Jumping overseas

16 May 2014
It was around now two years ago I first got the idea of emigrating from the UK, and since then I have been asked what I thought of the decision and its consequences. Of course I made plenty of tactical mistakes, as well as a few strategic ones, and in many ways the whole enterprise was an objective failure. However what really matters is whether my original motives were sound, and whether they still apply. Looking back I think it is a Yes on both counts.

Nevertheless it is still a big decision, quite possibly the biggest I have ever made, at least in terms of effects. An overseas move is always a big thing, and it takes a lot to motivate someone to actually go ahead with it. Looking back it took a lot of built up pressures to make me decide, but having done so my only regret is not doing it earlier.

Change of scene

Looking back at what I wrote at the time, my general feeling about Bristol was it being past its peak, and it was clear I had accumulating disillusionment. While circumstances were enviable, the place also felt stagnant, and remaining was all about looking backwards rather than forwards. It is not always easy to tell the difference between what effects are due to the place itself, and which are knock-on effects specific to employment, but one way or another I had spent far too long in Bristol and needed to get away.

Heading for burnout

Even though my then-job had a lot of plus-points, it had one major down-side: the workload. I has responsibility that was way above my pay grade, but more importantly given the number of things I was juggling it was only a matter of time before a major screw-up would happen. A root cause of a lot of the problems was that the company operated that bit too close to the cutting edge, with some of the equipment being borderline experimental. That meant a lot of unknowns, and I had to find out solutions when I did not really know where the underlying problems lay. To my knowledge the company subsequently scrapped some of the custom-built hardware and bought off-the-shelf kit.

This time two years ago I had just come back from an overseas business trip, which was the culmination of the third work crunch in little over a year. Much of the time the developmental effort was hammering the square peg into a round hole, and the resulting fire-fighting finally took its toll. These days all this is known as technical debt, and although I had in mind several designs for second-generation software, by the time a major-league review of the whole code-base was on the cards, I had more or less mentally given up. Using my then-prior commercial experience as a reference, I felt that my motivation had been fatally cracked, and once that goes it is only a matter of time before the inevitable downward spiral begins. The first sign was all the little school-boy errors creeping in, and in such circumstances all one can really do is try to get out while still on good terms with the company.

In hindsight it is clear that I was showing the early symptoms of burnout. The IT sector is notorious for caffeine abuse, but even on this standard having Red Bull for breakfast was a clear warning sign. I felt that I was pushing myself just to get anything done, and I am in no doubt that I was heading for a major crash. Not sure what my alternative exit strategy would have been, but I am pretty sure I would have not stayed much longer than I did.

Why emigrate?

In late-2011 I was seriously concerned whether my company would remain afloat given the aftermath of a death march project delivery that I believe was instrumental in the resignation of a colleague, and given the information available to me I thought it prudent to look for alternative employment. I did have one or two interviews in London around the time, but the logistics involved (taking leave, travelling, etc) showed how hard the “line up new job first” recommendation that everyone gives is in practice. Since HR types are always that bit suspicious of those already in employment, I was already putting some spin on my desire to move away from Bristol.

It eventually became apparent that supposedly nuclear options of throwing everything up in the air were the only way things would change at all. Once the idea was in my mind, thinking about emigrating often came down to one of two final thoughts: Escaping the bullshit, and have to do it now.

Escaping the bullshit
The first few months of my post-PhD professional life, which involved getting and holding a job at the complete depths of the credit crunch slump, coloured my view of the UK and its governance. Living off my credit card limit with council tax being by far my biggest expense yet seeing my bins remaining full most weeks had its effects, not helped by the council workers in the upstairs office doing 10-4 while I did 9-6. They screw up constantly, but still expect you to jump through hoops.
Have to do it now
Coincidentally the point I felt the odds of actually emigrating became evens was in a long walk that involved listening to a band in Golden Lion which had a chorus of “you have got to do it now”. Regretfully I do not have it at hand. It was accurate given that I managed to get some generous but age-restricted visas in the nick of time, but even with that aside I felt this was a now-or-never breakpoint. If I did not go for it, it would likely be off the agenda for another 5-10 years.
The thing about going abroad as opposed to merely moving is that it is much more of a forceful reset, and as a result there is no incentive to try to blunt the break. Knowing I was acting towards closure was a major thing for me. In many ways I felt that my life needed the wholesale clearout.

