Committing Abroad: The Rise of Expat Devs

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Committing Abroad: The Rise of Expat Devs

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What is an Expat Dev?

The tech hubs of North America and Western Europe have long attracted hard-working and enterprising developers from all over the world, who leave their home countries seeking a better life and better opportunities abroad.

But there is an interesting new trend in recent years, spurred on by the rise of remote-working tools and the global proliferation of high-speed internet. Developers from Western countries (including North America, Europe, Australia, and New Zealand) are taking their skills overseas to places as far away as South America and Southeast Asia. 

Image source: Clay Gilliland from Chandler, U.S.A. (Hanoi, Vietnam) [CC BY-SA 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons

These developers—mostly web developers, but a sizeable portion of enterprise developers represented—recognize their skills as being uniquely suited to the realm of remote work. They also recognize the unique possibilities present in such a massive lifestyle change, including much cheaper costs of living and ease of bootstrapping a startup. Finally, and most importantly, these Expat Devs have a yearning for adventure and are not content taking the beaten path—instead they wish to take the road less traveled. To boldly go where no Silicon Valley startup dev has gone before.

The Searching Generation

Ernest Hemingway popularized the term The Lost Generation—a reference to the generation that came of age during World War I. He and a number of other famous artists—including F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ezra Pound, Gertrude Stein, Ford Maddox Ford, and Pablo Picasso—were part of a vibrant artistic expat community that existed in Paris after WWI. The term itself was probably first coined by Gertrude Stein, who was at the very center of this artistic community and was responsible for introducing some of the greatest artistic minds of the 20th century to one another.

The motivations that brought these famous artists to Paris in the 1920's are some of the same motivations that send some developers abroad today. This generation isn't lost, but it is searching for something. Just like The Lost Generation, this new generation of developers and entrepreneurs seeks an easier lifestyle and lower cost of living in order to better pursue their passions, and—above all—they seek adventure. Dan Andrews, an entrepreneur living in Saigon, said “In the 1920's you would go to Paris to write your novel. Now you go to Southeast Asia to work on your startup.”

Maybe an apt term for this generation—with all of its implications about search engines and algorithms so central to the movement—would be The Searching Generation.


Meet the Expat Devs

To illustrate this particular breed of adventurous developer, I want to introduce you to three individuals I had the pleasure of interviewing.

  • Philip Moore is a Texan, a Rice University grad, a web developer formerly with Automattic and now an  entrepreneur with Press Build (a WordPress consulting agency), and long-term resident of Hanoi, Vietnam.
  • Tim Kinnane is an Australian, freelance WordPress developer, and resident of Hanoi. Check him out here.
  • Sam Atkinson is an Englishman, an enterprise Java developer in the financial industry, a DZone MVB, and resident of Hong Kong.


Some excerpts from our interviews:

How long have you been living abroad?
Philip Moore: “[Vietnam has] largely been home since 2004, with the occasional return to the United States here and there. You can read a more detailed and nuanced account of that here.”
Tim Kinnane: “About 10 months [in Hanoi]. Incidentally, I started my development career living in London 15 years ago. I was doing bar-tending and data-entry and learning ActionScript on the train.”
Sam Atkinson: “I moved to Hong Kong with my (now wife) just over 3 years ago.”


What made you choose to live where you are now?
PM: “Vietnam at this point in my life is home. Other than my family in Texas and a few close friends in the States my networks, both professional and personal, are in Vietnam. I made the decision to move to Hanoi after living in Saigon for many years due to the fact that Hanoi has more diverse weather, a less hectic lifestyle, lakes, and coffee culture. It’s not uncommon to meet a friend over coffee every several days and talk for hours. In general I find that Hanoi feels like Vietnam. Culture is strong here and traditions still live on.”
TK: “Primarily I followed a girl. The secondary objective was an opportunity to work on solo projects and upskilling without worrying too much about cost of living.”
SA: “To be honest we looked everywhere.  We’d decided it was time to spread our wings and seek out a new adventure, but had no idea where to go.  My wife is a teacher so she applied for jobs first and got offers everywhere from North America to Asia.  We’d almost settled on Shanghai but the firm I was working for had offices in Hong Kong, and she had one interview left for a school there. I begged her to go for it, she aced the interview and then I asked my boss if he could send me over. They said yes and here we are.”


