eXpat Files Welcome back to The eXpat Files, a new Weekend Reg regular in which we chat to an IT professional who's decided to seek his or her fortune in another land, so you can learn how to follow in their footsteps.
This week, meet 33 year-old James Hudson who hails from Australia, now lives in Berlin, Germany, and has also spent time in Helsinki, Finland.
The Register: What kind of work do you do and with which technologies?
The Register: Why did you decide to move to Finland? And Germany?
Hudson: I first moved to Finland in 2006. I was doing the typical Australian Euro-trip, loved the place, and decided to stay. I came back to Oz to help my Aussie business partner make a Wii game (Flowerworks). I went back to Helsinki in 2010, mostly to spend more time with my sister, who has also moved there; she now reads the national English TV news and runs a circus school.
I moved to Berlin in 2012, mainly because the dance scene was better for a guy (the other thing I do besides the IT).
The Register: How did you arrange your expat gigs?
Hudson: I spent a bright, hot Finnish summer leisurely searching for work, and found a job at Nokia in the usual way. It's very useful to find a day job in a new country; it helps you integrate and learn how the society works.
To move to Germany, I asked for a transfer to the Berlin office of my Finnish employee. It was like living in a small bubble of Finland with all the benefits of Berlin, which eased the culture shock. I still feel closer to the Finnish mentality than the German one.
The Register: Pay: up or down?
Hudson: In a day job, down. Australia is a rich, meritocratic country. In Finland the pay scale is a lot flatter, as it is a more egalitarian society. Germany, and Europe in general, is a crowded place, with old social stratum and unresolved economic problems, so it's harder to make money in the same way everyone else is trying to, i.e. in a day job.
As a freelancer, the rates in Europe seem better than Australia, because there seems to be so little competition here. I don't know where all the other freelance developers are; perhaps entrepreneurialism is more part of the Australian culture. Maybe all the decent coders have quit their jobs and are living in their parents' garage, pursuing their startup dreams instead of attacking the mountain of truly valuable work that needs doing. I wish I could find other like-minded developers; it’s lonely working solo in cafés with the pensioners and mothers’ clubs.
The Register: How do workplaces differ between Finland and Australia? And Germany?
Hudson: Finland has a uniquely level society. There is no gender in the language, no word for "he" or "she", no explicit word to indicate ownership, and everyone is on a first-name basis.
It's perfectly normal to discuss business frankly over a beer in the company sauna, together with customers, managers, workers and the CEO. It would be a serious faux pas to not be naked in the sauna. Before one of my Christmas parties, the CEO said words to the effect of: “Could we please not have naked developers running around the office before 10pm?” Almost everyone speaks good English. Finns pride themselves on being brutally honest and admitting their mistakes.
Overtime seems to be viewed as a sign that management is too weak to get the proper resources for their team. It's common to see bosses shoo-ing their employees out the door at half past five. “Work-life balance” is a phrase that is heard constantly.
Right down to middle-class welfare in the form of cheap food vouchers, this respect for the worker makes Finland the best place in the world to be an employee. I have been spoiled by Finland, and could never work as an employee for a non-Finnish company again. Unless my boss would be fine with me telling them exactly what I think of them. Naked.
Germany is the opposite in many ways: the language has social hierarchy built-in, people must be referred to by the correct title, and apparently workers typically ask permission from their superiors to leave work each day. You really need to have decent German to work with local businesses.
The amount of bureaucracy and fixed costs that come with running a German business was a shock; it makes me want to send flowers to the Australian Taxation Office. On the other hand, it keeps my competition away quite effectively.
The Register: Have your expat gigs been good for your career?
Hudson: Yes. I've been able to follow the latest technology and business trends at their source, some of which only just seem to be reaching Australia five years later.
Working in Finland made me realise that being a good manager doesn’t mean micromanaging and berating your employees, it means getting out of the way and clearing away all the obstructions and red tape so they can do their job properly.
The Register: What's cheaper in Finland? What's more expensive? Ditto Germany?
Hudson: Finland? Milk and ice cream. The Finns love their dairy. Everything else is about the same. It really says something about Australia's grocery duopoly that an Arctic country can have the same price bananas as Australia.
Berlin is incredibly cheap, on the proviso that you can pull in business from outside, since the city is collectively broke. A falafel sandwich can be found within fifty metres of any point in Berlin for a couple of euros, a beer for less than a euro. A week's rent in Sydney or Melbourne would get you more than a month’s rent in Berlin for something equivalent.
The Register: What do you miss about Australia when you're not there?
Hudson: My family and friends. The rest can be found in any big city. I also miss colourful, cheeky parrots.
The Register: What's your top tip to help new arrivals settle in Finland? And Berlin?
Hudson: Finland? Arrive at the start of summer, and you will fall in love with the country as it goes into a frenzy of fecundity and endless daylight.
Also, don't mistake a deep respect for other people's personal space as shyness or unfriendliness.
Berlin? Stay healthy, stay focused, and stay away from drugs. The endless party lifestyle is known as the “Berlin black hole”. Countless startup dreams have been strangled and buried in the basements of Berlin's techno clubs.
It's not an unfriendly city; you just can't sit around and expect to be entertained, you have to go and make things happen yourself.
The Register: What advice would you offer someone considering the same moves?
Hudson: If the ropes of responsibility loosen for a moment, break away and be free! You never know where you'll end up, or what you'll be doing. It'll make you respect the good things about your own culture, and want to change the bad things.
The Register: And, because this is the Weekend Edition, what can you do on weekends in Finland and Berlin that you could not do in Australia?
Hudson: Berlin: catch a train to any of a dozen different countries.
Finland: stay out all weekend without it getting dark, or alternatively, cut a hole in the ice for a refreshing dip between saunas.
The eXpat Files will return in future Weekend Editions. If you are an expat, or know an interesting one, let us know so we can share your/their globe-trotting tale. We promise not to always feature Australians: it just turns out that they're the best email responders so far. ®