After more than 20 years in the US, Mike Smith returned to the UK to take up his current position in October 2018. He talks to Sam Wilkins, Partner at Erevena, about his relocation experiences – both to and back from America.
What prompted you to consider a move abroad?
All relocations tend to be contextual to your life at the time. It might be a great job offer, or a desire to travel, or for family reasons. In my case, returning to the UK after 20+ years in the US was very much family driven. My parents are ageing after leading an active life with the philosophy to go out and live it to the full. Being a nine-hour flight away and with an eight-hour time difference was no longer feasible for me.
How did you make your final decision to take the leap?
While my family was the big trigger, my conversations with Erevena and Barclays got me thinking about all I’d learned over more than two decades in the US. I realised that I could bring back this experience to the UK and kick start a new phase of my career.
You’ve relocated to the US and now back to the UK – what similarities were there?
I moved to the US in 1995 and the mechanics – the practicalities – of relocating were pretty similar to those of my latest move. For example, giving your house a spring clean is nothing like packing up your entire life and standing in an empty shell of a home. Also, when you move within the same country, all your possessions follow you to your new property pretty quickly – in the UK it’s typically just a driving distance. When you’re packing up to relocate overseas, it’s likely that you’re not going to see your stuff for several months, which is something you must plan for.
At another level, relocation brings a lot of unknowns, particularly when it comes to personal relationships. When you first relocate you don’t know what’s going to happen. Will you be away for two, five or 20 years? There’s a big leap into the unknown in terms of how it changes relationships with your friends. Some will last, others won’t. You also get to make a broader, richer set of international friends. When I joined Microsoft in 1995, they did a great job of creating cohorts of colleagues in a similar situation.
That sense of the unknown also applied when we returned to the UK last year. What would we do with our house in Seattle? Would we sell it or keep it for the long term? It might never be ‘home’ again.
Were you tripped up by the mundane differences of life’s practicalities?
It was slightly different for me when I moved to the US because I’d already done an internship there. So, I had things like a bank account, credit history and driving licence all set up. On my return to the UK, I simply carried on using the bank account I’d had since university. While that made things easy for me, there were still some interesting friction points. For example, after 20+ years in the US, we had no rental history in the UK, so we were starting again from a credit position. Also, when going to the US, think carefully about what cheque number you want to start with (the bank will ask you). I hadn’t ever considered that sort of nuance before, but who wants to cash cheque No 1 for you!
What was your experience of the relocation support?
I was amazed at how poor a job the relocation company did and the lack of help for the broader challenges of relocating. In fact, I would be hard-pressed to find a worse relocation experience. It all got ‘fractioned’ out with no-one co-ordinating. Being asked to complete several big tasks just days before they were needed, instead of in the weeks and months beforehand, was ridiculous.
I’d say there’s a huge opportunity out there for someone with good project management capabilities to start their own relocation company and make a much better job of it. Microsoft got it right in the US with little things like connecting us with people who’d also recently relocated and even where to find food we were familiar with.
Are there different work styles in the US and the UK?
There’s no one style in the US. Rather it varies from company to company and city to city. I’ve been fortunate to work in highly diverse teams (Google, Amazon, Disney) and my current CEO in the UK has the same diversity mindset that I have, which is really good. But that’s not always the case and I’d say that there’s a more diverse approach to international hiring in the US than in the UK.
Culturally, people are more aggressive and assertive in the US, which can reflect in the language and occasional heated exchanges in the workplace. The UK has a far more respectful attitude. While colleagues get passionate about what they’re doing, they also respect each other. Interestingly, when I first moved to the US, people mistook my British politeness for a lack of passion and belief. I had to spell out that my calmness didn’t mean things wouldn’t get done.
In contrast, there is a directness about money and salaries in America. Any engineer at any company knows what their peers are earning and are happy to talk about it. That’s not the done thing in the UK.
What about differences in terms of product and engineering talent?
There are fantastic engineers in both countries. The key differences are not in quality, but in quantity, availability and experience. There’s a far larger pool of talent in ‘the Bay’ area in the US than in Europe. Recruiting benefits from the network effect, whereby you might hire a single engineer and before you know it 10 people have moved over to join them. There’s also greater experience of developing product for delivery at scale in the US. People underestimate what’s needed to mass scale a product. It triggers a different way of thinking and approaches to things like automation to manage that scale.
Will your experience in the US benefit your career going forward?
Absolutely. Any experience you have of a different culture, way of working, or community expands your world view. In fact, many companies now recognise this and send people on fast-track promotion paths overseas for placements. For my part, I had the opportunity to work with some industry luminaries in the US and have made lifelong friendships.
Does your move back to the UK feel as if you’ve returned home?
It depends on your definition of home. When I first left the UK, each time I returned for a visit it felt like coming home. Over time I’ve come to realise that home isn’t a place but is made up of memories and people. For 20 years we built a home in the US, with an eclectic international set of friends and memories. Now, I am very much at home here in Greenwich, London.