One advantage of a career in software engineering is the ability to work from anywhere in the world. Remote work isn't just for freelancers any more - companies from big to small allow their employees to work from wherever they'd like, and rely heavily on the Internet for communication and collaboration.
While this means I could go live in Prague or Tel Aviv or any other exotic locations after I graduate, it also means something much more future-shattering: I could come back and live in the tiny Nebraska town I grew up in.
My hometown is small, with a population of less than 300 people. The population may be going down, but business here is still booming: Diode Communications has been serving the region with telecom solutions since 1899, Lottman & Carpenter Construction is doing jobs all across the country, and C&C Processing is making jerky and other specialty meats for big name clients like Kingmade Jerky and Epic. Diller's local economy is so strong that the Chairman of the FCC came to visit in 2011 to see for himself how important Internet connectivity has been to the survival of rural areas like ours.
Despite all this, I always thought that my future career would depend on moving to a more populated area.* Who would put a tech company in the middle of a cornfield? With distributed teams becoming more widespread, no one will need to. All a software engineer really needs is a good computer and a good Internet connection, both of which can be found right here in the Heartland.
However, I think there are a few things that will need to change before large numbers of people like me move back to their rural hometowns to work remotely.
One, there aren't a lot of public spaces here to work from during the day. People talk about working from coffeeshops- well, Diller doesn't have one. I'm a firm believer that chance interactions and watercooler discussions are really important in driving innovation.** Bigger cities often have coworking spaces (like Fuse in Lincoln) where remote workers or small teams can do their own thing, while still together in an area that allows for some elbow-rubbing. I think something like that would be great in a small town. Maybe not now, but in a few years: if you build it, they will come.
Also, there are a lot of big-city amenities that rural America just can't compete with. Uber? We don't even have taxis here. However, the Internet is slowly chipping away at this argument. When I was a kid I hated not having access to a library. I eventually convinced the school librarian to let me check out books when the school was closed in the summer, but that solution wouldn't have worked as well for an adult. Now, e-readers have reduced the need to physically go to the library, and Netflix has eased the pain of not having a Blockbuster down the street. Cities still have a large monopoly on cultural offerings, but who knows how new technologies might change that in the future.
Finally, there is more one thing that small towns can't offer remote tech workers: a strong community of like-minded individuals. Lincoln has a really vibrant startup community, with tons of resources and meetup groups for entrepreneurs and software developers. I've enjoyed every chance I've taken to get involved myself. Community is something I highly value, and it will be an important aspect in deciding where I eventually want to live. I've seen firsthand what small town communities are like, and while there's a lot to love, I've also seen how in bigger towns, community still happens. It might be around a church, an industry, or some club, but it still happens. Ultimately, a community is a small town's greatest asset-- but if you're looking for a very particular kind of community, you may have to look elsewhere, at least for now.
* I'm using this term pretty broadly - more populated for me is a town like Lincoln, population 270,000.
** I originally got this idea from the book Where Good Ideas Come From. I highly recommend it.