A Brit in California moves to the Lone Star State – just swerve the TexMex grub

And don't do politics with the locals

The eXpat Files This week's expat is Derek Bergin, a self-described “Scots/Yorkshire hybrid” whose last UK residence was Milton Keynes. After the dot-bomb, he moved to California, but he has recently moved again to Texas.

That makes him just about a double-expat in our eyes. Or are we overestimating the differences between Texas and California? Set us straight, Derek.

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

Derek Bergin: Aeons ago I worked in analogue hardware design, digital hardware design and embedded firmware. Then I moved to software and quality assurance. I mostly do test automation frameworks these days.

The Register: Why did you decide to move to California?

Derek Bergin: I was a contractor for 17 years, then in 2001 a combination of the dot-bomb implosion and IR35 caused me to look for pastures new. A friend from a previous contract happened to have moved to California and I was chatting to him one day, bemoaning the state of the industry and he said, "Well, we've got some openings in California – why not move out here?". It was April and the rain was coming down sideways. It wasn't a difficult decision at the time.

The Register: How did you arrange the move to California? And then to Texas?

Derek Bergin: Corporate relocation in both cases. The California employer arranged the H1-b visa and all the moves. I was incredibly lucky actually as I was the last international new hire under the old, rather more generous, relocation plan. I got my Green Card while in California and stayed with that employer for 10 years. It's one of the big outfits so it's easy to move around and gets lots of experience.

In the intervening years it's become progressively harder to get an H1-b and start the process. From what I hear they are basically snapped up in advance by the big outsourcing firms. The flip-side to that is that once you have one then transferring between employers needn't be the nightmare it was a decade ago - assuming that your original employer plays ball. If they don't then it's indentured servitude. Which is why the outsourcers love them (as do their clients – the "lack of technically skilled people" is largely a myth. What there is a lack of is people willing to work for the pittance that some of the temps will take).

The Register: Why the move to Texas?

Derek Bergin: The California employer announced that they were moving all the work I was doing to the Bay Area – which left me with either a life-sapping commute or a need to purchase a shack with an outside loo – that being all I could afford. So I asked around and another contact turned up the job in Austin. LinkedIn is your friend in these cases.

The Register: Pay – up or down? Between the UK and California to Texas?

Derek Bergin: Up I think – it certainly was back when I moved here. I haven't really kept current with the UK rates though. It's also helped by the tax situation. Even more so in Texas, as we don't have state income tax here.

The Register: How do workplaces differ between California and Texas?

Derek Bergin: Not a lot to be honest. The places I've worked have aimed at being results-driven, where we really emphasise output and not input. My current gig has a very shallow management tree given that it is a large multinational, but as with most places it's the couple of layers above you that really define what it's like. I've been pretty lucky overall.

There's a common belief that, especially in California, you have to be 25, single and a friendless insomniac to work in the industry. I know a couple of places like that but in general we grey beards are readily employed.

Both states are quite divergent socially and economically. The coastal strip in California (which the rest of the world likes to think comprises the whole state) is a very different place to the rest of the state. There's a similar dichotomy in Texas where Austin is almost nothing like "Texas as advertised".

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

Derek Bergin: Career? At my age? Not exactly at the forefront of what remains of my mind. I think that exposure to a different way of doing things will help and to be honest being able to be competent in a range of things always helps.

The Register: What's cheaper in Texas, compared to California? What's more expensive?

Derek Bergin: Cheaper? Most things that you buy on a regular basis. Especially gas. An F150 is a compact car here.

The Register: What do you miss about California? And the UK?

Derek Bergin: I do miss the quality of wine and fresh foods in California. It's easy to get very spoiled there. From the UK - not a lot now - tastes change. There isn't really anything that you can't get here if you live in, or near, a big city. I do know I find it grating to put up with the lack of common civility in the UK when I visit. I'm really not sure if it's changed since we left or maybe I've got used to a more friendly way of life.

The Register: What's your top tip to help new arrivals settle in, to California and Texas?

Derek Bergin: When you are asked which church you will attending, and yes - you will be asked, just say that you haven't decided. That seems to placate everyone. For some reason many people have a deep need to know this.

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

Derek Bergin: Rather like the advice from the reader who ended up commuting to Australia: make sure that everyone has social contacts. If you have small kids it's easy, otherwise you need to make a determined effort to get out and meet people.

Volunteering is very common here and a great way to meet a divergent collection of people with a similar interest. Meetups can be your friend for this. Also Craigslist. Your partner won't be able to work unless they get their own work visa until you get your green card. Remember you'll be on one income with little or no backup. This may or may not be significant to you.

I've never seen a collection of expats in one place although Brits are everywhere. We just seem to be pervasive. Many big cities will have a "British restaurant" – we've got an awesome one in South Austin – if you feel the need for a Sunday morning coronary.

In general we've had a much more pleasant and welcoming experience everywhere we've been than the reception I've seen Americans get in the UK. As long as you accept that it isn't the UK with just a funny accent but it's a very different society you should get along just fine.

Americans are generally open, friendly and generous. You get the usual questions (do you have the 4th of July in England? – yes, we normally manage to squeeze it in between the 3rd and the 5th) which you can have fun with, but people are mostly just interested in you and how you are finding the differences between the countries.

Smiling isn't forbidden here, being polite to other drivers isn't deviant behaviour, anything to do with health and the medical industry is insanely expensive - if your gig doesn't include health coverage from day one (and many don't have benefits for the first 30 days) then reconsider.

As long as you avoid the frozen wastelands of the north and north east then the weather is probably going to be awesome in comparison to "home".

Recalibrate your ideas of "a long way" and "a long time".

The Register: A hypothetical Reg reader lands in Texas for the weekend: what do you recommend they do?

Derek Bergin: Which part of Texas? The state is bigger than France! The size alone makes that an interesting question. We live in Austin which is pretty much in the geographical centre. If you're driving the nearest state border is Mexico and that's only four hours away. I just drove to Arizona – and the first 11 hours are taken up getting to El Paso.

So if you want to do the cowboy thing then go see the stockyards at Fort Worth (a real tourist trap but fun in a corny sort of way), the Texas Rangers museum, the Alamo and drive up to the high plains in the north west of the state and imagine trying to settle there if you were in the first batch.  Other stuff – NASA at Houston, Battleship Texas,  drive along the beach at Matagorda, look over the border from El Paso, Jerry's World in Dallas (well, Arlington). I've left out hundreds of things – but I've only been here three years.

SXSW in Austin is best avoided unless you're so full of yourself that mirrors are your best friend. The locals generally stay well away. What the locals do get excited about is Austin City Limits – a six-day music festival spread over two weekends. Not a lot gets done around here when that's on.

Eating barbecue is a must anywhere in the state. The seafood on the Gulf coast can be great.

Mexican food (obviously) is common – but the "TexMex" stuff tends to be bland rubbish. Steaks once you get further north. You'll know when it's a small steak – they take both horns off the cow.

Also, despite mass-produced American beers making Red Barrel respectable, the craft breweries and craft distilleries are well worth sampling.

Avoid discussions of politics and religion until you really know who you are talking to – always good advice but especially good in Texas, where Ghengis Khan would be regarded as a liberal.

Football is a preferred alternative.

If you get a chance and you're here in the autumn you can sample the real fanaticism – Friday night high school football. Remember when you were a kid and you played on the school team and you maybe had a dozen parents watching? High schools have mini stadiums that seat >1,000 people and they are full to bursting on Fridays in season. You'll end up eating way too much and having a ball.

Have you left the nation of your birth to work somewhere even bigger and better than Texas? Drop me a line to share your story. ®

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