You still take a jitney in Ukraine even if you earn $2k: Ukrainian engineer on relocation to Paris and London

From 2011 to 2015, Aleksandr Kaidannik lived and worked as a system admin and DevOps ― from working at the physical data center, writing tiny snippets, to failover architecture for 1kk QPS ― half the time in Amsterdam, and half the time in Dnipro. In 2015, he relocated to Paris to work for Criteo b2b retargeting company. In July 2018, Aleksandr relocated from Paris to London to work for Facebook. In his interview with AIN.UA, he talks about his relocation experiences, compares standards of living in the three European countries and shares his experience working for Facebook.

What made you leave?

Absence of large and fair product companies in Ukraine, and human anthills instead.

What do you mean by fair?

Ukraine, in essence, is an outsourcing business (i.e. you sell your time and you don’t get anything else beyond that sale). I wanted to work in a product company to understand what I do, to contribute to the result and share success (by owning shares, for instance). It is not an option in the outsourcing world. This is reason number one.

Secondly, I faced the following in Dnipro: even if you have money, it does not guarantee you a decent life. For example, with a monthly income of $300 to $2,000, you will still be living in a Stalin-era or panel building. Entryways are still gonna stink of piss, drunkards are still gonna roam the streets, you will still have to take jitneys and buy stale potatoes from ATB stores. And what about the elevator smell? As if a garbage truck is always parked down below.

Indeed, you can escape all that. You can drop jitneys and use a private car, you can move from a panel building to a private house, i.e. you can escape this life with money. But I wouldn’t want to earn money to escape life. And this was my main motivator.

It is important to note that living in Dnipro is difficult because of its ecology. You cannot drink tap water, instead, you have to buy water like in Africa and take it home, which is weird. And even if you drink good water, you will still have to wash with process water. A reasonable amount of money won’t save you from this, so I decided to stop feeling sore about it and move on.

Relocation to Amsterdam

How did you find work in Amsterdam? Did your company help you with documents and accommodation?

The situation with Amsterdam was super trivial. Back then I worked at IDE Group, then I left to work at Ciklum, and there I had to work with a Dutch client. Officially, there was no relocation to Amsterdam. We used to spend there up to 90 days out of 180 as required by visa. The company rented a huge house for our team in a good neighborhood in Amsterdam. It was awesome.

Please share your perks and pitfalls in Amsterdam in terms of standard of living. We have interviewed a lot of people about their relocation experience, and people are often not quite happy after they relocate: they complain, for example, about the change of cuisine, high taxes, etc.

The main thing that changed in Amsterdam was that I was surrounded by people with the same level of income. In Amsterdam, a techie has about the same income as an accountant or doctor. There is no abysmal gap between the salaries of a developer and others, unlike in Ukraine.

What kind of income are we talking about?

A monthly income of 2,000 to 5,000 EUR.

Now about the cuisine. There are a plethora of food products in the Netherlands. In 2011, that is when I moved there, I found it unorthodox that almost all stores closed at 6 PM. I.e. by the time I left the office to pick up some food, grocery stores had already been closed. It makes you plan and stock up on food. Sure, there were no familiar food products, but we anticipated that. The country is 2,500 km away from Ukraine, so it would be unreasonable to expect beets to be sold everywhere. But every small town has a market where you can buy virtually anything. Surprisingly, it is almost impossible to buy fresh fish in the seaport city of Amsterdam. They simply do not eat it. There are only two small stores where fresh-frozen fish is sold.

Can you please tell the cost of rent, food, and transport?

I do not remember it well. My company covered the rent. By the end of the month after all the expenses I had 400-500 euros in my pocket, which was a good result. At that moment, eight years ago, 1,500 euros would rent you an apartment in a very good central neighborhood of Amsterdam. A two-story house with two bedrooms in Jordaan was 2,500 euros per month.

On life, work in Paris and France’s IT market

How come you changed job and country?

