We talked to five tech professionals who came back to Ukraine after having worked and lived abroad. Let’s find out what is going on in the tech scene in other countries, what makes intercultural communication especially interesting, and what are the reasons to be back.
C++ Developer, Intellias
I lived in the Netherlands for one year. I got contacted by a company representative via LinkedIn, had a few interviews via Skype and one in person. Afterwards, I relocated to Eindhoven to work at TomTom, a company that produces automotive solutions. I wanted to experience working abroad, to see how people live there, and to travel more around Europe. During my time there, I visited many cities and smaller towns (which are interesting as well) in the Netherlands and its neighboring countries – Germany and Belgium. It’s very convenient to travel, as trains are fast and go in any directing every half an hour.
From the beginning, I planned to relocate only for a certain period of time. I didn’t want to live abroad forever, because I have my friends here, my interests, etc. I like to live and work in Ukraine, I feel connected to my homeland and its future. Besides, it’s more comfortable to work here as a programmer. Ukrainian IT industry is dynamically developing and I think, if the political and economic situations are stable, everything will become even better and better.
In the Netherlands, I worked in a very diverse community. Maybe, half of my coworkers came from other countries. Besides locals, I had colleagues from China, India, Romania, Hungary, and a few colleagues from Ukraine too. One of the main differences was the average age of an employee working in the tech industry and time spent on the same job. People there tend to work at one company, say, for 8 years – they don’t switch jobs as often as developers here. The developing process itself was also different abroad, everyone adhered solely to Scrum, the processes were better organized. I also didn’t feel much hierarchy between colleagues. Every employee at the company understands the company’s global goals and achievements, there were many general meetings so that everyone gets information about the company. Teams also like to share experiences with one another – I’d always received many email invites to join other team’s demo review meetings, etc.
I really enjoyed the intercultural communication part of my experience abroad. It was so interesting to speak with my colleague from China about politics or about religion with a colleague from Indonesia. I’ve tried so many unusual foods during our New Year culture party. Such cross-cultural communication made me more open-minded. Probably, I will try to live abroad again for some time, but not in the next few years.
UX/UI Designer, Forbytes
I first came to the US at the age of 19 as a student of an exchange program. That time I lived in Bethany Beach, Delaware, which is a small town near the ocean. It was an unforgettable experience, and I decided to apply for an American visa again the following year. I made the decision to go to New York. I was well aware that I could hardly land on a job in the field of design with poor language skills and lack of experience. So I started small and worked as a waitress for some time. When I picked up a bit more of the language, I got a job as a journalist in the Polish Daily News Newspaper. A bit later I moved to Tampa, a small city in Florida.
In Florida, I started knocking on every door asking if people needed any help with design. I was on a tourist visa at the time and I didn’t have a work permit. It took me two weeks to find and open the right door. I was lucky to meet Alfred Goldberg, the owner of Absolute Mobile Solution, a small company with outsourcing workers in Romania. After the job interview, he offered me a one-week internship. I was supposed to create a game for Oculus Glasses as my first task. Frankly speaking, I was astonished as there was not much design involved. After getting the job there, I asked Mr. Goldberg why they had given me such a task. The answer was simple. He wanted to see how I could deal with problems and make sure that I was ready to learn something new.
I dreamt of traveling. When you are abroad, you cannot help missing your family and friends. Here I can get support any time I need it, l know that I am not alone. I also feel safe in Lviv as I am among people with similar cultural and social backgrounds. Besides, Lviv is a city that is growing really fast. We have a lot of opportunities to find a rewarding job, to buy a nice flat, etc.
From what I see, the demands of both employees and employers are getting higher every year. That is a good trend as Ukrainian IT professionals become more skillful, innovative and resourceful. The bigger the pool of talented people is, the more opportunities for them arise. Getting used to a new place is a big challenge. It doesn’t matter if it is The Big Apple or a small city in Florida.
