Seeking Advice About Career Paths for Non-USA Citizen

post by almkglor · 2016-09-28T00:07:38.417Z · score: 5 (6 votes) · LW · GW · Legacy · 14 comments

Hi all,

Mostly lurker, I very rarely post, mostly  just read the excellent posts here.

I'm a Filipino, which means I am a citizen of the Republic of the Philippines.  My annual salary, before taxes, is about $20,000 (USA dollars).  I work at an IC development company (12 years at this company), developing the logic parts of LCD display drivers.  My understanding is that the median US salary for this kind of job is about $80,000 -> $100,000 a year.  This is a fucking worthless third world country, so the government eats up about ~30% of my salary and converts it to lousy service, rich government officials, bad roadworks, long commute times, and a (tiny) chance of being falsely accused of involvement in the drug trade and shot without trial.  Thus my take-home pay amounts to about $15,000 a year.  China is also murmuring vague threats about war because of the South China Sea (which the local intelligentsia insist on calling the West Philippine Sea); as we all know, the best way to survive a war is not be in one.

This has lead to my deep dissatisfaction with my current job.

I'm also a programmer as a hobby, and have been programming for 23 years (I started at 10 years old on Atari LOGO; I know a bunch of languages from low-level X86 assembly to C to C++ to ECMAScript to Haskell, and am co-author of SRFI-105 and SRFI-110).  My understanding is that a USA programmer would *start* at the $20,000-a-year level (?), and that someone with experience can probably get twice that, and a senior one can get $100,000/year.

As we all know, once a third world citizen starts having first world skill level, he starts demanding first world renumeration also.

I've been offered a senior software developer job at a software company, offering approximately $22,000/year; because of various attempts at tax reform it offers a flat 15% income tax, so I can expect about $18,000/year take home pay.  I've turned it down with a heavy heart, because seriously, $22,000/year at 15% tax for a senior software developer?

Leaving my current job is something I've been planning on doing, and I intend to do so early next year.  The increasing stress (constant overtime, management responsibilities (I'm a tech geek with passable social skills, and exercising my social skills drains me), 1.5-hour commutes) and the low renumeration makes me want to consider my alternate options.

My options are:

1.  Get myself to the USA, Europe, or other first-world country somehow, and look for a job there.  High risk, high reward, much higher probability of surviving to the singularity (can get cryonics there, can't get it here).  Complications: I have a family: a wife, a 4-year-old daughter, and a son on the way.  My wife wants to be near me, so it's difficult to live for long apart.  I have no work visa for any first-world country.  I'm from a third-world country that is sometimes put on terrorist watch lists, and prejudice is always high in first-world countries.

2.  Do freelance programming work.  Closer to free market ideal, so presumably I can get nearer to the USA levels of renumeration.  Lets me stay with my family.  Complications: I need to handle a lot of the human resources work myself (healthcare provider, social security, tax computations, time and task management - the last is something I do now in my current job position, but I dislike it).

3.  Become a landowning farmer.  My paternal grandparents have quite a few parcels of land (some of which have been transferred to my father, who is willing to pass it on to me), admittedly somewhere in the boondocks of the provinces of this country, but as any Georgian knows, landowners can sit in a corner staring at the sky, blocking the occasional land reform bill, and earn money.  Complications: I have no idea about farming.  I'd actually love to advocate a land value tax, which would undercut my position as a landowner.

For now, my basic current plan is some combination of #2 and #3 above: go sit in a corner of our clan's land and do freelance programming work.  This keeps me with my family, may reduce my level of stress, may increase my renumeration to nearer the USA levels.

My current job has a retirement pay, and since I've worked for 12 years, I've already triggered it, and they'll give me about $16,000 or so when I leave.  This seems reasonably comfortable to live on (note that this is what I take home in a year, and I've supported a family on that, remember this is a lousy third-world country).

Is my basic plan sound?  I'm trying to become more optimal, which seems to me to point me away from my current job and towards either #1 or #2, with #3 as a fallback.  I'd love to get cryonics and will start to convince my wife of its sensibility if I had a chance to actually get it, but that will require me either leaving the country (option #1 above) or running a cryonics company in a third-world country myself.


