living_overseas (5 Part Series)
Thought I would write a non-technical series about the last 15+ years I’ve spent overseas. Perhaps it will inspire someone to start their own adventure, or encourage others to share their stories.
Given that work is an unfortunate reality for most adults, I’ll start with some thoughts on getting a job abroad. This is primarily directed at people in science/technology fields, but some are generally applicable. Anecdotes abound and should be treated as such; they don’t necessarily convey “the norm” or even high probability, YMMV.
Born and raised in the U.S., when I was in high school I was timid and told my parents I just wanted to live in their basement. I graduated from a non-prestigious state university with a B.S. in Engineering. Thanks to the dotcom bust I spent half a decade in Japan- attended grad-school and worked. After that, a decade in China- mostly working but attended university briefly. Now I live and work in Cyprus.
I’ve been the hiring manager or otherwise involved in the hiring process for software companies over a decade.
An assortment of observations, comments, and/or suggestions lacking any particular order.
TL;DR Companies need talent but are risk-averse and overseas hires are “high risk”; lower your risk factor. And work hard.
Assume that finding a job overseas is harder and takes longer than finding one back home. Don’t quit your existing job until you’ve got an acceptable offer- it may take a year or longer. And don't get discouraged!
Student debt is a hot topic in the U.S. these days, including some people who “fled the country”. One of them got a degree in “Comparative Literature”. I’ll be honest, I have no idea what field/profession/company would look for candidates with a degree in that. Going overseas (probably) won’t make your degree more marketable.
Don’t major in a foreign language:
A group of foreign exchange students studying Japanese/East Asian Studies/etc. at a prestigious East Coast university came to Kyoto for the summer, a friend invited me to help take them around. They were devastated to discover that my Japanese was far better than theirs, majored in something else, and had a job that wasn’t teaching English.
In many, many countries English is a mandatory second/third language. They probably don’t need someone that kind-of speaks their language; they’re already really good at it. It should augment your primary skillset- minor in it.
All countries and most companies want and need math/science/technology graduates. It doesn't matter where they grew up, all Software Engineers "speak" C++ (or Java, etc.). If your sole joy in life is 14th century pottery from a remote hamlet in Iceland- minor in it.
Don’t assume too much; sometimes nobody pursues the “obvious” route:
You’d think that a lot of people would apply for an “all-expenses-paid trip” to Japan. Turns out that when I applied they were handled regionally in the U.S.. I was one of only 3 people that applied in the entire Midwest, and I was the only engineer.
Try small, obscure companies:
A graduate student from Bangladesh wanted to stay and work in Japan. He had no Japanese language ability, most companies wouldn’t even extend him an interview. But he kept at it and eventually got to some minor company that almost no Japanese people applied to. They offered him a job with visa support and payed for him to go to language school because they were desperate to hire someone.
Make sure it’s reasonable/feasible for you to get a working permit/visa. Some HR departments will look at someone with “problematic” nationality and decide it’s not worth the effort.
I’ve got two very good friends who lost the dice roll and were born in “poor” countries. Both of them wanted to immigrate to Canada. The first spent a few years in China working on high-profile projects, then a few more in Europe working at a top-tier company. Finally, he had enough international "street cred" that a Canadian company would pick him up and provide visa support. The other has spent a half-decade in China at a major U.S. company and is now working on getting transferred to Canada.
If you’re self-taught or attended trade-school it will be harder. Many countries require a college degree or “comparable work experience”. That latter bit is sometimes misleading; don’t expect 4 years experience to put you on equal footing.
If you’re fresh out of college many companies won’t want to bother. It’s easier, cheaper, and lower risk for them to hire a recent grad locally. Get the best job you can domestically, put in a few years, and then try. Repeat as needed.
If you got lucky and come from a G8 country it’s generally easier to go G20 (or lower, especially)- even with a weaker resume. The opposite direction… not so much.
Leverage Your Strengths:
Apply based on your current skills and experience. If you’ve got your eye on a new field or facet of technology it’s a hard sell asking a company to take a chance on an overseas hire and with limited relevant experience. Pick which you’d rather do first: break into something new, or work overseas.
