My name is Bart Jansen and as of I writing I am a 29 year old Belgian guy living in Finland.
Currently I am studying for a second degree as I try and get a foothold in Helsinki.
The Erasmus Experience
Everything started back in 2010 when I decided it would be a good idea to go on an Erasmus Exchange study.
Back then Europe was recovering from one of the worst financial crisis it had seen for decades. Investments were postponed and people left and right were losing their jobs. A really good time to still be a student! However catastrophic if you want to graduate.
You see, as is usually the case it was up to ourselves to find suitable projects to write a final thesis about.
My big passion is and will always be engineering, sustainability and renewable energy.
Back then I was unsuccessful in finding anything that remotely had anything to do with green energy in Belgium. The solution therefore was simple. I needed to go study abroad.
The main supervisor said in the beginning of that year that there was a possible project starting in Norway surrounding green energy and tidal energy.
I was very excited about this project and waited further instructions from him on how to proceed.
However these further instructions never came, despite numerous attempts on my part to get updates. The sent emails remained unanswered and whenever I’d wait after class for a quick word I’d get brushed off.
Ultimately a few months before everyone was supposed to be leaving, he comes to me with the news that due to bureaucratic reasons I would not be going to Norway to study and I’d need to select one of the topics that were left-over.
I still hear the words ringing in my head. “Bureaucratic reasons”. I am strongly of the opinion that if you want to get something done, especially something as simple as studying in a foreign country, the only person stopping you is yourself.
So in my best “Google-translated” Norwegian I decided to call the University in particular and ask if something could be arranged. After all, bureaucracy is simply paperwork that just needs to be filed in the right order. It is fairly time-independent.
My reasoning being that I could already go over there, start the work, do the paperwork later.
To my surprise this sounded like a manageable obstacle to my Norwegian counselor on the other-side of the phone.
Battle of the Ego’s
Probably my biggest mistake was naively informing my Belgian supervisor of what I had done. As I told my story I noticed a vein in his neck bulging as words kept running out of my mouth.
As he was coming down from his quite rage filled tirade on how I was jeopardizing inter-academical relationships that had taken years to build, it became clear to me I was not going to Norway.
I was frankly disappointed in how the whole situation was handled. I believe if only he would have had the time to sit down and hear me out, we would have been able to build out a much more fruitful relationship. Unfortunately I fear he had at the time chewed off more than he could chew work wise. He seemed to be buckling under the pressure of juggling his teaching position and being an international guidance counselor for the school.
I didn’t make his workload that much easier by going around the chain of command and trying to set something up myself.
As a result, Norway was a no-go. The only thing left, was a, to my opinion, boring assignment in Aalen. Something to do with quality checking of micro-milling.
Aalen is a city in Southern Germany I had never heard of and, as I was soon to find out, no-one else I talked to either.
Nonetheless off to Aalen I went, slightly demoralized yet excited about the adventure ahead.
Before anyone can even go on an Erasmus exchange you need to write a motivation letter. Usually this is just a formality as Belgian in general are not so keen on studying abroad, so in practice all applicants get chosen to take pat in the program.
It is on this motivation letter that I explained that due to the economic situation in Belgium, I was unable to find projects in sustainability about which I could write my final thesis.
Thank god for that motivation letter. Upon my arrival at the international affairs office at the Fachhochschule in Aalen it was one of the first things that came up.
My guidance counselor looked at me wonderingly asking: “You are here on a micro-milling quality assessment yet you have stated in you application that you are interested in green energy, is that still the case?”
“Absolutely” I replied. “Well, we currently have a project running with the Technical University of South Africa in windmill designs. Would you rather do that?”
Two things happened when she asked me this question.
- I was jumping for joy that I’d actually have the chance to do something I am passionate about
- I knew immediately I could never tell my Belgian supervisor I had changed the subject of my final thesis
The thing is that I was supposed to have these bi-weekly update phone calls or send bi-weekly emails to my supervisor in Belgium. So he would be up to speed with what was going on.
I knew that if I would inform him there and then that the subject of the thesis has changed, he would be on the first train to Germany, making sure I did the micro-milling project.
It is by the way perfectly legal to change a final thesis subject while on Erasmus exchange. As I found out that once you are on the exchange, you basically follow the legislation of the hosting University. In this case the Fachhochschule of Aalen.
As such my final thesis was the following: “How to reduce the cost/kW ratio of wind-turbines through production improvements and blade design”.
Three months. Three months out of a six months placement. That is how long it took for my supervisor to send me a first email asking how everything was going. That is also the very first email in a long chain with over 10 different people getting copied in at various points in time as the nature of my thesis subject became apparent.
I think in general now having had some experience managing people this is just a textbook example of what bad management looks like.
Inability to listen to your subordinates and an inability to delegate work, resulting in a lack of time for necessary one-on-one’s and a seemingly insurmountable workload.
It didn’t help I was pretty arrogant for a 21 year old either.
Meeting my future wife
The unexpected side of me going abroad however is that it is in Aalen of all places that I met my wife-to-be!
We had a very …interesting meet-cute story that is too private to share online. The first thing I asked her when we exchange students were all out in a bar was “What kind of music to you like”. Upon which she answered “Are you f-ing kidding me? We are not in first grade!”.
