I am an American technology worker who just moved to Taiwan.

Saturday, January 30, 2010

Change of state

When we first moved to this small town, I wanted to be involved, or at least, abreast of the local happenings. We attended town meetings, election candidate debates and religiously read the little local news rag every Wednesday night. We donate to the library and volunteer fire dept. every year, attend the "barn sale" and the Memorial Day Parade. This are all big events in this small New England town.

The other day the newspaper came and I didn't even open it up. During the State of the Union address the feeling of apathy started to kick in as these things just don't matter as much as they used to. At least, not right now. Maybe I'm being short sighted but a mental change does take place consciously or not.

Take the health care debate...

I'm sure I will be nuts (in one way or another) about health care after returning from Taiwan. I read that they insure 98% of the population at a cost of 6.2% of GDP. In America, at least 15% is said to be completely uninsured at a cost of 16% of GDP. I've already started joking with people at work with whom I talk politics about how the woes which they lament just don't matter to me.

"I've got 3 more months of this then I'l have national health care! Oh, and wait until you see how much your state income tax is going up after this budget session. Have fun paying those taxes!"

How long before they declare me a communist?

I'm very much looking forward to experiencing the "socialized" side of things and being able to say that I've lived both sides and therefore consider myself qualified to render judgement. I wonder what I'll think after living the other side.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

No soup for you!

Without even having departed for Taiwan, I have learned a valuable life lesson. Unfortunately, it took me 38 years but I guess that's better than 39, right?

A coworker the other day asked me if I found this job by going through my company's job vacancies website to which I emphatically responded, "No!!!"

Let me explain:

When I was thinking about this whole possibility of seeking a job in Taiwan, I registered through my company's vacancies website to get an update any time a job was posted in Taiwan. From this I could see how quickly they were expanding and in which departments. Some of the jobs didn't match my qualifications 100% and even more were impossible to tell what they really were looking for. I debated whether I should just apply for one of them by clicking the "apply now" button or seek a path outside the system.

I consulted my buddy RJ who had taken an overseas assignment in Europe who, as quickly and emphatically as I shouted "No!!!", discouraged me from following the HR/website route.

"Waste of time, man."

 So, as I detailed in an earlier blog post, I emailed the top guy at our division in Taiwan. This is very out of character for me as I am typically respectful of any "system" and follow the rules.

In a parallel situation, Shirley was looking for a teaching job and went down the "click the send button" route. She followed up with the HR rep who told her "only the most qualified candidates will be interviewed". Basically, "Don't call us, we'll call you." She never heard back. She was hoping to get an interview at a job fair coming up in Boston. It looks like the positions are filled but the superintendent is coming to the job fair in 2 weeks, anyway.

When looking at the website for the job fair, it has a bunch of convoluted rules. First you have to come on Thursday for the job fair host to explain to you how job fairs work (first step in treating you like an idiot). Then on Friday you have to come and apply for an interview session, and "don't limit your choices to one country, be open minded" (step 2 in idiot training). Then on Saturday, if you're lucky enough, you will get an interview with some/all/none of your choices (step 3).

So it seemed like it might be a big waste of time and a hassle to travel back and forth to Boston 3 times. Shirley was wondering what to do.

We Googled the superintendent who will be coming to Boston and Shirley emailed her a simple message quite similar to my original message to my boss in Taiwan:

I'm interested in working at your school. I see you're coming to Boston. I'd like to meet with you. My credentials are attached. What should I do?

She quickly received a response  from the superintendent inviting her to meet privately at her hotel.

No job fair.
No explaining of the job fair.
No applying for an interview.
No nonsense.

The super was very flattering about Shirley's credentials and the possibility of a job even though there were no current vacancies. I am positive that her first attempt at following the rules resulted in her application never getting to where it needed to go. Big waste of time.

With my dealings with my company in Taiwan, I ended up being offered a job that was already occupied, it never would have been posted. After asking the occupant to take another job to free it up for me, they rewrote the job description to suit what I was looking for.

So for anyone out there job searching, my advice is this:

1) Find the companies you want to work for.
2) Find people who work in those companies.
3) Ask them what you should do

I wonder how many jobs get filled without ever making it to CareerBuilder, Monster.com, or any sort of job classified ad. I think a lot.

In the famous episode #116 of Seinfeld, there are many rules to be followed to get served by the Soup Nazi. For every person waiting to prove them self worthy of the soup, there are a dozen on the next block who can't be bothered.

