Looking back on the three years she spent as an information systems manager in Europe, Jo Previte is glad she took the assignment. But she cautions that any manager or executive contemplating overseas work should be realistic about the effect on his or her career and personal life.
“It was a life-changing event for the whole family, and I am not at all sure we realized how much at the time.”
Previte, a U.S. citizen, was asked to relocate from Nevada to Ireland so she could support her manufacturing company’s European IT operations. She shared her experience with TechRepublic after reading Bob Weinstein’s column “Will working abroad boost your career?”
We asked her and other members to tell us about the lessons they learned from working in foreign countries. Here are some of their comments.
Don’t underestimate cultural barriers
Many TechRepublic members said you’d be surprised at how different a foreign country can be, even if it’s located in the same region as your country of origin or its residents speak your language.
“One of the major revelations for us was that even though we chose to be based in Ireland—it was the only one of our European locations where English was the standard language—it was much more foreign than we anticipated,” Previte said. “I found, for example, that motivating Irish workers was not possible using standard U.S. methods.”
Clinton Jones, a business applications manager, also cautioned would-be overseas workers about underestimating the differences in culture. Born in South Africa and raised in Zimbabwe, he spent 10 years working in South Africa and now works in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.
He advised overseas workers to carefully assess cultural norms—especially personal habits, such as smoking, drinking, and even dress styles—when considering jobs abroad.
“From a social adaptability standpoint, those dependent on substances like alcohol, nicotine, and drugs should be extremely cautious, as should religious fundamentalists,” he said. Jones said that race can also have an influence on one’s social position and acceptability in a foreign country.
Obviously, language barriers could affect your work life. Jones found himself working in a melting pot of six languages. Even those who can speak English have difficulties understanding each other’s idioms, sentence structure, and pronunciations, he said.
“In the provisioning of hardware and software solutions, clarity in understanding user requirements is critical,” he said. “If we can’t get communication right, we just don’t deliver adequate solutions.”
Jones suggested that potential overseas workers learn the cultural mix of their staff and be confident that they can resolve communication barriers before taking the job.
IT, in particular, tends to attract workers from all types of cultures. This can lead to language barriers within your IT division. We’d like to know how you tackle this problem within your organization. E-mail us or start a discussion below.
Expect unique work challenges
Our members also found that infrastructure and business practices vary from country to country. Jones, for example, has found some local service providers reluctant to provide pricing information. Sometimes, prices are based on who he is, rather than what is being sold. And occasionally, the “accredited agents” aren’t even familiar with the products he’s seeking. These are all problems he simply didn’t encounter in South Africa, he said.
There are also basic technology differences. Many countries have poor telecommunications infrastructure, which means you’ll have to adjust to poor Internet access.
“At one time, the KSA had one of the best telecommunications networks in the world,” Jones said. “[Now] I rate it as being about 10 years behind that of South Africa, which I think compares favorably with some of the best in the world today.”
Network, network, network
If you plan to move to a foreign country, Jones also advises you hone your networking skills. “Networking becomes ever more critical as you move into an expatriate situation.”
Mark Ragel, a general manager of Algosaibi Information Systems in Saudi Arabia, suggested that anyone moving to another country concentrate on identifying and selecting local IT partners.
And don’t neglect your peer network back home. If you return home without a job, you may need their assistance. You may even discover you need to tap their expertise while you’re living out of the country.
“Often, local service providers don’t have the skills and techniques to deal with one's problems,” said Jones. “You may have to rely on an old-boys’ network from back home for information, so continue to cultivate those relationships and maintain them.”
Realize the impact on your family and personal life
Ragel left a position with the Florida university system 25 years ago after finding his first overseas job through an ad in Computerworld magazine. There were several big adjustments in moving, he said, including the lack of a support network. But he thinks moving overseas was a terrific personal and professional decision.
“I’m happy about where I am and what's happening here,” he said. ”I do believe that I've had a much richer family life living here and raising my children here.”
Previte found the move to Ireland presented a number of challenges for her family.
“Everything was a major obstacle—even getting paid from our U.S. office proved an ‘event’ every two weeks,” she said. “School was a traumatic undertaking for the whole family, and the fact that my work permit did not allow my husband to work made things even more difficult.”
School curricula, driving requirements, and military and police powers may be very different from your own country’s standards. And you may be exposing your family to diseases they’re unaccustomed to, so be sure to investigate health issues before departing, advised Jones.
He also suggested that you don’t underestimate the impact of leaving your pets and possessions behind.
Find out what support your company offers
Your company can help ease the transition between countries, but be sure you know what it will and won’t do before you move, Previte said.
“Be sure that you understand what support the company will provide beyond the standard benefits. Larger companies have services that help you understand the intricacies of living in the country you are going to, while smaller firms leave you to your own devices.”
Remember: You’ll always be an outsider
Regardless of how well you acclimate to your new home, you’ll always be an outsider, Jones claimed. This is especially important to consider before engaging in company politics. Jones cautioned that while the culture may be different, there’s still a pecking order and unspoken rules you must learn and respect.
“If you choose to become involved in political game-playing, you can of course get badly burnt, particularly if you're not sensitive to cultural issues,” he said. “Remember above all else that no matter how long you have lived in a foreign country, you are still a visitor, and as such, you will never quite have the same standing as indigenous or local people.”