'Life would be difficult if I didn't speak any German'
Published on: 22 Jan 2013 06:34 CET
James Hobson is the director of software development at the Berlin offices of dmc, a digital media consultancy. He is responsible for an international team of software developers building e-commerce solutions.
What exactly do you do?
Our head office is in Stuttgart, where we have about 250 people across the full range of web disciplines but always directed towards e-commerce, which basically means online shops. Whenever you buy something online there is a reasonable chance we have been involved somewhere along the line. The place I work, dmc 030 was created as a subsidiary company to take advantage of the wonderful creative, international and exciting start-up culture of Berlin. Although the business in Berlin is over two years old, I have only been here since the middle of last year when I was brought in to help keeping things moving in the right direction.
What brought you to Germany and how long have you been here?
Quite simply, I came to Berlin because I love the place, and it feels like my home. I found myself looking for a new job, single, my brother needed a place to live (meaning he could take over my apartment) and everything just seemed to point in the direction of now or never. So I took the plunge towards the end of 2010 and never looked back.
Since I learned German at school I had dreamed of one day moving to Germany and spending a few years in this exotic foreign land. Clearly my views have changed somewhat since I was 14, but Germany has always had a special place in my heart and Berlin especially has always had a great attraction for me.
How did you land your job and do you have tips for anyone seeking similar work?
I followed the time-honoured route of looking on Xing, mailing the guy with the most interesting advert and following up by telephone. Luckily for me the process at dmc was very straightforward, we had a telephone discussion, followed by a face-to-face interview and an offer was made and accepted on the spot. The telephone interview was a friendly chat about my background, what I was looking for, and how I saw myself fitting with the new company. It was conducted in a mix of English and German, but I never felt any pressure to use one language over the other, I now know that we conduct something like 25 percent of all interviews in English.
The face-to-face interview was very thorough and aimed not just at my technical skills and background but also me as a person and how I would fit with the team. This was a key to me accepting the role – the people in the room cared about me as a person and how I would interact and work with the other people both already here and in the future.
Do I have advice for people looking for a similar role in Berlin? Well firstly call me, we are hiring! The key things are the same in Germany as they are anywhere else, but I think it's worth stating some of them again.
Have a plan before you arrive. Berlin does have high unemployment and even in sectors like IT Berlin is not the hottest market in the world. Do your research. I won't hire someone who doesn't know what they applied for. Make a proper application, in IT it doesn’t matter so much if it's a German Lebenslauf or a CV, but do ensure it is well written, understandable and tells the company what you have done and what you can do. Include a picture in the application. I know it seems weird to most of us foreigners, but in Germany it's best to play by the German rules. Use Xing. LinkedIn is a distant second in Germany. Even if you don't use it to look for work, employers will check your profile. Network - as with most places in the world the best jobs are found through word of mouth.
Is it important for you to be able to speak German in your position?
Yes and no. While technically I could work here if I didn't speak any German I think my life would be much more difficult. People are happy to translate, to work in English and to make life as easy as possible. But I do think that for more senior roles, even where everyone speaks English, it is important to be able to take part in German conversation, to pick up the little comments and jokes that aren’t always translated, and to feel like you are really part of the conversation.
I would say that German isn’t a required starting point, but anyone planning to live and work in Berlin for more than a few months should look at picking up a decent level of the language. Not because it's required, but because it makes such a big difference to feeling a part of the team, to not always be the lost guy asking what everything means.
What are the key differences practising your profession here and your home country?
As anyone will tell you, Germany is efficient but bureaucracy-crazy. It's hard to tell if those facts are related. An implicit “customer said it was ok” doesn’t fly here, everything needs to be printed, signed and freigegeben [approved]. But other than minor things, I think IT is one of the most international careers, and things vary much less than in other industries. Anyone used to working for a software company in London would very quickly feel at home at any of the places I know here in Berlin.
I am a chemistry graduate, which many Germans find incredible. The idea that someone here can change careers seems shocking. It has never been a problem for me that I have the “wrong” qualifications, but I regularly get asked about it.
What are the best and worst parts about working in Germany?
Salaries are much lower here than in London, but due to the cost of living differences I don’t think that is as much of a big deal as it seems on the surface. The best thing is of course having someone pay me to live in the best place in the world. I have the life many people dream of and it's all paid for by a job I love. I am very fortunate to be in this position.
The worst part? That's a very difficult question. I find the bureaucracy difficult, constantly finding that I cannot do things because someone somewhere has to approve or sign something first. In London I was expected to be a Swiss army knife, constantly picking up anything that needed doing. Here this is looked upon with a degree of suspicion - why are you doing that? it's not your job!
Do you plan on staying?
Yes, absolutely. Like most of the people who come to Berlin, I did so because I love the place. I love the arts, the creative and the musical scene here, I love the people and I love the language. I love being surrounded by the history and I love the freedom here. I can get anywhere in Berlin from anywhere else in about an hour, I can have a great meal for less than €10, and I can see the concerts from the world's greatest stars every month.
I think the “poor but sexy” brand has been overused, but to some extent it's still true. Many of the problems of Berlin, the high unemployment for example, are key to keeping prices down and allowing the arts scene to develop.
I don’t believe my home-town, London, will ever have the raw excitement of Berlin; it's too grown up. London wears a suit, works in a bank, and drinks in a wine bar. And I love London for that, but after 30 odd years, it's time for a change, and Berlin is my new home.
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