What I Learned as an Employee in the Taiwan Tech Startup World
Updated: Jan 2, 2022
When I came to this beautiful island five years ago and began looking for a tech job, it felt like a different world than today’s Taiwan. I had to learn a lot of lessons about job hunting, the work experience, and the culture all on my own, and I learned some of those lessons very painfully. While every foreigner’s work experience in Taiwan is different, here are some of the things that I’ve picked up along the way that I think might help you, too.
Increase your chances of landing a great job
When I first arrived, I already had more than six years of experience as a software developer, but as a foreign software professional in Taiwan, I still couldn’t find a suitable job on 104 or other job sites.
So I spent a year taking Chinese classes in the mornings and in the evenings I would attend as many programming meetups as I could find on Facebook or meetup.com. I was almost always the only foreigner there. Sometimes there would be another bespectacled blondish white guy, and it was interesting to watch people try to remember who was whom.
My job search luck broke at one of the monthly programming meetups I regularly attended. After a few months of regular attendance, one of the organizers announced that he was starting his own company, knew my resume and trusted me, and decided to hire me to lead his software team.
That was five years ago. These days, there are so many different networking events every week in Taipei, I often get to choose between 2 or 3 a week to attend. I love going to these types of events to meet new people and learn more about companies. If you’re looking for a job in Taiwan, it is invaluable to attend networking events to learn about the different companies and their cultures here. I recommend focusing on small companies and startups; their culture is often more flexible and more English-language friendly than big companies. One word of advice regarding networking is to be patient. Not every event will yield great connections for you, but if you do enough of it, sooner or later you’ll run into people who can connect to you to interesting career opportunities.
Attending a few networking events a month can be key to getting a job you love.
For bonus points when looking for a job, see if you qualify for the Taiwan Gold Card under the Ministry of Economics requirement. Check approval method #1: If you made a salary of more than 160K NTD / month in the last three years, you are eligible for the gold card. If you’ve just arrived from the tech world in North America, it could be an easy get. Having the open work permit and three year resident visa provided by the Gold Card helps prevent you from having to make visa runs, and also makes you more eligible to be hired – companies don’t have to pay your visa and permit fees, so you’ll be a higher priority pick.
Keep yourself in good shape
When I started my new job, I threw myself into the work. However, after a few years of working long hours, the wear and tear on my body began to show. If you are a startup employee, you need to think of yourself like an endurance athlete. This means getting regular exercise and staying hydrated, but it also means staying physically comfortable at work, which will prevent carpal tunnel, bad neck/back posture, eye strain, and other issues.
Row upon row of non-ergonomic work stations: Neck pain as far as the eye can see.
At your job interviews in Taiwan, take a quick look in the main office areas to see if tables and chairs are adjustable and can be made high enough for you to fit your gangly foreign body. If you see that they aren’t, make sure you mention your difference in height to HR, especially if you are considered tall for Taiwan. Ask if the company can accommodate you or if you will need to bring your own chair or table in.
Whatever you do, DON’T sit uncomfortably for 2-3 years everyday before the strain begins to take its toll on your system.
For workers who spend extended periods of time working on computers, your computer screen needs to be at eye level. Don’t hunch your back all the time, or one day it will stay that way. In the USA, companies I’ve worked for would routinely hold seminars on keeping healthy in the workplace. In Taiwan, I’ve been in several work environments where everyone stares down at their laptop screens, everyone’s back hurts, and no one seems to know why. If you work on a laptop all day and you don’t have a monitor, make sure to buy yourself an external keyboard and a laptop stand to keep your screen at eye level while at the office or on the go. You can find keyboards in any electronics store, or online. Laptop stands are also easy to find online. I recommend that you have the item sent directly to a 7-11 near you, and then select the option to pay for it when it arrives, avoiding the need to pay with a credit card. Have a friend or co-worker help you place the purchase if you can’t read enough Chinese to get through the checkout process.
The desk of an endurance-focused startup employee. Pads to protect against hard table and Macbook Pro edges, a comfy, adjustable chair, water in ample supply, and computer monitors at eye level to prevent neck and back issues.
Recognize language barriers
Something I had to be cognizant of when starting my new job was remembering to slow down when speaking English and to use simpler vocabulary. This is important because some people may not inform you if they don’t understand what you are saying, so if you want to get your message across you need it to be as simple as possible. Also, make it clear that it’s ok for your coworkers to ask for clarification by demonstrating it yourself: Politely ask coworkers to clarify what you personally don’t understand, and they’ll be more willing to do so in turn.
Phrasing and terminology are also important. I tried to remove most sports analogies and movie quotes from my daily lexicon. I found that when I asked very common American workplace smalltalk questions such as, “How was your weekend?” or even “Hey, what’s up?”, co-workers would clam up instantly, not knowing how to respond. It wasn’t clear to them that it was a very casual way to greet people and acknowledge their presence. I had to coach several engineers through how to tell me about their weekend in English, and that it wasn’t a life or death conversation. I think after a while, it got easier and easier for them to respond.
Another interesting point is Taiwanese-English phrasings and vocabulary. I found myself using Taiwanese-English terminology to make myself understood. If you understand the sentence, “We are in PK with our competitor, but we still need to cost down our DMs”, I applaud you. It can be hard to get coworkers to switch to “proper” English terms, but don’t assume that your way of speaking is “better”. It doesn’t matter. The goal is clear communication. Broaden your horizons and get used to Taiwanese-English vocabulary.