I got introduced to Less Wrong when I first read on Reddit about some weirdo who was betting he could pretend he was a computer in a box and convince someone to let him out of the box, and started lurking on Overcoming Bias.  When that weirdo moved over to Less Wrong, I followed and lurked there also.  So here I am ^^.  I'm probably very atypical even for Less Wrong; I highly suspect I am the only Filipino here (I'll have to check the diaspora survey results in detail).

Looking back, my big mistake was being arrogant and thinking "meh, I already know programming, so I should go for a challenge, why don't I take up electronics engineering instead because I don't know about it" back when I was choosing a college course.  Now I'm an IC developer.  Two of my cousins (who I can beat the pants off in a programming task) went with software engineering and pull in more money than I do.  Still, maybe I can correct that, even if it's over a decade late.  I really need to apply more of what I learn on Less Wrong.

Some years ago I applied for a CFAR class, but couldn't afford it, sigh.  Even today it's a few month's worth of salary for me.  So I guess I'll just have to settle for Less Wrong and Rationality from AI to Zombies.



Comments sorted by top scores.

comment by hg00 · 2016-09-28T01:43:41.450Z · score: 6 (6 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

My understanding is that a USA programmer would start at the $20,000-a-year level (?), and that someone with experience can probably get twice that, and a senior one can get $100,000/year.

A pessimistic starting salary for a competent US computer programmer is $60K and senior ones can clear $200K. $100K is a typical starting salary for a computer science student who just graduated from a top university (also the median nationwide salary).

In the US market, foreigners come work as computer programmers by getting H1B visas. The stereotypical H1B visa programmer is from India, speaks mostly intelligible English with a heavy accent, gets hired by a company that wants to save money by replacing their expensive American programmers, and exists under the thumb of their employer (if they lose their job, their visa is jeopardized). I think that the average H1B makes less money than the average American coder. It sounds to me like you'd be a significantly more attractive hire than a typical H1B--you're fluent in English, and you've made contributions to Scheme?

The cost of living in the US is much higher than the Philippines. Raising a family in Silicon Valley is notoriously expensive. Especially if you want your kids to go to a "good school" where they won't be bullied. I don't know what metro has the best job availability/cost of living/school quality tradeoff. It will probably be one of the cities that's referred to as a "startup hub", perhaps Seattle or Austin. If your wife is willing to homeschool, you don't have to worry about school quality.

You can dip your toes in Option 1 without taking a big risk. Just start applying to US software companies. They'll interview you via Skype at first, and if you seem good, the best companies will be willing to pay for your flight to the US to meet the team. To save time you probably want to line up several US interviews for a single visit so you can cut down on the number of flights. Here are some characteristics to look for in companies to apply to:

  • The company has a process in place for hiring foreigners.

  • The company is looking for developers with your skill set.

  • The company's developer team is "clued in". Contributing to Scheme is going to be a big positive signal to the right employer. You can do things like read the company engineering blog, use BuiltWith, look up the employees on LinkedIn to figure out if the company seems clued in. Almost all companies funded by Y Combinator are clued in. If your interviewer's response to seeing Scheme on your resume is "What is Scheme?", then you're interviewing at the wrong company and you'll be offered a higher salary elsewhere.

  • The company is profitable but not sexy. For example, selling software to small enterprises. (You probably don't want to work for a business that sells software to large enterprises, as these firms are generally not "clued in". See above.) Getting a job at a sexy consumer product company like Google or Facebook is difficult because those are the companies that everyone is applying to. You can interview at those companies for fun, as the last places you look at. And you don't want to apply for a startup that's not yet profitable because then you're risking your wife and kids on an unproven business. I'm not going to tell you how to find these companies--if you use the same methods everyone else uses to find companies to apply to, you'll be applying to the same places everyone else is.

Of course you'll be sending out lots of resumes because you don't have connections. Maybe experiment with writing an email cover letter very much like the post you wrote here, including the word "fucking". I've participated in hiring software developers before, and my experience is that attempts at formal cover letters inevitably come across as stuffy and inauthentic. Catch the interviewer's interest with an interesting email subject line+first few sentences and tell a good story.

