Tuesday, November 30, 2010

How did I get to Europe?

I should just get my own experiences out of the way because people are going to ask: I did it the hard way by building up my CV (résumé) and marketing myself. When I was gathering some paperwork the British government needed for my work permit application, one of my former colleagues asked: "why do you get to go to Europe and we don't?" I replied "I know that some of you are better computer programmers than I am, but nobody knows who you are."

And to prove I was there (I hate photos of me)
Me at Lancaster Castle
Basically, I started volunteering with The Perl Foundation, a non-profit organization which works to advance the programming language that I specialize in. I also started blogging prolifically at a major Perl Web site, answered questions online for people, and tried to always be polite and answer even the simplest questions nicely. I even started going to conferences. One thing led to another and I found my name on the cover of a book about that programming language (not linked because that's probably not why you're reading this blog). I was actually offered a position only a couple of years after I started doing this, but that was a bit of a fluke (long story and I only landed in Europe for about 3 months of 2001). It was after a few years of doing this that a serious offer came through and I moved to Nottingham, UK in 2006.

If you remember my Why you'll say "no" to moving abroad post, I talked about the things you need to do to make it easier to move to another country. When my UK employer contacted me, they really had no idea how to do this. It was a recruiter who put me in touch with them. During the phone interviews, I explained to them, at length, how to hire an overseas employee and I later sent them links on the Home Office Website explaining the process, the paperwork they would have to complete and the costs they would have to pay. I also explained that I was leaving my possessions in the US, so they wouldn't even have to pay to ship my household goods. In short, I made it as easy as possible for them to say yes and make this work. It took several months for my work permit to go through, but I made it.

Corsican Sunset
Sunset over Corsica
On a side note, I also took a road trip through Europe with a friend of mine. That's where I took this lovely picture of a Corsican sunset. If you ever have a chance to visit Corsica, I highly recommend it. It's gorgeous.

Please note that my experiences are not typical, but then, many people's experiences aren't. I knew one guy who simply bought a round trip ticket to the UK and threw away his return ticket. I was also housemates with a woman who flew to South America and kept taking under-the-counter work as she worked her way from country to country. She didn't speak Spanish or have a legal right to work, but she traveled across South America for six months doing this. You can do this, too. It's all a matter of determination and courage. There's really not much luck involved.

Monday, November 29, 2010

What opportunities are there?

For the first few posts to this blog, I'll just be laying out background information for people and naturally, "how do I get there?" is a big one. First off, you have to know why you want to move to another country. It's not just going to magically happen. You have to plan and if you don't know why you're doing this, you can't plan. For example, if you don't plan on living outside your home country permanently, maybe trying to marry into another country isn't your best bet.

First, let's be honest. There are three things which make moving to another country easier. Having a college degree, being single, and being young. Many country's immigration systems look for those three things. That being said, I've also met plenty of expats for whom this is not true. You don't need those qualities, but if you're a 52 year old high school dropout who's worked in fast food restaurants your entire life, you're probably not going to get accepted into any highly skilled migrant programs; you just need to figure out a different way of going about it.


A word of warning: if an opportunity sounds too good to be true, it is. In particular, women should be worried about jobs as "au pairs" or "hostesses" which offer to fantastic opportunities. Human trafficking is still one of the most common and lucrative crimes in the world, though the press often ignores it. It's also not always hooking a girl on drugs, beating and raping her and forcing her into prostitution. Sometimes it's as seemingly benign as taking away her passport and then not paying her for maid duties. It happens to American women, too. It's not just some poor slavic or asian girl who didn't know any better. Be sure to do your research carefully. If you accept, contact your embassy as soon as you arrive, let everyone know where you're going and make it clear that if you don't contact friends/family shortly after you arrive, something's gone horribly wrong.