Finally decided

A few other minor things around the same time also played a part, but the final straw in my mind was on 3rd June 2012 when some power-tripping policeman closed a tube station for (it seems) the hell of it. Thankfully I suppressed my then-thought of “I'm not going to subsidise your pension”, but either way I informally gave notice on my UK job within 3 weeks. Would have been sooner had it not been for a load of client and supplier visits making timing inopportune.


By far the most supportive person was my grandfather, who remarked “you are at that age where you should do such things”, which was reinforced by my brother who thought that the window of opportunity was narrowing. However the prize for best remark goes to Terry (Bristol Students' Union porter) with “it takes real balls to do that”, and he is right. To actually go ahead with emigration requires overcoming a major emotional hurdle, and is suspect a lot of people thought me an unlikely candidate to do such a thing.

The time abroad

There are ups and downs, and there are certainly times when you wonder your sanity in the whole idea. but my only regret on the fundamentals of going abroad was not doing it earlier in my life. As a whole I consider my time away from Europe to be the best months I have had in the last 5-10 years, and much of that was down to having such a clean slate. Hands-down I was truly on my own, and in a country which is more towards you're on your own than the UK in government intervention terms, this was liberating. Even though in terms of objectives the trip was a complete failure, it teaches a lot about adaptability and motivation, and above all it challenges assumptions.

In the process I now understand Ian Usher of eBay fame - it takes a lot to give up that much, but in the process it allows one to do a lot that otherwise would not be possible. When going ahead at that speed, there is little time for sentimentality because you are hardly ever looking back, and that is why such people always say they have no regrets. In part it is knowing what you have traded in that helps you appreciate what is new, and it is a trade-off that gets easier.

The only major downside of the time in New Zealand was having to put my life on hold. Without the certainty of staying there long-term, there is a strong disincentive to invest in anything, material or otherwise. Although as it happened most of the stuff I bought while over there I was able to bring back, I knew I had to place hard limits on what I could accumulate and commit to. This inability to do anything for the future was the one thing that wore me down, and it is a mindset that takes a long time to recover from.

Not go back?

I pretty much committed myself to not going back to Bristol, which on my first visit back felt very justified, but on my second felt more subdued. On the latter I avoided my old stamping ground of St Michaels Hill in part because I was apprehensive about feeling alien somewhere that previously was my long-time territory. There is some attraction now that I have been away for a significant time, but I still feel the place is somewhere I want to call history. A major factor in not going back is that to some extent it feels like defeat, especially considering what was given up. Most of the reasons for staying as opposed to going away no longer apply, but most of the things that motivated me to leave in the first place are still around. Much prefer to start afresh somewhere that does not have the baggage.

As for the UK as a whole it is somewhere I now view as going to rather than from, so I view it in terms of what would it improve rather than anything approaching brand loyalty. Problem is that most of the times I go back to the UK I think “why do the locals put up with this crap?”. There is no Welcome to UK at the airport, but there is a notice about the Terrorism Act 2000. When overseas friends talk about having a British passport being golden, it makes me wonder whether their home countries are true hell-holes. Ever since I stopped being UK-resident, there has been a constant stream of UK policies that I would not want to live under.

I am in two minds about whether I would want to go back to my previous company. In hindsight the type of work I did was pretty close to what I wanted to do as a career, and indications are that going back would be an option if I so chose. Of course my aversion to Bristol & the UK precludes this happening, short of the somewhat unlikely prospect of doing contract work remotely, and I do wonder whether it would be reliving old challenges rather than doing new ones.

Was it worth it?

In strictly financial terms, the whole thing can only be described as a disaster. Lost income, the money burn, asset losses, asset replacement, and opportunity costs - probably as high as £100,000. Emigration is an expensive business, and many of the costs are not even obvious ones. But the answer is Yes. At university I had a lot of international friends, and the irony is that I can now put them to shame when I talk about international experiences. Being proper lost in central Tokyo means I can look Chinese friends in the eye and understand what it was like for them not knowing where to walk from Bristol bus station. Having lived in three countries and spent significant time in three more, you understand things that is beyond comprehension to most people, and a lot of respect comes from that.