Tech Career Insights: Interview with Neil Kelly, Luno: Thoughts On Emigrating SA as a Dev

Interview with Neil Kelly, Luno: Thoughts On Emigrating SA as a Dev

By Jomiro Eming

For many South African developers, the global tech marketplace is really attractive: Filled with big opportunities, career growth and stronger currencies. Luno’s Director of Engineering, Neil Kelly, however, hasn’t had this experience. He suggests four important things to consider before making the move abroad, and actually sees a lot of potential to hack career growth locally.

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Things to consider before emigrating

Luno is a cryptocurrency fintech organisation, and Neil has 23 years of experience in the industry. Before Luno, though, Neil had some first-hand experience with occupational emigration: He moved to Tanzania to work for Vodacom, and although he was earning in dollars and had his family with him, he returned to South African a decade later after a number of further stints in Nigeria, Iran, and Ghana.

Through this experience, he learned that emigration is much harder than most people think. Having been there himself, and hearing similar experiences from developers he knows, he realised that the ‘appeal’ of moving to another country often hides the difficulties of doing so.

These are some of the things Neil suggests considering before making the ‘big move’:

  • Have you visited that place on your own terms first?
  • Have you thought about foreign expenses/taxes?
  • What work will you actually be doing?
  • Have you built up a good reputation locally?

Have you visited that place on your own terms first?

When Neil moved to Tanzania, he had his family with him. He thought he’d make it his new home, with his nucleus by his side. However, once he was back in South Africa, he realised that the sense of community he feels here is not something he can ever take with him to another country.

Neil has heard similar experiences from other developers that he knows: One of the first things Neil felt being in another country was that intangible feeling of being an immigrant - a ‘disconnect’, he says - in a place where people speak differently or think differently, and where things look different, and life happens differently, away from your community.

That kind of adventure, he says, isn’t for everyone: “You as a person need to realise what ‘adventure’ actually is before you climb on the plane. If you’re not the kind of person that is adventurous normally, adventure is not going to start when you land in Germany”.

Whether you’ve already accepted a new job in another country, or you’re only thinking about it, Neil suggests that you experience the place on your own terms first:

“If you haven’t ever been overseas yet, get yourself on a plane and set the terms for your decision; don’t go there and be at the mercy of someone else’s plan.”

This could include things like attending meetups that are taking place while you’re there (he recommends using websites like Eventbrite), and interacting with engineers who are already there, and asking them what it’s like.

Have you thought about foreign expenses/taxes?

Saving in a foreign currency wasn’t as easy as Neil had expected it to be. As many developers do, he hoped that his foreign earnings would mean hefty savings. However, what he didn’t anticipate was the cost of living once he was there, and income tax in foreign countries.

Even with a pretty robust savings plan in place, Neil says that many of the developers he’s met who have emigrated underestimated how much they would spend once they got there: “You go there, you start interacting with people, and you actually don’t save that much. You can’t just sit in your apartment every night. You’re inevitably going to start socialising, so spend a lot more than what you expected”.

Then, Neil says foreign taxes are often a shock-to-the-system for SA devs: “If you look at the average intermediate engineer’s salary in South Africa, your tax rate is probably going to settle to about 30%. In Europe, you’re starting at 40% and going up higher. That’s a 10% knock on tax that people don’t often factor in”.

What work will you actually be doing?

Neil has also seen a lot of developers attracted by the dream of making big waves at even bigger companies, like Google, or Facebook,and working on cutting-edge technology. What Neil realised was that, especially for junior or intermediate devs, you often start by forming part of a bigger whole:

“Google doesn’t let one engineer come in and commit much more than two lines of code a day. The work that you’re going to be involved in is not going to be that encompassing. You’re going to be a part of a huge community of engineers.”

Even for Neil, in his experience in another country, it takes a long time for the work you do to feel as rewarding as it does in South Africa. This is because companies in SA can be more liberal, and enable more autonomy: “Here,” he explains, “you’re going to feel like you’re contributing on big projects. You’re going to be in charge of technical design docs, you’re going to be fielding whiteboard sessions, and people are going to be challenging you and your ideas”.

If you’re a junior dev, Neil suggests asking what work you want to be doing: If it’s taking charge, and seeing the impact and value of your work in your immediate environment, consider staying in SA and building your rep (see next section). If your goal is to be pushing boundaries on day one, Neil says that it’s likely you’ll be disappointed if you aren’t willing to push through the ‘tough stuff’ for a few years.

Have you built up a good reputation locally?

Knowing why you want to move overseas, and what you want to achieve are two questions that Neil has learned are good to answer honestly for any developer wanting to emigrate. This is because, in his experience, a lot of developers want to skip ahead in their careers, and think that moving overseas will rocket them into fame and fortune:

“I still maintain that if it’s about growing your career, don’t leave South Africa… If you are a junior, or intermediate, you’re wasting your time trying to grow your CV while going overseas. There’s definitely a time in your career when you should do that, and I think that’s when you’re a senior.”

Neil thinks that there is ample opportunity in this country to become a renowned developer. Instead of being a foot in the door to an international career, emigrating should come as a result of being asked to work on international projects, because of the success you’ve garnered locally. He says:

“Don’t just get caught on the hype. I think the hype is short-lived. Have a solid plan, decide exactly which point of career you are in, and then actually decide what your next steps are.”

At the end of the day, it’s about being really cognizant of what emigrating means for your career, and being confident that it is a step in the right direction - and not just in a different direction.

Alternatives to emigration: Take a sabbatical

If not emigration, then what? One of the ways in which Neil has seen developers at Luno locally hack their careers, and get some of the benefits of emigration without leaving the country, has been through taking a sabbatical.

Whenever someone has an ‘itch’ for adventure, or something more in their career, Neil recommends taking a sabbatical. He believes that people often don’t need more than a few months to explore other places, or even study something new:

“When people start getting itchy at 18 months, or two years, I think it’s good for companies to consider actually proactively saying to people, ‘Hey, have you thought about taking a couple of months off? Go and explore, go and do a few things.’”

That said, Luno still makes sure that sabbaticals are set up very carefully - otherwise, they could do more harm than good. Some considerations for both the individual and the company could include:

  • Negotiating paid and unpaid leave: While someone’s not working, you might negotiate some kind of stipend to keep them on their feet.
  • Figuring out how long a sabbatical should last: Depending on your policy, you might look at offering somewhere between three and six months.
  • Accounting for how it might affect a team’s dynamic: Someone leaving for that long might mean their team member’s need to pick up the extra slack.
  • Planning for an individual’s return from a sabbatical: Preparing for the day someone returns helps both the individual and the company settle back into routine.
  • Supporting an individual to make the most of a sabbatical: Helping with schedules, planning a trip or a course, advising on how to spend their time can all help an individual get the most out of their time.

From Neil’s perspective, sabbaticals are not only useful for companies in reducing turnover, but also help a developer improve their skills, build their CV, and experience something or somewhere new, all without the risk involved in leaving a stable job and income.


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