Teaching English Abroad

Do your research here as this is your best bet unless you have specialist skills. In fact, I've read a number of accounts of people just buying a ticket to a target country and finding this work under the table. Due to the popularity of the English language, there's a huge market for teaching English abroad. There are various certificates available for teaching English as a foreign language and you probably want one of those as it will open up career paths, but failing that, many people report simply being able to go abroad, scan the papers and get a job. You really want to do your research on this one. Allegedly, Hong Kong prefers British English and Japan prefers American. Some countries have a higher demand than others and presumably a higher tolerance for you staying past your visa time

Teaching English
Photo by Neale Bryan
One good resource for teaching English is the ICALwiki. Though it's affiliated with an organisation which offers ESL certification and is thus commercial, it still has plenty of high-quality content. You may be specifically interested in their country files. See their wiki page for teaching English in China for a good example.

I've also heard anecdotally that this book is a great guide to teaching English overseas, but I can't actually vouch for it. However, there are still plenty of other resources which can help you with finding an English teaching position overseas.


There are plenty of opportunities to volunteer to work abroad. Many non-profits welcome volunteers with little or no experience, but you often have to pay your own way. If you're looking for a short-term break and have some cash saved up, why not do a good deed and help out? The problem is that there are many scams out there and even volunteer opportunities which are not scams can be expensive. Here's a great article explaining what's going on and good international volunteering blog.

Working Remotely

Next, consider "work anywhere" jobs. These are becoming more common, but they often require an internet connection or phone line (something hard to acquire if you've just bought a plane ticket and jumped on). There are plenty of positions available as freelance writers, translators, medical and legal transcription, data entry and so on. If you have programming skills, there are tons of remote jobs available. Many of these jobs require special skills, but others do not. Also, be aware that some are scams and they'll pay little or no money, but if you can get a remote job, many people just travel from country to country, simply leaving before their visa time limit expires. If you get such work, Uruguay is a great destination, but I'll cover that in a later blog post.

High demand/low supply skills

I'm sure there are many areas for which this is true, but I mostly know the tech arena, so I'll focus on that.

If you know much about the "dot com boom" of the 90s, you know that to get a good paying job in tech, often all you had to have on your résumé was HTML. Today HTML is like typing: it's taken for granted that you know it. However, there are still plenty of opportunities here. For example, COBOL is easy to learn and it's still the most widely used programming language in the world (though it doesn't get much press). As a result, there are COBOL jobs all over the place and many companies desperate for COBOL programmers will import them. My specialty, Perl, is another good example. It's been around for a while, so some programmers have left for newer "hip" languages. As a result, there's a shortage of developers and increased demand (and salaries).

Thanks to this, I get to travel all over the world. Perl's still incredibly popular, but due to a weird technological culture shift, demand has dropped relative to supply. That will change again, but for now, it's a great opportunity (and if you're curious, you can see that it's remained one of the 10 most discussed programming languages for many years).

What this "high demand/low supply" strategy means is that you can take advantage of this. Get a bit of experience in your field and if something starts getting popular fast, learn just enough about it to put it on your CV/résumé and start contacting recruiters/companies abroad. For a while, Ruby on Rails seemed like the hottest thing in tech and companies were even contacting me for Rails jobs, even though I didn't know Ruby. A programmer with Rails "experience" could have a chance at converting this into a legitimate job overseas. It's not easy, but you can do it.

To learn more about the general high demand/low areas for your target country, try searching for "shortage occupation" for said country. You might be surprised. For example, the UK shortage occupation list (pdf) has social workers in child and family services, but who would have thought that "social worker" is a high demand job? You should also check out the Australian skilled occupations list. Don't just focus on Europe!


If you really want out of your country, for whatever reason, you can. You just have to remember that it will take time, effort, and research. Read other traveller's accounts of their adventures. Some people just drive down to Mexico and work under the table. Others work study for a TESL certificate and start applying like mad to any place which will sponsor you (or they fly to their target country and start working). Still others find jobs they can do remotely or save money to travel around India for a few months. You can make this happen, but you have to make it happen. Wishful thinking is the start of the process, not the end.

Good luck and happy travelling!

