Sunday, March 18, 2012

My expat experience in Edinburgh, Scotland, UK


If we could sell our experiences for what they cost us, we would
all be millionaires.
-- Abigail Van Buren

Scotland is a charming land. Green, virtually free of pollution and overcrowding. I saw rushing rivers, medieval castles, weapons and suits of armour, as well as giant trees, sea birds, flocks of sheep and even a whisky distillery. I can't forget that nice daredevil squirrel who lived on a tree right in my back yard, the harsh sound of bagpipes, or the stunning view of "the Firth of Forth", that is the spectacular mouth of the Forth River that opens into the North Sea, freezing yet full of life.

I've lived in Scotland's capital, Edinburgh, for more than one year. If you plan to move or visit this romantic "Athens of the North", you may find the recount of my experience somewhat useful. For any questions not already covered here, just leave me a comment on this page.

Edinburgh's pros and cons

  • Probably the most beautiful city in the world, declared World Heritage Site by UNESCO
  • Great choice for art, music and theatre enthusiasts
  • Small city, bike-friendly, no underground but good bus service
  • Little pollution, on the contrary a lot of fresh air from the North Sea
  • Many foreigners, both students and migrant workers. Little racism and low crime rate

  • Gloomy weather. It rains very often, may be quite windy and freezing in winter
  • Maybe good for tourism jobs, but certainly not for IT jobs
  • Decent accommodations are hard to find and rents soar during the Festival. Householders are generally greedy and sometimes even dishonest
  • Quite difficult to learn or improve your English, due to the strict Scottish accent
  • The North Sea isn't warm enough to swim. A wetsuit is needed even in the hottest days of the year

My immigration story

Who am I? A bit about me

You can safely skip this section if you are not curious, in a hurry or just want to return to it later.

So, here's a brief story of my life up to now. I have been spending all my youth studying and practising programming in front of a computer since the age of 11. The early green phosphor monitors ruined my eyesight forever. I neglected sports, amusements, friends, girls and was a pretty unsociable person. As a result I am still skinny, my shoulders are tight and, though I have changed my habits and try to exercise regularly, I sometimes still suffer from terrible backaches.

My only interest were algorithms and programming languages, a kind of formal languages used to precisely tell a computer what to do and my only dreams were about creating complex new software. I still take pleasure in composing programs. It's a craft and an art if done well, just like painting, playing a musical instrument, designing in architecture or engineering, and so on.

While in middle school I had already digested my sister's university textbooks and could have sat her introductory course in computer science and passed the exam cum laude. I was quite good at school but didn't like any of the teaching methods used, which were based on rote learning and general notions, without ever studying anything really in depth.

Instead, I had a fondness for mathematics, formal reasoning, pure logic and scientific knowledge that couldn't satisfy in that silly school and my secondary school wasn't better too. They just wanted us to learn more things by heart, no subject was developed fully and coherently and I was quite dissatisfied of the elementary textbooks we used. In a rush, in order to cover as much material as possible, all teachers neglected to teach the fundamental ideas, methods and how things are related to each other, exactly what I was interested in and that I tried to assimilate alone by studying on my own initiative. But there was no Internet at that time and general lacking of good studying materials (and money to buy them) was a major obstacle for studying science.

But at the computer it was totally different. Your mind and a cheap microcomputer is all that you need to practice the art of programming, apart from creativity and knowledge of algorithms. It is an art halfway between engineering, mathematics and logic. You don't need costly apparatus like when practising chemistry or experimenting in physics. Thereby I chose to become a computer adept, hoping that would have snapped me out from my condition of poverty.

After I broke up school I went to a non-prestigious local university, a choice mostly dictated by my family since it was cheaper. The nearest degree course to computer science they offered was "computer science engineering", a rather misleading name.

In fact I soon discovered it was a mishmash of different unconnected engineering subjects, with very little computer science and almost no (or quite poor) laboratory activities! I only had one inspiring professor, who, despite the scarce means, limited to blackboard and chalks only, taught me some very fascinating advanced mathematics applied to waves and Einstein's relativity theory. I think he was just a visiting professor though. All the others were scientifically mediocre and not very good at teaching, not even that little they knew.

