I’m an American technical writer working in New Zealand, and my jobs here have sent me to Singapore and Australia. When I told my friends and acquaintances that I was planning on moving to another country, their responses ranged from disbelief to envy. One person asked me, “Is that actually possible?” Others confessed that they didn’t even have a passport.
Over time, I’ve found that a surprising number of technical writers working in the Pacific Rim are expatriates from the United States, Europe, and India. This article offers advice on finding technical writing jobs abroad, setting your own expectations for the new work environment, and getting involved in the new culture and land. This article is based on my own experiences as a US citizen working abroad and on conversations with other technical writers working abroad. Although many of the examples are based on my own experiences as an American expatriate, the information and advice can be applied to anyone seeking employment as a technical writer outside of their native country.
Finding a Technical Writing Job Abroad
Leaving your native country is challenging but rewarding. Two of the more difficult aspects are getting into the country where you want to go, and finding a job there:
Research jobs and work requirements before you go Some aspects of working abroad apply to everyone living and working as an expatriate. To begin your search, try these Web sites for basic information and job searches:
Although it’s easier to get a job if you are physically present in the country where you want to work, you can get a job in another country before you leave your country of residence by using the Web and internationally-oriented job agencies. The Web provides a rich source of information that is free and accessible outside of standard work hours; internationally-oriented job agencies have the contacts and ability to set you up with a job in another country. The URLs provided are a good starting place.
Use local employment resources when you arrive. Depending on where you are trying to find employment, you may find that technical writing jobs seem elusive compared to other engineering and IT work. Therefore, local employment resources are valuable in helping pinpoint available jobs. In New Zealand, for example, I found the most helpful job source to be the local IT newspaper because it provided information about local IT recruiting agencies and specific IT job Web sites. Other good sources are local mainstream newspapers and the phone book, which should have a list of local writing contract agencies. It’s also worth checking out the local chapter of the Society for Technical Communication.
Develop your resume or curriculum vita (CV) based on the country. Be prepared to develop a version of your resume or CV according to document standards of the country where you’re applying. Don’t assume that your current resume or CV is so clear and well-organized that it would be understandable or appropriate for recipients outside of your native country. If you’re job hunting in the United Kingdom, New Zealand, Australia, and Asian countries influenced by the British business model, for example, these countries use long-format CVs instead of short-format resumes. (For an example, go to http://www.protocol.co.nz/, and see Advice to Candidates–>Creating Your CV.) If it’s not in the format locals prefer, your resume or CV will likely end up in the wastebasket without being considered.
Additionally, provide detailed information about references. In your resume or CV, it’s good to include detailed reference information, specifically their email addresses, so that your references are easy to contact.
Bring your portfolio to interviews. Your portfolio can help you compete against less-complicated-to-hire local talent and stand out as the candidate best qualified for the position. What kind of portfolio is best suited for an expatriate technical writer? I’ve found that it’s good to bring a bound collection or CD-ROM of samples relevant to the position that you can leave behind with the interviewer. That way, the interviewer has specific relevant samples on hand after the interview, which can help keep you in their forethought and demonstrate your skills beyond the interview.
Additionally, if you’re interviewing in one country for a job in another, you might send along the portfolio to the hiring office prior to the interview. This can provide the interviewer with specific materials, provide a basis for interview discussions, and, again, provide tangible samples that remain after the interview.
Be prepared to explain your credentials. In many cases, academic programs and degrees vary from country to country, and you will likely need to explain your credentials. For example, academic degrees in technical writing are still unusual outside of the US, and interviewers will likely be very curious about your technical writing degree and what, specifically, it entails. It’s helpful to bring the URLs of the universities you attended, as well as the URLs of the specific programs, so that the interviewer has specific resources to investigate, beyond the details you provide during the interview. Also, the significance of your degree may vary depending on where you are. In Europe, a Master’s degree is the standard after attending university, much like a Bachelor’s degree is becoming more and more standard in the US. So, be prepared with specific details and examples to explain your credentials.
