I Quit My Six-Figure Software Engineering Job to Travel Full-Time
- Sergio Najera quit a six-figure engineering job because the company didn’t allow international travel.
- He now works full-time at a gaming startup while traveling through South America and Europe.
- He says the trade-off was worth it, as told by Insider reporter Hannah Towey.
This as-told-to essay is based on conversations with Sergio Najera, a software developer at “Pericle: Gathering Darkness,” an app-driven tabletop fantasy game. His words have been edited for length and clarity.
I was born in Corpus Christi, Texas. My dad is from Mexico and met my mom there. When I was three years old, we moved to a small suburb outside Minneapolis. That’s where I’ve lived most of my life.
During the pandemic, I was working as a software engineer at a major corporation based in Minneapolis. I had been dreaming of traveling abroad for a long time. So when we went remote, I asked if I could work temporarily from Puerto Rico.
I was very transparent with my manager. Over the next couple of months, I tried figuring out if there was a reasonable way I could do this, and the answer was no.
So I decided to be a little sneaky. I talked with a bunch of friends and landed on this VPN setup where I could hide my IP address and work from Puerto Rico. It was like a trial run to see if I even liked working remotely. Overall, it was a success and reaffirmed that this was something I wanted to do.
This is all under the premise that nobody knew where I was. But I got a little lax — I don’t know with 100% certainty how I got caught, but allegedly the security team could trace my IP address and see that I was not in the United States and in some Caribbean time zone.
So I got a message from my director on the second to last day before I was going back to Minnesota. He was questioning where I was and, while I wasn’t technically lying that I was in the United States (or at least part of the United States), he knew and I knew, so I just fessed up.
He wasn’t super thrilled and asked me to stop working until I was back in the US, so I obliged. After I got back to Minnesota, I talked to my director and he said don’t do that again, but it was just kind of a slap on the wrist.
I left the company because of its strict employee travel policy
Fast forward a couple of months and I’m planning a bigger trip: a month and a half in Peru.
My company was very strict. If I wanted to work outside of Minnesota, I would need special permission. So yeah, working from 7,000 kilometers away wasn’t really an option.
At the end of the day, I tried very hard to stay. I’m not a lawyer. I’m not a tech specialist or an accountant. I’m just a guy who wants to travel. But there are these dinosaur rules that don’t make it easy for remote workers to work in different states, let alone different countries.
I had my flight and Airbnb booked, and a trek through Machu Picchu scheduled, so it was really do-or-die. I either needed to figure out some way to stay with my company and work from Peru or find some alternative.
Around the same time, a game I’d been building with my friends called “Pericle: Gathering Darkness” that started to really take off.
We had a successful Kickstarter, where we raised $182,000 to hire some full-time people. So I had a couple of choices: (1) just quit my job and figure it out, (2) I could cut my salary in half but have a cool job that I originally started as a fun project to do on the side, or (3) try to find some contractor job.
I decided to take the startup job because it would give me the flexibility to work from wherever I wanted to and I really prioritized that. I started in April and I’m still with them — the game is being released this Spring.
My base salary at my old job was around $115,000 with 401(k) benefits and matching, bringing total compensation closer to around $140,000. Now, my cash salary is only $60,000.
I’m not saving as much money as I used to, but my ‘joy per dollar’ is higher
I’ve traveled to Spain, Morocco, the Netherlands, and Argentina. Next, I’m planning trips to Brazil and Chile.
If you do want to live in Europe, but live a little cheaper, you can go to places like Croatia or Bosnia which are a little less expensive than somewhere like Italy. Even Spain was cheaper than Germany and Switzerland or the Netherlands.
I love Europe and maybe I’m just looking at it with rose-tinted glasses, but I genuinely do feel like it fits my lifestyle better. Nutrition-wise, it’s so easy to find healthy food. The culture is also not so grind-oriented — people don’t work 70 hours a week.
If you want to go very cheap, you can go to places like Argentina, where I am now.
Eating out here every day is sometimes cheaper than buying groceries and cooking at home. For example, I went to this little empanada place with a friend and we ordered eight good-size empanadas and a bottle of wine for four-and-a-half US dollars.
