Do you find yourself bored and restless? Would you like to see the world – while you're getting paid? If you have the right tech skills, decent language ability and strong cultural interests, you might be able to make it happen. You will not regret it. I speak from experience.
Who Wants to Work Internationally?
The international lifestyle is not for everyone. If you are married with children, are settled in your house and neighborhood or don't care for travel, then being an international IT contractor may not be for you. It depends on your situation. But if you love adventure, you adapt quickly, you have good skills and you're ready for something new, then this could be the change that you've been looking for.
What if you could hop on a flight and see Rome on a long weekend? How about working in a different language and culture? There are many difficulties associated with working internationally, but if you are up to the challenge, it can be…
A Life of Adventure
I remember finishing a contract in Bristol, England, and wondering what to do next. So I pointed my car north. What followed were some amazing adventures. I found myself in the Lake District waiting for money to transfer between bank accounts, so I booked myself to sing in several pubs and restaurants (I do this). I visited the haunts of William Wordsworth and saw his gravestone. I walked to the tops of mountains. Later I headed up to Edinburgh and saw the castle, explored Loch Ness in search of the monster, then went over to see a distant cousin on the Isle of Skye, where we debated Scottish independence late into the night in a pub.
I could write much more – about my driving tour of eastern Europe, trips to the Spanish Costa del Sol and Majorca, visits to Paris, Rome, Budapest, Vienna – the list goes on. The point here is that if you want to be an international contractor, you should have an interest in travel and the flexibility to take advantage of opportunities. You also need...
The Right Skills
Flexibility is not enough. You need the right skills. "OK, which skills do I need," you ask? The answer to that question fluctuates like the weather or the stock market. You need the skills for a particular position in a particular project. The challenge of contracting, as you may know, is that you always have to be thinking about getting the next job. A good agent can do wonders for your career. But even the best can't always make it happen. I remember once applying for a position working on Nortel equipment. They wanted someone who had worked on the Nortel Passport 1600. I had extensive experience on the Passport 6000, 7000, 8600, 15000 and 20000. I didn't get the position.
Looking for a new role can be a matter of finesse, luck and timing. (Sites like www.contractoruk.com and www.jobserve.com are excellent resources, particularly for the European market.) Finding the right match between skill set and job requirements can be as tricky as getting a date. You must present yourself well, be personable and not scare anyone off. Even if you have the right skills for a particular position, you may already be in a contract when it comes open. But none of that is possible if you haven't developed marketable skills in the first place. Sometimes being lucky takes a lot of work and preparation. For an international assignment, you also need...
Team Spirit and Cultural Awareness
Do you know any foreign languages? That could be helpful, but it's not always necessary. When I left the U.S. for Germany, I had studied French, Spanish, Latin and Greek – but no German! I had to learn that on the street. I knew Americans or Brits there who got by without any German. But they never really took full advantage of the international experience.
Whatever your language skills, you will need interpersonal skills to work on an international team. This should not be a chore. If you don't find it fascinating to get to know people from all parts of the globe, then working internationally is probably not for you. Better stay home.
What About Visa and Tax Requirements?
Crossing the Border
This may be the biggest hurdle, but for some of you it is easier. Europeans know that there is something called the Schengen Agreement, signed in 1985, which allows trade and travel across European borders. This gives IT engineers in those areas a distinct advantage. Free-spirited Brits seem to have taken advantage of it when it comes to international IT contracting. While many continental technical professionals are content to stay in the “permie” job market, it was common in my time overseas to see British engineers criss-crossing the continent, fulfilling project requirements for large telecom roll-outs. (For more on international economies and tech, see Will Bitcoin Win the Race to Become an International Currency?)
Gaining access to the job market of a foreign country depends on many factors and circumstances. In my case, I went to Germany on a permanent contract, then found myself laid off a couple of years later. I was able to adjust my visa so that I could work as a self-employed IT consultant. This was after the breakup of the telecom monopolies, and during a period of tremendous globalization. It may seem impossible from where you sit, but you never know until you try. And if you can't find a way to work across the border, you can always look closer to home and explore your own country.
Pay Now or You Will Pay Later
It was also common, as one colleague put it, to “do the dodge.” The U.K. got wise and cracked down on creative tax evaders. Many IT workers also wised up and brought their independent consultancies under compliance with vehicles like managed companies.
Whatever the accounting method, be sure that you should have one. The tax authorities will come after you, and they are not concerned about being nice. Without going into the dreadful details, I can tell you that having your bank account frozen for non-payment of VAT (value-added tax) is not a pleasant experience. Any IT contractor, whether domestic or international, should be advised that maintaining control of tax obligations and payments is one of your primary tasks. The best way to do this is to hire a tax accountant. Believe me, it will be cheaper in the long run. You can't afford not to.
What Are Some Potential Challenges and Rewards?
An Ever-Changing Landscape
Everything changes. You change. Your goals and interests change. And technology changes. My recent studies in the history of computing and my own experience in telecommunications have shown me how quickly that can happen. The concepts remain, but the implementations are temporal and fleeting. The first protocols I worked on were x.25 and Frame Relay. When Nortel Networks went bankrupt (after more than 100 years in operation), I found myself retooling to become a wireless engineer. I managed to work my way into big LTE projects before my European adventure ended. (To learn more on tech service in other countries, see Internet in the Developing World - Questions Around Access and Net Neutrality.)
Along with the technical complexity, you will also deal with considerable social complexity. You know the joke: You call someone who speaks two languages bilingual, and someone who speaks three languages trilingual. So what do you call someone who speaks only one language? Answer: American (or British). Meanwhile your European friends speak two, three or four different languages fluently, and somehow seem much smarter than you. How you adapt to the culture and language in your host country is as important as any technical challenge in your project.
Imagine a new world opening before your eyes. Suddenly everything is different. The people speak in a strange language, and they behave in strange ways. Everything – from sports to food to clothing styles – is not what you are used to. Gradually, imperceptibly, you begin to change. You become more tolerant. You listen more. You find out things about yourself and those who share the planet with you. That is the international experience.
Now you have more to do than just showing up for work. You have to deal with a foreign bureaucracy. You've got to buy groceries, pay rent and manage your household in a culture and financial system that you may not understand. But as you adjust to your new environment, you also learn new things, make new friends and experience new pleasures. You become a different person. And by the time you are ready to go home, you will know what you have missed.
Home Sweet Home
You may eventually get homesick. After 13 years in Europe, I needed to get grounded again. I needed my family. So I moved back home. At our Christmas family gathering recently there were thirty of us – and lots of new babies. The international experience may be wonderful and exciting (I hear that Kazakhstan is hot right now), but there's no place like home.