On the International Front: Coming to America
The author shares his insights about taking high-tech position in the U.S. It's not all sunshine and stock options.
- By Greg Neilson
After two years working at a job in information technology
in the U.S., it's time for me and my family to return
to Australia. For those of you in another country who
might be considering something similar, I'll tell you
about my experiences and how I'd do things differently
if I had it to do over again.
Why Did I Do It?
My wife and I had been to the U.S. a number of times
as tourists and had enjoyed it, and I'd had a couple of
short working stints in New York and Austin. We had even
half-seriously entered the previous two green card lotteries
(see "Getting the Paperwork You'll Need"), but to no avail
(the competition is pretty stiff). Then an ad in The Australian
(our national newspaper, which has a large computer section
each Tuesday) late in June 1997 caught my eye. A consulting
company wanted Microsoft-skilled people to come to San
Francisco, and was willing to pay US$60,000 to $100,000.
This came at a very opportune time in my career, because
I'd just moved within IBM Global Services Australia from
a networking role back to an application development role--and
was realizing that I'd probably made a mistake. Programming
wasn't nearly as much fun as I had remembered. (Harry
Brelsford wrote a "Professionally
Speaking" column in the August 1998 issue about
career mistakes in which he referred to "doing a geographic,"
which later helped me recognize my own behavior.)
At the time, I had nine years of IT experience-about
half in application development and half in networking.
I had a degree in civil engineering and my MCNE, PCLP,
MCSE, and MCSD, along with experience in team leading
and project management.
Within 10 days, I had submitted my resume, had a couple
of interviews, and been made an offer. Now things were
getting serious. Although my wife had given me the go-ahead
to apply, she was shocked beyond belief that I'd actually
received an offer. We talked it over; I negotiated the
starting salary, accepted the offer, and we were set to
go. It was July 10, 1997.
With a family of four, there's a lot to organize--we
had to lease our house, ship or store our furniture, and
get ourselves ready to move. We moved out of our house
at the end of August, believe it or not, shipped our furniture
to San Francisco, and the entire family stayed with my
mother-in-law until it was time to leave.
What I hadn't prepared for was waiting for my H-1B visa
to be processed. My original start date was in early October,
and I'd planned to leave work in mid-September. However,
I was never told that the quota of 65,000 visas had already
been used for that year and that processing on my visa
wouldn't start until October. I used the idle time in
Sydney to take a Lotus Notes exam for CLP Principal Administrator
and to complete my Java 1.1 Programmer certification.
My visa wasn't processed until the end of October. We
had agreed on a new start date of December 1, and arrived
in San Francisco on November 17. This gave us two weeks
to get organized, find an apartment, get social security
numbers and driver licenses, and buy a car. The intervening
two months (October and November) with no income had burned
a huge hole in our savings, and we were laying out huge
sums upon our arrival for the deposit and rent-in-advance
on an apartment.
On the Job at Last
I finally started work December 1. Unfortunately, I found
out the hard way what "bench time" meant-waiting to get
me on a billing client, which took a couple of months.
At one stage, there weren't enough desks in the office,
and I was told to "work from home" until they needed me.
My mother-in-law had come to stay during this time and
was quietly asking my wife what the hell-kind of job I
had actually signed up for (well, at least I was getting
paid!). Here's a sampling of some of the assignments I
had in my two years as a consultant:
- Six months were spent doing Notes
deployment/application development at an insurance company.
Mentoring their IS team on Windows NT skills (originally,
they had been a NetWare shop), and building their skills
for supporting Notes, including dial-up support. After
the client realized I could offer more, I was given
more advanced tasks, such as working with the setup
of the Compaq Remote Insight boards that allow dial-in
access to monitor and reboot the server.
- Sporadically supported NT/Exchange
over a six-month period for a communications startup.
I learned the stuff about supporting Microsoft Exchange
that you don't learn from studying for the exams alone!
- Eight months spent doing NT engineering
work for a large financial services company, writing
scripts, batch files, and packaging applications on
their NT platform. I learned how to deploy and
support a standardized NT environment. From my mainframe
days, I knew how banks and large financial service firms
approach testing with a designated team, using a model
of the production environment before implementation,
and here, I saw the same methodologies being applied
in the NT server/client environment. (In fact, I liked
this place so much that if we hadn't planned to move
back to Australia, I'd have loved to work there permanently.)