Amsterdam is a city of small companies. There are 2-3 behemoths, the likes of, while the rest are 10-15-20-strong companies working on some kind of a tiny product. They mainly require JavaScript Seniors and application developers. I specialized in highload engineering, and there were not many options to explore.

In 2015, Criteo made an offer that included relocation to Paris. Back then the company was worth $2.4bln (NASDAQ:CRTO). I had an interview. We talked about their technical problems and tasks, career development, and decided to join the company because they offered more opportunities. I relocated in November 2015.

So you did not want to change the city, what about career prospects?

Yes. You need to understand that moving from Pavlohrad to Amsterdam is a leap while moving from Amsterdam to Paris is not that big of a difference. The water is still pure, medicine is free, education is still free and no one is pissing in entryways.

Did the company help you relocate?

The company paid for the entire relocation and visa process. I was moving under the Blue card, a program that allows labor migration for skilled professionals within the EU. I had a diploma in engineering, 6 or 8 years of experience, and there were not that many people in France with my specialty. I had a work visa for 3 years.

The company gave me an apartment in a posh district of Paris, Marais, for the period of half a year. There was a dedicated employee who handled the enrollment of my son in the school, registration of all the necessary document with banks and other integration into French red tape. This person helped me find accommodation. Also, after relocation, I was assigned an accountant who helped me with taxes.

Is it difficult to handle the paperwork yourself?

It would be the same if a Frenchman handled his paperwork in Ukraine. The chances are zero if you do not know the language. If you know French – it is pretty easy if you have a complete guide of what to do, just google it and ask people. You can hire a consultant for a couple of hundred euros, who will develop an action plan.

For the record, getting a French passport is not that difficult. You need to live here for 7 years, take language exam, show that you paid your taxes in time and did not violate traffic rules. Take culture exam (who’s the prime minister, constitution trivia, how much is fromage in Normandy). And the passport is yours.

Can you comment on the news about IT visas to France? What will this give the country and will it facilitate the relocation of Ukrainian specialists?

Gradually facilitating the migration of skilled labor is a trend of the past 8 years in France and the course of the incumbent president. I will explain the details.

Part one. Problems on the local labor market

The French have their own peculiarities on the labor market.

For instance, you cannot fire people. If an employee comes at work sober and tries to do everything he/she can, not everything he/she is asked to do, it is very expensive to fire him/her. Until the recent labor code reform, there was no restriction on employee compensation in the event of dismissal “for no reason” or redundancy. The amount of compensation could equal a few years’ salaries of the employee.

Common practice: the person was simply paid and he did not go to work so that he would not interfere. Or they were given such a boring job that the person would leave. In other words, in France, it is easier to get a divorce from a wife than to dismiss an employee.

With the last labor reform, the process of getting rid of employees was facilitated, a limit was imposed on the amount of compensation for dismissal, and the bankruptcy procedure and redundancy were facilitated.

Part two. Migration

In France, there is a natural migration: residents of different islands and several African countries are moving to live permanently in France. They are French too. Great guys, they speak French fluently, they integrate easily, they easily find work, but there are not so many professionals of any kind among them and they can be a little abusive of the social system of France.

At the same time, professional immigration was difficult. In order to balance this state of affairs, France slightly untightened the tap of skilled labor migration.

Speaking of the social system and support: if you lose your job, the state just takes complete care of you and can pay you up to 80% of your monthly salary. The state pays for education/retraining, it can help with the payment for housing. No one will be left without help. There is even a saying: to be happy as God is happy in France.

France is about a happy life.

Part three. Education

Historically, France has good engineers thanks to a good education. Not senior JavaScript developers, but those engineers who design aircrafts/missiles/bridges/supercomputers. In addition, France has an outstanding mathematics education. Probably half of all the prominent mathematicians are French. Facebook, Google, and a dozen more similar companies have R&D offices in France with a focus on research and mathematics.