When people say they can’t afford to travel, I always ask how much their rent is. Whatever they pay is always more than what I pay for housing. I aim for around $30 to $32 per night, so around $1,000 a month. The most expensive thing is flights. But once you get to your destination, you can live very frugally.
You can easily find hostels or even cheaper Airbnbs if you’re smart and plan far in advance. You can easily find places for $25 a night in a lot of places in the world.
If you choose London or Berlin, it’s going to be really expensive. Even Valencia and Malaga in Spain weren’t too bad. Or go to South America and you can choose whatever capital city you want and it’s going to be cheaper than paying rent in the US.
I’m still contributing the maximum to my Roth IRA and putting aside money to pay off student loans. Compared to Minneapolis, I’m not saving more money because I’m spending more on activities and weekend trips.
But I would say that I’m spending my money more meaningfully, in that the amount of joy I get per dollar is much higher. I’m budgeting very intentionally while saving for retirement and still able to do most of the things that I really want to do.
From making friends to making sure you can work productively, traveling full-time comes with challenges
Even though I’m more extroverted, I still get lonely. You can be in a city of 5 million people but you can feel totally by yourself at times. I’ve gone a couple of weeks where I’d only talk to my wife, just working away in my little room.
It’s one thing to grab lunch with a group of people and another to hang out with your friend who you’ve known for 15 years, who cares about you and loves you. One thing that’s helped me is calling people that I haven’t connected with for a while and seeing what’s going on with their life.
There are other little challenges, like having a good work-from-home setup. You can’t actually work from the beach — I mean, where are you getting your Wifi? How do you see your screen?
You need a good internet connection, especially if you’re in meetings. Office chairs are another big thing. I bought this cushion that I travel with so I can put it on whatever chair is in the Airbnb.
Ideally, I have a workspace that is separated from the bedroom. That’s the bare minimum for what I personally look for. I can’t work in cafes like some people. I try to stay in quiet neighborhoods, which also helps with sleep.
Traveling has helped me realize that different lifestyles exist outside the US’ grind culture
I’m very extroverted. Every day, I’ll talk to strangers on the street. I actually got this from a dating book, that if you want to find people that you connect with emotionally, you should do the things you like to do. For example, I’ve met some really cool people while rock climbing. My friend loves surfing so he hangs out in surf towns and meets like-minded people. I’ve also met friends in cooking classes.
My best advice for landing in a new city is to always do a walking tour. It’s a good way to meet other travelers. My other secret tip is shared Airbnbs. Right now, I’m in an Airbnb where there are two other rooms that are rented out and people are coming and going. I’ve met some absolutely kind souls doing this — it kind of feels like college again.
My wife’s job is a little less flexible, so she’s still based in Minneapolis and flies out to visit every now and then. She was in Spain with me for a month, and my sister came for a couple of weeks. I’ve been solo for around two months now.
The different time zones can get tricky. We learned the hard way that not talking frequently — which for us means every day or every other day — can be really taxing on both of us.
That doesn’t mean we’re constantly texting each other throughout the whole day. Sometimes we check in on each other a couple times and that’s it, but getting face time on video chat is really critical. At a high level, that’s how I think we’ve been able to do this well.
If I died today, what I would miss most is obviously my family and my friends. It wouldn’t be like, ‘oh, shoot, I really miss writing code.’ But a regret I would have is not seeing enough of the world.
Very specifically, what really draws me to leaving everybody behind for a little while — including my wife and my family — is there’s so much to learn about how to live life.
The first time I ever went to Europe, it blew my mind. The streets are so narrow, people are more active, then there’s the healthcare system. It makes you realize there are different ways to live life. I think we get really stuck in patterns in the US, or wherever you were born and grew up. Talking to different people around the world really opens you up to the possibility of living a better life.
We might think life is so hard, but then you go to Argentina where people literally can’t afford to buy a house and might never be able to because of inflation. You start to realize, ‘are our problems really so bad?’
For me, I want to see the world so I can hopefully live a better life with a more open mind to what exists outside of my tiny little box that I grew up in. I just want to be happier — that’s really what it boils down to.