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Why you'll say "no" to living abroad

Not a Bavarian Castle
Photo by Akbar Simonse
So your eccentric great-aunt Gertrude has invited you over for dinner and when you arrive, you find a mysterious stranger with her. She introduces him as "Count von Europe". After a long and pleasant conversation over food and drinks, the Count says "your aunt invited you over because I need someone to watch my Bavarian castle while I'm away for a year. I'll also pay you €50,000 a year and let you borrow the Bentley when you want to travel around Europe on your days off. When can you fly to Germany?"

Sadly, for many people I've spoken with, their "dream" of living abroad is little more than "Count von Europe." I see people on message boards saying things like "I want to move to Italy. Anybody got a job/marriage/house for me?" Honestly, it's not going to be that easy. However, you can do it if you plan things right and understand what's involved. When I talk to people about this, I sometimes use "Count von Europe" as a thought experiment, but the ending is a little different. He makes the same offer, but with a catch: you have to leave tomorrow.

First, we'll have a slight digression. Many years ago I used to sell cars (don't hate me for that. There are plenty of other things you can hate me for). One thing the management drilled into our heads over and over again was that 80% of people only agree to drive home in a car after being asked to buy five times. The number is probably bogus, but the concept holds true. That's because people have objections. "The price is too high." "I wanted red, not blue." "I'm just looking." My job as a salesperson was to understand and overcome all objections the customer had. If I could do that, they'd agree to buy the car, but it's harder than it sounds.

If you want to take up Count von Europe's offer, overcome your own objections. If you can do that, you're one step closer to moving to another country, so let's look at those objections.

I don't have a passport.

This one boggles my mind because I've been surprised at how many people say they want to live in another country but don't have a passport. If you're from the US, go here to apply for a passport. Otherwise, it's fairly easy to find out where to apply.

I'm locked into a long-term lease.

Then find a way to get out of that lease. When I was offered a job in another country in 2001 I had three months left on my lease. I went to the landlord and explained the problem. She was actually very gracious about it and let me end the lease early without penalty. It never hurts to ask!

Failing that, convert your lease to a monthly lease when it ends. Or have enough cash on hand to buy out the lease. Or when it ends, become someone's roommate.

But I own the property I live in!

Then sell it. Or rent it own and rent a room somewhere. Or find a property management company who will rent it out for you.

I have a wife/husband/partner/children, etc.

That's a tough one. Right now you have to decide what you want to do. If you have obligations to others who don't want to leave (I've been there and it's tough), then you're stuck. I can't/won't offer advice here other than to suggest taking them on a vacation to the target country. It's a lot easier to appreciate something if you know something about it.

I have a cat/dog/iguana.

You can still move overseas, but you have to make sure you conform to your target countries regulations for shipping your pet there. The "Transitions Abroad" Web site has a good article to help you understand the basics of moving a pet overseas.

Think about these objections and any others you may have. This is the starting point for being able to move overseas. If you find that you could say "yes" to Count von Europe, you've gotten enough of your life in order that you can make this happen. This is key to realizing the dream of moving abroad. I don't expect that you'll actually be able to leave at the drop of a hat, but if you can, it's much easier. Think how much cheaper and faster it is to move to a foreign country with a backpack as compared to an entire household of goods.

Living Abroad

Engaged in Lisbon, Portugal
Dreaming of a new life in a new country?  I made it happen and you can too.  I'm an American who's lived in Japan, the UK, the US and currently live in Amsterdam, the Netherlands. I constantly meet other expatriates from many countries and people often ask me what it's like living in Europe and how they can live in another country.  I firmly believe that everyone should have this chance and that most people can make it happen.

I'm not just going to be listing how to get a job in another country, though I'll touch on that, too. I'll be talking about the unique legal and psychological challenges you'll face, which countries are easier to get into, or simply talking about some of my travel experiences.  Living abroad is one of the most exciting, yet difficult things anyone can do.  When you're shopping and trying to figure out if that tube is toothpaste or hemorrhoid cream, you quickly learn that even the simplest things we take for granted can be an adventure.

The photo, if you're curious, was taken in August 2009, shortly after my French girlfriend agreed to marry me.  As of this writing, we are living in Amsterdam with a child on the way.