Key subjects of informatics, like programming paradigms, computer graphics, artificial intelligence and numerical analysis were completely ignored by this curriculum, which seemed to have been done just to place existent professors of other disciplines and not to provide students with a solid foundation in the main subject of their studies. It was a rigid study programme with no way to add more interesting optional subjects. In any case the kind of subjects I wanted to study weren't offered at all by this university.

Anyway, I finally had access to a relatively rich library and thus began to read books and study in depth by myself, both subjects related and unrelated to my university exams. This slowed down my student career at the point that I realized graduating would have taken about double the course duration of five years. My parents weren't able to keep me at university that long and I hated that uninteresting degree programme, thus I had no choice other than to quit university and enter the labour market.

But they were no computer jobs in Southern Italy. I had to emigrate to Northern Italy, in Milan. There I worked as server-side web programmer. It was only a contract job, but I wasn't able to finish it because I was ca military service couldn't be

My first escape attempts

I went out to Edinburgh in June 2010 with a cheap flight from Rome, a scanty knowledge of English and the challenging task to make a new life for myself, all by myself, after years of exploitation in the Italian labour market.

Regrettably, I come from one of the poorest and more disadvantaged areas in the European Union, the South of Italy. We could be rich and happy, but are stuck with corruption, political criminality, neglect, lack of sense of state and respect for nature. E.g. it is not uncommon to find toxic waste abandoned in woods, like asbestos and car batteries. We were never able to attract enough tourists to our beautiful beaches and national park, one of the biggest in Europe.

It wasn't the first time I ventured abroad. In February of the same year, I was in Galicia in Northwest Spain and visited the city of La Coruña and its surroundings. It is a wonderful place and I found Spanish easy to understand and somewhat similar to some dialects spoken in Southern Italy. People were able to understand my Italian provided I didn't talk too fast.

But the job crisis that followed the real estate bubble had a very discouraging effect on me. Because of this I only stayed fifteen days and then got back to my hometown in Calabria. Nonetheless this experience gave me courage and made me understand that it is indeed possible to settle down in a foreign country. Just don't expect anybody to help you. You will have to count only upon yourself.

On the return trip from Spain, I met an old tailor who immigrated in England many years ago and was returning to his home town in Southern Italy to pay a visit to his parents. His two sons, he told me, made it in Britain. One become a manager of a telecommunication company, although he had to change his job since he didn't want to accept a relocation and was fired. He spoke so well of the UK that I decided to give it a try, hoping to realize my potential there, too.

A few months later, when I arrived in the UK I didn't perceive any permanent air of chaos and crisis, probably because Edinburgh was full of tourists as always in the summertime.

English is not an easy language in practice

My first big difficulty was the language. That bit of English taught in Italian schools by non-native teachers, who usually invent wrong pronunciations and have no fondness for teaching at all, equates to almost nothing.

Even my PET certification I took at university (level B1), although passed with merit, didn't gave me as enough fluency as I needed to cope with most simple everyday situations. From the beginning I was certainly able to make myself understood and ask questions, e.g. asking for directions, but not always ready to catch a whispered answer.

It may be the way they speak English there, the frightful Scottish accent, or that many people tend to speak too fast or most probably both. I wasn't afraid to politely ask people to speak a little slower, but what most generally do is to just repeat the same sentence and that doesn't help much.

It seemed all Greek to me, but I am not criticizing Scots for their accent. It is the way they speak, a tradition, a natural way for them and, believe it or not, I sometimes found myself speaking the same way later on.

I do criticize those who advocate English as an easy universal language, the new de facto lingua franca. With so many variations between British, Australian, American and incomprehensible local dialects, an involved grammar made by usage rather than planning, a very complex phonetics, too many idioms, synonyms and loan words, English is all but fit for that purpose.

The librarian at the Central Library of Edinburgh, in the very central George IV Bridge, is English born and bread and told me "it's not your fault, your English is quite good, especially the pronunciation". I realized English word pronunciation must be memorized separately from spelling for there are no simple rules and the first thing I did was learning to read phonetic scripts, in standard IPA format, and trying to reproduce the numerous phonemes of English exactly. The janitor added: "When I arrived in Scotland for the first time many years ago I often found difficult to understand everything and sometimes got lost and didn't catch the meaning".