They can't afford to let life pass them by.
They don't care about a piece of bread or candy.
They probably got better soup.

Open bag, release cat

I was in Utah skiing for a week which was a much needed break from the whole Taiwan situation. An entire week unconsumed by the move. There was some anxiety over ther fact that I was still waiting to hear back from Taiwan HR on the final #'s and the HR rep, as it turns out, was out of the office. Hence, my emails and texts went unreturned. Soon after she came back to work we ironed out the final details and settled on a May 3 start date in Taiwan. They will now prepare the final contract but I think it's a done deal.

Word started to leak out at work as my boss started advising some people of the potential vacancy so I decided I had better draft an email to some people that deserve to know before hearing it at the water cooler:

Since the cat is out of the bag and I'd rather you hear it from me than the rumor mill (if it's not already too late)...

I've communicated my intent to transfer to [my company division] in Taiwan. My wife will be coming along as soon as she finishes out the school year and is very excited about the change. All details haven't been ironed out yet but it looks like the plan will be 3-5 years with me leaving around May 1.

I'm glad someone created the phrase "broadening your horizons" because that about sums up the reason why.

We'll work on transitioning my roles on [this project] and [that project] over the next couple months.

I sent this out to some project members and friends. I put everyone on bcc so there's no endless loop of "reply to all" followed by "stop replying all" (sent to all). It's not top secret.

It was one of those emails that you compose at the end of the day and then click "send" and bolt out the door like you're holding a grenade pin.
When my wife started informing her work colleagues a couple weeks ago she emailed me that one of her mentees was crying having heard the news of her pending departure. I shrugged it off and thought, "typical women", right? What I was not prepared for was receiving a similar, yet more manly, reaction from my colleagues as some of the 20 or so I emailed were quick to tell me that the division was suffering a real loss in my leaving. It is especially touching when it comes from someone who is a bit like me, umm, let's just say not too quick with the compliments. I figured emailing 20 people in a building of 800 was about the right signal to noise ratio to get the word out.
In each of the past 2 days since breaking the news I've had several people come up to me asking what the whole story is. I wonder how long this will continue? Probably 3 months...

Monday, January 18, 2010

Webcam experiment #1

We’ve been talking about setting up some webcam action related to the trip to Taiwan, being away from each other for a while and being away from our families for much longer might be the impetus to adopt this technology.
We loaded Google Talk onto Shirley’s mom’s laptop when we were in FL for the holiday and swore there would be no way she would pick it up. But shortly after getting back home we dialed up mom and it took her a little while to find out where to click to accept the call, she figured it out. This was just for voice.
I had done some research on webcams and ended up deciding to look for a Microsoft Lifecam VX-3000, actually a pair of them, one for Shirley and one to bring to her parents when I’m back in FL in February. They go for about $40 and we must have found a price mistake at Office Max where they were marked $24.99 with no note of a markdown and the lower model VX-1000 was $29.99. Jackpot!
Went home and set up the cam on Shirley’s laptop. I recently got a new laptop with a built-in webcam so we were ready for some experimentation. The Microsoft cam has a button on top that runs their MS Live video chat application. I figured that this would be the easiest situation for the parents to handle so we’d try that first. Big mistake. Shirley sounded like she had just landed on the moon. We tried the laptop mic, cam mic, changing levels, nothing worked.
Then we switched over to Google Talk, and it was perfect! I have Skype loaded up so I can call a landline from my PC and will be giving that a shot tonight for a meeting I have to attend while travelling to Utah. Here’s the view from my built-in laptop cam:
I was disappointed that it looked really grainy after I was kinda impressed with the quality on the same floor model in Best Buy. After messing around with resolution settings and trying to find better light, I notices some goop on near the camera and it was the tab of the protective plastic sheet that was still covering the lens. Oops!
I can’t get a decent snapshot now because I’m on a flight but it’s much better. The MS VX-3000 webcam looks even better, highly recommended. I have to see if there’s a way to bind that button on it to Google or Skype instead of the Microsoft application.
The next webcam experiment will be installing the second one down at Shirley’s parents’ house. I wonder if they will be able to work it. They will think it’s really strange at first, the whole thing, but I think it will really be appreciated once we are in Taiwan.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Moot point

I take performance reviews very seriously, and this is performance review time of year. This performance review, however, was kinda like the points in Who's Line Is It Anyway? It just doesn't matter. See, I've got one foot out the door, and my compensation on the Taiwan side is not tied to that in the U.S.

