Developer Stories: From Finland to Austria and Back as a Software Freelancer
We highlight personal stories of software developer life on our blog. This is a story of how Juho Vepsäläinen, a freelancer in our community, experienced the cultural differences in software business while moving from his native Finland to Vienna, Austria and then made a lifestyle change and moved deep in the countryside of Savonia, Finland to get back to the roots. The joys of remote work became very apparent after that.
Based on common wisdom, you only learn to understand your home country after spending enough time abroad. Studies highlighted by Harvard Business Review support this statement, and I agree with it.
You'll notice that many things you consider obvious aren't a given anymore. Each culture has its pros and cons, and living abroad works as a mirror of your own culture and maybe even makes you appreciate it even more. For me, living abroad was a life-changing event, and combined with the pandemic, it returned me to my origins in the Finnish countryside. This would have never been possible if I hadn’t gone freelance and embraced the freedom that comes with it, both in terms of how and where I work.
I established a limited company (Oy) in 2016 to further develop my book offerings. Eventually, the business morphed into some type of consultancy on specific topics like webpack and React. These days it's similar, but I hope to focus more on the product side than consulting over time as it has longer-term returns.
2017 – Tour of Europe
In 2017, ReactiveConf proposed a tour of central Europe, and I agreed to it. I combined the trip with travel to Helsinki, Oslo, and Berlin before heading to the Czech Republic, Slovakia, and Austria.
This last stop was the fateful one, and I've written about it in more detail. In short, due to a chance meeting I started spending more time in the city and began to develop roots. The luxury of doing this was that I could live in different districts and learn about the city inside out. Given I came from a small town, experiencing a major cultural center of Europe was exciting.
The trip made me come a bit out of my shell and become more outgoing. I gained confidence and learned to appreciate life differently. Instead of spending most of my time with computers, I found other activities and began to enjoy the city's culture.
One of the key insights was that although working is essential, there are other important things. You could say I became more relaxed about working, and that's one of the luxuries you have as a freelancer. At the same time, with the freedom of freelancing, there's a certain amount of financial responsibility for yourself as you cannot count on a fixed salary.
2018-2021 – Living in Vienna
In 2018, I took the step to move to Vienna officially. I was lucky enough to be able to rent a room from an apartment where a friend was moving. Especially in central Europe, it's common for people to share the costs of a bigger apartment, while in Finland, people prefer other types of living options, even at a student level. Eventually, I moved to live with my partner, who I brought back to Finland in 2021.
During my years in Vienna, I developed my local contacts and business there. I worked with both remote and local clients that found me. For example, my clients included a world-known venture capitalist from San Francisco, a significant auction platform, an Austrian telecommunications conglomerate, and several local startups. Some of this work continues to this day in the form of consulting.
I also started organizing the React Finland conference beginning in 2017 with several Finnish associates. It became a great success until the pandemic struck in 2020, putting the entire event industry in turmoil.
One of the side projects from the Vienna era is MonoLisa, a typeface designed for developers that I helped to create with a couple of local associates.
Understanding the local culture
One of the best things I did during my time in Vienna was to spend time studying German. Understanding the local language even on a fundamental level opens the country on a different level, and also, the locals appreciate it when you at least try.
Especially in Vienna, people speak English well, but it's good when they can talk at least a bit of German. It took a while before I became comfortable speaking, and I began to understand at least parts far before gaining the confidence to speak. On top of this, you have local dialects adding a level of complexity but also saying something about the culture.
As hiking is one of my favorite activities, I took part in many excursions to nearby regions. As a result, I learned to understand the local nature and geography far better. It was one of the better things I did in Austria, and exploring your surroundings is always a good idea.
Meetups in Vienna
I was active in the local meetup scene. There were hundreds of meetups running before the pandemic, and I was also organizing a couple. I was mainly involved with React Vienna, Tech Movie Night (one of my own), and ViennaJS.
It was a big difference from the small city where I was living in Finland, and although I was active there as well, it was on a different level entirely and added a lot to the value of living in Vienna.
Participating in the local meetups was a great way to learn and meet new people. I can only hope the meetup scene recovers after the pandemic, as it's an integral part of the city and its atmosphere.
The impact of the pandemic
Especially the shift that happened with the pandemic was interesting as a client that was strict about working at the office converted into a remote one when it became forbidden to go to the office. Even these days, they have a remote culture, and I suspect the shift couldn't have happened without the disruption.
