Hey Girlfriend!: Nicole Dominguez
I first interacted with Nicole when I was in late high school and left a comment on her blog. I am pretty sure a mutual friend showed me her website. I remember being completely in awe of it (it had a more beautiful design than mine at the time), and she sounded like a humble, outgoing person, and I was impressed that she got a fair bit of publicity about her interest in web design and development.
I am thrilled to be interviewing Nicole, because she has experiences being a digital nomad, a range of skills in web and software development, and I really wanted to hear about her experiences, not to mention her community work which I’m sure many people missed while she was not pinned down to a specific location. She’s written some super detailed answers, so grab a cup of coffee, sit back, and be inspired by Nicole!
Hi Nicole! You recently embraced the “digital nomad” lifestyle, meaning that you work and earn a living remotely, and use the money you earn to travel. I’ve started with that, because I’m sure this gets a lot of questions when you tell people about it. You sold anything that was tying you down so it was easy to travel. You’ve also been the kind of person who doesn’t like to be settled into one place. What made you decide to adopt this lifestyle?
So before becoming a digital nomad, I was a product designer and front-end developer in New York City. I had lived there for 4 years, and felt like I needed changes in my life all around. I had a great job, but was there for almost 3 years, so I was itching to do work in a different problem space. I also was getting tired of the city – it’s a place of extremes. Tons of people, very smelly, everything is expensive, summers are ridiculously hot, etc.
Another deciding factor is that my career lends itself really well to the digital nomad lifestyle. In preparation for adopting that lifestyle, I quit my job and began freelancing. I also spent my last few months in NYC networking and gathering up a few select clients that I work with on and off – which helps with stability as they are longer term relationships, not just one-off gigs. Designers and developers do a lot of heads down work, and collaboration is easy to make happen in real time online through video calls, asynchronous chat (Slack, Flowdock), etc. So it isn’t always necessary to be in the office all the time!
I think digital nomadism for me was not only about travel, but a reset on my life – which I really needed at the time. The past year I’ve spent traveling has allowed me to slow down, work less, identify what I want and what my goals are, experience new people and cultures, and gain a larger perspective on life.
Being a digital nomad, there are a lot of struggles, and you say that other people make it look/sound easy when it really isn’t. Have you had any shock realisations that stood out as you were in the process of making the switch?
The hard parts of nomading sort of creep up on you over time. I think at first, everything is peaches and roses but as time goes on, little things turn into big things. For example, health: If you’re a nomad you are most likely halfway across the world from your primary doctor. So if you need a routine check up, or if you’re in an emergency or have a chronic problem, you’re faced with finding new doctors wherever you are. This may work decently as a short term solution if you’re in one place for a few weeks, but if you’re constantly on the go, you’d be constantly visiting new doctors for the same issue. Imagine trying to get quality medical care when you don’t have past medical history available, or have a hard time communicating with doctors and nurses (foreign language).
Another problem that affected me was a combination of loneliness, anxiety and depression. Generally I would stay in one place for a few weeks and then move on to another place. There’s no way you can really develop strong bonds or a social life in a few weeks if you’ve never been to that place. Even though I was only traveling alone about 50% of the time, I found those times so isolating because there isn’t much opportunity to be social in a meaningful way (unless you can easily join a pre-existing community) – at least not for me as an introvert.
Not only that, but think about all the stress and anxiety that comes with moving to a new city… now imagine going through that process once a month. You need to find places to work, understand new social norms, grocery stores, the gym, realize Uber doesn’t work and find a new way to get around, maybe get a new SIM card, or apply for a visa… there’s a lot of planning and research that goes into nomading that a lot of people don’t realize. How long can you legally stay in that country? How can you get around? Do you speak the language? Are viruses like Zika a problem where you are? Do you need outlet converters? Can you trust the police? Etc…
I hope you don’t mind if we go for a little flashback. You gained a bit of fame (a newspaper feature, if I remember correctly!) almost a decade ago when you were a teenager, because of the inspiring graphic design and other creative work you did online. Can you tell us more about that and how you felt at the time?