Actually you might have some connections--consider reaching out to companies that are affiliated with the rationalist community, posting to the Scheme mailing list if that's considered an acceptable thing to do, etc.

Consider donating some $ to MIRI if my advice ends up proving useful.

comment by korin43 · 2016-09-28T16:51:17.215Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Raising a family in Silicon Valley is notoriously expensive.

It's worth pointing out that Silicon Valley isn't typical though. Jobs there can be worth it if the companies pay enough (see: Netflix, Google, etc.), but there are plenty of reasonable-paying tech jobs in much cheaper areas.

comment by almkglor · 2016-09-28T21:52:09.495Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Thanks for the reply, I'll consider your advice more!

re: English, fluent writer, my spoken English is sometimes halting (it's not like I can go back and edit my vocal utterances, unlike in "written" English on a computer). re: Scheme, I'm not so sure if a Schemer would say I "contributed" to the Scheme language with SRFI-110 - there's significant resistance against indent-based syntaxes - but I know a few implementations have picked up SRFI-105 (Guile at least, I think a few others).

comment by John_Maxwell (John_Maxwell_IV) · 2016-12-23T02:22:10.566Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

It's been a few months, how are things going?

comment by almkglor · 2016-09-30T15:23:14.530Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Somebody suggested that people in LessWrong may be interested in my resume, and may be able to hire, so I updated my website on to include my resume.

comment by username2 · 2016-09-30T05:25:56.743Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Absolutely and unequivocally, you need to get out of IC design and into software engineering.

As mentioned by others, you are vastly underestimating the earning potential of 1st world software engineer. Someone fresh out of college or otherwise with little experience should expect $100k/yr from a typical technology company. A senior software engineer is probably $150k or more per year. Expect 35-50% of it to go to taxes, depending on where you live. If you're in Canada those taxes go towards wonderful things like universal health care that keep down your cost of living. If you're in the USA they mostly go to foreign wars and the parasitic healthcare industrial complex and you pay for things out of pocket. :shrug:

That said, expenses for a family of 4 are going to be a lot larger. I would expect to pay $36k or more in rent per year to live in a large enough apartment in a suburb of the SF bay area commuting distance from your job and with not terrible schools. Almost certainly another $12k on groceries, and $6k on car ownership (a necessity in our poorly designed cities). In the US (not Canada), you'll need an additional $6k or so for basic family medical insurance. If I assume that you land a $120k//yr (pre-tax) salary, that leaves you with only $18k left after taxes and basic living expenses. So if you did nothing else (no preschool, no daycare, no traveling home, no lifestyle creep, no leisure activities whatsoever) you'd be able to save approximately your entire current pre-tax annual salary.

Improvement? Yes, but there were a heck of a lot of 'if's in there. And as you note you can basically do the same thing or better by living on your family's land and getting freelance / remote work, taking advantage of the cost of living differences. Many tech workers in the USA dream of doing exactly what you could very easily be doing: go live in a cheap 3rd world country while earning USA-sized freelance salaries. On the internet, no one really cares where you are living or what your daily expenses are, just that you're doing a good job.

That said, it can be daunting to start freelance work, and hard to get your rates up without the professional network that comes from having worked in 1st world tech hubs. If you were single and unattached I might recommend the move to California or Toronto or something, but I'm not sure that's a good fit to your current situation, unless moving to the USA or elsewhere was your goal anyway.

Good reasons to move: Escape the Philippine drug war, network with other rationalists, cryonics, and transhumanist people, acquire better passport,, better opportunities for your children.

Bad reasons to move: Income (you can do as good or better freelancing), grass is greener (it's not).

If you chose not to move, you can still do effective networking by attending conferences and other professional events, as well as open-source hackathons and meetups in the locales you pass through. Choose and industry that you are not going to be fighting an uphill battle to establish yourself in, and then become reasonably well known and respected in that community. Often this will allow you to get travel support for attending conferences and community events, at least to cover all or part of your flight and hotel. Long-duration remote work will probably also involve frequent 1- or 2-week travel to the company or team headquarters. Expect to travel 1-2 months of the year. In any case you can and should take advantage of whatever nearby meetups are available either in your subfield or the rationalist/lesswrong & transhumanist communities.

