Berlin has played an important part in my life: it was the first place I visited on my trip to Tibet and I spent a month there in 1986, before the wall came down, and I was lucky enough to get a good look at a city that had been carved up by the great powers.
The Russian army left Berlin long ago and today the city is Europe’s capital of cool – where thousands of young people from all over the world go to party, to drink, to indulge in cannabis legally (in certain parks) and to enjoy a unique urban culture. I was there in the summer of 2014 and can confirm that it is a totally awesome place and somewhere I’d like to live and work. Lots of foreigners say they love working in Berlin.
I stayed in a cheap hostel called 36 Rooms in the hip Kreuzberg district of the city. I shared a room with 7 other people and the cost was only about €13 a night. The plan was to finish my travel book – 9 Months in Tibet – a task that seemed impossible at first as the place was always heaving with people about to go partying, or just coming back from an all night club. Then I realised that between 6am and 10am there was dead silence in the lobby and café area, and that’s when I finished my book.
The problem with hostels is that the people can be really unfriendly, but this wasn’t the case at 36 rooms and I am still in touch with some of the people I met there – a pair of English artists called Clark and Abel, an architect student from Aberdeen, and an Irishman called Brian Butler (whose Twitter name is Zaniphrom).
Brian was the only foreigner I met in that great city who is actually working in Berlin and I wanted to find out more about him, about how he got a job and what he did. We stayed in contact by email and I gradually pieced together a portrait of a man who was brought up on a farm in Ireland and is now working for a software company in Berlin.
Over breakfast at the Café Marx Brian told me all about greyhounds which he knew about from his childhood: “my father kept greyhounds and I would take them for walks. You can let the young ones run free but as soon as they grow up you have to stop this as they’re rather stupid; they go incredibly fast and sometimes crash into things and injure themselves.” I was intrigued.
How did you get into software?
“For one of my modules in University I was offered the chance to choose between studying European Cinema or Software Localisation and Technical Writing. I chose the latter based on the fact that I didn’t think sitting around watching French films was going to be worthwhile in the long run, even with its appeal at the time! The rest as they say is history as I got a job in the field soon after University. I previously worked with Cisco and IBM, and I am now taking a chance with a new software firm that is young and fresh.”
When I realised I was sitting across the table from one of those people who writes those brochures that come with software, or new electronics, I wanted to know more. Those brochures are generally incomprehensible and I often thought they were written by robots. Brian tells me that “they often are written by robots.” I got a pithy answer to my question about what he actually does: “I remove any fluff, marketing speak, and ambiguity from documents.”
“Why are those technical manuals so boring?” I asked, and “why is the font always so small?”
“I have no clue why technical documents always look so boring. There is no real reason for it. One aspect is that designers are rare in software and spread very thin. Therefore they are deployed closer to the marketing/sales end. Regarding the small font though, I must say I am not a fan of big fonts! One of the reasons is that a lot of technical documentation is aimed at people who work predominantly on the command line. Spending all day on a terminal accustoms you to absorbing and filtering through a certain font size very quickly and now when I see these big “fonts for blind people” it just looks like a wall of text.”
Okay, that’s enough about technical writing. I’m always interested in people’s jobs, and the jobs themselves but that’s enough detail. Time to draw some conclusions.
My intention with this website is to inspire people to travel independently, partly by showing that there is plenty of work they can get abroad. Brian doesn’t really help me to make this case as his job is obviously very specialist and he’s done a university degree in technical writing.
But there is still something to be learned from his story: he moved to Germany from Argentina (I didn’t get the South American part of his tale) and works in English and this is now common; it’s easy for citizens of the EU to work in any of the 28 EU Member States, and English is fast becoming the lingua franca (the working language) in many modern industries like software.
The other thing to note is that Brian writes his company’s blog and this is a job that most literate travellers could probably do easily enough – as long as it’s not a technical blog like Brian’s. Most companies either don’t have a blog or, if they do, you can be damned sure it is really bad (Brian’s one isn’t my cup of tea but it’s clear and he would say it’s aimed at programmers not artsy-fartsy types like me).
A good company blog should tell the stories behind what is presented to the public and engage in online discussions about the issues the company is involved in (for example, debates in the media about software). This is something that you (yes you, reading this article) could probably do.
I currently edit a blog for a rehab clinic and can tell you that writing articles isn’t actually that hard and setting up a company blog is probably the best thing a firm can do to improve its Google ranking – by having a constant flow of new material (blog articles) that are shared on the company’s social networks (another job for a literate traveller) you can drive yourself up the Google search engine results.
My final message is that you can get a job abroad – you just have to be aware of what sort of thing you can go for, develop the right approach and choose a location. In my experience it’s relatively easy to get a job abroad once you have managed to get away from your comfortable, safe, warm, familiar home and head into the unknown. The key is to choose the place you want to work in and then plug away at getting a job until you do. That’s it.
Photo credit: Rupert Wolfe Murray