#Throwback! So for context, when I was around 13 years old I was running a little blog. I wrote about my life, what I was into, daily happenings, etc. I was also doing what all the other teenagers in our community were doing – learning about design/development and sharing what we learned. It was common to see a blog that also had a myriad of tutorials and creative resources. Anyway, I’m not sure how they found me, but one day in middle school, a reporter at the New York Times emailed me and asked if she could interview me. Of course I said yes, and of course it didn’t go as well as I had hoped. Because I was just a kid, I didn’t have a great grasp of what the web industry was like, so that reflected in my answers – which looking back on were really naiive. I have always had mixed feelings about it, but I’m glad it happened because it helped me realize web design isn’t just a lame thing teens did in their spare time… it’s part of this powerful and exciting technology industry. The article also serves as proof of my experience, how I got started, and that I deserve to be in this industry. So many times people simply look me up and down and do not believe my background or experience; or they make me feel like I don’t know anything because I’m young. That kind of stuff builds up over time and can lead to impostor syndrome.
After making a living out of freelance design and development, can you describe how you came to breaking into the industry? Did it feel natural, because of what you had enjoyed when you were younger, or had you considered other things first?
I can’t remember a specific event that led me “breaking into the industry”, because it felt so natural. After the article, I became more aware of blogs like CSS-Tricks and Nettuts, which led to learning about things like WordPress, and just being exposed to the industry from a professional perspective. When I was around 15, a couple other friends (who were also the same age) and I had started up this mini-web agency, where we took on clients for projects. So after doing some work with them, I probably then started freelancing realizing it didn’t matter how old I was or that I was still in high school.
So basically from age 15 and on I have been freelancing in some fashion. Even when I have full time jobs, I find myself sometimes still taking on small gigs. And in between full time jobs it’s been healthy for me freelance for a few months to take time for myself, explore what’s next and still be working. Of course the work has changed. When I was a teenager, I was doing web design work and smaller gigs – logos, posters, wordpress fixes, website set ups, etc. Now my work is longer term and project based, doing UI and product design, front-end development, joining small startup teams in limited capacities to help with whatever needs arise.
What are some of the difficulties you had in transitioning your hobby to a career?
This was about 8 years ago, so I don’t have those struggles at the top of my mind – but one I do recall has been dealing with ageism. Around age 15, I walked into a web agency one day and flat out asked for a job. That didn’t work out, but some of the folks I met there I’m still in contact with! But over time I’ve had my fair share of ageist/sexist/racist experiences . Clients not paying me because they thought I could get away with it, clients wanting to pay me less because I was young, that sort of thing. I once flat out had an interviewer tell me to my face that he didn’t believe me, my resume, or experience – due to my age. But I have also had positive experiences. When I was entering my summer of junior year in high school, I basically made a new post in reddit’s /r/forhire subreddit and asked for an internship in NYC. It actually worked! I joined a very tiny startup as their only designer and did a ton of stuff that summer, like: designing a logo, shirts, worked on an iOS app, designed and developed HTML emails, worked on Haml & Sass in a Rails application, etc. I’d call that my “defining” moment where I saw the larger scope of what it meant to be in the tech industry.
You’re passionate about diversity in the tech industry and you’re currently looking for a full-time job for a company that actively supports diversity and inclusion. What do you personally think are the best and most successful things a company can do to raise awareness and show people how much they support people from all walks of life?
I’m transitioning now from freelance digital nomading to a more stable role and lifestyle in NYC. Actually a lot of things are up in the air at this very moment, but as of August 2017 – I’m juggling working with a client of mine in the office a few days a week and online college courses as I decided to go back to school.
There are good amount of things companies can do to show they care about diversity and inclusion – but as much as they “show it”, they need to do it. It’s not enough to just donate $1 to Girls Who Code and walk away. Anyways, things like having diverse teams from day 1 are important. Now that I’m well into my career, I know I would hate to be joining a team where I’m the “only one” – the only woman or the only minority. That comes with so much emotional baggage that I know it would be so difficult to thrive in an environment like that.
Other initiatives companies can do are: actively supporting and engaging in communities where women and minorities are the focus. This could mean allowing employees to use paid time to volunteer with organizations like Girls Who Code, or sponsoring tech conferences like Ela Conf, or hosting meetups at their office for groups like Women Who Code.
Your online handle has been “sodevious” for quite some time. (Yes, I’m asking this question!) Most people grow out of their usernames/handles after a few years, but what has made you stick with the same one? Do you feel that it still fits your personality?