You can hear many English accents in Edinburgh other than the Scottish one, so it's really a gym for your ears. But for English novices this only contributes to augment confusion. It was all Greek to me, although people were astonished by the progress I made after only a few months of permanence.

In Edinburgh it is difficult to find a flatshare with native English speakers if you are a professional. In this case your flatmates are likely to be other professionals like you, emigrated from non-English speaking countries or, if you are lucky, from countries where English is just a second or third language. Why's that?

This is because the majority of Aussie, British or American natives who come to Edinburgh and look for a cheap accommodation are students, not workers. Students prefer to live with other students only, for the simple reason that houses where all residents are students are exempt from council tax. If one or more professionals share a flat with some students, a so called mixed student/non-student household, only professionals have to pay council tax, shared between themselves. Council tax in Britain always applies to a whole property, is based on the value of each house and paid by tenants of rented houses, not owners. That implies, for instance, that if you are the only professional in an all-students flat, you will have to pay the entire council tax by yourself, which is usually too expensive, especially for long stays. This is the reason why many flat-share ads are for students only.

If your flatmates are non-native speakers, beware of the English you may learn from them and by no means rely on learning or improving your English from them. You will have to study by yourself and practice mostly outside home, where you can actually meet real natives.

The struggle to find a rented accommodation

I booked a single room in a cheap hostel - BTW I recommend it to all backpackers visiting Edinburgh in summer - but couldn't stay there forever since it was still more expensive than a flatshare and not available for long stays. So I began to look up ads on the Internet trying to find a stabler accommodation. Some fellow expats in the hostel told me about Gumtree. I recommend it. It is free, very popular in Edinburgh and really helps you to find a flatshare.

Anyway, it turned out to be difficult because of my language handicap but also because, as I knew later on, there is a great demand for accommodations in Edinburgh, especially during the Festival time or before the university term begin. The Festival is in August and most courses begins in September. To be exact I was on the lookout during the first week of July, but it seems many students prefer to bring forward their arrival and most landlords prefer to let their houses on a short-term basis at this time of year, to make more money, of course.

At first my main problem was not being able to understand when they talked to me on the phone. But as soon as I began to understand, I realized that there was an additional stumbling block: managing to book a viewing before others! And, what's worse, as pointed out in the previous paragraph, rooms in shared student flats are usually available to other students only, thus reducing my chances to find a place.

Out of desperation, I was about to give up and buy a return ticket home to Italy, when I finally was lucky and got a landlord speaking with a standard English accent on the phone. He spoke slowly and clearly and I was able to understand everything, including the flat full address, which, a real miracle, was still available!

The flat was small and old but the price reasonable, only £250 per month plus council tax which amounted to about £50 and one month deposit. There were a kitchen, a bathroom, a cupboard and two bedrooms, nothing else. I chose the smallest bedroom because it was a bit cheaper and sunnier. Both bedrooms had bed platforms to save space and I believe mine was actually a living room, before being converted into a bedroom. The cupboard also had a suspended bed platform, but the flat was too small to be rented to three different people according to Scottish rent regulations and the owner had to content with two people only. This is how they stretch houses in Edinburgh.

The suspended platform had its drawbacks: since the flat ceiling wasn't very tall, I slept at probably less than 50 centimetres from it and the first time I wake up, I hit my head. Usually one hits his head against a wall or at worst the floor. For the very first (and hopefully last) time in my life, I hit my head against the ceiling! It was then I understood why finding this flat still available was so easy. "The best rooms go fast in Edinburgh".

Nevertheless I was lucky to find an honest landlord. I signed a regular tenancy agreement. We checked our ID cards and the house inventory together. He gave me a receipt for my deposit. One of the neighbours witnessed. You should always rent houses like that, negotiating face-to-face, to be on the safe side. Afterwards, I heard of some newcomers who were ripped off by rental scammers.

Funny enough, it is quite difficult to rent a single-bed room in Edinburgh. The majority of beds are double, but usually not available to couples. It is a plain absurdity, but I bet there is a definite reason for this illogicality. I suspect they can charge more for a double bed, but I'm not absolutely sure. A thing is sure, though. In this world, greediness explains the strangest human behaviours...

