Ten years ago, I moved from Colorado, USA, to Phuket, Thailand, and I've never looked back.
More and more in the past few years, I've been bumping into computer people -- many of them corporate IT types -- who have made the leap overseas. If you've ever thought of jumping way outside of the box, physically, there are a few things you should know.
Every year it gets easier to telecommute. IT folks know that better than anyone. As far as I can tell, the technology has never been a major stumbling block. It's mostly a question of perception and control -- whether your boss feels comfortable managing you long distance and/or your clients feel comfortable working with you at more than arm's distance. The manifest benefits of avoiding a two-hour physical commute aren't lost on even the hardest-hearted boss or the most retentive client.
Let me let you in on a little secret: There isn't a whole lot of difference between telecommuting across town and telecommuting halfway around the world. Bits are bits, an Internet connection is an Internet connection, and everything else is just jet lag.
Of course you want to telecommute. But have you considered telecommuting overseas? The benefits go way beyond balmy breezes and funny drinks with fuzzy hats. If you're a U.S. citizen, and you jump through the right hoops, the first $91,400 you make while living overseas is exempt from U.S. income tax. (You still have to pay FICA.) Although the laws vary a bit, and they're changing -- especially in the United Kingdom right now -- most professionals from outside the United States don't owe any income tax to their home countries at all.
The price of living overseas can vary from just as much as in Manhattan, if not more, to much less than you might imagine possible. Location, location, location.
There's more to it than money. Living overseas can challenge your thinking and will change your life -- guaranteed. If you have a family, you can give your kids a world-class and world-savvy education. If you're looking after an older parent and you choose your location wisely, you'll find that the elderly are not only cared for, they're actually welcomed and appreciated in many places around the world.
Of course, there are risks. If you telecommute from overseas and your company gives you the heave-ho, it can be very hard to find a job in your new home. If you live in a developing country, as I do, living off the local economy is very difficult: Nobody's going to hire you for more than a tiny fraction of what you made back home. IT professionals who get pink slips overseas (and I've met several) have two choices: Go freelance (not as daunting when your cost of living runs one-fifth of that in the U.S. 'burbs), or launch a coast-to-coast job search back home.
You can submit your résumé online and take phone interviews as if you're sitting right next door. You may have to teach the interviewer how to make an international phone call, but in most respects the screening and initial interview process works the same way. Flying to a job interview in Dallas is expensive, whether you're coming from Boston or Bangkok, although cheap international airfares abound. (The big difference? Really awful jet lag.)
Of course, your chances of finding another company that will let you telecommute right off the bat range from slim to none. Telecommuting just doesn't work that way -- and international telecommuting has a very distinct, "Why would I hire you to live in a tropical paradise when my management won't let me do it myself?" ring to it. The best-case scenario is working for a company in the United States that understands your value and accedes to your demand to work in Timbuktu.
All of the overseas telecommuters I know who got the axe while living here in Thailand ended up in semi-retirement. They found enough freelance work over the Internet to get by, and when they did the math they discovered that it wasn't worth jumping back into the rat maze. Their income would go up, sure, but so would their expenses, disproportionately. They started new businesses online, took early retirement, or found other ways to make ends meet until their pensions kicked in.
If you're overly concerned about being let go, telecommuting isn't for you anyway -- domestically or internationally. But that's a whole different story.
There are plenty of sites that will step you through the basics and help you choose a place to live: Search "telecommute expatriate." Permit me to add some school-of-hard-knocks experiences to what you find online, specific to IT professionals trying to make a go of it in exotic locales.
When computer people look for a place to live, they tend to put a big emphasis on Internet speeds: locations with promised fast connections always come out on top. I've found that's shortsighted. Available raw speed pales in comparison to simple reliability -- if connections drop (as they invariably do), how frequently do they bite the dust, and how long do they stay down? Those are the questions to ask. You can live with power outages. But a dead Internet connection leaves you up a very long creek.
Don't be in a hurry to pick a place. You're probably accustomed to making important decisions quickly -- that's what made our industry what it is. But when it comes to choosing a new home, a new lifestyle, and a new culture, take your time. Visit the place several times. Talk to expats who live there. Weigh the pros and cons.
Twenty years ago, a very large percentage of all American expats worked in the oil industry. That's changed. Now, based on my admittedly small personal sample, I'd say there are more expats in the computer industry, and computer-related industries, than any other. There are many reasons for the change: We computer jocks are inherently more mobile, we're generally well educated, our skills are in demand, and we're inquisitive.
That means, wherever you go, you're likely to bump into other people with an IT background. Get involved in your adopted community, and you're almost sure to find like-minded people. That can help a lot if you get bogged down in culture shock.
Woody's on the panel at an American Chamber of Commerce forum called Phuket 2.0: Opportunities for the next decade (PDF), October 1 at the Sheraton Grande Laguna, Phuket. Curious about living in the tropics? Hop on a plane and join us!
This article, "Tired of the IT rat race? Work overseas!," was originally published at InfoWorld.com. Get the first word on what the important tech news really means with the InfoWorld Tech Watch blog.