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The Universal Passport: High-Tech Jobs in Europe

Article and photo by Rebecca Falkoff

The Internet is as colossal as ever, but the euphoria is dwindling in the States. The specter of a recession looms, Internet companies falter, and many computer whizzes hope to pursue their dreams of living abroad.

In Europe, meanwhile, an economic surge is spreading a great sense of optimism. Adrian Leeds, a web marketing and public relations consultant in Paris, says, “As far as the web is concerned, we’ve got another five years of growth.”

Qualified workers are in great demand. But even the nimblest programmers may run into international employment’s notorious bind: in order to get a work permit, you need a job. But it’s difficult to get a job without a work permit.

I recently spoke three expatriates who work in technology and live in Paris about the opportunities and challenges for people seeking international work in tech-related fields

. High-Tech Jobs in Europe
Many high-tech companies have offices in La Defense, Paris

Making Contacts as a Volunteer

Adrian Leeds (Web Marketing and Public Relations Consultant, Web France International, www.wfi.fr, discovered that sometimes offering your services free of charge can help you develop contacts and attain skills you’ll need for a job. If you are in a new country without prospects, this might be the best way to begin.

Leeds came to France almost seven years ago, expecting to take a 1-year sabbatical. Soon she realized she had caught what she calls “la maladie”: She was lovesick for Paris. After the first year she began to look for work, but after numerous interviews she got nowhere. So she decided to volunteer for English-language organizations to develop contacts. One of her volunteer positions was as public relations director for the Women’s Institute of Continuing Education (WICE), www.wice-paris.org, a nonprofit cultural and educational association.

Her job was putting together the WICE Web site. “It was almost like a training period for me,” she recalls. In her volunteer work, Leeds met Linda Thalman, director of Web France International (WFI), an e-commerce site that sells guides to Paris. Leeds began to work for WFI as a web marketing and public relations consultant.

As an independent consultant, rather than a salaried employee, she is eligible for a Foreign Trader’s Card and doesn’t need a visa. (More information about Foreign Trader’s Cards is available online at www.consulfrance-newyork.org).

Working as a Consultant

Peter Lowe (Computer Trainer, Home-maker, 41) has a BS in engineering and a MA in business administration. He has managed billion-dollar projects, built databases and websites, and acted as a cross-cultural trainer and translator between U.S. Americans and British.

When his wife was offered a job at General Electric in Paris he decided to step back from his career to spend time with his 3-year old daughter and work on his French. “I didn’t want to stay at home all day, I wanted to get out and about. So I thought, ‘Who can I train? What should be my target market?’ There are over 30,000 English speakers in the Paris area, so I thought there must be at least a reasonable number of people who have computer problems and don’t know where to go.”

He acted on his hunch and placed an ad in French USA Contacts (FUSAC), a biweekly magazine for the English-speaking community in Paris. It read: “Want to get the most out of your computer? I provide software training at your home to meet your individual requirement.” His jobs have included helping one client make the transition from a Mac to a PC and teaching another how to use Microsoft Office software. He plans to continue to help individuals make sense of their computers and eventually pursue corporate clients as well. He charges 200 francs, or about $30 an hour, which is about twice what most English teachers make, though his rates are flexible. For Lowe, working in technology has been a world away from the 15-hour days typical of Internet start-ups: “I’m enjoying myself. I keep saying I’m going to get my painting out again.”

Working for a Multinational Charles Haley (Adjunct Assoc. Prof. of Computer Science, American Univ. of Paris) was working for Rational Software, a multinational corporation, when he and his wife decided they would like to live abroad. He ended up Paris essentially because “I wanted to and I asked the company if it might be possible and they were willing to send me.”

After the 1-year assignment, he and his wife decided they wanted to move back to Paris—perhaps permanently. Haley began his job search by getting in touch with a contact in Paris. “In France, as in many European cultures, if you know somebody, you have a tremendous leg up over anyone else.” Eight months later, he accepted a position as Technical Director at a French company called GSI.