I went in to the boss's office this morning for my review as calmly as ever. I've had some contention with my boss in the past over my review, only because every year, I expect to get the highest possible review and will accept nothing less without a fight. When I first started seriously thinking about Taiwan, it was right around the time that I know they put in for merit incereases. The way it works it, there are a limited # of sheckels that get distrubted among the group. So my performance recognition takes away from someone else's. I was conscious of this and thought that if I could have shored up the Taiwan situation I could have quickly come forward and offered up my sheckels to another bard in my group. Things just didn't work out that way, timing wise.

With a cross to bear, I went in to the boss's office and got a great review. So I felt guilty for leaving but know it's just business. A cool thing was, my boss seemed genuinely appreciative of my work, even in the light of my departure on the horizon. At one point he offered up, "Is there anything I can do to get you to stay?"

Shirley had asked me to consider this question months ago as her crystal ball indicated it might come up. I had thought about it months ago and figured, in the grand scheme of things, this is a very illogical question. If you look at all of the reasons and incentives surrounding the transfer to Taiwan, there is nothing my boss has to offer to get me to stay. I was actually half surprised the he asked.

Months before I instigated the Taiwan situation, my expat buddy RJ said, "Don't do it for financial reasons." That is among the best advice I have ever gotten. While we often think money is liberating because it allows us to do some things which are otherwise not possible, I think it is ultimately confining, within reason. It can enslave you. I'm sure people in Haiti don't feel that way right now, and maybe I should be careful with taking money for granted, but I don't believe there is a strong connection between wealth and happiness. By liberating myself from the financial aspect, it allows me to really open mind toward the experience in Taiwan. It's not about the money.

So back to the question...when my boss posed this, I felt liberated, unshackled. I always went into my performance review prepared to justify and fight for every sheckel, and that imprisoned me in some way. I had to write diatribes of quasi-bullshit regarding my performance and how I added value to the company in the past year. This time, it just didn't matter. In a very sincere and hopefully, modest way, I said, "There is nothing in this building that you can offer me that compares to the opportunity that I have in Taiwan."

He got it. I think he was as improsined by having to ask that question as I used to be by having to suck up for a performance review. His question was as moot as my performance review.

Friday, January 15, 2010


After a few emails back and forth with HR Taiwan and, perhaps, some things lost in translation, I'm still waiting to hear back on the one issue which basically boils down to the difference between 401k and company funded pension. I'm hoping in the end it results in a slight bank error in my favor, but I'm skeptical as I usually find the HR community chest to be empty. In any case I'm holding out to resolve this before giving a total "thumbs up". Even after that, the whole plan is slightly conditional in my mind as you never know what will happen and until I have an ARC in hand, I wouldn't describe it as "100%".  It's definitely >70% as that is the point at which the Taiwan boss asked that I inform my US boss, which I have already done.

This makes it a little difficult to address the whole situation. At what point do I:

  • inform my coworkers
  • list my house
  • sell my crap

At least with a little bit of uncertainty, I'm less at risk of telling anyone to go f**k themself. Perhaps I should try and quantify the uncertainty...

This is currently at 89%.

Saturday, January 9, 2010

Like a boss

I emailed a few questions back to HR last night and expected to have responses waiting for me this morning as I went to work with the idea that this was the big day, time to tell the boss. Sure enough, upon arrival, all my questions were thoroughly answered except one for which I was promised quick resolution. So there was no dealbreaker in sight. The "new boss" said, once I determined that there is >70% chance that I will take the job (he actually specified that #) I need to go tell my boss ASAP to get the ball rolling on the transfer as he can slow down the process if he really wants to.

At this point it is definitely >70%, though I can't quite pinpoint a value. I have to tell the boss. I quickly consulted a guy that transferred out of my department and had to do the same thing. Our boss is a bit, say, aloof, and with this guy, the boss acted like he barely gave a shit. Believe it or not, that's a good thing. The last thing you want in this case is a boss who will overstate your value to him and attempt to block your trade.

For years I've daydreamt about this very moment: the chance to say adios to the boss because I was moving on to greener pastures. Not that I have anything against my aloof boss but doesn't everyone sorta fantasize about this? If not, then maybe that's another reason why this move is a good thing. I had some free time around 3 PM and was stalking the boss's vacant office but finally left a Post-It on his chair: "Jim, when you get the chance, give me a call. -Mike"

I then felt ill as I sat in my chair waiting for the phone to ring. Luckily, the next ring (an hour later) would be him but at least I didn't have a bunch of bozos calling me with dumb questions and making me think it was him every time the phone rang. I answered the phone and my boss goes into fake over enthusiastic over annunciated voice mode as though being less aloof is in his character development plan for things he needs to work on this year. I headed down to his office.

