Many years ago, my wife and I quit our promising careers in Karachi 🇵🇰, packed up our entire life in a few bags and moved to a new city, Vancouver 🇨🇦. This post touches upon our journey and some of the lessons we learned along the way. We have privately shared some of these tips with our new immigrant friends over the past few years and they have all benefited so I thought of open sourcing our story and learnings.
The biggest motivator for us to apply for the immigration was our desire to start fresh, take bigger risks and explore several things before committing to a craft for life. Both of us had an MBA from the best local business school and were on a fast track to careers we didn’t know if we were fully in love with. The decision to immigrate was not a way for us to improve our standard of living or pursue greener pastures in anyway. Our research showed that the Canadian ecosystem would provide us with the right kind of springboard we needed to experiment through life until we found personal<>craft fit and settled into a lifestyle that we were comfortable with — not defined by society at large.
Upon receiving our landing papers, the first — maybe biggest — challenge was committing to the move. I remember a close friend, Ali Zaidi, giving me the best advice:
Think of yourselves as paratroopers who have been dropped into a city and now need to figure things out. Worst case, you will fail but you will come out stronger as a unit … you would’ve done something insanely scary together and that will make you stronger. From there on, you will be able to goto any part of the world and efficiently integrate without repeating previous mistakes. Make the jump.
We decided to move together against popular opinion, where, a single member of the family goes into the new world, explores, finds source of income, obtains shelter and only then uproots everything for rest of the household. We liked the idea of para-trooping instead. To each their own and we also don’t have strong opinions or suggestions around your immigration strategy, you know you best!
The second big decision was to choose the city we would official land to within Canada. We researched for many weeks and thought about: diversity, culture, food, weather, cost of living, employment opportunities and values — yes, values the average resident of the city lives by! We did not want to move to a large city. I personally have always been very aligned with the West Coast mindset and coming out of Oil & Gas didn’t want to move to any city which ran on large-scale manufacturing or big oil.
Growing up I went to a school which had pupil from 30+ countries. I think I wanted the same for my children. We wanted to live in a city which cared for sustainability, nature and animal rights. We wanted a city with such good transport infrastructure that not owning a car — in turn paying big oil — would be an option without sacrificing quality of life. Youtube suggested this video — during our search — about Vancouver one fine day and we fell in love.
Before moving to Vancouver, we didn’t know anybody local neither had any extended family in the city. Though old, the video dissected the City of Vancouver really well. It talked about all the pros and cons while walking you through the streets.
We saw that, Vancouver was a diverse city, cared for sustainability, had an amazing food scene and a fast growing tech sector. Vancouverites found peace in nature and valued cultural diversity. The city consistently ranked top five across liveability indexes year on year and while we could see the issues around housing and cost of living, the pros outweighed the cons.
As they say the rest is history, we were airdropped early 2016 and have since found home here but this post is not about how two paratroopers got to a new city and made it their home. It is about sharing some of the lessons we learned along the way as we settled into our new hometown and we hope you find them useful:
1. Stay within 15 minutes — of rush hour — commute from downtown
You will need to get to job interviews, socials, networking coffees. A much predictable commute will be one less thing to worry about and give you the flexibility to be where the action is with minimum effort.
2. Find a local — non-ethnic — community
As immigrants we tend to lean towards neighbourhoods where pre-dominantly people from our own ethnicity reside. We call this ‘community’. I disagree.
This early move steals away the opportunity from you to learn and grow when you arrive at a new place. I rather propose that you find interest based communities. Not only will you meet like minded people but this will also help you learn from diverse perspectives.
I know friends who have found home at the local sailing club and others at the yoga studio. I found mine at the local tech community — which unsurprisingly is extremely welcoming towards newcomers, globally.
3. Drop the pin
Human brains like to associate: people with people, people with things, things with things. When you move to a new city, you might be an extremely accomplished professional but many times the local market might not know about your previous employers and market dynamics. You might have closed $200 million plus deals in Oil & Gas deals across Africa and Middle East but there is a high likelihood that the local don't understand those (global) markets.
To turn the situation in your favour you can provide a local pin so your audience can relate to you, better. This can be in the form of: interest based community, school, company, certification, etc. All it does for you is to be not identified as an alien.
My pin was a coding bootcamp I joined before arriving in Vancouver and spent my first two months at once I landed here.
4. Sort out your mobility
This can be as simple as figuring out the subway system and getting hold of monthly passes. Or figuring out the local bike scene — like Vancouver’s accessible bike lanes — and getting yourself a pair of wheels. And of course if your city or situation demands, getting a car.