The first barrier was the language, of course. The English I was taught in school and the “real world” English seemed to be two different languages. Another difficulty is over-optimistic expectations. American pop culture shows the life in the country as easy and enjoyable. That is all a pretty picture. I saw for myself that Americans face the same everyday problems with house rent, car insurance, job searching as we do. However, they do not want to talk about these headaches and they are not ready to listen about yours. They hide all the sorrows behind charming smiles. Once I learned that, I got very disappointed.
Living abroad is an amazing adventure. However, the place where I am now is really important to me. I enjoy being a part of a professional team. My present company helps me get used to living in a new hometown, nurtures my ambitions and helps me achieve more than I could abroad.
I don’t like planning anything. I love the place where I am now. Tomorrow can always bring new surprises.
Ukrainian business people should start investing more into technical facilities. Americans are quick on the trigger, most of their decisions are based on a ‘Let’s try’ approach. This way of working can take much more time and turn to be less productive. Ukrainians are more organized. We like working with documentation and know how to do that. I missed this a lot while there.
Once, our clients requested a feature that was absolutely unbeneficial for their product. I could not turn a blind eye to that at all. I went to my boss with all my strong arguments and suggestions. My protest was met with “The client is always right.” In Ukraine, we would do everything humanly possible to help the client make smart decisions.
Lead Software Engineer, EPAM
Many of my friends were getting invited to work abroad: a friend of mine went to Germany, another friend moved to Poland, so I thought why not me, too? I ended up going to Sweden to work in a startup called Casino Heroes. At that particular time it was one of the most popular online casinos in Europe.
The main feature of Casino Heroes was the gamification of the gambling process: you pass levels, develop the character. A very engaging way of gambling. I thought it was a really interesting project, so I passed four interviews and received a job offer. When I set my bags down in Malmӧ, it was the first time I faced the situation of being in a country where I didn’t know a soul, except for one guy – my contact person in Sweden. They got me settled in a dormitory, and even though Swedish dorms are way better than ours, it was a small room with a shared kitchen and bathroom.
I started my new job and expected that my employer would help me with getting all the official documents, but nothing turned out the way I thought it would. The employer gave me a copy of our signed contract and I had to apply for a residence permit myself. Fortunately, I was able to complete the paperwork and obtained a residence permit and ID card on my own. Later I found out that companies avoid paying taxes this way, since while you are dealing with all the documents they can pay you unofficially because you can’t open a bank account. I managed to do that before I got fined; however, not everybody is that lucky: a friend of mine got deported from Sweden for tax evasion.
I signed a contract for half a year and when the contract expired I decided not to renew it, and to move on. I didn’t feel that I belonged there, in Scandinavia. I felt a bit like a fish out of water. First of all, the people are so reserved, it was hard to make contact and communicate with them: they didn’t let me into their Swedish community, because I was a foreigner.
However, during those six months, I learned a great deal. Their style of life forces you to rethink a lot of things. Ecology and bicycles are your best friends. Having a car in Sweden is really disadvantageous because they pay taxes for the car, it is impossible to park it in the center, and there is a 40 km/h speed limit. Everything is different. Remember that quote from Pulp Fiction about Amsterdam? “They got the same shit over there that they got here, but it’s just that there it’s a little different.” That is exactly how I felt about Malmӧ. These differences are in small things. For example, they wash the pavement with a special shampoo. It is so clean there that I didn’t need to wash my sneakers once.
Here’s a fun fact about Swedish people: they cannot drink. The fact is that their bodies don’t produce an enzyme for processing alcohol, so they get drunk very quickly. In Sweden, alcoholism is a government level issue. And the entire alcohol market is a state monopoly. Shops that sell alcohol don’t work on Sunday and close around 7 pm on weekdays. On top of this, Swedes are unable to buy alcohol without their ID cards, as the government tracks how much they drink. If they buy more than one bottle of whiskey a week, a social worker can knock on their door to ask how they are doing. Because I was not a Swedish citizen, the government didn’t care about me that much. That’s why all my Swedish friends asked me to buy alcohol for them. Another interesting fact about the alcohol market: drinks with 2%-3% alcohol content are permitted, so many global manufacturers customize their products to the Swedish market. That’s how I managed to try a 2% Guinness. Skol!