I walked in and shut the door behind me. I've done that maybe 3 times in my career and the boss always instantly gets the deer-caught-in-headlights look. If I was the boss, this might be the one thing I couldn't handle: incompetent subordinates coming to talk to me about why they can't do their job right. Whenever someone closes the door it has to be either incompetence, complaining about their pay or that they are quitting. The first words out of my mouth were, "I'll try and cut to the chase. My wife and I want to broaden our horizons."

As I was explaning that I already have a job offer on the table from Taiwan and I plan on accepting it, he was doing a lot of blinking and swallowing. I then went into timeframe for when I think I need to leave for Taiwan and he talked a bit about what the negotiation process was the last time someone transferred INTO our group. I think I was actually sincere in apologizing that I did this secretively and threw in a great cliche: "It's just business..."

One great thing about this boss is he will never admit that he's up against the ropes so he brushed it off and said everything was great. We talked a bit about what my new position and job duties would be and he even suggested trekking in Nepal and noted that he had met some Taiwanese climbers out there. Overall, I was very pleased with his reaction and he said he would be very supportive of whatever exit strategy time frame would work best for me. It couldn't have gone any better.

With that said, I actually am closer to HIS boss whom I used to work. I asked my boss to notify the boss's boss ASAP as I wanted to:

A) Not step on his toes and spread the news myself.
B) Not walk by the boss's boss in the hallway and pretend nothing is up while I wait for the boss to break the news.

Unfortunately, he was gone for the day so that routine will have to take place on Monday. I'm thinking he'll be a bit disappointed as he has more value for human life and will call me in and be like, "WTF are you thinking?!?!" But it's really water under the bridge at this point. I expect my last question to be answered by Taiwan on Monday and I'll give them the thumbs up to proceed with the transfer. I think Taiwan will push for me to get there ASAP, but considering what I need to do to square away things in the U.S., I think I will push for a May 1 transfer. HR Taiwan mentioned something in the compensation package talk, "If you arrive on April 1..." so while they may express a little disappointment in May 1, I think it is reasonable.

As I left the building today I felt like the weight of the world was off my shoulders, but I didn't have the feeling that I fantasized about. I didn't feel like I was sticking it to the man but rather:
  • lucky that I had a boss that was so cooperative
  • lucky that I work for a company that can offer such an opportunity
  • lucky that my wife is willing to go along with this
I think sticking it to the man is bad karma.

It's Complicated

I finally had the big call with Taiwan HR last night to review the whole compensation package and hopefully come to a GO/NO-GO decision point. The HR rep set up a Netmeeting in parallel with phone call so she could show me things on screen that she was describing. All of my clandesting meetings with Taiwan occur between 8-11PM my time which corresponds to 9A-12P the next day in Taiwan.
I was hoping to receive some sort of document in advance so I could be prepared for what was coming rather than seeing a puff of smoke and a rabbit emerging from a hat. No such luck. She called and we started a Netmeeting and she showed me this very complicated spreadsheet. To sum it up, they evaluated my gross and my take home in the States, and converted it to something very complicated in Taiwan Dollars. All in all, I was prepared to be hit with some lower #'s because of the cost of living difference between Taiwan and U.S. but when you factored everything in, I was pleasantly surprised. Shirley's earning potential goes down in Taiwan (teacher) but our costs of living there will be much lower so that was expected planned for.
She was whizzing around the spreadsheet and I was taking notes feverishly and tried to follow along as well as I could. While the amount may seem trivial in the scheme of an entire compensation package, she was very proud to note that we would receive some sort of vouchers to celebrate the Dragon Boat and mid-Autumn festivals. There is commuting compensation and well-being compensation for doing outoors travel and excursions with the family. My MIL had alerted us that her brother has a job where the salary seems low but the bonus incentive is relatively high. That must be customary in Taiwan as there is a bonus plan in my situation.
At the end of the call I said I'd talk it over with my wife. She noted that I must let my existing boss know ASAP to get the ball rolling. I have kept everyone in the States in the dark during this process. The HR rep said she'd email me the spreadsheet and soon after hanging up the phone, it vanished from my screen when she closed Netmeeting. Poof!
So I had to wait a little while for her to send the spreadsheet and it came back as a PDF so I can't even see the method behind the madness of all the calculations. After reviewing it with Shirley and comparing it to our budget we both agreed that it was more promising then what we had expected. So we are both going to notify our respective bosses today.
Happy Friday, boss!