I feel like people outgrow their usernames because over time they grow into more professional and mature handles. Honestly, for the past 10 years I have never felt like my handle was immature or didn’t suit me. It makes me feel good to think that it’s something I can stick with for many years to come (still trying to acquire sodevious.com!). And also I have rarely been able to get my name as a handle (“nicole” or “nicoledominguez”), whereas “sodevious” is always available!
The story behind the handle is… that one day about 10 years ago my mom and I were in the car trying to come up with a good domain name. At that point I had convinced her to buy me a $10 domain to host my “blog”. So we settled on “sodevious” after deciding that my pet hamster was really devious because he would always escape his cage at night, and sometimes be missing for a day or two at a time. That’s literally how we decided on “sodevious”.
Personally though, now and even before, I do very much feel like my ethos is that of “sodevious”. I’m different. My path has been unconventional. Fitting in or assimilating to how everyone else thinks and acts just has never been interesting enough for me to change who I am. Plus being “different” really made an impact on my life. For example, instead of doing normal middle school activities, I was literally consumed with learning HTML and CSS and working on my blog. Now, almost 10 years later – my career is now lightyears away from that of my peers.
You lived in New York City for several years before becoming a digital nomad, and organised Django Girls NYC. Can you tell us how it got started and how it grew over the years?
Django Girls is actually an international initiative to get more women exposed to tech and empower them by showing them that they can build and deploy an app in a weekend. I got started actually by volunteering as a mentor at the first Django Girls event in NYC. Then the next year I decided to host it – though there are hundreds of Django Girls events around the world. Even outside of Django Girls, I was co-hosting the Django NYC meetup in NYC.
Volunteering, mentoring and supporting communities has always been near and dear to my heart. Because tech is open source, I was able to learn and have similar access to learning web design as everyone else did. Even though I taught myself, I am constantly thinking how different things would have been had I been empowered by a group like Girls Who Code when I was that age. So thats why I feel like its my duty to help make an impact, I want to give people the opportunity for something I didn’t really have access to: mentorship and support.
One other thing too that is important to me is visibility and representation. Honestly when I was a teenager, I did not have role models that were women who I felt I could relate to – “one day I can be like them”. Most of my role models were white men unfortunately. That is one of the reasons I make a point to be present: I want young girls who look like me to feel like they have a place in tech, are seen, and are valued. That is so important for me.
So, you have spent a lot of time in Mexico and love it there… please tell us a couple of your favourite things about Mexico! (Definitely tell us more about the tacos, though.)
I love Mexico! So, the reason why I went there in the first place was because a couple of my friends had gone to Tulum and raved about it. So when I was researching being a digital nomad I learned that there’s this town called Playa Del Carmen which is 1 hour in between Cancun and Tulum, which was a digital nomad/expat hot spot. So my mom (who is also nomadic) and I started our nomadic journey by going to Mexico City and then to that Rivera Maya area of Mexico.
I keep going back there because of a few reasons. 1) its proximity to the US. From Miami (where my home base is), a one way flight to Cancun is less than $100. So it’s relatively easy to just pick up and go back to the US for any emergency. It also makes planning a lot less stressful because the ease and access to flights back home. Also, the time zones either the same or only an hour off of NYC time zones. Plus it’s really easy for US Passport holders to visit; we automatically get a 180 day tourist visa on arrival, no questions asked. (Okay some questions, but still).
Other than what I just outlined, here’s why I love Mexico: It is so culturally rich! Ancient languages and customs from the Mayans, Teotihuacans, and Aztecs are still used throughout the country. It’s very evident that Mexicans are proud of their country, their culture, their families and their food. There are so many ancient ruins that still exist to this day – and you can even do things like climb ancient pyramids today. Having that kind of access to thousands of years of history is just nothing I have ever been able to experience in America.
Mexico is also a good place to be nomadic because in cities like Guadalajara, Colima, and Mexico City, there’s a good tech scene and internet access, coworking spaces and coffee shops can be easily had – so life as a remote worker in places like that is easy. And cheap. Compared to NYC, the cost of living is easily 1/2 of NYC living. On average, margaritas are $6 USD, a day coworking pass is around $10 USD, and a ticket to the movie theater is $3 USD.
