Overseas Odysseys

IT consultants who want to reap top projects, pay and prestige might consider an overseas assignment. But be warned: you may find yourself the most experienced and rewarded IT pro around, which can cause plenty of cultural resentment

PeopleSoft implementation experience took independent IT consultant Michael Coyle on an international odyssey he'll never forget.

Working his way across Europe, Asia, New Zealand and Australia, Coyle garnered fees of up to $1,000 per day, had his out-of-pocket expenses paid for, was given high levels of responsibility, had just enough downtime to travel for pleasure and saved enough money to put himself through law school.

Along the way, Coyle says, he picked up the equivalent of 10 years' IT experience in three years.

"You can't really replace 10 years of experience with three," Coyle acknowledges. "But I learned a lot about different technologies, cultures and corporate climates. Going through all these countries, you have to acclimatize quickly to the cultural factors. You can translate that to adapting quickly to different corporate cultures once you're consulting back home."

Just as U.S. employers recruit IT consultants from abroad to fill the supply-and-demand gap, employers across the globe are often willing to import U.S. talent. While working abroad presents its own set of challenges, U.S.-based IT consultants can find ample work beyond our borders.

Coyle's international consulting trek started when, following nine months as a programmer/analyst on a PeopleSoft Inc. human resources implementation at Stratus Computer Systems in Maynard, Mass., the company sent him to Dublin for a local rollout. After four months soaking up the local culture, he was hooked on the idea of working abroad.

"It seemed like an untapped market," Coyle says. "At that point, I had the travel bug because Dublin was such an amazing experience."

Coyle capitalized on the fact that his grandparents were from Ireland and secured an Irish passport. That gave him rights to work in any European Union country, and his instincts about the market proved correct. Within days of posting his resume at a U.K. recruiting site, Coyle was bombarded with e-mails and phone calls.

"There was no talent overseas for American [enterprise resource planning] software," Coyle says. "The managers on my projects usually had only six months' experience, so they would throw huge responsibility at me. The reception was like, 'Thank God you're here.' "

Coyle worked on a PeopleSoft student administration system at a college in Utrecht, Netherlands; a PeopleSoft human resources implementation at Tele Danmark, the state-run telecommunications and cable company in Copenhagen; another student administration system at the University of Adelaide on Australia's South Coast; and a French internationalization project for a U.K.-based client in London, among others.

While the travel was exciting and the lifestyle even cushy at times - one employer gave him a corporate apartment with full maid service - it wasn't always an easy ride. Finding gigs was the easiest part, Coyle says, noting that international consulting isn't for everyone. It requires extreme flexibility, adaptability and considerable savvy in dealing with co-workers.

Coyle quickly learned that he had to curb his American instinct for directness. "You have to relax into their style of doing business," he says. "When you're in a new country, you need to observe how they live, because that's going to tell you something about how they do business."

No Place Like Home

While he found that most IT professionals spoke English, buzzwords have different meanings in different countries, and IT project descriptions and job functions aren't necessarily the same abroad. "You have to learn a new dialect in business-speak each time," he says.

Since he had an EU passport, Coyle didn't have to secure work permits in Europe. In New Zealand and Australia, he notes, job postings indicated that workers must be citizens. In practice, however, "they're so desperate that [the agencies] will pay for you to get work permits," he says.

Now 25, Coyle is studying law at Suffolk University School of Law in Boston, with plans to pursue intellectual property law specializing in IT- related issues. He decided to return stateside when he started missing small, everyday things about home.

"It's funny what you miss - like watching a Red Sox game on TV or eating a peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwich," Coyle muses. "Despite the fact that we all drink Coke and we all eat at McDonald's, the world is still an incredibly diverse place."

Considerations Before Consulting Abroad

Fraser Dickson, now a software developer at Necho Systems Corp. in Toronto, spent five years working in Bermuda. He was originally recruited as an IT contractor by Squires Resources Inc., an IT staffing firm that works with companies in the Caribbean. Later, he joined a local IT consulting firm and was responsible for bringing new contractors to Bermuda.

Dickson says he evaluated candidates against three criteria, in descending order:

• A cultural fit with the company who could complement the existing staff

• A cultural fit with the country who would represent his company well within the local community

• Technical expertise

Dickson often raised the following questions with candidates:

What are your family obligations? Work permits are available only to the worker and current dependents. If you're divorced, it's not economically realistic to visit your children every weekend. If you have a spouse and children, consider that you'll have a job to occupy you once you're overseas, but your spouse won't. "That often leads to depression, alcoholism and divorce," Dickson says. "And someday you'll move back home; a child born or raised overseas . . . will regard your home as foreign."

Will you encounter problems securing a work permit? If you have legal problems, an arrest record, health problems or certain illnesses, you probably won't get a visa. "Each country has specific rules about who they'll let in and why," Dickson explains. "Any prospective employee that doesn't meet those criteria won't be considered, regardless of their technical skills."

How adaptable are you to being a stranger in a strange land? You must be open to the local culture and willing to participate in it. "Nobody will hire the ugly American who's going to stir up cultural resentments by acting superior to local staff," Dickson says, adding that you may face many of the same biases H-1B visa candidates face in the U.S. "You are a visible minority, likely earning more money then the local citizens, supervising local staff, and some will hate you for that," he explains. "There can be a false perception that you took away somebody's job."

Goff is a freelance writer in New York. Contact her at lgoff@ix.netcom.com.

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