Another weird thing about this place was seeing IT staffers
being able to retire after 10-12 years because the value
of their stock and options in the company had made them
multi-millionaires--this used to happen about once a
- Two months doing NT support for
an Internet startup. The people here were great
to work with, but there was little to actually do. I
was spending two hours each way commuting to San Jose,
waiting for the internal IT in Boston to determine what
they wanted done and how. Believe me, there are only
so many Web sites you can surf in a day before being
- Performed Domino R5 implementations
for a small (50 users) and a large (1,300 users) client.
- Two months at an email outsourcing
company doing various engineering and documentation
tasks for the Notes and Exchange service offerings.
One thing I wasn't prepared for was my manager digging
through my resume, prepared to use any skill he could
find to get me out billing. So, my resume was being sent
on NT and Domino roles (which I had expected) but also
NetWare, Exchange, and others. I often joked that my manager
would have me out shining shoes or washing cars if the
rate was good enough. I also brought my old COBOL textbooks
with me in case I was put on a Y2K mainframe project,
but thankfully, it never came to that!
What I'd Do Differently
Moving a family is expensive and stressful. Most employers
don't pay for furniture shipping, and only you, the employee,
have your flights paid to and from the U.S. Unless you
have friends who have done this before and are working
for the same company, you have no idea whether this will
work out. One approach I've seen others take is to go
alone, and then bring the rest of the family over three
to six months later. That way, if things don't work out,
you can just fly home and resume your life. The first
few months I was unhappy and would have done anything
to go home, but we'd used all our savings, had maxed-out
our credit cards, and were in no position to spend approximately
US$8,000 for airfares and shipping to return home at that
time. However, after awhile I settled in, and we were
happy enough staying in the San Francisco Bay area. Eventually,
we would have been happy to stay (albeit with a changed
job), but because we wanted our eldest son educated in
Australia, we decided to go home. The main complaint I
had with my employer was the lack of career development
and access to education. This wasn't just an issue for
me as a foreign worker here, there were also a number
of my American co-workers who had resigned around the
same time with the same issues.
One thing I didn't really understand until I arrived
in the U.S. is that the word "consulting" and "consulting
firm" are used in much different ways than I'd been used
to. In Australia, I saw "consulting" as the sort of work
the Big 5 do--projects and strategic consulting. However,
the "body shop" usage of the word was foreign to me, so
I didn't really understand the type of work I was coming
over to do. It's true that the firm I joined was moving
from this type of work into the project/strategic arena,
but a lot of body shop work is still being done to pay
We also hadn't considered the implications of only having
one car (that's all we could afford). Much of the time
I could catch a train or bus to an assignment, but sometimes
I would need the car for weeks at a time to drive to the
client. This left my wife having to catch a bus with both
kids and a pram to drop off and pick up my eldest son
from preschool. This made things stressful for everyone,
plus I was unhappy having to commute two hours each way
to San Jose.
Shipping furniture is incredibly expensive, and I wouldn't
recommend it to anyone. We spent around US$7,000 shipping
some of our furniture here and back. One of my co-workers
(as I later found out) had negotiated for our employer
to pay for some of the shipping, so keep this in mind
in your negotiations (they can only say no).
I was originally so keen to move that I hadn't negotiated
enough for my starting salary--I simply converted what
I was earning in $AU to $US. This put me near the bottom
of the original salary range and was well below what I
feel I was worth. Ego aside, this made it harder than
it should have been for our family to survive--although
I did receive two raises during my time here, which helped.
This wasn't news to me, but you might want to keep it
in mind--no one here will give you credit when you arrive.
The only way around this is to come over with an American
Express card, and when you get here, change it to a U.S.
card. Then, after 12 to 18 months, you'll be deluged with
credit card offers (my four-year old son was recently
pre-approved for a credit card!). When renting an apartment,
the typical deposit is equal to a month's rent.
Lastly, for those of you with families, I can't emphasize
how important it is that the rest of your family be happy
with the move. After all, if they're unhappy, everyone
will be unhappy.
the Paperwork You'll Need
|Many different types of
visas allow you to work in the U.S., but
the primary type of working visa used
for IT staff is the H-1B. In this case,
an employer must sponsor you to work in
the U.S. The employer specifies that they
can't find someone to fill the position,
and that they're paying you the prevailing
salary for the skills required. The visa
can be extended up to six years, but after
that you must leave the U.S. for a year
before you can reapply.