What are the benefits of being an Expat Dev?
PM: “I suppose the main benefits here compared to being a developer in the States are financial. Instead of needing several thousands of dollars per month to feel comfortable in a large, major United States city, I’m able to survive on less in Hanoi. I think where this really becomes apparent is when I’m thinking of new ideas or wanting to work on a piece of code for a few weeks without distraction. In the States there’s a massive level of pressure to make money consistently and quickly, whereas living here I’m able to take some time to breathe, think about new solutions, and code at a pace that gives rise to high quality products that haven’t been rushed due to the pressures of living in the States.”
TK: “In Vietnam, the main benefit is the balance of "work for them" vs "work for me" is better than most places, so I'm trying to milk that while I can. Obviously the food is great, there are interesting people here and the culture is fascinating to observe, so there's lots to keep you stimulated.”
SA: “Firstly is just the world experience you get.  When I work with people who have only ever been based in London or NY they’re closed off to a certain extent as they’ve not had the experience of working in another culture.  It’s not hugely different but there’s a whole bunch of subtleties.  Even things like being the first timezone when going around the world changes the way the office day works.  The second for me is in terms of opportunity.  When I landed I was instantly propelled a couple of years ahead relative to my role and what opportunities I had.  I’ve gotten a lot of job experience very quickly which I simply couldn’t have gotten back home.”

Image source: Eckhard Pecher (Self-photographed) [CC BY 2.5 or CC BY 2.0 de], via Wikimedia Commons


What was your experience like as a developer back home?
TK: “Australia doesn't have much demand for highly specialized development work. There's a lot of agency work but the standards and technologies in play are generally a bit behind the curve. I'm not saying there's not talent there, there definitely is. Just that that the opportunities for developers to spread their wings don't come along too often. I would really need to push clients or managers to try some new technology or process, but it's not often justifiable because it's not a competitive industry on that front, so my skills were starting to stagnate. Now I still do humdrum jobs to earn my way, but I have more time to grow as a developer and it will be a great benefit when I go back home.”
SA: “When I was in the UK I was relatively junior and working on a team heavy with contractors. It was a great learning experience for me which allowed me to get a lot of knowledge very quickly.  Out here I have a lot more responsibility,  I can’t just come in, code and go home.  I do miss that side of it but both have pros and cons.”

(Philip Moore was previously Premium Theme Lead for Automattic, a WordPress development company with an almost exclusively remote workplace. You can read more about his experience here.)


What is it like starting a company (or bootstrapping a startup) abroad?
PM: “I alluded to this earlier, but the main benefit is being able to focus on relationships and jobs that matter. I’m able to live in Hanoi on much less than I would be able to live on in the States, and this allows me to build relationships with the WordPress development community in Hanoi, spend more time on research and learning, and spend more time thinking of real solutions for real customers. It’s hard to take a step back in the States because everything is always On. Here I’m able to take many days to think about how things are going and about new product ideas for customers; it’s harder to do that elsewhere.”
SA: “There is a certain type of personality that chooses the expat life, normally up-and-coming, full of energy and positivity folk which creates a great atmosphere to energize you into taking some action. The HK startup scene is cool as well, things are improving every year as we’re getting more events like startupweekend and angel hack.  I think we’re just waiting for our first big uber-esque startups to really make it. I’d love to do a conference or meetup with fellow developers, but it’s just not feasible like it would be in somewhere like London where you have so many developers in such a short space who are so keen to network.”


What do you dislike about being an expat dev?
PM: “Access to talent. It’s hard to find good talent here the way it is in more developed parts of the world. I see that changing but it’s certainly very hard to find rock solid talent; it’s not impossible, but it does take more work.”
SA: “I miss my friends and family back home. That’s always going to be hard.  And UK restaurants!  But that’s about it.”


Closing Thoughts

I leave you with some words from Sam Atkinson:

“Moving to HK as an expat dev is the single best thing I’ve ever done.  It sounds cheesy but I’m a completely different person now, and much better for the experience. I’m miles ahead in my career and more importantly a much better developer. My quality of life has increased exponentially. In my first job we were getting a talk from a senior manager who was asked “what one piece of advice would you give us?”.  He said to travel.  Being a computer developer is a unique skill set which can be applied anywhere in the world. Every country needs developers. Most IT shops have offices in multiple countries. We are uniquely positioned to be able to travel and live in other places as part of our jobs.  I cannot echo this enough. If you’re reading this now then I encourage you to go into work and ask for a transfer. Even if it’s just for 3 or 6 months.  IF you don’t try it out then you will regret it; I’ve never met anyone who said they wish they hadn’t become an expat.”


Are you an expat dev or have a related story you'd like to share? Drop me a line at allenc@dzone.com



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