Suddenly, France experienced a collapse of small enterprises. If an enterprise grows in an intensive way (using its own resources) – it simply cannot afford to hire many local employees, and the locals are not too eager to participate in something temporary. The average employee turnover in France is about 7 years. French rarely change jobs. The locals do not rush to join yet another startup, such as a laser toy for cats or pants for birds due to the small chances for the long term employment. Demand creates supply, and France lowers the threshold for entry of skilled labor immigrants to the level of JavaScript signors to secure its labor market.

Were there any adaptation subtleties or difficulties?

The biggest sticking point was the language. The French reluctantly speak French to you if you do not have a good grasp of the language. English is out of the question. The first year was very hard, we felt socially isolated. France is a more or less national state, and I felt this being a newcomer. Things got better when I learned the language.

I will say a few words about culture, this is important. There is no culture in Silicon Valley, there is a courtesy. There is also little culture in London because less than a third of its population are British. France, on the other hand, has retained its culture, it is huge and all-encompassing, and it is hard to understand it without knowing the language.

You need to know how to bite a baguette, how to cut cheese, what happened in 1965 and where Sartre lived. Otherwise, you are an ill-mannered stranger, despite your iPhone and an ironed shirt. A stranger who can offend his colleagues with a greasy joke, by rear voice, or the primordially Eastern European habit of demonstrating dominance even in trifle things, is destined to fail the probationary period in France. He will be avoided by the French ladies. He will not be given a good piece of meat in the local butcher shop. And he will have to buy oysters at double the price. In other words, if you are going to France – do not be assholes.

That is why many young men who have decided not to learn the language and culture, return from Paris back to the zone of an ecological disaster in the first year. Those who have mastered the language and lived here for 3-5 years, learn to congratulate the butcher and concierge on holidays with the help of postcards and wine and eventually adapt.

Language courses four times a week and all available information about French cinema and French literature helped a lot.

Those who have successfully adapted, often still leave, after estimating retirement prospects for the next 40 years.

I was also upset about taxes – at first glance, they are not very obvious.

Can you tell about that in detail?

Before signing the contract, I asked how much tax I would have to pay. I was explained that the tax burden depends on experience, length of service, and field of work, but on average one should expect 25-45% of salary.

And here I get my first salary minus 30%. And then I get a tax notification telling me that it’s time to pay taxes. It was shocking. It turned out that social benefits are paid from the salary, but they are not tax deductible. And the tax I inquired about is an income tax, payable for the previous year.

Now, this system in France has been rewired, and from this year on it has become like in London or in Ukraine: you get the money less all applicable taxes.

Please tell more about salaries and intricacies of working in French IT.

In general, salaries in IT here are ranging from 45,000 to 150,000 euros per year. They provide shares too, though not much, in the amount of 20-50,000 euros per year (restricted stock units, RSU) and they are issued on the basis of the average cost as of the month of payment. You can cash out shares gradually over 1-4 years, but they give them out every year. In other words, on average, after a couple of years working in a corporation, the salary increases by 20-50-70,000 euros per year. The tax is progressive and is levied from anything: from the sale, from purchase, from thin air. The French model sounds like this: you will have everything except money. Because why do you need money when you have everything?

What it looks like.

French offices will gladly send you to all possible conferences, pay for your commute, enforce a 35-hour working week and two months of vacation a year. You will always have enough money for wine, cheese, shoes, and housing. But that is the trick. You will almost have no cash.

You also need to understand that by working here, you need to extend the visa every 1-2 years. An employer is involved in this process. They may not have time to help and the worker will be forced to leave the country. If you are already working in France, finding a new place is easy enough. But, in view of the culture of dismissals, recommendations are the main selection criteria. If Jean-Paul calls a stranger, Francois, and he will tell him that Mykola did cut the cheese with a knife the wrong way – Jean-Paul will not hire Mykola.

Another problem is that in France it is almost impossible to save money for retirement. And to get a public pension, you need to work for 40 years. And you, for example, do not want to be a 65-year-old developer, and only by the age of 55 you will be able to repay the mortgage. Own business is an option so complex that they try not to even talk about it. Therefore, I thought about relocating again.

On life in London and work at Facebook

How did you get into Facebook?