The visa approval process is currently
bogged down by the large number of visas
to be processed, often taking three
to four months. Current limits are for
115,000 visas in the year starting October
1, 1999, and it's likely that the number
of visas will run out (last year they
ran out by April 9). The minimum requirement
is a bachelor's degree in computing
science or related field. Professional
experience is allowed to substitute
for university study at the ratio of
three years experience for each year
Because an employer has sponsored you
to work in the U.S., if you want to
change jobs you need your new employer
to also sponsor you. This too can take
up to four months, and you can't work
for the new employer until it's processed.
However, on the bright side, transferring
your visa in this manner doesn't count
against the quotas.
One of the better sources of information
about H1-B visa news is Computerworld,
so check out their Web site at
www.computerworld.com to find out
the latest. For example, an article
in the November 8, 1999 issue listed
the top 20 employers of H1-B visas,
which combined account for 60 percent
of the visas granted.
One last option is the "visa lottery",
in which 50,000 green cards are granted
annually in an attempt to diversify
the immigration pool entering the U.S.
Not all nationalities, however, can
enter this. It's a real longshot--the
last lottery attracted 8,000,000 applicants.
You'll have to keep your eyes open on
this as it's only announced shortly
before the start of two-month period
in which they accept entries. The minimum
requirement is to have finished high
school and have worked for two years.
Be careful: There are many immigration
lawyers who, for a fee, will assist
you with your application, but as long
as you complete your application correctly,
they can't guarantee you any better
odds of winning than any other applicant.
Use your favorite search engine on "DV-2002"
to find out more.
It'll probably take a few years to understand exactly
what I gained from my time here. However, there already
seems to have been multiple benefits:
Working in the U.S. is generally seen in Australia as
a great way to expand your horizons, and experience things
you wouldn't necessarily see working in Australia. Also,
there's no doubt that the Internet startups are changing
the nature of the economy as we know it, and it was a
great way to see some of that up close. I always liken
it to being in Florence at the height of the Renaissance.
- I saw a great many IT shops--small and large, and
learned a lot about other approaches to doing things.
- I completed a third of a distance MBA, which I should
complete by the end of 2001. Coming over here finally
gave me the kick in the tail to get moving on this.
In case you're wondering, I had to fund this myself
because my firm wouldn't pay for it.
- I started doing technical writing for this magazine
and others, which has now led to a book (Lotus Notes/Domino
in a Nutshell for O'Reilly, due to hit the shelves in
April ). Sure, I could have done this back in Australia.
But it was being here, and working alongside others
doing these kinds of things that made me even realize
it was a possibility.
- I saw with a new appreciation what I had back at
my previous employer in Australia--in terms of the people
to work with and the working conditions. I've already
accepted a position to return in a senior architectural
position, and I'm not sure I would have been offered
that position and salary if I hadn't had the experience
I had gained here.
- On a personal level, it brought our immediate family
closer together--after all, originally it seemed like
"us against the world" when we started out alone here.
- We got to see a lot of the area around San Francisco
and also experience some of the real American experiences
we only had vague ideas about in Australia, things like
Thanksgiving, Halloween, and the 4th of July. We really
picked up a love for baseball (I was never a big cricket
fan back home) and in particular the Oakland Athletics,
who are primed for a big year in 2000!
- I made a few friends here who I believe will be life-long.
On the financial side, the two years here meant we basically
broke even financially. Had we stayed another year, though,
that could have changed into a small profit, given all
the fixed costs involved in the moving of our belongings
and us. But we traveled a lot; I now have a small computer
lab at home, and am the proud owner of a "Lone Star Special"
Fender Strat guitar, so it hasn't all been for nothing.
I also think my earnings potential when I return to Australia
will be much higher than it otherwise would have been.
There have been a number of surprises here. Probably
the biggest--and the one I never expected--was how many
Americans took my accent as British rather than Australian.
Another surprise: how different Australian English is
from American English. In Australia we see an enormous
amount of American culture, so we know a lot of the language
from movies and TV shows. Although I could understand
Americans, they frequently had no idea what I was talking
about. For example, I quickly learned that people in the
U.S, have a first name and a last name, not a Christian
name and a surname… and I still can't make myself say
"elevator" instead of "lift."
In conclusion, it's been great for us here in the U.S.
If you're considering a similar path, I recommend that
you look into it, but be careful that you understand the