By the way, Is your resume available? There are actually people here who might be able to hire you.

Side note: you should be able to sign up for Alcor even if you live in the Philippines. Have you properly looked into this? There are surcharges for foreign cryopreservations, so your insurance will have to be higher, but there is precedent for this. I don't know about the Philippines, but one of the recent Alcor cases was a 4yo Thai girl.

Side note 2: having been through a CFAR workshop, I don't think it would be worth the much higher relative cost for you to attend. There are cheaper low-hanging fruit to engage with in any case. And besides, the epistemologically confirmed parts of CFAR knowledge-base can be picked up $1.50 in late fees from your local library.

comment by almkglor · 2016-09-30T12:30:17.485Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Re: underestimating tech salaries, thanks for the corrections; I may have discounted similar information before because even senior software developers I know personally locally are <$30,000/yr, and "start at $100,000/yr" sounded much too good (this is retrospectively obviously a bad heuristic and I will now strive to do better). In retrospect, checking the salaries of relatives who migrated to the USA should have corrected this.

re: moving to 1st-world country as a goal, my wife has this as a goal (FWIW it's a common goal for a sizable fraction (which I haven't researched) of Filipinos, which should indicate just how lousy Philippines is), not so much mine. I personally feel that I should strive to make the Philippines better, and initially thought that staying here would be the best method, but I probably need to re-consider that, which is why I need to consider the option of working abroad, whether permanently or temporarily. I worry about decaying values if I leave the Philippines (i.e. would Gandhi drink a pill that has a 1% chance of making him indifferent to India), but maybe I just need a credible way of maintaining the values of my future self.

re: freelancing, yes, that was my analysis. My wife and I talked several months ago with a couple whose husband had successfully transitioned to a freelance software job here in the Philippines, although exact numbers never got mentioned (but it was obvious they were comfortably well off). So I took to guessing that maybe a freelancer would get 50%->80% of what a regular USA jobholder would get, and used my (flawed!) understanding of USA salaries to consider this. So maybe I should recompute this after all... Looks like freelance is a better option than I thought before.

As for my family's land, I'll have to check; it's possible it doesn't have Internet or electricity, haha (Internet access is expensive in the Philippines, and my understanding is that it's one of the more expensive rates in the world). FWIW I and my wife and children live at my wife's uncle's, since the building is rented out as residential units and my wife's current job is managing it; Internet is paid for by my wife's uncle since they communicate by Facebook and Viber (my wife's uncle emigrated to the USA), so I don't strictly speaking need to be at my own family's land as long as my wife keeps her job.

re: resume, I have a pdf copy. I was going to say that I don't have a website to put it up on, but then I remembered that I do have, which means I really really really need to be a lot more aware of my options and resources, because seriously, a REAL PROGRAMMER (TM) without a website? Okay, I'll put it up there after I dredge up the instructions for updating that site.

(side note: NetHack is good rationalist training, because a lot of deaths there are in retrospect pretty stupid when you get "Do you want your possessions identified" and found out you had very valuable items you forgot to use because you didn't stop and think through your real options and take a good long look at your available resources... I need to treat real life more like NetHack, hahaha)

re: cryonics, I remember researching that maybe a decade ago and deciding that the total cost was too much for my salary then (and I'd have to contend with the possibility of relatives preventing me from being cryonically preserved anyway); I can't remember where I put the computations for that, though, sigh. Come to think of it, I haven't re-computed for my conditions now (I've been assuming the cost for me a decade later would be higher than the cost then, and cancel out my increase in purchasing capacity), which I obviously should do (damn cached thoughts), at least for my children if not for my wife and I... It's amazing how stupid a brain can be, I should have rethought that earlier.

re: CFAR, yes, that's my impression so far. Libraries in the Philippines are few and far between, but there are other ways to get the information (e.g. this website). I'd still like to attend one at some point in the future if only to see if they've gotten better, but obviously that has to come after I'm the smiling agent sitting on top of a heap of utilons.

comment by Strangeattractor · 2016-10-20T04:56:30.129Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Farming is a completely different type of job than software development or designing integrated circuits.