Regarding money: neither I nor any of my friends brought home much cash after working abroad. Working abroad is more about having new experiences and expanding views and less about money. And being a developer in Sweden is not a privilege, a bus driver has almost the same salary as a software developer.
I cannot say that much about Swedish corporate culture because I worked in a startup and they had actually no management at all. Everybody was doing everything; the atmosphere was chaotic. Ten developers, a single backlog, and everyone chose tasks for him or herself. I’m not sure how effective this was.
In Sweden they have such a thing as a glass ceiling: after reaching a certain level of professional growth you start paying such high taxes that in the end your take-home pay is less than at your previous level. As I found out later, in Poland the scheme is a bit different. There, after you get up to 100,000 PLN, you pay a higher tax rate only on the money that exceeds that amount. I also heard that Sweden has something similar to our Individual Entrepreneur status; however, as an IE you aren’t allowed to work for a single company more than 60% of your time.
When the end of my contract had come, I had two opportunities: to work at Spotify in Stockholm or to work for Google as a contractor in Krakow, Poland. Both offers were pretty attractive, but the cost of living in Stockholm was scary: the minimum price of a pint of beer is €6. Living in one of the most expensive capitals would be hard from a financial perspective, so I picked Krakow. I worked as a contractor from EPAM, although we worked with Google infrastructure – we had access to everything and had almost the same rights as Google employees. The standards of work were extremely high, and that was awesome. Google is known as a management trendsetter for a good reason.
However, after having worked there for a year and a half, I had to move back to Lviv due to family issues. Working in Krakow had been perfect: it was relatively close to my hometown, I had friends there, I learned Polish very quickly, I bought a great car and had a cool apartment in the city center, and was paying a lower rent than I would have in Lviv. I had a decent salary, but to be honest, I still couldn’t save money. So when I moved back home, I didn’t really have any finances to rely on.
Senior Software Engineer, Perfectial
Before I was born, my parents and 2 older sisters moved to Mongolia – my dad is a construction worker and because of his job, the family had to relocate to the neighboring country. When my family returned to the Crimea in 1982, I was born. During my childhood, I was very envy listening to family legends, about how cool it was to live there, in a place that had bananas, coffee, and exotic Mongolian food like dishes made of pickled meat…Therefore, all my childhood, teenage years and youth I dreamed of visiting at least some place, even Mongolia.
In 2012 (a year and a half before the Maidan revolution), I was living in Kyiv with my family, working for a Danish startup (a competitor of Airbnb). When the startup was officially launched, developers got invited to visit a party in Copenhagen. Denmark became the first country abroad I visited, and it completely blew my mind! Unmanned, fully automatic subway. The youth who has traveled almost all over Europe and speaks 3-4 languages. The happiest nation in the world (yes, that’s where the “hygge” concept comes from). Biking lanes. Mobile 4G internet. The best confectionaries in the world. Danish design. All of this in one city – a city that is often ranked No. 1 as “the world’s most liveable city”.
Ukrainian developers are known for a high level of technical expertise, and what Denmark does – it basically “imports” talented professionals and scientists from different countries. It’s not difficult to get a work visa (either through “high paid work” or a program for scientists and tech professionals).
Pre-tax salaries are really significantly higher than in Ukraine: for example, it’s not difficult to find a job for $3000 in Kyiv, and in Copenhagen you’d earn $7000, but after a 40% tax this sum halves. I mean, moving to Denmark only because of money doesn’t really make sense. Yes, in Denmark you get first-class roads, security and healthcare system, but since the prices are about 4 times higher than in Ukraine, at some point you would need to start saving on everything.
After our second child was born in 2016 we decided to come back – I was the only person in our family had a job and we were on a shoestring. In addition, the political regime had just changed in Ukraine, visa-free travel was almost launched, and situation in the East got a bit more stable – it was time to go home. If you’re an ambitious person, you eventually get bored in Denmark. In Ukraine, if desired, you can help many and many people.
