In-Depth

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.

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.

H-1B Nightmares

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 week.
  • 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 totally bored.
  • 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 the bills.

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.

Getting 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 of study.

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.

--Greg Neilson

The Benefits

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 possible pitfalls.

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