Contacts Are Critical

Adrian Leeds, Peter Lowe, and Charles Haley have all had very different experiences obtaining tech jobs overseas. But all three found that contacts were critical.

“When you’re a foreign national abroad, it’s really a matter of how you get into the communication stream,” says Lowe.

But the “communication stream” can be a tough route for foreigners to navigate. In addition to seeking out contacts overseas, make sure to take advantage of your contacts at home. “Opportunities happen all the time, and they won’t ask you unless they have some clue that you want to go.” The availability of jobs extends from Paris to Prague. Antonio de Blasio, an Italian businessman who was searching for a job in Prague when I spoke to him in October, said, “Czech people change jobs every couple months because there are so many opportunities here.”

International Interviewing

As Leeds learned, interviews vary enormously from country to country. After a year of unsuccessful interviews and four years of hindsight, Leeds reached some conclusions about interviewing in France. “I spent this year interviewing and making every mistake known to man. Like acting like an American.” By that she means: “We’re optimistic and we have confidence and we want to put ourselves forward and let them know we’re going to walk in and take charge.

That’s all wrong. That’s exactly what they don’t want.” Why wouldn’t they want that? “The French don’t know how to handle that overbearing attitude,” she says. “They feel that we’re full of hot air.”

Haley also noticed significant differences between interviewing in the States and in France: “A French job Interview is not like a U.S. job interview. They are interested in what you do, but they’re far more interested in who you are. Not what you know, but how you present yourself. They take the point of view that they’re going to be living with you, in some sense.”

Before you interview overseas seek out people who work in your destination country and ask them about their interviews. But no matter where your interview is, you will probably perform better if you take the time to carefully prepare and practice.

How to Impress, What’s Hot

What you should put on your curriculum vitae and the order you should put it in depends entirely on the country you are going to. According to Haley, “France is very interested in your degree. In many ways, your degree and where you got it is more important than what you’ve done—at least if you’re under 35. If you have a degree in computer science from a recognized school, then the skills are far less important because they figure you can learn them—and that’s true, by the way.”

Mark Woodward, co-owner of the British company Creative Web Design, is unimpressed by certificates and degrees: “People coming out of these courses don’t know CGI!” If you don’t have a degree in computer science, several programming languages attract recruiters: “Right now Java is hot, and C++ in some places. I’ve also seen advertisements for Cisco network certified engineers,” says Haley. Aside from degrees and languages, “There’s a large need for project managers, people who have successfully delivered projects. Specifically in e-commerce, Internet, Networking, Object oriented programming.”

Cultural Differences?

“The French way of working, from what I’ve perceived, is different from the English way of working,” says Lowe. There are numerous factors that determine a country’s technological climate. For example, the French have been using MiniTel, a precursor to the Internet, for nearly 20 years: “That’s part of the reason, I think, there’s been a reluctance to move onto the Internet,” hypothesizes Lowe.

In addition, cultures develop unique stylistic trends in web design, just as they do in fashion, art, music, and literature. Leeds bemoans the current tendencies in French web design: “They want animation. They love animation. You log onto any French website and you absolutely cannot view the screen because so much of it is moving.”

But cultural differences in technology can keep you on your toes without tripping you up. And it’s that feeling of being on your toes that many people love about living overseas. If you have experience working in technology and you seek that tension, you could find a vibrant computer culture in Europe. Although there’s no such thing as a universal passport, tech skills can open the door to a world of opportunity.

Job-Finding Strategies

If you don’t speak the language of your destination country well, you could offer your services to the English-speaking community, as Lowe and Leeds did. Initially work could be sparse, but as you establish yourself in the community and work on your French it will be much easier for you to obtain a full-time position.

Alternately, you can search for work before you arrive, and the best place to research international jobs in technology is online. Many websites with comprehensive international job listings are in TransitionsAbroad.com's International Careers page. But you should also look into career websites based in your destination country.

Use any contacts you have in your destination country and establish personal relationships with potential employers.

REBECCA FALKOFF is a freelance writer and English teacher who lived in Paris.

 
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