Kiwis, London, and expectations

Recently there’s been a conversation in the expat community about Kiwis making the move to London. Alex Hazlehurst’s article, which set out to dispel the myth that finding a job in London is easy for kiwis, attracted a fair bit of commentary (she also has a nicely designed blog here). Some of it was nice, some not so nice, and one reply was well written but somewhat condescending.

This conversation is not about people coming for an extended holiday. It is not about coming to London on the two-year visa, with nothing but travel plans and maybe a bit of bar or temp work here and there. It’s about young Kiwis moving to London to start or continue their careers, as I and many others have done.

I feel conflicted about throwing my experience out there, because in all honesty, I had no trouble at all. I had marketable experience, I work in a vibrant and relatively meritocratic industry, and at 27 I was a little older and more experienced than many when I moved here.

As others have described, it was a little tough to get my CV past hiring manager filters, and a couple of recruiters that I spoke to told me as much. They also talked about “London experience”, but really you could call it local experience as it’s the same almost everywhere – New Zealand included. Employers tend to prefer candidates that are products of the local market, which really should come as a shock to no one, even if it is a little unfair.

Work experience and demonstrable skills still count for a lot though, as my first London interview, with a well-known hosting company called Rackspace, showed. The interviewers at Rackspace deemed my knowledge and experience a bit lacking for the position I applied for, which was a couple of steps above entry-level. I still remember fumbling the strange UK keyboard that was thrust in front of me for the technical test. Where are the ‘\’ and ‘~’ keys? Why is there a ‘#’ where the rest of the return key should be?! Both my typing and domain knowledge failed me in that one.

For my second interview, I was lucky enough that my CV passed across the desk of a CTO who had New Zealand-based friends, had visited a few times, and was even thinking about moving to New Zealand in the future. You don’t get much more kiwi-friendly than that! Oh, and the CEO was Australian. The two interviews I attended went well, and I had an offer the following day.

Job applications: 6
Interviews: 3
Time to find a job: 3 weeks

The job title was Systems Administrator, at a small affiliate marketing company called Webgains, which, unless you’re in the industry, you will never have heard of. It was hardly a glamorous job. As you probably are not aware, affiliate marketing is basically internet advertising, with the distinction that the advertiser only gets paid when you buy something, not just for the clicks. In essence, the business model requires tracking you from site to site and attributing any sales to the referring advertiser. As I strongly dislike both advertising and internet tracking, this didn’t seem like a good fit, and I thought it would be short-term while I got on my feet. Here I was, working for a company whose very business model depended on something I actively avoided! As it turned out, I greatly underestimated the company, the work and the people.

When I started at Webgains, my income, in real cost of living terms, represented a slight pay cut from my income in New Zealand. Rent in Auckland was $175 per week, for a nice room in a 2 bed room flat on the North Shore. We had plenty of living space, a garage, a communal pool and a balcony. For a similar amount in London (£90 pw), I was living in a tiny single room in W12, with a leaky floor, a toilet I had to contort my knees to get in to, and 8 single people sharing the other 4 bedrooms. “Living” space? Ha! You live out when you’re in London!

While the pay wasn’t great, it was fair for the market I was in, and I was happy. After a short 4 weeks I had a serviceable flat (well, barely), a full-time job, and the beginnings of a new social life. But as I was new to the city, I was busy meeting people and exploring, and my spending was much higher it was in New Zealand. When there’s so much more to do, you simply do (and spend) more. I had to accept that I wasn’t going to have money left over for savings, but the early years were about experiences, not capital.

I stayed at Webgains for two years. During that time I gained a lot of professional experience, saw two decent pay rises, travelled to 12 different countries, and made many friends for life. It was easily two of the best years of my life.

I eventually decided to leave, as I wasn’t learning as much, and several of my good friends had left already. Unfortunately the next company, and the one after, turned out to not be not such a good fit – I left both of them after a few months. While the decisions to accept those jobs were not brilliant ones, each time I learned more about what I valued in a job, and what had made Webgains such a good fit (ideological conflict over internet tracking notwithstanding). I even made a friend or two along the way. So it wasn’t a complete waste of time, but those months were easily the most stressful of my time in London so far. Not all companies are created equal!

My fourth (and current) London job turned out to be Gumtree, a site that should be well known to expats, as that was originally its target market. Gumtree is a great place to work (we’re hiring, by the way), and the tech team has that same family feel that Webgains had. It’s a larger business, making it a much more interesting place for a sysadmin or developer, and it’s owned by eBay, which is one of the more ethical internet giants, and strives to be a good employer.

It’s now been 5 years since I moved to London, and the market for tech skills has never been stronger. After struggling to get through filters when I first arrived, recruiters now often send me unsolicited messages on LinkedIn about some pretty good-looking roles at well-known companies (and a lot of poorly targeted spam). If you’re not in tech though, some industries have an ugly side, in that often it’s who you know rather than what. This will put any foreigner at a disadvantage.

One of my friends observed first hand how wealthy young brits can walk into full-time professional positions full of confidence, and close to zero knowledge or skill. In other companies, the lower-level positions are filled by unpaid interns, likely living with parents or on the parental pound. It stands to reason that if you’re mid 20s, foreign and need to get paid to live, you’re going to be at a huge disadvantage where internships or nepotism are involved.

Thus, a large part of the experience you will have in London comes down to the sort of job you will be looking for. Doctors, nurses, teachers, and, dare I say it, IT workers, should find it relatively easy to get a job, but creatives, lawyers, people managers and politicians will probably have to work harder to get the role they want. It’s up to you to assess the market for your skills, or be prepared to take a large leap of faith.

When it comes to this specific conversation though, it all comes down to expectations. Alex’s mismatched expectations prompted her to write her article, and others’ more realistic expectations have framed their replies. But I’m sure Alex is not the only one that thought moving here would be easier.

If you come here thinking the streets are paved with gold, you are destined for a rude shock. But if you come here ready to make the most of what you find, you will have the time of your life. I sacrificed a lot to come here, and I regret nothing.

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