Let’s just say it took a while before we got together.
However it soon became clear that what we had we both agreed needed to continue.
So a choice had to be made. Would she move to Belgium? Or would I move to Finland?
The good thing about the Finnish welfare society is that students, as soon as they turn 18 and decide to go study, get a decent grant from the government. Usually this grant covers your living expenses (rent, water, electricity). As such just a normal student job will allow you some money for food and a few beers from the boat to Tallinn.
Alcohol taxes in Finland are high.
As a result of his grant, she’d already moved out and had a steady job. I on the other-hand, as most other Europeans of my age, was still living at home. Had no job but was desperately in love.
The logical thing to do and the path of least resistance for the both of us was for me to move to Finland.
But she said I couldn’t move right away. We were both graduating and although I had already written my thesis, she was still in the midst of hers. She said that as her apartment was only 21 square meters, having an unemployed foreigner hanging around the house all day would greatly distract her from her work.
She had a point. So I was to move to Finland 3 months after my graduation in August.
Preparing to move
At the time I had a steady summer job at the sausage factory I’d been going to for the last 3-4 years. That summer was no different. As I performed well my manager allowed me to stay on the line until I chose to leave. I made a strategical decision.
I could either keep earning money to have my “war-chest” ready to live off during the time in between jobs in Finland OR, I could invest in myself, hire a Finnish tutor for the last month before my move and learn the language. As such increasing my chances on the job market.
As I was working I was already applying for several jobs in the greater Helsinki area to no avail. It became clear I needed to speak Finnish.
So instead of earning a month’s worth of wages, I decided to go study Finnish. It turns out there are only three Finnish tutors in Belgium. One was already retired, another was out of the country for the period I needed guidance. Ultimately I worked with Tiina Karetvaara who I highly recommend to anyone.
In a very intense 30 days I managed to get to a very basic level of Finnish. However we spent a lot of time making sure y pronunciation is correct. As a result I barely have an accent when I speak!
Career in Finland
I was unemployed for about 6 months. It was a long time but I tried to stay positive throughout. One of the main things I did as soon as I moved was to enroll in Finnish evening classes.
As such I wouldn’t have to adjust any future job schedule to work with my classes.
One morning, as I was once again going from store to store handing out my CV, I passed along Citykäytävä in the center. There I saw a sign on the bottom floor of what was then Pizza Hut’s “slice” floor. They requested help.
So I went indoors to inquire further.
It turns out the whole process is quite automated. No real interviews take place other than a personality test that you need to fill out. Based on that personality test and the personal assessment of the manager in charge you get notified on whether or not you can start at Pizza Hut or not.
Funnily enough the manager who I was taking the test with was a Dutch guy! Belgium and the Netherlands are neighboring countries and we also share a language.
He translated the parts of test I could not understand.
The first of april of 2011. That is when I got “THE” phone call. I had shortly before that done a 2 hour shift as a tryout in the kitchen, washing dishes.
It was the Dutch manager who informed me that I had the job. I remember the date thinking that this can’t be, this is April fools, someone is playing a prank. But luckily enough I got the job.
My “Find work in Finland” war chest had shrunk to EUR 64. That was all I had. I was broke.
I started out in the kitchen washing dishes and never looked back. As my Finnish improved I started to wait on tables and finally got promoted to Shift manager.
One of the main keys to learn Finnish, to my opinion, is to take lessons, study hard and work in an all Finnish environment. Being unemployed and seeing your money go out but none coming in is a great motivator too!
After Pizza Hut I left to go work for DealDash. At the time they were literally growing exponenially and needed people fast in their customer service department. It turned out they were at the time incredibly backlogged with their emails.
Soon I ended up being one of the top-responders to customer emails, handeling more people per day than anyone else in my team and as a result I was put in charge. In about a week we managed to clear through a backlog of 30 days worth of emails.
Undoubtedly one of the motivators for my team was that I made the bet that I would shave my beard if we would clear the backlog before week’s end!
And I did.
After CS was running smoothly I moved over to the Procurement side.
I automated the whole process with the help of our IT department and secured 7-figure deals and valuable partnerships with Fortune500 companies Sears and Walmart in the process.
However already then I felt I needed to calculate again. I was missing engineering. The business world can be fun and exciting. The ex-tempore business trips o the States were certainly exhilarating! But it I wasn’t getting what I needed.
Back to school!
So I decided to go back to school. Study to become a structural engineer.
As such I needed work that would go along my studies.
The good thing about the cleaning business is that they start early. 4 AM wake-ups is not an easy thing to do, but you get used to it. I worked here as a supervisor managing a team of cleaners specialized in doing the odd-jobs in an industrial setting. Changing light-bulbs, oiling doors, doing heavy industrial cleaning (removing dust from industrial halls etc.).
As I got more experience from school, I moved on to more technically demanding jobs.
I am currently working for ProdLib.
For the last year and a half or so I have been working as a Development Engineer. In plain English this means I have been making content for Revit and ArchiCad, 2 big design software environments currently in use in Finland.
Companies send us their 2D drawings they would like to see converted into BIM models. We happily provide that service!
The project based nature of my work allows me to combine this perfectly with school!
That is me in a not-so-small nutshell!
If you have any more questions don’t hesitate to get in touch with me through the comment section below!