It turns out I had good timing with my travels and activities as the pandemic struck in Spring 2020 and changed the outlook for the future. In addition to wrecking that year's React Finland and causing trouble, I also reconsidered my long-term commitment to the city. In late 2019, I lost a close family member and combined with the pandemic; it made me think about the future and how and where I want to live.
Especially at the beginning of the pandemic, there was a lot of uncertainty and fear. As we saw the numbers rising and it was possible, I decided to move to my family's summer cottage in Finland for about three months with my partner. During this time, I started looking for an apartment or a house in Finland, and we even found a good one, but it wasn't the right time to buy one then.
2021 – Back to the Finnish countryside
As the next wave of pandemic struck in 2021, the streets of Vienna emptied. At the time, I lived in the first district of Vienna. The atmosphere changed thoroughly compared to the times before the pandemic as live meetups had stopped running, most tourists disappeared, and many businesses closed temporarily. Using masks had become familiar, and regular demonstrations further highlighted the situation.
In early 2021, we started looking at the housing market again. The house we visited on the first trip was still available, and at the same time, the price had gone down as well. During that time, I contacted the seller, and the first offer appeared after a while. At that moment, I had to decide whether to take the chance or not, and after securing a loan, I went for it and ended up buying my first house.
Several things aligned here as there was perhaps once in a lifetime opportunity to buy a property like this for a reasonable price while loan interests were record low and there was low inflation in sight. Of course, a lot of this has changed since the interest rates are increasing and inflation is rising. The same deal wouldn't be possible again, and based on what I know now, the decision was the correct one.
Motivation for moving back to Finland
Without the pandemic and the first trip to Finland, I wouldn't have been able to motivate my partner to move to Finland. At the same time, there wouldn't have been any point in moving as I enjoyed living in the city, and it didn't feel urgent to purchase a property. Especially the dark Finnish winter is a scary idea for someone from outside of Finland, and the country isn't perhaps the most interesting in terms of culture. It has a lot going on as nature is clean, and things generally tend to work.
Although staying on rent in Vienna would have had its benefits in terms of flexibility, not everything is good. The year before the pandemic hit, we were forced to move at the end of the previous lease as the owner needed the apartment back for his growing family. Moving can be draining, and it's always a process that requires time.
Pros and cons of the countryside
We found an ideal property - a house by a lake in Rautalampi, the municipality where I was born. My ancestors were the founders of the town five hundred years ago, and they've been living longer than that in the region after completing their journey from the east. Although I've known the surrounding areas since I was a child due to the family summer cottage here, I feel more connected to it now that I've had some time to explore it further.
Living in the Finnish countryside isn't the most obvious thing to do, and it comes with its pros and cons. For a remote working freelancer like me, it's a good fit, especially as I'm concretely connected to my roots. In terms of working, not much has changed as I still do my work online. I don't expect to visit clients in person anytime soon, though.
Although living in the countryside is relatively cheap, at least compared to living in Vienna, it has pros and cons. The best thing is that I have good access to clean produce from the nature nearby. I am a big fan of picking berries and mushrooms and a chunk of the year goes to this. I also have enough space on my plot for minor farming, and I receive fresh vegetables and fruits from my family, not to mention good access to fish and fresh meat if necessary.
Perhaps the biggest downside of living in the countryside is that you need to own a car to access the region and services effectively. If you are lucky, there's a train station nearby that makes travel a notch more accessible, but it's still a chore. Here I have to spend about half an hour to get to the station, which is incidentally the same amount of time I would have spent in Vienna to reach the central train station.
One of the unexpected developments of returning to Finland has been the opportunity to resume my academic work. As the pandemic pushed education online, due to a couple of coincidences I ended up applying for a PhD program in Aalto University. It’s something that a remote lifestyle and the current world order enables.
Life since 2017 has been full of changes for me, and I couldn't have imagined then that I would be living in Rautalampi by 2021. Only with travel and a pandemic this became a viable option. At the same time, you have to live somewhere so why not live in a big house in the countryside where you have your roots.
That doesn't mean these things are fixed, and I may find myself back at the center of a major city one day but for now, living in the countryside isn't the worst thing as I like the lifestyle that comes with it. One option would be to spend a part of the winter somewhere in the south while enjoying the short but amazing Finnish summer with its astonishing amount of light.
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