traveling in foreign lands is super simple. But at its core, CodingNomads is a combination of things that come naturally to us — coding, teaching, marketing, travel, lifestyle design and social upliftment. Staying true to our natural skill sets and passions keeps things simple in its own way.
Begley Bloom: Worst advice?
Over the years people have cautioned against lengthy or frequent travel breaks from work because future employers might look down on gaps in your resume. Travel invigorates me. Taking breaks between jobs makes me a more motivated, hard working and well-rounded employee when I go back. To my knowledge, I’ve never been disqualified because of resume gaps. Rather, my employers are interested to talk to me, hear about my experiences and hire me as a dynamic team member. If you want to travel, don’t let the fear of what your future employer might think stop you. Life is short, and it’s solely your decision whether you want to live to work, or work to live. Think for yourself and take care of yourself, and you’ll be a better person AND employee for it.