Thursday, January 7, 2010

The boy is on top of the airplane! - adventures with Rosetta Stone

I started working my way through the first lesson in Rosetta Stone: Mandarin I tonight, determined to give it a go at learning some of this language. My MIL spoke a little Chinese around the house over XMAS and I was able to pick up a couple phrases. I KNOW, I KNOW, this will NOT be easy.

I haven't totally figured out the Rosetta Stone method yet but it seems to be very photo oriented, teaches you a couple words and then mixes them into different situations adding some vocabulary. It doesn't directly translate all of the words so, prepositions, for example, are on you to figure out. At least at this stage. I was always pretty good in foreign language in school having studied Spanish and French for ~3 years each and always did well in pronunciation. Chinese is in a whole 'nother league!

Rosetta Stone has a feature where it pronounces a phrase and then records you reciting it, showing some fancy sound wave. It then scores you on how well you pronounced it. I used my wife as a calibrator to make sure the meter wasn't broken a few times as I was pegged in the red. Man, this is tough. One thing I scored top notch on was, "The boy is on top of the airplane". While I am quite proud of that accomplishment, I'm not sure how handy this will be in Taiwan. If I was on a tarmac at Taoyuan  and looked out the windown to see some precocious, meddling tot messing around on the wing of an airplane, I'm not sure if I would even tell anyone.

In the middle of lesson 1 my cat sneezed and this big cat booger shot out of his nose and landed on my sweater. Now if it taught me, "the cat booger is on top of my sweater"...that would actually be useful.

On another note...my HR dept has processed my "localization package" and have a meeting with them tomorrow night to review it. They haven't yet exposed the details but they think it's complicated enough that they need to share it over Netmeeting so they can, I dunno, point to stuff.

Monday, January 4, 2010

Clim@te Change

We spent the XMAS holiday down in FL with Shirley's parents and returned home to crazy frigid cold temps; it's 18F right now and we got about 6" of snow today. I lived in FL for some time and with a comparable climate to Taiwan, I know what I'm getting into. I once thought that I would never again live in a tropical climate but the northeast winters are starting to get to me. It is as though you just throw away 3 months of the year and hibernate. I used to like it for skiing but once I got hooked on skiing out west, it's just not worth it. I'd rather just fly somewhere for GOOD skiing and take advantage of being able to triathlon train throughout the entire year.


Then there is the cost:
  • plowing = $400
  • salt=$400
  • heating oil=+$1-$2k for the season
  • propane for fireplace
  • winter clothes
  • driveway repairs from the cold temps
  • wear & tear on vehicles from salt
  • risk of killing yourself on the road
  • alcohol to numb the pain of the cold
I came home yesterday to find people ice fishing.

ice fishing.

Sunday, January 3, 2010

Clean Slate

One pre-Taiwan task on the list is to get my passport renewed which I just received today, think the cost was $75. They send back your old passport, as a keepsake I guess, and here's a scan of the first stamp I received on entry to Taiwan in 2007. On my last trip to Taiwan in August '09 the immigration guy @ LAX questioned my change in appearance from my passport photo which was almost 10 years old at that time. I have much less hair & facial hair now and he insinuated that I was trying to conceal my identity. I think my response in a half-zombified state was, "That was a long time ago."

Now I have a new passport, empty pages, and the clock is reset to 10 years. And as long as I don't get a different haircut, hopefully less interrogation at U.S. Immigration.

Saturday, January 2, 2010

Insane in the membrane

I think being in a sense of limbo over the whole Taiwan thing is making me slightly insane. I was having lunch yesterday and noticed that this faux patch of brick on the restaurant wall looks a bit like the island of Taiwan, no? Too much looking at maps with my MIL over this XMAS break. I was trying to get a sense of the places we had visited and which neighborhoods various family members of hers live in.
I wonder if, over the course of a few years, my perceived size of the island will shrink dramatically. I notice many comments of claustrophobia and homesickness from feeling trapped on Taiwan. I'm heading back home to the northeast tomorrow and it may snow for 2 days straight. That I won't miss, you can always travel somewhere to ski.