I think that the development of IT in Ukraine is great from the technical point of view, and weak from the business point. Our professionals can develop any solution – if only someone tells them what needs to be done. Ukraine is the country of contractors. It’s not bad, but we got blinded with high salaries in tech and lowered our ambitions. I was the same when I started working at SunnyRentals – as developers we often focused on the percentage of code coverage with tests and other technical things, while we should have helped the business achieve its KPI. The client doesn’t care how much your code is covered with tests – they want to get the service. We didn’t realize it back then and tried to perfect our code.
Ukraine has perfect conditions for a programmer, it reminds me a greenhouse: 20 people sit in the same room in silence and focus on debugging the lines of code. And in Denmark, you always talk to someone: being a savage or a loner is considered indecent, one cannot ignore the group. Also, I noticed, that if there’s a problem that occurs on a regular basis, Ukrainians tend to keep their mouth shut, and then explode – that’s how our revolutions start, by the way. A Dane would be straightforward about the problem, and would discuss it openly – although this may seem rude to us, this directness is beneficial, it relieves tension and helps to solve the problem.
It’s not difficult to adapt in a new country if you speak English. The Danes, however, love to talk with each other in their native language. It’s annoying at first, but you can go to Danish language courses (which are free in the first five years), and then the problem is solved – you level up your respect in the eyes of locals – a foreigner speaking Danish is like music to their ears.
I was surprised at how developed the small business in Denmark is. Almost every housewife sells cakes, eclairs or homemade bread via the internet. Someone sells homemade souvenirs, bracelets and rings, someone works as a nail artist from home, and someone has one room in a first-floor apartment converted into a bookstore. The word Copenhagen means a “trading harbor” for a reason.
The problem that I currently face – is how tow to stay as confident and inspired in Ukrainian reality as I was in Denmark. All these small things, like rude drivers and people who do their work bad, take all your creative energy.
Front End Engineer, KindGeek
In 2018, I spent 10 months living in Tartu, Estonia and working at a company called Fortumo. Tartu is the second biggest city in Estonia. It can be compared to Ukrainian Lviv but on a smaller scale. My apartment in Tartu was 5 minutes away from the office and 7 minutes away from the city center. I got my job thanks to “Move On Miles”. They approached me and offered the position, as I wasn’t looking for a job. They completely supported the relocation and helped me with any information needed.
The best thing about working abroad is obviously the experience. An opportunity to work in a “startup country”, improve your professional and English skills. I also really wanted to see how people live in Estonia, because we, Ukrainians, for some reason always bypass this country in our tourist routes, despite the fact that Estonia is an old European country with rich history and culture. So, I practically didn’t hesitate before accepting the offer.
Despite the high standards of living in Estonia, a great job and a wonderful company I worked at, I felt out of place. I was constantly missing something. This feeling is difficult to describe, and I believe that not everyone understands me. However, I know that there are people who will totally get me – those who lived abroad for a certain time and returned home voluntarily.
Work atmosphere in Estonia was unusually friendly. There was a real family feeling, and it wasn’t artificial, people were just passionate about their work. I was impressed by how comfortable the work was: a lot of attention was paid to employee comfort and health. In addition, the company constantly held interesting corporate events.
It was easy to adapt to life abroad. Everybody at the company helped me if any issue occurred. I didn’t feel any discomfort in communication with colleagues. The only thing that wasn’t so easy – was speaking English all the time. Fortunately, there was nothing that drastically disappointed me. A few things felt weird at first, but mostly it was because of the cultural differences and my lack of experience communicating with far more professional people.
In my opinion, the Ukrainian business environment needs to be more open, transparent and competitive. I was surprised when I discovered that every employee knows how the company is doing, what’s its financial performance, and how each employee impacts the company’s profitability. At first, it was very strange for me, but later I understood that responsibility comes from such transparency.
I returned to Lviv a bit over a month ago, so not enough time passed to make any assumptions whether I want to go back. I don’t regret my choice, and I know that if I change my mind, I will always have an opportunity to return. It was my second time working abroad – as a student, I did a 3-month internship in Germany. I must say that I don’t really plan such things. Maybe someday I will go abroad for work again.