Working abroad - what does it add to the IT manager's skill-set?

Julia Vowler asks what globetrotting can do for the IT manager's career

Julia Vowler asks what globetrotting can do for the IT manager's career

For many working in the UK IT profession, Bracknell is the centre of the world. Anne-Marie Wolfe, chief information officer at media conglomerate Grey Global Group, understands this blinkered view.

"One of the things that strikes me is that in my early career I never contemplated the opportunities to live and work abroad," she recalls.

However, having put in 10 years in the US plus time spent managing a datacentre in Paris, Wolfe is adamant that if those opportunities present themselves, they should be seized whole-heartedly.

Working abroad, she believes, has both a maturing and an eye-opening effect on IT professionals.

"I see it as a great experience for young people," she says, and makes it a policy, when she can, to import Brits into foreign working situations.

"I've given them that opportunity and have seen them grow," she says.

An essential element of that growth is learning to appreciate other cultures and adapt to other working traditions, creating a more flexible attitude and putting existing assumptions up for grabs. It can certainly incite ambition as well, particularly in the US.

There, says Wolfe, the middle class are achievement-oriented and extremely open about their ambitions. It is all part of US culture, she argues. "People are less cynical they really do believe in the American dream.

"In the US people are much better at marketing themselves, they sell themselves and have a professional presence that is far more direct," she says.

These qualities develop early. "I was struck by the self-reliance of young people there," says Wolfe. "They develop a more professional persona at a younger age than we do they are very well turned out and have a lot of professional polish and are good at interacting with people."

But Brits working in the US should not feel themselves disadvantaged, believes Wolfe.

"There is a very positive attitude towards the UK," she says. "Americans associate Britishness with quality."

Nor did she ever encounter any assumptions that the British work less hard, even though the pace of life and work in the US is more hectic.

"The pace is faster in the US and people work harder," she says. "I never had a problem of people not working hard."

They are also eager to get on and prove themselves, she adds.

Of course, Wolfe acknowledges, US employment laws work in favour of managers, in that under-performing employees are considerably easier to shift than in the more protected UK environment.

"There is more flexibility for employers in the US," she says.

That flexibility can work in favour of employees as well, of course, as Wolfe herself found when she arrived in the US. "My first networking interview in New York turned into a job offer within two hours, once they knew I was in IT," she says.

For women in particular, working in the US can be a highly encouraging situation Ð the glass ceiling is a lot higher, if there at all, and the areas beneath are far more populated.

"There is a much higher percentage of women in senior management positions in the US," says Wolfe. "That is very encouraging for young women. For the first time my boss was a woman."

Being a female manager is easier too. Because US males are more accustomed to seeing women in senior roles, they accept it more easily. Managing male staff in the US, recalls Wolfe, entailed significantly less hassle.

"I could be far less concerned by being a woman manager," she says. The high proportion of female managers means, she says, that it "takes your awareness away of being femaleÓ and you can become less preoccupied by it and more preoccupied by getting on with the job.

Wolfe does acknowledge, however, that for women arriving as wives it can be more stressful in a foreign country. Whereas the children will probably pitch in merrily, British wives can feel isolated and, with no work permit, will have to make efforts to socialise and network with their US neighbours. It can help to take a tip from their American sisters when they become expats, says Wolfe.

"Americans are more accustomed to being transient and upping sticks they find clubs and make friends and hook into communities. British wives are not as good at doing that," she warns.

Pitching in is, Wolfe believes, one of the secrets of making working abroad really work. "You need to throw yourself in," she urges. "Do not go in half-hearted."

Going as native as you can will maximise the experience. For example, even if commuting across the Channel is possible, it is not the same as actually putting down roots and finding a place of your own to live. "Get yourself a flat to hang your hat in and go and meet the neighbours," says Wolfe.

And although "American is the universal language of business", and fluency in a European language is not necessary, if you have a smattering and use it it will help. Even if 'everyone' speaks English, "You'll need the language for the plumber," says Wolfe.

Not unexpectedly, Brits can feel more akin to Americans than to our European partners across the Channel, where a short geographical distance can entail a large psychological one. You should go prepared for different priorities Ð as Wolfe recently discovered when she realised that the datacentre was deserted of all senior managers come lunch time.

"Keep an open mind to other country's cultural traditions," Wolfe advises.

For IT professionals, given the current prevailing acute skills shortages, there has never been a better time to try out your wings and head for foreign climes. And, as Wolfe points out, unlike so many other professions, such as law or finance, IT is amazingly universal.

"IT skills are incredibly transferable," she says. "IT is global."

Your career can be too.

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