The North face

Apart from the bed platform, my room was better compared to others without any windows I saw in this city and for the same price. It got a lot of sunlight in the morning from its top-floor sash window. I never saw the sun so low on the horizon in summer, having always lived at much lower latitudes.

Moreover I carried with me only a hand-luggage and had no heavy coat. I had never imagined one could be needed during summer, but in Edinburgh it can get quite cold at night even in July or August. Once, while coming back home, I was wearing my light jacket but wasn't enough, I caught a chill and a kind of very strong sore throat like I'd never had in all my life. My throat was burning like fire and I had no doctor. A neighbour advised me to take some lozenges sold in newsagents, but those candies were no more than a temporary relief. Fortunately, my granny's remedy - based on raw garlic - worked much better. I seems when you move country you find new viruses your immune system is not used to and need time to develop antibodies for them.

As for my flatmate, an Italian girl (not too pretty) saw the other room and liked it, but the bed platform was a real turn off. After a few days, another Italian boy working as a waiter took the other room. Edinburgh is a popular expat choice among Italians - I am Italian too if you haven't already got it - but I've also met many Spaniards.

Therefore I finally had a roof over my head, but no job and no idea whether it was easy or not for me to get one.

How I got a permanent job after only one month and a week circa and how it went afterwords

I think that happened just because I am an experienced computer programmer. My skills helped me and made up for my language deficiencies.

I had been spending all my youth studying and practising computer science. It seemed that all this hardship now had paid off. My skills were quite marketable!

It went this way: I got four job offers. I discarded one, probably the best, because it was in London and I was too tired to relocate again. Other two were in Edinburgh: one was for a very small developer group, very near my accommodation. Another one at a walking distance too, but a much bigger company. I discarded the former because it did not look such a great think - it was evident they were desperately looking for a developer but couldn't find any, since they wanted someone to work hard for a quite low salary, little job security and no career prospects. The latter was much better, but when I saw the working place, a noisy loft stuffed with so many people, it was a bit of a turn off. At last I opted for the third offer, a company located in a small town just out Edinburgh, which seemed to be the best among the three - but that turned out to be an outright disaster. Btw I moved house, so to be nearer to my working place and indeed I was never late at work in the morning.

This was an award winning technology company - they won an award from the Scottish government - but I soon discovered that all their technology was very outdated. In computer science, if you are using tools from the '90s it means that you remained in the pre-history of computing.

It is difficult to describe how I suffered there. I was threatened to finish each task in time, but slowed down considerably by objective problems and difficulties generated by their outdated technology. What would have required me one day using decent tools everybody is using today, it took ten days or even more, but they wanted it finished well before.

I should have resigned right away, but since I took me so much hardship to settle down in Scotland and this was my first permanent job, I decided to make an attempt to change things.

This "attempt" costed me a lot of additional unpaid work. For some months, I worked overtime to develop a new technology for one of their basic but fundamental tasks. A modern technology that would have saved them both time and money. It took months of hard work but I finally come up with a working replacement. By reimplement a part of their system using my new tools, I demonstrated that there were only advantages in adopting them.

They didn't even say "thank you". They took possession of the new technology, claiming all rights over it but told me to continue developing the old way. They made me realize that innovation or even employee satisfaction was not something they cared of, not even a bit.

I resigned, and they were very sorrow. They tried to keep me at all costs, they offered me a raise but, I refused. Moreover they chose to pay for my outstanding holidays. Therefore I had to trade all my holidays for just the ordinary pay, not a great deal for me. Meanwhile I had find another job that I had to start right away.

Driven out of the house while I was looking for a new job

About one month and a half before I resigned, I had to move house as well. My landlady drove me out of the house with one month notice in order to rent the flat at a higher price during Festival time. It took me a while to find another decent place, this time in Edinburgh, not Musselburgh. I was refunded of my rent deposit, but not entirely as I would had to be. Although all was ok, when I left the flat, my landlady took time to return my deposit and unfarily made me the bills until she found another rent! I was lucky that it took her only one month and a half to find it. This is how landlords behave here. To be safe, you should not pay a deposit directly to the landlord, even if he/she gives you a receipt, there is no warranty that you will get the money back. Your deposit should be protected in a government-approved scheme, but they don't usually do that and I am not even sure if such a protection scheme exists in Scotland.

