Co-op Experience Abroad
Hey! I'm Jacob Chvatal.
I'm a computer science major from Portland, Oregon, and I just finished my second year studying at Northeastern.
I'm currently living in Stockholm, Sweden, where I'm a software developer for Skira, an agricultural tech startup. Skira provides a digital grain trading platform to farmers, providing an alternative to the status quo of phone calls and in-person meetings to facilitate more efficient farm-related transactions.
Though this is my first formal co-op, I spent the summer interning remotely for a large tech company, and prior to this have had two other software development internship experiences.
Finding the Position
Mrs. Kent-Yates, my advisor, helped me find the job. I'd mentioned on my co-op paperwork that I would be interested in living in Scandinavia, and she had had a prior student who had interned at Skira the previous year. I was offered an interview in January and I decided to accept the position in early February.
Finding housing was a bit challenging for me; it's difficult to find housing in Stockholm proper, even for people currently living in Sweden. I decided to book an AirBnB for a week to buy some time for looking at longer term accomodations in person. I posted an advertisement on Blocket (a service a bit like Craigslist, but much safer) to find housing and received some responses, but after seeing some apartments through this service I ended up deciding to sublet from a friend of my AirBnB host long-term. It took me longer than expected, but my host was nice enough to allow me to stay for longer than a week's time.
The visa process was a bit confusing due to COVID, but would have gone smoothly otherwise. I applied for and received my worker's permit in early March, before Scandinavia and the US started to deal with the coronavirus, but it was unclear what would happen after COVID. Through June, I thought I would be working from home for the rest of the year, but in July Sweden decided to lift restrictions for travelers visiting from the US who had work permits. I then applied for my residence permit with help from an organization called the Swedish-American Chamber of Commerce and was granted the permit about two weeks before I left the US. It was difficult to convince the airline that I was legally able to travel to Sweden, but the customs process itself went very smoothly.
I am definitely not making as much at this job as I did at previous positions I've had, but I'm still making more money than I'm spending during my time here. I'm making about 18 US dollars an hour, basic living expenses are much cheaper here than in Boston, even in the city. Eating out is much more expensive than the US, but if you cook most of your meals you won't have a problem with budgeting here.
I've only been here for about a month so far but I've been able to meet a few people during my time here. The company I work for has been great about making time for social events during the work week. There are two other Northeastern students here -- one who connected Skira with Northeastern and is now working full-time, and another co-op -- so I spend time with them outside of work. I also have relatives in the area, so I hang out with my cousin, and I've met a few international students studying in the city to spend time with. I still do a lot on my own, but I think that's something you'll have to be comfortable with when moving anywhere new as you acclimate to the new space.
I honestly haven't had any issues with language or cultural barriers. Though everyone speaks Swedish by default here, English is just as important as Swedish, math or science in Swedish school -- my cousin's reading the same English books I did when I was in high school. It's totally possible to live here without speaking any Swedish.
I've really enjoyed the workplace. Though much of the business is still done in Swedish, our workplace has been very accomodating of the US employees; all meetings and presentations are held in English by default. The occupation helps as well -- something we don't really think about in the US is that almost all code written worldwide is developed in English, so English is the de-facto language for talking about programming as well. This isn't unique to software development, though; one of my dad's coworkers here has lived here for eight years without learning any Swedish, and I've met British people working at cafes doing their work entirely in English. We've laughed at lunch about some Swedish idioms that don't translate well to English, but I've had zero real problems with communication.
I'm a big fan of the Swedish custom of 'fika' -- at about 3:00 PM, everyone in Sweden takes a 15-30 minute break from work to spend time with their coworkers, hanging out over coffee and cinnamon buns. Between this and our much longer lunches (an hour to an hour and a half), I've enjoyed the ability to get to take multiple breaks throughout the work daya nad bond with my coworkers.
Day to day at my job, I help develop Skira's web platform. We're currently transitioning from a product that has a stable viable product to one that has lots of features to help farmers, so I've been able to play a role in ideating, designing and developing lots of new features for the platform. From a technical standpoint, the code I've been writing has been similar to most other web development jobs (React-Redux, Express, GraphQL, Postgres stack for the computer science students listening), but the ability to be one of just five engineers and play a large part in the development of the product has been really enjoyable for me. The other developers are all very skilled, and we have a high bar for code quality, so I've been able to learn quite a bit from discussing best practices with my team.
It's much cheaper to go to the grocery store here than in America, but going out to eat is more expensive; the government subsidizes basic goods and taxes restaurants to make sure everyone can afford food. As such, there are fewer fast food restaurants and more nice venues. There are also many more vegan options than in the US -- every restaurant and grocery store has vegan alternatives for most of their products. If you're vegan and/or enjoy cooking you'll have a great time here; if you eat out frequently, your wallet will start hurting.
What I would Do Better
If I were to travel abroad again (and I'm definitely planning on it), I'd spend more time figuring out what sights I'd like to see and things I'd like to do before visiting. With COVID, I wasn't expecting to be able to travel to Sweden at all so I didn't really prepare, but it would have been nice to learn a bit of Swedish as well -- again, it's not a problem to only speak English here, but I feel that speaking the native language is still a part of the international experience and I didn't spend enough time learning prior to travelling here.
My top piece of advice is to put yourself out there and experiment! I didn't know that I'd enjoy living and working here as much as I do. Don't be afraid to try things out. Co-ops and internships are the perfect time determine not only what you want to do, but what type of person you want to be. I hadn't ever seriously thought about working at a startup or living abroad before this job, but in this past month I've learned a lot about myself from this adventure -- and I'm sure I'll continue to do so.
To speak a bit about my summer internship, I had a bit of a unique situation -- though I worked remotely from my family home in Portland, Oregon, I live fairly close to the company's office, so I was able to spend some time with coworkers as restrictions loosened in the city over the summer.
I can't stress enough how important communication is for working remotely, especially for engineering-oriented jobs where checkins with coworkers and bosses are infrequent; it's so easy to become stuck on things that could be easily resolved with a quick conversation. Don't be afraid to message others with quick questions, email them or set up meetings; I was on an R&D team developing an experimental product, so I had a lot of issues with new and fragile technology that would have been quickly resolved had I reached out sooner. I think the biggest issue with working from home in an engineering discipline is the inability to chat with a coworker in the hallway or see if a mentor is available, so it's super important to continue to reach out online to bridge that communication gap.
Feel free to reach out to me at firstname.lastname@example.org if you have any questions or if you'd just like to talk about Scandinavia, startups and technology!