Frictionless mobility leads to a higher standard of living. Mobility is not just for going from point A to B within the city but it also enables trips to nearby cities and tourist spots which help you soak in all the new city has to offer.
5. Pick on the local language — not English
Every city tends to have common topics people do small talk about. The weather, nature and activity over the weekend are common topics for Vancouver. Picking up on these topics early will help you break ice and have comfortable conversations with people around you.
You never know, you might fall in love with some of the ice hockey or hikes yourself — our language shapes us after all. The same is true for greetings. Every city has their own. Find the ones local to yours. Do people “hey" or do they just smile?
6. Dress for the role and the city
Shoes are the first things people notice when they meet you. It is said that you should dress for the role. But when you move to a new city you need to revisit your wardrobe (and you sense of fashion). There is surely a reason the locals wear what they wear. Some of it is driven by the local fashion scene, some by weather and more by values the general masses hold.
Vancouver is all about yoga, nature, sustainability and balance. You don’t really see many uptight people in suits walking the financial district. We are the home to Lululemon, Artizia, Arc'teryx and MEC.
I am not suggesting you uproot your sense of identity or Italian suits, but all I am saying is that you might look alien if everyone wears shorts and yoga pants to work everyday while you suit up to go in and sit in front of a screen all day.
7. Explore before you buy a home and settle
Most of us have an instinct to find a place and immediately rent or buy long term. It makes sense right to have that stability right? Moving is costly and a logistical nightmare. But, how do you know that you have explored enough to know where to settle for the next two years or longer — esp. if you bought? You made such a bold move and moved to a new city, would you not want to explore a little bit more and then put down roots? It is also true for North America that you often move cities for better roles and opportunities.
Before going into a long-term lease or purchase decision we suggest figuring out other matters. We lived across four neighbourhoods including Downtown Vancouver over a period of 11 months through AirBnB and short-term rentals before we made the decision to purchase. This was enough time for us to gauge strong signal that the city and the opportunities it presented were a good fit for us.
8. Change careers, find a role in your profession or stay without income but don’t enter the gig economy
I know this sounds like a statement from a place of privilege. But that is not very true. My wife and I moved to Vancouver with less than C$14k — which was only enough for the both of us to barely survive for next 6-8 months.
I didn’t want to work in investment or consulting. I wanted to unlearn, learn and go back to old love: tech. The only two ways to change careers are: internal transfer and getting relevant education. Education helps you reset your credentials and gives you an opportunity to reposition yourself in the market.
Graduate school was 2 years long, I couldn’t afford it and more importantly it didn’t teach me the one thing that mattered most — how to get my first product engineering role outside being a hacker/founder? I found Lighthouse Labs before moving to Vancouver and spent my first two months there. It provided a great community and amazing friends like Scott, Filip and Chris -- though I am not sure if Chris is amazing but it is ok I will include him, forgive me Fil.
Lighthouse Labs gave me an opportunity to learn the local culture over a fast-paced eight weeks while ramping up my web application development knowledge. Needless to say, the alumni support and career services helped me get my first engineering role within two weeks.
I could’ve not asked for a better outcome but while going through this journey I realized how lucky I got with being part of something that put me on a path to my first job in a new city without a lot of hard work. I also realized how focus and passion win, always.
Kudos to my wife for keeping our expenses insanely low while I attended bootcamp so that we didn’t have to worry about food and shelter. That is all that mattered. We lived in tiny but accessible places. It was a joke between us that our entire space was smaller than our bathroom back home — which was true.
I didn’t distract myself trying to enter the gig economy, trusted the process, said goodbye to my old profession and committed. You should do the same. Unless of course you have to due to many reasons, gigs are a big distraction. Doing that little ride for Uber on the side might seem harmless but if you account for it, you might be spending your most productive hours doing something that is not going to help you with your integration longer term.
Same is true for the glorified volunteer work. You should rather invest that time in building your resume, networking and applying for jobs. A friend had a great number he figured based on his experience — he says — that it takes 50 applications per day to land 10 quality interviews and this cycle over a course of two to three months lands you the the most optimal opportunity for you.
(side note: Algorithms To Live By is a great book!)
9. Meet people. Network like a maniac. You should know everyone there is to know
Some of the best jobs don’t make it to the job board. Some of the best jobs are open for months. When you ask hiring managers it will all come down to the right fit. They might never publicize a role if they found a great fit or keep a role open for the longest time waiting for the right fit. But how can they determine the right fit over a piece of paper? This is where networking wins. We all know this. We have all read blogs about this, right? I disagree. While we know networking is important, we don’t know how to go about it. This is an account for what worked for me.