By the way, Mexico is so beautiful. Mountains, cenotes, beaches… you name it, Mexico’s got it. Everything and everyone is colorful, the food is so flavorful and cocktails are like a work of art. I can’t even handle it.
And lastly, most Mexicans I have had the pleasure of encountering have been welcoming and pleasant. We are respectful of them and they are respectful of us. Obviously my mom and I both speaking Spanish (and well, we’re Latina as well) helps so much with blending in and feeling comfortable. So people are happy to share and chat with us. Even a year after visiting Tulum, we still have friendships with folks we met on our very first day there!
Your mother is a Cool Mom™ – supporting your decisions and your choice of lifestyle, even travelling with you! You encouraged her to adopt freelancing/self employment as a graphic designer. Were you merely introducing her to a new path, or did you really think she would be on board with it?
My mom is pretty fantastic all around, I’m so grateful for her!
So the story goes, that about 4 years ago I was living and working in NYC full time, making a great salary. She was an elementary school teacher in Florida at the time, and her salary was less than half mine. We had been talking about what else she could do because she didn’t like teaching anymore and I was already out of the house so it wasnt important for her to have the same hours as her kids. I ended up giving her my old Macbook and gave her a few books on Illustrator at the start of the summer. By the end of the summer, she was getting really good at Illustrator and was enjoying what she was doing. She had also decided to work as a part time computer teacher that year, so it weaned her into entrepreneurship with Etsy and Teachers Pay Teachers. She set up shop and began selling worksheets, printables, custom signs, back to school signs, snapchat filters, etc. A year had passed and by the time the new school year came around, she had started setting up her classroom but got fed up at the idea of continuing and decided to quit right then and there. She hasn’t thought about going back since. She sustains herself, pay all of her bills, and travel as a self-employed designer.
When I decided to travel, she was bored of Florida as she was working remotely from home. So we both took our first nomad trip together to Mexico, and haven’t looked back since! She actually travels as much as I do, and bought some property in Mexico as well. I’m really happy for her that she is enjoying her life like it’s meant to be. I think being a designer was really easy for her because she as always been extremely creative and had innate illustration skill, all she needed was to learn the software.
Let’s talk about remote working for a bit. Not so much about the challenges, but more about what gets you going. Do you need anything specific to be able to work comfortably? Do you just like being at a desk, or do you like working amongst nature or busy cafes?
I’m pretty low key, so I don’t need much to be productive. Ideally good wifi and a nice place to sit does the job. I like dimly lit spaces, but that’s not a requirement. I actually like to move around a bit, so having options is always great. If I can move from a desk, to a couch and back again I’m a happy camper. Especially bean bags, those are great. Cafes are okay, but I can only really be productive for an hour or two and then need to walk around to move my legs and clear my head.
Environment aside, I do however need a punch list of things I need to accomplish – ideally driven by a deadline or else it won’t get done. I am very task focused, so I need to break down goals into a series of tasks and just knock them out one by one. It helps to work on the same types of tasks that way you aren’t context switching too much, which can take some time to get in the groove of things if you are switching a lot.
Although you have done a lot of travelling, where are you dying to visit next as a tourist? And what country or city would you love to relocate to, for work?
On my list of places to go next is: Spain, Greece, Berlin, Thailand and Bali! I Relocation wise, I guess that’s still open because there are so many options. If I had to relocate it would depend on the work opportunity of course.
Most people want what they can’t have – I’m talking about your gorgeous curly hair, haha, which I wouldn’t mind having. Have you ever wanted straight hair instead, or do you embrace your curls?
When I was younger, I didn’t know how to take care of or embrace my curls so I would straighten it constantly. When I got older and was on my own, straightening my hair took too much time before work – and at the same time I discovered the magic that is a “curly salon”. Once I had a great professional curly cut, I realized it was possible to just rock my natural look – and have done it ever since. I’m proud of my curls and happy to have this kind of hair! Once I learned how to manage it, there was definitely no going back.
Nicole tweets regularly and there is never a dull moment in her life! She is also on Instagram, where you will find handfuls of photos of her travels while working. She regularly blogs about her lifestyle at – you guessed it – sodevious.net.
To find out about more women in tech from around the world with different backgrounds and experiences, check out other Hey Girlfriend! interviews. A new interview is posted every month.