Foreign service

Keith Kratville, a technology instructor at Chicago-based consulting and training firm Terasys Inc., describes himself as a "born and bred Midwesterner" who, prior to seven months ago, had never ventured outside North America.

But last summer, Kratville seized the opportunity to spend two months in Sydney, Australia, teaching application development skills for Web-based technologies, such as HTML, JavaScript, and SQL, on behalf of the Australian government.

Kratville and many other IT workers who have completed foreign assignments say the experience has made them more independent and appreciative of diversity. This, in turn, has led their companies to entrust them with more managerial responsibilities.

In addition, IT workers with this exposure have a better sense of how to prepare software and systems for an international market, says Naomi Bloom managing partner at human resources consultancy Bloom & Wallace in Fort Myers, Fla.

"International work is essential to the career of an IT professional," who needs to understand that features such as time and date need to be adjusted from country to country, Bloom says.

Overcoming Obstacles

If you think the chance to work abroad sounds like an adventure, you're right. But perhaps it's somewhat more mundane than you imagine.

Kratville didn't return with stories of encounters in the Australian outback. Instead, he speaks about how he had to carry a space heater from room to room in his apartment because most homes there lack central heating. (July and August are winter months in Australia).

As the temperature dropped to 40 degrees Fahrenheit, Kratville spent some nights sleeping in his coat.

IT workers will want to do more research before traveling than he did, Kratville advises. This includes learning about not just the weather but also the culture, currency exchanges and transportation system.

Prior to arriving in Sydney, Kratville didn't realize that the Australian dollar is worth about half that of the American dollar. Nor did he realize that he would have to grocery shop more often because the country's refrigerators are approximately half the size of those in the U.S.

For many IT workers, the biggest factor to consider may be one that doesn't involve their job at all. Employees should also consider that living abroad will likely mean major career disruptions for their spouses.

Daniel E. DeHart, IT director at Capital One Financial Corp. in Falls Church, Va., says he was able to take an overseas assignment because his wife, a sales manager, was "willing to put her career on hold" during his two years in England.

Getting an Assignment

In some cases, managers seek IT workers with particular skills to send abroad. But if an IT worker wants to take the initiative to seek an overseas assignment, he should let his managers know, be patient and make sure there's a compelling business reason for working abroad, says DeHart.

It took one year from the time DeHart voiced an interest in working in a foreign country before the company sent him to England as it was expanding its IT infrastructure in that region.

After working 12 years at the headquarters of Memphis-based Federal Express Corp., Denise Wood spent almost three years as CIO and vice president of the FedEx Asia Pacific region, beginning in 1996. In addition to witnessing the historical British handover of Hong Kong to China, Wood - who is now vice president of customer systems - gained some invaluable skills.

"It helped build my confidence in different situations, and I came back taking on a much bigger role," she says.

Wood says she realized how crucial it is that the company's Web site features local language support. "If you don't have international [support], your Web site appears broken," says Wood.

In addition, she learned how to operate in a more complex IT environment without making shipping more complex to customers. The shipping market in Asia is more export-driven than in the U.S., and, as a result, IT systems need to be sophisticated enough to support these international shipments, says Wood.

Just as travelers have to wade through customs each time they enter a foreign country, packages sent abroad need to go through similar checks. "This hammers home the need to simplify shipping experience to our customers," Wood says.

After returning from his international assignment, DeHart was promoted from group manager to director. He's now managing five times as many workers as before.

Like other IT employees who worked abroad, DeHart says that encountering people from different cultures made it imperative to become a good listener and appreciate differing viewpoints.

"If you don't take the time to listen to folks, they can become very frustrated [when you] propose something. I understand and listen to people much more [and] incorporate [that] in my management," he says.

Lasting Impressions

Veterans of foreign assignments cite the following career impacts of their international experience:

Easier to obtain a differentposition in the company 41 percent Faster promotion 30 percentChange employer more often 27 percentNot sure 32 percentOther 8 percentSource: October 2000 survey of 161 professionals who recently completed foreign assignments, Conducted by GMAC Global Relocation Services, National Foreign Trade Council Inc. and the Society of Human Resources Management Global Forum.

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