I was navigating the local tech scene in Vancouver and meeting people. Most people didn’t care as my resume showed zero engineering experience rather hinted towards someone with a product and investments background wanted to switch careers into engineering through a bootcamp.
So I used this signal and figured I needed a sponsor to open doors for me. An advisor who would be a local veteran, willing to pay it forward and help me connect with people they knew. Lighthouse Labs was based out of a larger co-working space. There I found Charles, the CTO of a fast growing fintech startup in Canada and someone with two decades of product engineering experience at companies of all sizes — startups to Microsoft. I sent a LinkedIn message asking if he’d be open to a breakfast of Eggs Benedict and become my sponsor. We discussed various things over that meal but most importantly I walked out with Charles saying he will intro me to other CTO friends locally. If I remember correctly I got my first role through Angelist but since Charles and I have been very good friends and his guidance helped me navigate my early engineering career.
The second thing I noticed was that everyone flocked to talk to — and impress — that one person who was associated with a shiny brand during meetups. Everyone wanted to talk to the CXO if they were present at a social. I realized that the CXO most times didn’t remember everyone they met and felt more like celebrities being chased by paparazzi.
I felt it was easier for them to remember things which went wrong. The participants always comprised of the loud one, the smart aleck, the alpha male and the silent majority who huddled to listen in. Nuance had no place in most of these conversations because the smart aleck, loud John or alpha Cody will cut you out and make a joke over the most random things.
A better strategy was to actually listen to the speaker’s views, make mental notes and later follow-up thanking (or disagreeing with) about something that was said during the conversation, further asking for a coffee. Not to suck up to get a job rather to hold genuine conversations with practitioners. This helped me build stronger professional relationships over time.
10. Don’t sell yourself short
Last year, the the Immigration Support Service of British Columbia invited me to speak to a group of women who had recently immigrated to Canada. My hosts wanted me to come in and convince every participant that tech was the right career choice for each one of them. Me being my true unpredictable self spoke about strength.
Some of these women were sole breadwinners for their household. Many were coming from countries of origin where women’s rights was still not a topic of discussion. I felt it was my moral obligation to help them realize how strong they were versus selling them dreams of a six figure salary tech job.
As an immigrant you try to adapt to the local systems, language and norms. You are the brave one who uprooted their life and had the courage to move to a new place following your conviction. You are more courageous than the average Joe who has never lived outside this town except for the obligatory foreign study trip to a developing country.
You should adapt but never sell yourself short. There is nothing in this world that should let someone exploit you by asking you to do free (volunteer) work in the name of ‘local’ experience or pay you less than others because ‘you do not have local experience’.
Those are just not the right places to spend your time and effort. They don’t value you. But I understand if you have to because of short-term personal reasons. I just hope you are aware of the exploitation, don’t lose hope and find people who value for who you are and what you bring to the table -- appreciating your past experiences and education from other geographies.
As far as tech jobs are concerned, they are not for everyone and the 99% of the world which doesn’t live on HackerNews needs real humans to take care of real humans to help sustain a well-functioning society. Do something you find purpose in. It is also ok if you have not found your calling and work at the bank until you are 70 building a better life for your family taking minimal risks. Just don’t forget that when your kid grows up, don’t limit their ambitions, maybe watch this TED talk sometime.
In case you are curious, ISS-BC now invites me every year for the same talk and I am very thankful to them for this opportunity.
There were at least 10-15 more things I wanted to write about but these seemed most important. As a closing thought I wanted to touch upon the most important of all things: humans in your life. Asfi introduced me to this phrase and I have lived by it since.
You are the average of the five people you spend most of your time with
Over the years we made so many acquaintances: I think I personally know off and have met at least 1,000-2,000 people over the past few years but a few became close friends and my tribe.
I found great friends like Scott, Fil, Chris, KV, Arnie, Aanchan, Ives and Charles in this tiny city. I made some great friends such as Murtii, Deepak, Ali, Billiam, Badru, Brandon, Sudhee and Kevin through work and I have been able to stay in touch with old — and some renewed — friends like Asfi, Ali, Mashal, Rasib, Nabeel, Momin, Farzal, Osaid, Zahir, Taimur and Usman despite our distance and timezones.
I hope you find your tribe and some of our learnings help you settle into your new home!
I would love to hear your feedback on twitter @osamakhn