I’ve a pair a former co-workers that did the same thing: studied abroad in China, didn’t major in anything relevant, and applied to a minor company. The owner realized they had no experience or even relevant education, but they were already there, could start immediately, spoke both English and Mandarin, and were enthusiastic. Why not? Both of them now have solid careers and good paying jobs.
NB: They were in China over 10 years ago, this isn’t as common now.
Just being in the country where you want to find a job has distinct advantages: build language skills (that even people majoring in it won’t have), establish contacts, attend industry events, join the indie/hobbyist scene, learn about niche/expat companies, etc.
First company I was involved in the interview process we received an unusual resume; guy studied Computer Science at MIT then spent the last 5 years working as an English teacher. None of the hiring managers even wanted to bother with an interview. Too many years of irrelevant experience completely offset a very expensive education.
It’s mostly a trap: no skills/resume development, minimal networking, etc. It can be an easy way to get in the country, but it needs to be temporary (i.e. a year); don’t get comfortable and keep working towards getting the job you want.
Enroll in a university/language school: this can turn into the same trap as teaching English and you’ll have no income. On the plus side you’ll develop language skills and have a lot of free time to polish your portfolio, work on open-source/personal projects to develop skills, etc.
Join an international company: I’ve known many people that were working in their home country and when the opportunity arose, volunteered to take overseas assignments. The catch is depending on the number of overseas locations, you might not get your first (or second, or even third…) choice destination.
Start as an intern or contractor: I’ve seen companies jump through hoops to get visas for interns/contractors with “problematic” nationality that we knew were good. Proven talent is worth the effort.
The same is true when applying domestically, but even more so when overseas. All other things being equal, a local hire is generally easier than a foreigner.
One of my favorite stories:
A young woman showed up at our office one morning “for her interview”. There was ensuing confusion because nothing was scheduled. Turns out no interview had been arranged, but she was there for an interview. She got her interview, she had a good (or even great) portfolio, and she got a job.
NB: I don’t necessarily condone this, you might only meet building security.
Another of my favorites:
A classmate in Japan that really wanted to work at a particular company. Every upcoming graduate had to fill out by hand these really dull, standard forms as part of the application process to every company. He filled his out properly, but then he doodled all over it. The margins were filled with pictures about the otherwise mundane content. Of course he got a job offer.
Or, be "the best":
A few years ago we visited a dozen of the biggest Japanese game developers. I made a mental note of the foreign developers on staff and all of them: came from kick-ass companies/projects, had Ph.D.s, or something.
Use forums, leverage social media, contribute to open source, make friends, etc.:
An internal recommendation is probably the easiest way to get hired. We’ve hired people because an existing team member had positive interactions or saw good work online. It’s part of your professional branding.
I’ve not really applied for my last four jobs, all were initiated via recommendation. Don’t under-estimate the value of a professional network, and don’t “burn bridges” when you leave a company.
Beware the double-edged sword:
We had a candidate that seemed great; right skillset, good experience, and so on. Somehow we found his personal blog that had a lot of too-far-right and perhaps “vaguely anti-semitic” content. No hire. As a company willing to hire foreigners we already had people from different countries/religions/races and we just didn’t want someone like that.
Same goes for unfortunate insight into your personal life on Facebook, Twitter, et al.
Take a look at the cost of living and salary ranges in the country in question. FAANG might pay $200k/year in Southern California, but the interview process might end abruptly if you insist on that compensation in Ukraine.
Keep in mind your debt and ongoing expenses in your home country. Some pay ranges (and therefore countries) may be unwise for the time being.
At times, the prospect of moving abroad is as scary as it is exciting. I’ll finish with one last story:
I was chatting with the driver that picked me up at the airport in Cyprus. Explained I was from the U.S., had flown in from China, and now working in Cyprus. He looked up in the rear-view mirror and said “wow, I’d really like to do something like that, but I’m too afraid. I’m really jealous”. I thought about it a second and replied: “Oh, I’m afraid, I’m just not at home and afraid”.
There are many good reasons to not do things. Fear is rarely one of them.