Tell us about yourself…
I’m a 20-something Australian-American working as an International Project Manager for a small IT company in Europe. Inspiring friends, frequent travel, good music, international cuisine, city biking, and regular Pilates keep me amply busy outside the office. For more details, check out (and add me) on LinkedIn.
How did you start gaining international experience?
As a Dual Citizen at birth, the international life was thrust upon me in the cradle. Travelling back and forth between the USA and AUS taught me the basics of global travel and that there was more than one right way to live. My biggest step was choosing to study abroad in Germany for 12 months during University. Bringing a new continent, culture and language into the picture was both scary and thrilling. This turned out to be a good move because I had institutional and mentoring support from the Uni, but enough autonomy to get into trouble and learn a few lessons. I strongly recommend this as a way to get overseas in a safe environment. Coming out of that alive gave me the confidence that I could survive (almost) anywhere.
Back in the States and working for a large consultancy, I decided to reaffirm my Aussie heritage and took advantage of my citizenship to transfer with the company to Brisbane. If you already work for a big company with international presence, sound out internally for opportunities in their foreign offices. This is another great way to move for the first time as you keep insurance, pay, and a degree of comfort from knowing the organization. Things spiraled from here and I was guided by Seth Godin’s advice: “Instead of wondering when your next vacation is, you ought to set up a life you don’t need to escape from.” I am still working on this, but the pleasure is in the journey.
How has international experience boosted your career and life satisfaction?
My international experience has become one of the defining parts of my personal and professional identity. Professionally, I would go so far as to call it my competitive advantage. There are a lot of people out there with my hard skills, but few who have deep international and language experience to match. Living abroad is uncomfortably effective at pushing people beyond their comfort zone – which means accelerated personal growth and learning beyond what would be achieved in a routine back home. I have to agree with a study in the Harvard Business Review (Sep. 2010): “People who have international experience or identify with more than one nationality are better problem solvers and display more creativity, our research suggests. What’s more, we found that people with this international experience are more likely to create new businesses and products and to be promoted.”
But mostly, it’s a lot of fun. I have a bad case of Wanderlust and I find that working abroad instead of just taking 2 weeks’ vacation a year goes much farther towards calming the beast and paying the bills. Even after several years in Vienna, I still find myself full of wonder when I walk through the old city’s cobbled streets. Full disclosure: if I hadn’t moved abroad I would never have met my wonderful Austrian girlfriend…
For Generation Y, what are the barriers to working and living globally? How can one overcome these?
Competition for jobs and the level of global mobility are higher now than ever before. This means Gen Y’ers are up against a lot of other skilled people for interesting roles – with many competitors coming from places that were not churning out jetsetters 20 years ago. One of the biggest critiques that I hear from older international colleagues is that Gen Y is too needy and lacks focus/discipline. Figure out what your personal competitive advantage is and clearly define what you want. Knowing these two elements alone will set you ahead.
In terms of the current global economic climate, do you think it has affected Generation Y mobility (in terms of gaining international experience)? If so, to what extent?
That clearly depends on your target industry and target country. In the short term hiring has been down, but companies with any sort of global perspective are looking for and encouraging international experience. This trend will only increase as globalization deepens. Peter Drucker famously said: “If you don’t think globally, you deserve to be unemployed, and you soon will be.” Gen Y’ers trying to move to Spain are really going to struggle if they are competing with Spaniards for jobs – but if you can speak German then Austria and Germany are pretty hot right now. The advantage of Gen Y is that our interconnectivity allows us to work in a location not necessarily tied to our job. Working abroad used to mean having a job function in the country to which you relocated. I am seeing an increasing trend towards people moving to, say, Istanbul but with a job function tied to New York. The economic crunch is leading some countries like Australia to increase visas to make sure they have the right skills, but other countries are clamping down in order to “protect” local jobs against immigrants. It really all depends on where you are headed, so do your macroeconomic homework and choose wisely.
How do young professionals build, then leverage, an international network of colleagues and friends?
A strong international network is the aggregate of many smaller efforts. The first step is to simply engage in conversation with others on international topics. This will quite quickly ferret out people you already know who have a global perspective. Leverage these people to learn about their experiences and meet their internationally connected contacts. Look up embassy events, language clubs, industry events or even internationally focused University groups in your area and attend their socials. Don’t be shy about passing on your LinkedIn/FB/etc. contact so that you can keep in touch. Have business cards on hand (if you don’t have a job, get personal cards made – they are quite cheap when purchased online). Once connected, post regularly (and insightfully – no “lol cats”), make sure to connect with you contacts for coffee when you are in their city, and jump at any chance to help others out. Helping others gives you not only a warm and fuzzy feeling, but it also reinforces the relationship and positions you to ask for help down the line e.g. for that dream job in Buenos Aires.
For someone who has just started looking into moving away to work overseas, what tips and advice do you have?
“One day Alice came to a fork in the road and saw a Cheshire cat in a tree.
‘Which road do I take?’ she asked.
‘Where do you want to go?’ was his response.
‘I don’t know’, Alice answered.
‘Then’, said the cat, ‘it doesn’t matter’.”
-Lewis Carroll “Alice in Wonderland
This quote is very true for chasing a career overseas. The world is a big place so you need direction before you set out. Figure out what is most important to you: the location, the industry, the job function, etc. If working in Bangkok is the most important thing to you, be willing to take on a less than perfect job. If working for a Fortune 500 is key, be willing to live in Milan instead of Rome. Rarely do you get everything you want when moving abroad, so like a good negotiator, draw your lines, figure out what you can bend on, be prepared to walk away and wait for the right opportunity, and please trust your gut. If it smells fishy, it is.
On a technical side, make sure to investigate the visa restrictions of your target country before you start (the US Embassy pages will often list these). Most big cities have big expat communities and therefore expat job boards. Google them. Find out what international organizations or international companies are operating in your target city and check out their websites. Conversely, if you are after a specific job but don’t care where, check with the chamber of commerce or professional organization to find out in which countries this profession is strongly represented and growing. Take advantage of your network and send out a call for help – but make sure it’s targeted (“Help! I want to live abroad!” won’t get you much response. “Help! I am looking for an IT project management role in Cape Town!” will get you much farther). Start early and be patient.