When you program a computer, it does what you tell it to. You can diagnose what's wrong and fix it. Whether you can fix things is based a lot on your own skill and knowledge.

If you become a farmer, you can do everything skillfully and still have a crop fail. You are at the mercy of the weather.

Have you even grown a small vegetable garden? That might be a first step to get some idea what you are facing if you go into farming.

Don't assume farming will be easy. It can be one of the toughest jobs. Spend some time out on a farm helping out with whatever needs to be done to research this option. If you enjoy being outdoors, and are ok with the uncertainty of farming, then maybe it is for you. If you love the land, then farming may be for you.

Since your wife wants to move to another country, I think it is worth going through the immigration processes for various countries. Immigration processes can take years, and still have an uncertain result, so you might as well get started. If you can afford to visit some countries, that may make things clearer too. There are more changes to moving to another country than just money. Climate and culture can have a big effect on a person's life.

Where I live in Canada, a starting salary for a software developer can be about CAD $40 000. So the $100 000 figure other people are talking about isn't applicable everywhere.

Regarding freelance work, do you have enough time in the day that you could start doing freelance work while still working at the job you have? If you take on some side projects, you could see how that goes without quitting your job.

I think part of what this decision comes down to is what your goals are, and what the goals of your family are. What are your priorities? What is most important to you?

I think it could help to take the first steps on all three options at once, to get a taste of what each of them is like. Things might become clearer as you get more information. Right now I don't think you know enough about each option to make a good decision. Research is what is required.

Also, I read a book recently about making good decisions. It is called "Decisive: How to Make Better Choices in Life and Work" by Chip Heath and Dan Heath. There are some techniques in there, like asking yourself, "Imagine a year from now the project I was attempting to do has failed. What are the reasons?" that have helped me figure some things out in my own life.

comment by Daniel_Burfoot · 2016-09-28T17:34:02.813Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

You should think a lot about Singapore, and maybe also Australia or Taiwan. Your best bet depends a bit on which country has company(s) that want to hire your skill set.

I think seriously about moving to SG or Australia, and I'm a US citizen.

FWIW, I think you are reading the geopolitical situation wrong about Chinese military ambitions. If China does anything militaristic, it will get hit hard with sanctions by the international community, which will wreck its export-dependent economy. China's goal is to re-establish itself as the center of the world by dominating the global economy.

comment by Lumifer · 2016-09-29T14:43:26.399Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

China's goal is to re-establish itself as the center of the world ...

This part looks true.

... by dominating the global economy.

And this part looks... incomplete. For example, I don't see how constructing artificial islands (aka "unsinkable carriers") in contested waters helps with dominating the global economy.

comment by username2 · 2016-09-30T04:37:41.095Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

For example, I don't see how constructing artificial islands (aka "unsinkable carriers") in contested waters helps with dominating the global economy.

The south China sea is home to a tremendous amount of resources. 7.7 billion barrels of oil proven, with an estimate of 28 billion barrels in total. Around 7.5 billion cubic meters of natural gas. Although its fishing resources are largely depleted, if properly managed it has tremendous sea agriculture potential as well. About 50% of world shipping traffic goes through the south China sea. Controlling the south China sea is about controlling resources that give one a dominating position in the regional and global economy.

comment by Lumifer · 2016-09-30T14:35:28.877Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Yes, the South China Sea is a valuable piece of real estate (if with a bit of a permanent flooding problem). So let's compare two approaches. In one you buy and bribe enough consent out of neighbours to have them agree that the South China Sea is yours (and the nice goodies they got are theirs). In another one you plop down your military into the middle of the contested area and say "Do you feel lucky, punk?".

Which approach, do you think, is more compatible with the idea of "re-establish[ing] itself as the center of the world by dominating the global economy"?

comment by almkglor · 2016-09-28T21:58:20.452Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Hmm, yes, my wife is suggesting Singapore too (she has relatives there, although I'd prefer not to impose). I've also suggested Canada. My wife wants it "nearby", so maybe I'll consider Singapore, Taiwan, and Australia more.

Re: geopolitical situation of China, I hope you're right ^^.

comment by almkglor · 2016-09-28T00:03:37.407Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Hmm, why is this still a draft.... hmm