Software Engineer Expat - Part 1: Prologue


In 2020, after beginning my transition out of the US military, I decided that I wanted to live in Europe. Rather, I decided that I wanted to continue living in Europe. I had the opportunity with the military to live in England for several years, and my partner and I fell in love with the place. What I think I mean by "fell in love" is:

  • Discovered how amazing European leisure opportunities are (long-distance cycling being our favorite!)
  • Resonated with a less consumer-driven culture (having a smaller living space, owning less stuff in general)
  • Cultivated a passion for European history and art (we thank the Fitzwilliam musuem for igniting this)
  • Appreciated the option to walk everywhere instead of having to drive to do literally anything.
  • Enjoyed living in a spaces that were designed for humans and made to be beautiful.

IMG-7124.JPG Bury St Edmunds, UK (a couple of blocks from our flat)

I had about 2 years of software engineering experience at this point, which is just enough to make it easy to get interviews. I applied to jobs in Germany, Netherlands, Sweden, Denmark, Finland and Switzerland. I don't recall how many applications I sent out (probably around 100 total), but I wrote a custom resume and cover letter for each job. Stats were something like:

  • Germany: ~30 applications, 2 interviews, 1 offer
  • Sweden: ~20 applications, 2 interviews, 2 offers
  • Netherlands: ~15 applications, 4 interviews, 1 offer
  • Denmark: ~15 applications, 0 interviews, 0 offers
  • Finland: ~10 applications, 0 interviews, 0 offers
  • Switzerland: ~10 applications, 0 interviews, 0 offers
  • UK: 0 applications, 1 interview, 1 offer

Note that I didn't directly apply to any companies in the UK. I wanted to experience living in mainland Europe, and the London housing scheme/scene is awful on all accounts. Despite this, I did have one company reach out and I ended up going through their process just for the interview experience. I declined in the end because the manager came off like a jerk and their HR rep was rude.

As for the interview process, it was pretty standard: HR screen + tech challenge + tech interview. A few companies had me do a couple more interviews after the tech interview (a company in Sweden had me go through 7(!) interviews before offering me a job). I put up with this sort of thing mostly because I didn't know any better and, of course, because I really wanted the visa sponsorship necessary to move to Europe.

All of this happened over the course of about 2 months. At some point, I had 3 job offers (1 in Germany, 2 in Sweden), and I knew I was going to take one of them. My wife and I prayed, deliberated and made pro/con lists for a week and finally decided on a small B2B fintech in Germany. I want to note that all 3 companies were absolutely fine with taking a week or so to get back to them, and I felt little pressure to make a decision. The real pressure I felt came from the fact that my military contract was ending and I would be jobless in a couple of months!

The Blue Card

So now I've signed a job offer! In Germany! With a decent salary! My next step was to delve into the bureauocracy of getting an EU Blue Card...while being in England...during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic... Needless to say, it sucked. There is the stereotype about German bureauocracy being difficult, but that is a vast understatement. It's one thing for paperwork and processes to be difficult to follow, it's quite another for the bureaocrats involved to be actively angry at you for calling during their scheduled 2-hour/twice a week customer service window.

This is where I started reading all sorts of blogs/articles/paraphernalia on how in the hell this process works. Spoiler alert...even after going through the process I still can't tell you how this is all supposed to work. Some of my highlights of this process include:

  • The German consulate in England being closed indefinitely due to COVID
  • Being forced to make an appointment with the German consulate in Miami because FL is my state of residence
  • Outprocessing (if you know, you know...) from the military and coordinating this trip to Miami
  • My new company repeatedly telling me that they could not assist me with getting a visa (something they later apologized for; this is a German thing I'll get to later, but basically, the Germans have a hard separation between personal and work issues, and visas are deemed a personal issue)
  • Finally finding a Blue Card visa checklist from the German consulate in Miami that outlined all of the docs I needed
  • Realizing that the Germans actually wanted a physical copy of college diploma...

Eventually, after a lot of headache and toil (mostly from military outprocessing bullshit), we flew back to the USA and then drove for 2 days down to Miami. My consulate appointment was in the morning around 10:00, and I had all my ducks (or docs) in a row. Walking into the German consulate felt like walking into a hospital. There were people yelling and crying in German while a bunch of apathetic clerks looked on with little interest. I'm assuming the yelling and crying was due to various visa issues; I noted that every clerk's station had a tissue box next to it. I got called back to my appointment about 30 minutes after it was scheduled to begin (so much for German timeliness), and a very stern, tall, blond, German woman processed my paperwork. Unfortunately, the "system" was acting up that day, and it took way longer than expected to process all 20+ documents I had brought. Finally, it was time to pay, and because the "system" was acting up, I had to pay in cash. This ended up being a theme throughout my entire time in Germany...sweet Jesus, the Germans and their cash...

Thoughts and Anecdotes

So now, I have to wait on the German consulate in Miami to send my visa paperwork via snail mail to Germany, and hopefully receive a Blue Card in return. The process is supposed to take about 3 months. So now I'm in limbo, playing the waiting game in FL and staying with in-laws and parents. This was a tough period for my wife and me. The waiting was interminable, and we became very nervous about the whole thing. Some thoughts and anecodes from this time:

  • Getting to return to Garmisch IMG-2557.JPG

  • Recall again this was during the height of the pandemic. During my visit to the German consulate, the German woman who processed my application asked several times why in the world I would ever want to move to Germany. She mentioned that the German response to COVID was asinine, "they will be in lockdown forever," and that the default German disposition was one consumed by fear. At the time, I just laughed it off and maintained my optimism, how bad could it really be?

  • During ths period I spent a significant amount of time with my family, friends and in-laws who all lived in FL. I should also mention that I hadn't really visited them for the past 2 years or so. When I told them I was only back for a few months and that I'd taken a new job in Europe, the response was mixed. My parents were visibly angry and my relationship with my mother has yet to recover; they were both born and raised in small town lower Alabama and never traveled outside of the country (not even to visit us in England). I love them both dearly, but I was made to feel guilty about choosing to not work in the US. Luckily, my friends and in-laws were very supportive; I love them dearly as well.

  • My partner's career had yet to take off (read begin). She had been a military spouse (again, if you know, you know) for the past 5 years, and just didn't have the opportunity to find work in rural England where we were stationed. She is an accomplished academic, and I felt awful that she was forced into being a housewife; nevertheless, she took to the new "position" dutifully and our home was always immaculate and full of homemade delicacies. I love my wife more than anything and desperately wanted to do right by her. She was overall supportive in the decision to continue to live in Europe but very skeptical that she would be able to find work.

  • I mentioned at the start of this post that I made the decision in 2020 to pursue a career in Europe. That's not really true. I started seriously looking at jobs in 2020, but the thought of living in Europe had been in my head since circa 2014, when I first visited Europe while in college. This had been my dream for years, and it was finally about to be a reality. Although, I had been living in the UK, I worked with and lived around Americans almost exclusively. I really wanted to ingratiate into the culture, learn a new language and be a full-fledged European. Even though I was full of dumb optimism at this point, I still had doubts. My biggest fears were that my partner would not be able to find work, or that my new job would be awful. I had a sizable savings account and my partner and I told ourselves we could call the whole thing off at any time if it didn't work out. We were (are) young, and felt the risk was worth taking.