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  • Writer's pictureGeorges Janin

The English Divide in Remote Work

Updated: Jun 8, 2020

Last week I had a call with a Mexican candidate, as I do several times per day. I'll usually start in Spanish and switch to English to see how they can handle communicating in a "normal" anglophone environment.

Turns out this guy was not very good. I would have to repeat basic questions several times, and waited for many awkward silences as he struggled to communicate. He was as bad as AMLO, but barely at the level needed to work in a US environment. I liked him enough to give him a try at a client company, just to see how he does.

The company decided to give him a chance and send him a technical test.

In turns out this guy is amazing developer. He apparently did better on the technical aptitude test than any dev they had met, both in Mexico and the US.

I was both happy and worried. Happy because I was that much closer to getting him hired somewhere, but sad because he almost got passed over because of his English. I wondered how many other incredible talent is being overlooked because they could not get their message across en la idioma de Shakespeare.

As remote work increases, there will be 2 classes of developer. The one who can speak English versus the one who can't.

The OECD defines the term Digital Divide as "the gap between individuals, households, businesses and geographic areas at different socio-economic levels with regard to both their opportunities to access information and communication technologies (ICTs) and to their use of the Internet for a wide variety of activities". Do you have a computer with high speed internet access? You are in a priviledged class, and can perform jobs that many people could only dream of.

The Digital Divide has been closing at great speed over the past decade, and hundreds of millions get internet access, especially through their mobile phones.

I would like to posit that the next big divide will be the English Divide - the gap between individuals with a B2 level or higher of English and those without. Depending on which side of the divide you lay, your opportunities and outcomes will be drastically different.

The English Divide has existed in one form or another for many years. English allows you to get a job at hotel instead of working in a factory. It allows you to get a higher per hour rate at a call center. It allows you to do a Masters Degree online in a US institution.

But where the Digital Divide has been shrinking, the English Divide is poised to explode. The reason? Remote work becoming normalized, especially for developers. Some of the largest tech startups - Twitter, Stripe, Coinbase - are officializing remote work. Facebook is planning to be 50% remote by 2030. In five years from now, the opportunties afforded to a dev living in Guadalajara, Medellin, or Buenos Aires will be inconvcievable to a dev in 2020.

The only catch? El Ingles!

The English speaker will be competing for jobs on a international level, with international salaries. She would be able to move abroad if she wanted, and have access to a wide variety of opporunties. She would be able to speak at conferences, be a guest on a podcast, and have a myriad of ways to increase to build her career capital.

The non-English speaker's job prospects will be much more limited. He'll have to work for a local company at a local salary. Those companies, at least in Mexico, pay substantially less. He'll have less mobility, no ability to leave the country, and will be constantly hampered by his inablitiy to speak English.

What's more, these effects will be self-reinforcing. As higher level talent gets poached by international companies, the local companies will be stuck with lower quality developers. Good devs want to work with other good devs, so the process will continue to reinforce.

Anecdotally, I've seen 2-3x differences in salary between people who work at jobs where English is required to where English is not.

So, what can you do about it?

I could prophetize about doom and gloom, a two-tiered class stucture, and prolonged inequality without offering a solution.

I'm sure many of you are studying English to varying levels. I want to give you 3 specific options that can help you.

Work in nearshoring/outsourcing agencies

If you are in Mexico, you have the advantage of being close to the US and probably having access to tons of jobs at outsourcing or nearshoring agencies. Those are good places to start, because they most likely work with US clients but don't need you to speak English at quite the same level as a US company. So its a good way to get in through the back door, and begin operating in an Anglophone work environment.

Listen to tech interviews in English

Obviously one of the best forms of practice is working on the specific scenarios you will be tested in, aka the tech interview. Thankfully, Youtube exists - and there are hundreds of hours of quality tech interviews with engineers from top startups. I recommend interviewing . io's Youtube Channel.

Watch movies/series that take place in an office setting with subtitles in English

Speaking English is only half the equation. You also have to understand it. And Americans speaking at native speed in an office setting can be taxing to the Spanish-speaking ear.

I encourage you to watch movies or TV shows that have lots of scenes in an office setting, with subtitles in English. Target language subtitles has always been the best way for me to learn how to make sense of native speakers, because you can connect the sounds with the actual words.

Some of my favorites include Glenglarry Glenn Ross, Office Space, and the more recent show Billions. But here is a complete list form the IMDB.

Office-focused films will help you pick up the small bits of jargon that exist in all US workplaces, but that are very particular and not well known outside of that world.

Pair up online

If you have some $$ to spend, try a service like Preply or iTalki which connects you with a tutor. I'm currently doing this for Mandarin, and it's incredibly useful to have somebody to non-judgementally answer your questions and help you along.

If you don't have any $$ to spend, try a service like Tandem which connects you with someone looking to speak Spanish - and you exchange your time.

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