My new job, my last one in Scotland, was a startup company, where I developed the first version of their innovative technology. It took me a while to find such a job, which was probably the best I could get in Edinburgh and certainly much better than the previous programmer role I had.

But in a rush to prototype, they forced me to use the wrong programming language and database model. Of course, I told it to them from the very beginning, but they didn't want me to use the proper tools. Why? For no sane reason, maybe just because the tools they wanted to use were "fashionable", but mainly because it was their initial choice, although there was very few pre-existent work done using these tools.

Designing a scalable system would have required to use completely different tools, but since it would have been a lower-level programming environment, I also needed to extend the deadline. I am both a hard-worker and an experienced developer and my request was very very reasonable, not to say masochist for me: only a couple of weeks more. This was my proposal that I clearly stated during a briefing where everybody was present. But nothing doing!

Well, I worked 12 hours per day for a couple of months during the summer 2011, giving up my holidays, with no overtime pay, and developed the application the way they wanted before the deadline, all perfectly working. They were very happy. But as I foresaw and demonstrated after conducting a few stress tests, it didn't scale as desirable. This did not convinced them completely to reimplement everything the other way I had proposed before. I would have needed a complete working reimplementation to make those clods aware of the obvious. But there wasn't enough time for that! I was skipping my meals, giving up my private life, only work, work damned work, working like hell from 9am to 9pm with a 10 minute break only to chew something and to not starve.

Nonetheless I didn't make it to implement another scalable system in the strict time they scheduled to develop only a mediocre prototype. I had almost finished, but they seemed to not care. They didn't want me to continue developing a scalable system as they needed! It may seem illogical, but that's the way it is. Out of anger, I was compelled to leave the job and they were sorry that I left, of course. They've lost a good developer, but I've lost only a very bad company. But in the end, their blindness turned to their's disadvantage: they had to spend more to implement their technology, and I bet they are now even risking to loose customers because of poor performance - it is a real-time problem where performance was a requirement, they knew that but didn't want to choose the right technology to achieve this goal. For two weeks only! There were no important customers waiting, only stupid investors that could have been convinced to hold on a bit more.

Morale: Edinburgh is a nice city to visit and live in. But not for IT jobs. I think all UK does not offer the pick of IT jobs, judging from the job offers. I am now about to move to Germany. Stay tuned, I will let you know if it is better there.

PS: My very bad experience with jobs in Scotland, and generally with the UK labour market, spurred me to write this other post about company reviews and bad recruiters. You may want to check it out to avoid cons, if you are planning to go to work in this country. Good luck!


ToyMaker said...

Excellent post mate, excellent. This is extremely valuable information for me, since I am a software engineer planning to move to Edinburgh from (unlivable anymore) Greece.

I am very curious about the following: what technologies are you using and which ones was the company in question applying?

I've been a .NET developer since v.1.1 (back in 2003-2004) and have been practicing it ever since. The jobs available right now seem excellent and up-to-date to my eyes (4.5, WPF, RESTful APIs etc.), that's why I was caught off-guard when I read about your recommendation against IT-related employees to move there.

ToyMaker said...

Excellent post mate, excellent. This is extremely valuable information for me, since I am a software engineer planning to move to Edinburgh from (unlivable anymore) Greece.

I am very curious about the following: what technologies are you using and which ones was the company in question applying?

I've been a .NET developer since v.1.1 (back in 2003-2004) and have been practicing it ever since. The jobs available right now seem excellent and up-to-date to my eyes (4.5, WPF, RESTful APIs etc.), that's why I was caught off-guard when I read about your recommendation against IT-related employees to move there.

Farmboy said...

I do not know what to tell you, every person is different so I neither give advice nor accept one. As of me, I have abandoned this kind of job forever. I am now a farmer. I only use computers to communicate and for some scientific calculations. If you are interested about why I made this choice, please read this other Italian post of mine (use google translator) and also this one.

Anonymous said...

Great advice Bro!