While Sam Lee, managing director of Dextrys, an outsourcing company, says he wouldn't encourage someone who wants to work in China to come on a tourist visa with a knapsack on their back and knock on doors, he does say companies will be tripping all over themselves to hire you. "There is a tremendous demand. Every CEO worldwide is interested in China as a market," Lee says. And these executives want IT people who have experience working there in order to liaise with local executives.
Despite the demand, there are mixed signals as to whether American immigrants are welcome to fill them. John Murdoch, principal at Abeam Consulting, is not so sure Americans have a lock on such jobs. "The days for Western guys to show up in China and think there is a job waiting for them are passed. Today is more about sales than technology," he says.
Still, China's tech industry is booming, and there are opportunities in several of its major cities. Those opportunities differ across cities, says Lee. For example, Beijing focuses more on software and mobile technology, while Shanghai is "closer to the metal," says Lee. What he means is it does more development at the embedded-level, chip-level programming. Also Java, C#, and .Net are good skills to have under your belt in either city.
Another plus is experience with old mainframe technology, such as Cobol. Because Chinese computer science graduates have come late to the technology table, they are starting with the latest architectures and systems and don't have the experience with legacy languages and systems.
China, of course, is so huge that it has more than just Shanghai and Beijing as options. And each region has developed its own IT specialties. For example, Shenzhen, adjacent to Hong Kong, specializes in financial services (as does Hong Kong). Like Hong Kong, it has a lot more English-speaking residents and a bustling, international commercial focus. Twenty minutes from Hong Kong by ferry, Shenzhen even has signage in English. But there are more sales and marketing jobs in Shenzhen than there are IT jobs.
While you may make only half of what you make in the United States, in China your buying power is probably five to six times greater, says Lee. "A $50,000-a-year salary is going to feel like you're earning $250,000," says Lee. But that's only if you buy in China. Don't expect to send a lot of money back to the States.
Lee says when you are working in any cosmopolitan area of China -- such as Shanghai, Hong Kong, or Beijing -- you won't feel much different than if you were in any world-class city. They all have a Western feel to them.
Your biggest problem in any Chinese city might be adapting to the food -- unless you like chicken feet in rice gruel for breakfast. Lee's best advice is to take a stateside Chinese menu with you. "It will be your golden passport. You can't recognize the Chinese characters and the waiters in the Chinese restaurants in China are not likely to understand English, but an American menu with both languages will be invaluable.