I negotiated with several companies, including Facebook and Google. My plan was to save enough money to buy a house in France or anywhere else, and move back. That is, I did not plan to stay in London.

They were looking for a production engineer among my peers, and I was engaged in Real-time data processing (Apache Kafka and several streaming systems). I was well versed in this, often spoke at thematic conferences. Once I was a speaker at a conference in San Francisco regarding Apache Kafka, and from that moment on, they wanted me in Google, Facebook, and 5 or 6 other companies.

In other words, if you want to get on the radar of Facebook or Google, you need to speak at thematic conferences?

Big companies rarely hire people simply because they are very good at JavaScript. They don’t even ask what kind of technology you are good at or what you program because when hired you will need to write code on everything. In most cases, they are looking for engineers.

When you say that they are on the lookout for engineers, what kind of specialists do you mean?

I would say that an engineer in computer science is a person that relatively understands how a computer works, and how to work with it. The masters of VM, browser, One Language wizards, and other outsourcing samurai may not be useful. In many large companies, most of the tools are their own. Even programming languages.

Can you tell us about your interview at Facebook?

In almost all large technology companies, an interview looks about the same for all the candidates. First, HR calls and asks a huge number of simple and clear questions. For example, when the guys from Google call, they simply compare what you have in your CV with what you actually know. They may ask: “Tell approximately, what is the value of 2 raised to the power of 26?” And you must answer with a certain accuracy. If you worked with data, then you can imagine the kind or size of this number.

You are asked a lot of technical questions, and if you are not working in this domain, you will not be able to answer them. After the first screening, 2-3 remote interviews are conducted, which, as a rule, are devoted to programming, algorithms, system design and computer systems.

Then they arrange for an inside interview at the company’s office. There could be up to five interviews per day. Then, everyone who interviewed you writes feedback and, using internal algorithms, companies decide whether you are a good fit or not.

I would say that Cracking the coding interview, written by a former employee of Google, is very helpful in preparing for such interviews.

Tell us about your relocation and life in London? Can you compare it to Paris and Amsterdam?

Comparing these cities and countries can only be very subjective. If only because Amsterdam in 2011 is not the same as it is now. In Paris, after the attacks, there are still security guards at the entrances to all stores and they check bags. London is crazy about Brexit. Well, even I am not the same I was back in 2011.

I will share what I felt.

Amsterdam seemed to me very calm. The entire Amsterdam hustle is neatly concentrated in several tourist quarters, beyond which flows most ordinary life. There you could skip learning the language because everyone around you speaks English fluently enough, and as a rule – better than you. In Amsterdam, I learned that:

  • You can live 150 km from the office and take a train to work.
  • Buying good meat needs planning.
  • Parking can cost 5 euros per hour and this is not a joke.
  • Your MasterCard and Visa are useless in supermarkets (although things improved).
  • Bikes come and go. But mostly go.
  • In pubs, they serve beer in a juice glass at the price of a pint
  • Wherever you go – a humid wind will blow in your face.
  • You can ride a bike in the snow.
  • The sun is so rare that you can skip work on that day.
  • You will have to live in the social bubble of immigrants and colleagues.
  • You need to plan shopping, income, and expenses six months ahead.

Amsterdam was understandable and affordable. It was safe to settle there, save up and plant a tree. By that moment, I already had a family, and the desire of something more, multiplied by the inner question “Is this it?”

During the time between the two companies, we spent almost all of the money we saved (it was easy). We moved to Paris on a rainy autumn day with a couple of hundred euros in our pockets.