Understand local currencies, salaries, and costs of living. Although many job ads will include a salary range for technical writing positions, you may find it difficult to determine what that salary range really means if you’re unfamiliar with local currencies, tax rates, and costs of living. When I first started working in New Zealand, I accepted a salary that sounded reasonable because I was thinking in terms of US dollars, when I should have been looking at New Zealand dollars. I’ve almost doubled what I was earning at that first job, and I’m in the highest tax bracket locally; however, because of the continuing decline of the New Zealand dollar, my salary is still far lower than what I would earn doing the same work in the US. The local STC chapter or a local agency that recruits technical writers can often help you determine appropriate salary ranges and provide cost of living information.
The challenges aren’t over when you land a job. Although you may find the day-to-day tasks as a technical writer to be the same abroad as it was in your homeland, you may find the office cultures to be very different. Take time during interviews to ask about the following aspects so that you know what to expect, and then make adjustments as needed in your work habits and expectations:
Anticipate differences in the tools available to you. At your desk, you might not have the same “cutting edge” computers and software tools that you had used before. Be patient about this. The exchange rate may make the latest IT-ware prohibitively expensive. Additionally, the software company may not provide any local support or training in that particular country, or a program simply never got picked up by local users and distributors. If you’re in a work environment where the tools are different and you expect to return to your native country, plan to keep up with tools and technologies being used back at home, not just what’s being used in your new, temporary work environment.
Clarify language requirements. Depending on where you’re planning on working, you may find that language is an issue–using different versions of English, for example. One company I worked for wanted British English in the manuals and online help “because we’re proud to be a New Zealand company, and that’s our heritage.” Another company preferred to use American English “because the US has emerged as our main market, and we consider American English to be the standard for IT.” Find out which version the employer prefers, and keep reference books on hand, especially as you’re adapting to new language requirements.
Expect cultural differences to come to work with you. Diplomacy in the workplace is especially important when working abroad, and you should take time to learn about the expectations and preferences of the native culture. For example, in loud and hectic Philadelphia, I was considered quiet and soft-spoken. Compared with the even quieter, very reserved New Zealanders and their more relaxed atmosphere in the workplace, I’m a brassy dynamo. When there’s a conflict at my job, I have to stop and ask myself; is this about office politics, or is it a culture clash? Sometimes, the two are intertwined. I’ve made some changes to my work style, and I’ve learned to be more patient.
Expect some stereotyping. International stereotypes about Americans are projected onto me, both at work and in my social life, for example. In the IT field, Americans are considered talented and very up-to-date in how they work, but we are also thought to be blunt, overly independent, and spoiled with benefits, salary, and Aeron chairs. When the American government does something that’s criticized internationally, it’s certain that I will have several awkward water-cooler conversations.
During the US Presidential elections, for example, my desk was thronged with coworkers asking for an explanation of the bizarre situation. The lively political discussions I had at this time opened up some good working friendships. As an expatriate, you can provide the facts about your home country without apologizing or being an ambassador, but you shouldn’t presume to criticize local politics.
Enjoying the Experience
The most disappointing aspect of living and working abroad is that I have seen less of New Zealand than many tourists have. In my experience so far, working in another country means just that–most of my time is spent at work:
Be prepared to tell your story If you do end up living and working abroad, be prepared to tell your story of why you’re in Country X, as you’ll be asked frequently. Fellow expatriates I’ve met agree that we wish we could use a tape or a CD to tell our stories, or walk around with an FAQ printed on a T-shirt. I’ve found that keeping my story short and focused satisfies curiosity while allowing conversations to move on.
Get involved in local culture If you’re homesick, use the expatriate resources available to you, but without overdosing on them. It’s too easy to cocoon yourself during your time off with other expatriates and media from your homeland, but breaking out of that has been very rewarding for me. Take time to get out and make some local friends, to explore, and to experience the differences of being in another place on the planet. My local friends have drawn me out, taken me along on road trips, and helped me gain a sense of the real New Zealand beneath the touristy veneer.
If you are interested in working abroad, know that it is possible to land a job, adapt to the environment, and enjoy your time while there. Thorough research and preparation, some expectation-setting, and a little understanding and sensitivity will allow you to enjoy the benefits of working and living abroad. Good luck!