Friday, September 09, 2011

August Rush: The Web Job

Tho' much is taken, much abides; and tho'
We are not now that strength which in old days
Moved earth and heaven; that which we are, we are;
One equal temper of heroic hearts,
Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.

"Ulysses", Alfred Tennyson

I always liked that poem, especially those final lines. I learned something shocking during my early days in corporate life and public office. Most people are basically apathetic and most people actually don’t know what they’re doing. So the secret to success in life is generally to give a damn and know your stuff. That might sound deceptively easy, but most people are lazy, so it means that all you often need to do to pull ahead in life is to go the extra mile and put in some of those twelve-hour days I regularly work. Of course, if you want a healthier work-life balance, you’re not going to do that, and for all I know maybe you’d be right not to. In fact, I think you probably are.

As I’ve got older, the lines in that poem have increasingly summarised my life. Towards the end of my time as an elected representative serving 9,600 constituents I wondered if everything I would do professionally after it would seem like an anti-climax – it did – and before long I ended up in a job that, anti-climactic or not, paid such a lot of money really that nothing was ever likely to surpass that either, unless I progressed into upper management, a near impossibility for an IT person in the medical corporation I worked for.

So I’ve done my own thing past my peak, including working around the three years of my professional life that Meniere’s Disease wiped out, and actually I’m not sorry about much – but it has left me feeling like I’m a highly determined person blowing on the embers of past achievements. And while I know who I am and I know what I’m still capable of, my years out in the career wilderness working for myself means that I’m a riskier hire. I have to rebuild my resume. In Korea. Somehow.

It was becoming apparent that even with my TESOL qualification, getting a foot in the door of the English teaching circuit in Korea wasn’t going to be entirely easy. I was logging into Koreabridge every day and I applied for my first position, a short-term role teaching Business English, which I thought there might be a least a little chance of progressing with given that relative to some people, I have around sixteen years of business experience. Still, I wasn’t surprised when I didn’t get an interview, because I’m feeling my way in the dark here with almost no expectations. As far as teaching is concerned, I probably have to work my way up from quite a low level, and I suppose Business English jobs probably go to more experienced teachers, not experienced business people, even ones with TESOL certificates.

So the upshot of everything which has occurred recently is that I’m down on my luck, with a baby and an apartment to support, unemployed with only savings rather than income to pay the bills and career prospects that look about as attractive to me as the front of a subway train. I was desperate to find something outside teaching, but I knew it was probably impossible... until the fifth day of my Koreabridge search, when a job was advertised for a web developer with an F-class visa living in or near Haeundae, which at the time felt like a highly unlikely combination of attributes to find here in Busan amongst the relatively small expat community.

The academic institution concerned - which is reasonably well-known - didn’t seem to have much in the way of expectations either, because they offered training for any candidate who was at least IT-literate. Yet here I was, a Computer Science graduate, former software and Internet developer with years of experience, a co-founder of two serious dot-com start-up companies behind me and a couple of mildly popular British websites to my name, which were still running, and which I thought nice and publicly demonstrated my proficiency in HTML, JavaScript, MySQL and PHP along with other equally relevant technologies they ought to want. I hadn’t kept up with some of the more peripheral or specialised tools in the way I once did, but I never let my core skills lapse - aside from anything else I’ve been developing my own desktop and intranet systems over the years to support my trading. Old habits die hard.

My wife saw the job first and told me excitedly “you have to get this job”. And when I looked at the details, I replied that if I didn’t there really was no justice in world, although my answer may have used slightly stronger language. It felt like the Universe, having gone through a phase of persecuting me – things haven’t really been working out in recent months - was now offering me a break; the job was perfect for me, I believed I was perfect for it, and it came at a time in my life when I really needed it. And what was so perfect you couldn’t even make it up, was that six members of the institution’s management were British, so for once I didn’t even have to worry about the disadvantage of not being a “North American passport holder”.

I saw the job on Friday and I spent the weekend brushing up my technical skills and analysing their website, which had issues, thinking about how it could be improved and developed to meet their business goals while applying a user-centred design approach. It was good preparatory work and while I was excited and I didn’t get too carried away, because I know my days of being a well-paid software engineer are long behind me. Now I have to be grateful for finding any job in Korea I can use my skills in, which until I’m fluent in Korean and lose ten years off my age are virtually none (age discrimination is a huge problem in computing in England - where 25-34 has often been touted as an IT contractor's prime period - and I imagine Korea’s little different).

Initially I didn’t get an interview partly due to a mix-up about when I was moving to the vicinity of Haeundae, but I made an effort to persuade them to change their minds, which to their credit they did. And despite the fact that it all happened so fast that I wasn’t geared up for an interview in the way I would have been in England – I own one suit in Korea and I took notes with me in an old National Union of Students folder rather than the expensive leather-bound document wallets or attaché cases I used to have back home, I thought I gave a decent interview - not my best - but then I was also feeling really ill, and not just because I wanted the job so much - more on that later.

I suppose I’ve been around a bit in the business world. In fact, last time I sat in an interview it was when I was the one doing the recruiting and interviewing. So I knew during the interview that I hadn’t got the job. My wife had gone with me to look at the campus for future reference, and when I met up with her afterwards I told her the bad news. It was a pretty long and depressing journey home for both of us, because it looked like I’d failed in the one shot I had at reviving my technical career proper before I succumbed to the seeming inevitability of teaching English to children, and we both knew how much I’d wanted it to be different.

I’ve been told many times, particularly in the last year as my enthusiasm for working alone and 2am finishes in the financial industry has finally waned, that I should draw upon my experience and find another non-teaching job, because the perception was that being a native-English speaker with an F-2 with my background in software and Internet development gave me a fairly unique selling point in an area that admittedly looked like a narrow market niche in Busan. But I discovered that the the institution I'd applied to had been overwhelmed with apparent talent and experience, so as much as anything it was depressing to discover that I probably didn’t have any apparent unique selling points after all, at least not in the activity commonly referred to as ‘web design’, so that illusion was shattered.

I suppose for a brief moment I felt the Universe was setting me up to give me a break, but it turned out that it was just setting me up, because indeed, I didn't get the job.

It transpired I did have one unique selling point - my experience in the field of web-based databases -  So the institution suggested they might employ me to work on something else, but it didn’t sound very hopeful at the time.

When you miss out on a job in your own country, you know another will come along shortly, but given the dearth of positions in my professional field here, it felt like I'd just missed the last bus home - leaving me stuck where I am, which is probably on the verge of becoming an English teacher. And with it this country moves a step closer towards turning me into to person it wants me to be, rather than me finding my own way in life here through having a plurality of options.

John F. Kennedy once said that "True happiness is the full use of your powers along lines of excellence in a life affording scope." That's a definition - if you hold it to be true - that raises a lot of unhappy questions in Korea for an expat in my position.


Anonymous said...

Hang in there! Things will get better!

Mike said...

Thanks for your support! I'm sure things will.

Post a Comment