The first couple of months were full of stress. Looking back, I think the reason for the stress was a lack of language and trust in others. But we quickly got used to the environment and learned that:

  • No two baguettes are alike.
  • Language is the key to culture.
  • All rules, laws, and regulations are pas grave (not serious, uncritical).
  • All the rules, laws and regulations that may negatively affect you ― c’est grave.
  • There is no bureaucracy in Ukraine and the Netherlands (compared to France).
  • Learned what appellation And there are almost five hundred of them here. Distribute energy intelligently. Plan.
  • Tickets to cinemas and small theaters – without assigned seats. The one who spends more time in the queue gets the spoils.
  • Your colleague may turn out to be a cyclist, rally driver, pilot, speak 8 languages, an aristocrat, an IPv6 author, a cheese-eater and a cheese-maker, anyone. And that is because work is just work, and besides it there is life, and it has to be lived.
  • Paying with paper checks is really convenient.
  • 2 months of vacation a year is more difficult to take than it might seem.
  • Everyone is on vacation in August. Restaurants, cafes, and stores will have an inscription: on vacation until the end of August.
  • Zero tolerance to social injustice.
  • Your butcher and baker are the keys to the local community.
  • Streets are mostly for aimless pleasant strolls.

3 years later we moved to London. There were no serious reasons, apart from the job offer, it seemed that we would save more, plus we’d learn another culture. Main impressions of the first 8 months:

  • The cost of travel can be a reason not to go anywhere. Guests might just not come.
  • The number of people on the street may be the reason not to go anywhere.
  • Culture can be replaced by courtesy.
  • Cask ale is the best.
  • You cannot talk or look in the tube. You cannot do anything, just enjoy the ride.
  • There is a visa driven development in place. No job – no visa.
  • France had a terrible red tape.
  • Public office, an insurance company, a hospital can employ people who speak less English than you do.
  • The paper press is very much alive.
  • There are virtually no locals. Everyone is just like you.
  • Wild foxes instead of wild dogs even in the city center. Parrots instead of sparrows. A stag can step on your foot in the park. But the pigeons are there.
  • The weather was good in the Netherlands.
  • Schools are really awesome.

So far so good.

How is it to work at Facebook? What do you do there?

Facebook is enormous, and everyone’s experience is different. For me, the main difference with my previous experience is a very individual work. As a rule, you work on your own projects, for which you are solely responsible.

There’s no teamwork, no agile or scram. You manage your time, work and your projects. At the same time, the team can self-organize and use any of the convenient methodologies, everything is very flexible, and you can try to reach an agreement on anything.

Such individualism is good because you are fully concentrated, no one takes your attention away. However, it is bad for the same reasons. All others are also focused on their affairs. To get help, you need to make an effort. Others can, but are not obliged to help you, everyone has different goals, and you need to convince them and interact with them. It can both annoy and develop. There are a huge number of introverts who like this mode of operation: they will be addressed with requests three times in half a year, and they will spend the rest of the time as if in a shell, solving all the issues on their own.

There are no loud corporate parties, nor there is squander: we cannot go to Bali for 2 weeks at the expense of the company; there is no such leave as in France; we do not have a limit of working hours, we work as long as it is necessary to complete your project. Sometimes it takes less time than usual, and sometimes more. So Facebook and the London office, in particular, is for those who can and want to work hard.

Can you share the salary bracket? Does Glassdoor have the numbers right?

I cannot. But I can say that they write the truth about this on the Internet. There is still a huge difference in wages in Europe and the U.S. As far as I know, all IT behemoths in the Valley, or Seattle, or London pay market salaries to their employees. In other words, the salary of employees of the same company in Europe and the U.S. can be very different, even twice as little or big within the same team distributed all over the globe.

Over the past year, Facebook has repeatedly found itself at the center of multiple conflicts. Did it affect your job?

I cannot comment on it.

Are there any restrictions because of where you work? For example, your Facebook profile is closed…

Nothing out of the ordinary. As in most companies, I cannot publicly comment on any internal affairs and present my point of view as my company’s point of view without prior consent. Similar restrictions are all over the place, it’s a standard procedure.

How would you rate your overall work experience at Facebook? Are you going to change the job? What are your plans for the future??

Working here is not easy. But it motivates a huge number of super talented people around. Also, now I begin to understand the headings like “X generation founded Y”: such an individual approach to work promotes excellent entrepreneurial skills. I don’t seriously think about changing the job or country, but at the same time, I really miss France. So maybe sooner or later we will go back there.