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[Part II] So How Did You Get a Job in the US (As An Australian Engineer)?

This post is Part II in a series about how I moved from Australia to the SF Bay Area as a software engineer between 2016 and 2022.

Read Part I for some context on my personal circumstances which might colour the description here.

I think one of the biggest fears for somebody contemplating a move is that they won't be able to find a way to pay the bills. Totally understandable.

At the time, I had been running a small software agency and independently consulting for about 8 years. I actually preferred to continue doing this, but there didn't seem to be a suitable visa that would allow this.

I also didn't qualify for any exceptional talent or investor visa.

So my only practical option was to find a job - the horror.

Choosing Between Two Startups

Luckily, this was straightforward as a somewhat experienced software engineer heading to Silicon Valley.

I already had two startups in SF I was consulting for at the time. I said, "Hey, we've been working together for a while, and I'd like to consider doing this full-time - in your US office."

So in April 2016, I negotiated for both startups to each partially fund an exploratory two-week trip to the US for my wife and me.

I spent some time with each startup in their offices, met their teams, and visited a few local areas to see if we could do this.

We had a blast.

Fortunately, both startups offered me a role and sponsored my visa.

This was where I made my first mistake when it came time to negotiate compensation. More on this later.

We chose the startup where I liked the team much more, even though it was much smaller and somewhat riskier. I figured in a worst-case scenario where the startup folds, we had enough savings to afford a flight back to Australia 🤷🏽‍♂️

The Intervening Four Months: Preparing to Move

With a job offer and a promise of visa sponsorship, we returned to Australia and prepared to relocate.

We eventually moved permanently four months later, in August 2016.

The reason it took four months came down to 3 primary reasons:

  1. Visa application and approval took a while.
    Even without any hiccups, the back and forth with lawyers and US government departments, visa interviews, and processing took months.

  2. Taking care of our affairs took some time.
    This included finishing my consulting gigs, finding a property manager to rent our home in Melbourne, packing and shipping our things, and meeting with our accountants to determine how we would be affected come tax time. (Narrator: Tax is a real headache.)

  3. We squeezed in a bit more travel.
    Yes, I know this was totally unnecessary, but we couldn't resist. Between April and August of that year, we spent 6 weeks traveling through Europe before getting to my cousin's wedding in London. I guess the whole point of being a digital nomad is the ability to do that, so we felt #guiltynotguilty.

If you were in a rush, you could move in about 2 months.

Here is where you would save time:

  • Don't travel in between, obviously.

  • A step in my visa application may not apply to you. Without a degree in my field, proving my work experience was equivalent to a degree added about a month to the timeline. More on this later.

  • Not shipping our furniture is perhaps one of the things we would do differently. If you were prepared to move with just your luggage and don't have much else to dispose of, you could save a month here. When we returned from the US to Melbourne, we did precisely that (sold everything before the move). It hurts me to think of the shitty Ikea table, which we shipped from Melbourne to Singapore, back to Melbourne, and then to San Francisco, only to sell for $10 on Craigslist.

Tips for Finding a Job in SF

Based primarily on our own experience, with a sprinkling of hearsay from similar friends, here's what I would recommend for somebody in a similar stage:

Make an exploratory trip

I highly recommend doing this. Our two-week trip really gave us the comfort to make a move. I've heard of folks who come to the US as tourists and set some time to meet people - great idea.

There are also plenty of people to chat with before you move. Contact me or join Facebook groups like the Australians in San Francisco or SFAussies for other perspectives.

Move when you're warm or hot, don't go in cold

I'm fortunate to already had hot contacts when we went on our exploratory trip. I'd try to do the same - you should already be chatting with potential employers before you move.

Can you move to the US without contacts and then find a job? Probably. I know somebody who did this on a tourist visa (and then had to leave and re-enter the country to apply for a working visa). It just seems a bit too YOLO for me. When I say contacts, I mean even just starting the interviewing process before you arrive is handy.

Can you get a job offer without first being in the US? It might happen, but I think this is relatively rare. Unless you have some unique skillset (i.e., really hard to hire for) or are known to the potential employer beforehand, I think most candidates get screened out before the interview stage if you aren't already in the US. Even in our pandemic age, when most US companies say a role is "remote", they don't usually mean "worldwide remote" - they mean "anywhere in the US".

Be realistic about YOUR job market.

From everything I've seen, if you are a senior-ish software engineer wanting to move to Silicon Valley - I'm pretty sure you'll be able to find a reasonable job within weeks. Even amidst the current tech slowdown. That's one of the benefits of having some experience in an area that values it. There is plenty of demand for this skill set, and companies find it challenging to hire all the time. So if this is you - don't sweat it. You can assume you'll find a role at some point.

Those three attributes make it easy to move to the US if you're an Aussie - you write software, have some experience, and are moving to the Bay Area. Suppose any of these don't hold true for you (you're a recent grad with little experience, have some other skill set, and want to live somewhere else in the US). In that case, I believe it will be somewhat more challenging to find a job. I'd be a bit more cautious here.

Continue reading Part III to find out about how to navigate compensation negotiations and interviewing as an engineer.

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