Finally, I think it’s very important to make an effort to speak some level of Chinese. Taking 3-6 months of classes before you look for a job or during evenings while on the job can do a lot for your language and cultural fluency. While you still may not understand 50% of what happens in meetings, being able to speak some level of Chinese can help your coworkers feel closer to you, making you and your team more effective.
Be VERY approachable with your colleagues
When you work in an office environment in Taiwan, lots of people will be curious about you and your life but might not know how to approach you about it. This seemed especially true for me with software developers. I recommend being as cheery and friendly as possible, even on the days you aren’t feeling it. Try to make the extra effort to let people know you are a team player.
Let your colleagues know that they can come to you if they are baffled by English language issues.
When I was a manager at the startup, I would eat lunch with my team at least 2-3 times a week and chat about the latest technologies, movies, English study tips, and anything else they wanted to talk about. I did this to let them know I was there for them. I also communicated very clearly with my coworkers about my lunch availability: I told them let’s eat together during the middle of the week, but Mondays and Fridays I’d rather eat alone. This way they wouldn’t be scared of rejection before asking me if I wanted to eat lunch.
I also worked to find ways to connect with my colleagues. After I found out how much my young co-workers, who didn’t have their own families or many hobbies, enjoyed going to the night market after work to play the claw machines and eat street food, I’d regularly ask coworkers to join me to do so after work. I’d personally rather go to a bar, but my coworkers didn’t, so I’d drink my Taiwan beers during our weekly night market pilgrimages. We’d also play movies or video games in the office after work semi-regularly. I think spending time with younger co-workers after work, in ways they enjoyed, really increased our company’s esprit de corps. However, it’s up to you to decide the value of similar behaviors in your own company.
Be aware of cultural and other differences as you work
There’s plenty of general advice out there about saving face and western/eastern culture clashes, so I’ll try to stick to my own experiences and avoid the cliches.
At my company, many of our Taiwanese employees, especially younger ones, found it hard to bring up issues that were bothering them or that they couldn’t solve on their own. I often found that if I asked in a group chat or meeting if someone was having an issue, I’d get blank stares. However, if I went quietly from person to person, and demonstrated that discussing issues with me might mean getting a problem solved more quickly, I would quickly come to understand the issues co-workers were facing.
I also worked hard to provide people with real, honest praise. There seemed to be a large dichotomy between the general positivity that reverberates through Taiwanese culture and the lack of positive feedback I received in my workplace. I found that the most direct praise I ever got was “辛苦你了”, which just meant that the boss felt sorry for asking me to work overtime. Therefore, when someone really did a great job, I would (in private) very clearly give them honest but positive feedback. This often took the form of, “Your hard work researching, designing, and implementing feature X, really made an impact on the new product release. You should be proud of yourself for doing such a great job”.
I also didn’t see many tech people being directly rewarded for their personal contributions to the company: If you get the same Chinese New Year bonus as everyone else in the software department, then what’s the point of pushing yourself to deliver better quality?
While I didn’t see a lot of other people publicly express that opinion in the company, when I saw someone go the extra mile, I would reward it with praise or a small bonus, almost always in a one-to-one setting. I didn’t want to make others jealous and complicate the dedicated team spirit of the staff, but I wanted people to know that their hard work was appreciated, so I would praise and reward them in private. That doesn’t mean to never give any praise in public, however, but it’s important to give face-time and recognition to everyone on the team, to let them know that you aren’t playing favorites.
Surprisingly, it wasn’t me being a foreigner that caused the most clashes at work. We found that amongst the Taiwanese employees, people had very different communication and working styles, which caused conflicts between different employees, especially during critical product launch crunch times. We frequently had frank discussions about managing different working styles. I think employees were hesitant to have these discussions, but after we had some informal chats over lunch and let people discuss as long as was needed, people slowly learned how to better work with each other.
Know your exit options
After several years at the startup, when I’d decided that I wanted to look for new challenges, I was stymied by not knowing how to make my next move. I had a lot of questions: I didn’t have much time during the week to go to job interviews, so should I quit my current job to focus on interview prep? If I quit, would I be kicked out of the country immediately?
I knew I wanted to stay in Taiwan, and I didn’t know if quitting would reset my time towards getting permanent residency, also known as an APRC. Getting an APRC takes five years, and I was close to it, so I stayed in the job longer than I wanted to while I pondered my options. Turns out, it’s pretty easy to just get a 6-month job-seeking ARC – You just need to show up at MOFA with your passport, a new ARC photo, and letter from your company, on company letterhead, detailing when your last day of work will be. There is no template for the letter, so just come up with one on your own, print it, and have someone in your company sign it and chop it. Here’s the template I used:
A sample end-of-employment letter for your job-seeking ARC.
I printed it, asked my company to sign the letter on the day I gave my notice, and took it the next day to MOFA for processing. I also learned that I could apply to extend the job-seeking ARC at least once, for a possible total of 12 months. After getting my new job-seeking ARC, I could breathe easier and turn my focus towards the interview process for my next gig.
6 month job-seeking ARC achieved!
I hope that my thoughts on the subject of working in Taiwan might help you navigate your employment in Taiwan. Again, every foreigner’s work experience in Taiwan is different, so my tips or experiences might not apply to you. Still, I hope they might help you as you consider your next moves. And I’d love to hear from you about your own experiences!
About the Author
Sean Wilson is a Partner at All Hands Taiwan.