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'Hmm, why CAN'T I run a water pipe through that rack of media servers?'

Leaving Las Vegas for Armenia kludging and Dubai dune bashing

eXpat Files Welcome once again to The eXpat files, our Vulture Weekend feature in which readers who've well and truly left the nest explain what it's like to ply their technological trade in another land.

This week – we're going weekly by popular demand – meet D. Hayes Blanchard, who made the move from the US to Armenia, and then Dubai.

The Register: How old are you and where do you live in the US, when you're there?

Blanchard: I am 37 years old, born in Louisville, Kentucky, but spent most of my life in Las Vegas, Nevada, which is also where I went to university. I only return to the US once a year or so to visit my family.

The Register: What kind of work do you do and with which technologies?

Blanchard: At University I studied film and computer science and I have spent (most of) my career working on bridging those two disciplines. I spend about 70 per cent of my time working on IT infrastructure for media projects/companies and 30 per cent creating the media.

The Register: Why did you decide to move to the Armenia? And then to Dubai?

Blanchard: In Las Vegas I was working for a local TV channel which was quite bureaucratic and after a while I needed a change. I decide to take two years and teach English abroad and the organisation I joined sent me to Armenia. After two years teaching, I stayed in Armenia and went to work for an art museum, going back to the IT and media path. That project finished and I came to Dubai to visit a friend, after two days I tripped over a job and stayed here.

The Register: How did you arrange your expat gigs?

Blanchard: I first went to Armenia with the Peace Corps. When I was teaching in Armenia, I made many local friends and, just as my teaching job was about to end, one of them told me he knew of this art museum project that needed someone to design and install their IT and media infrastructure. In Dubai, it was also through the personal connections of my friend.

The Register: Pay: up or down?

Blanchard: In Armenia I took a large pay cut as compared to the US. In Dubai a significant pay increase as compared to the US, astronomical as compared to Armenia.

The Register: How do workplaces differ between the US and Armenia? And Dubai?

Blanchard: In Armenia most of the people in the museum were Soviet-trained, still had that mentality, and were resistant to change. The museum founder was an Armenian from the US and wanted us to build and operate to US standards. The local Armenians on my staff had never heard of lights out management, or half of the other IT concepts that I wanted to implement, and there was only one company in the city which could install and terminate fibre optic cable.

None of the media servers or equipment was available in market, leading to many arguments with the customs' officials. And a general contractor didn’t understand why he couldn’t run a water pipe through the cabinet containing a rack of media servers (the pipe wasn’t on the blueprints).

I could give hundreds of examples but it comes down to this: Armenia has a culture of kludging things together and working to western standards was my biggest challenge.

In Dubai, the biggest difference is the diversity of the place and working habits. There are people from all over the world in our office (eight people, six nationalities), while everyone speaks English (Dubai is an English speaking city) there are different accents, work ethics, religions and expectations. For the most part everyone gets along well but there is the inevitable clash of culture from time to time.

The Register: Will your expat gigs be good for your career?

Blanchard: Absolutely, yes. The experience that I have gained, both in Armenia and Dubai, of working with different people with different competencies and backgrounds has made me a more effective manager. The challenges I faced on the various projects have also taught me to “think outside the box” (I don’t like that expression but I can’t think of a better one) and there is always a solution to a problem, you just have to find it.

The Register: What's cheaper in Dubai? What's more expensive? I'm going to assume everything is cheaper in Armenia?

Blanchard: Housing is certainly cheaper in Armenia, so is locally-sourced produce (which is some of the best in the world). However, because of Armenia’s high and quite arbitrary customs' duties, imported products are more expensive than in the US or Dubai. This includes food items, electronics and all kind of everyday things you never thought about as being imported. There are also many things, everyday products in the West that are simply not available in Armenia at any price, like peanut butter and Marmite.

Housing in Dubai here is very expensive (no one is quite sure why) but other things are less expensive, petrol for example. Food is generally less expensive if bought in a store or at a “normal” restaurant. There are expensive and eye-wateringly expensive restaurants if you want. One thing, which is a bit shocking, is the low cost of and prevalence of domestic help. Most flats and houses have “maid's rooms” and most families have at least one maid or nanny. For people who have children, school fees here are quite expensive.

The Register: What do you miss about the US?

Blanchard: My father, my sister and Eastern North Carolina Barbeque.

The Register: What's your top tip to help new arrivals settle in to Dubai? And Armenia?

Blanchard: For Armenia, my top tip is: don’t fight the system. The immigration authority, customs' authority, government offices all have their own way of working, the rules are never clear, are enforced haphazardly, but in the end it will work out.

If you are in management and your staff tells you “No problem”, in one week you will have a problem.

Everyone here in Dubai is from somewhere else and there are going to be differences of opinion and culture (especially when driving). It’s best to save your energy and sanity for the things that really matter. People here, for the most part, are friendly and polite. If you are as well, your life will be much easier.

The Register: What advice would you offer someone considering the same moves?

Blanchard: Go for it, there is a huge world to explore and learn about and lots of challenges to face. Living and working abroad can only make you a more knowledgeable person, no matter whether you enjoy the experience or not.

Specifically for Dubai, I would say think about what kind of lifestyle you want to have here. Salaries are higher and there are no taxes so you can live a more luxurious life or you can save lots of money but you can’t do both.

The Register: And, because this is the weekend edition, what can you do on weekends in Armenia and Dubai that you could not do in the US?

Blanchard: In Armenia, a typical weekend would see me doing a pub crawl with my friends or going to a concert. Not much different from the US, except Yerevan is small enough to walk everywhere so there was no need to concern myself with driving or where to park the car.

In Dubai there is some good (if expensive) night life, as well as desert camping, desert driving (dune bashing), scuba diving, sky diving and a whole range of outdoor activities.

If you are an expat, or know an interesting one, let us know so we can share your/their globe-trotting tale. ®

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