It’s been exactly four weeks since I arrived to Brussels for my summer Erasmus semester. As most have pointed out, the biggest challenge would be to find accommodation. Especially if you’re looking for a 4 bedroom place (possibly a house) that has to be furnished, for a period of 5 months and for a price of up to 500 euros per month per person. After a month of thorough search via Facebook accommodation groups and other online channels, couple of friends went to check the selected accommodation onsite.
All of them were actually ok, apart from the one that “had to be finished” (the whole place was in the process of redecoration and renovation), but I decided on the 4 bedroom place in Watermael Boisfort. Even though the place is awesome, it’s actually hard to explain what is it. I’ll try - it’s a giant, huge house that is partly a student residence place and partly a bed ’n’ breakfast type of accommodation. So, it has 4 student rooms + common area for the students (nice living room, fully equipped kitchen and bathroom) and on the other side, it has a number of fully equipped rooms that are in use by the “passing guests” who are staying short-term. So far, I encountered a few “passing guest” in the corridors.
Even though I’ll come back to the “accommodation” part in one of the following blog posts, I do have to say that so far it’s been an awesome experience living with roommates (personally, I haven’t done that before). I’m living with a Danish girl, a Spanish guy and a Croatian girl. As far as I can tell, the Danish girl and the Spanish guy appreciate that there’s basically no Croatian spoken in the house - we’ll try to keep it that way. Apart from the Spanish guy who is doing his internship in Brussels, us three are all on the Erasmus semester at ICHEC (Brussels management school) and even have classes together. Studies have not yet taken place that much (apart from some presentation work), but partying, meeting new people from class, sightseeing and traveling around has. The early shyness and icebreakers had passed and students got to know each other better over the last weeks, so the best is yet to come surely.
But, the aim of this blog post is to point out my Top 3 impressions, things that I feel are different (better or worse) than in Croatia. Those are the things that couldn’t stayed unmentioned and that will definitely stay in my head as the instant associations of Brussels and have been encountered in this first month. Maybe, maaaaybe, my view on some of them will change over time.
1. Transport system, driving and the attitude
There are a lot of stereotypes about driving all over the world. Italians drive awful, they curse and scream. They are always in a hurry, wanting to get to the destination as fast as they can, ruthlessly cutting lines and changing tracks without their turn signal. Yes, that’s what most of the world says about Italians. It’s actually been a while since I’ve been to Italy, so maybe things have changed, but in Belgium - everything is completely opposite of that italian stereotype.
Even though I have to admit seeing quite a lot of improperly parked cars (most of them have their one or both left/right wheels parked on the pavement), people drive way too calmly for my taste. And that says a lot. Everyone is too polite, everyone is too slow, everyone waits for everyone else no matter where that someone is - 1, 10 or 30 meters away.
To be quite frank, I drive in Croatia all the time, so now in Belgium I feel as if I’ve been brought back to high school - taking the bus, metro and other means of transport. And, I can see the differences. Here, bus drivers actually wait for a passenger who is approaching the bus no mater what. It doesn’t matter if the passenger is walking, running or crawling to get in the bus. It doesn’t even matter if a passenger has missed the bus (the bus went on for 20,30 meters passed that actual bus station) if the driver saw the passenger in the rear view mirror. He’ll stop. In the middle of the road, open the door and you’ll get in. He’ll even greet you - "Bon jour, monsieur!”.
I’m still shocked. And then you think - “well, that’s the way only bus drivers behave, they have to be polite and nice”. But no. Everyone behaves that way - in the night as well. On Saturday. You’re going out, crossing the road at 10 pm and the guy in a black BMW stops at the crossing for you. I assure you that would happen in Zagreb. No way. You’d be coursed and honked at, maybe the guy from the BMW would even get out of his car to argue with you about your will to cross the damn road.
Now, to be perfectly honest - Brussels wasn’t my top priority as a destination where I’d do my exchange semester. Lisbon was my top choice. Apart from the good University, Lisbon’s weather is awesome. But, someone decided I needed to experience the weather in Belgium, so here I am. From the first day, I have been warned that the weather in Belgium is kind of like the weather of UK - if I see Sun, that’s because I’m watching the TV; if I feel warm, that’s because my heating is turned on. The warnings weren’t wrong - the weather during this month was really something like that. Rainy, cold, rainy and cold. But, since there were actually, a couple of nice days - I’ll give weather another chance.
But, the thing that has been a constant during all, and I mean literally all, days was the wind. It was like a shadow, wherever you go, whenever you go - it’s there. Light breeze or full throttle, cold as ice or subtle blow just to keep you reminded that it’s there - you name it. Day or night, breakfast or dinner, it really doesn’t matter. It blows all the time.
Since the wind doesn’t blow all the time in Croatia, I’ve noticed it quite early and every time I go out. Just to be clear, I don’t mind when wind is blowing real hard. When it’s blowing, it’s blowing. And that’s alright. It has to do that. But, when it’s blowing just because it can, just to make itself present, not hard, but really week, but enough to make it annoying - that’s what I have problem with. Hopefully, it’ll stop any time soon.
3. Student food
Student life is nice, everyone knows that and everyone wants to go back to their student years and student obligations. During those years, one could sleep for 4 hours, go to class, party hard, sleep for 4 hours again, eat crap during the day and then part some more. I’m not saying that I do that ( :D ), but I do like to eat good. I can’t live on fast food and regular pasta for a week.
So, since ICHEC doesn’t have a restaurant, I received a suggestion to go and take a look at the VUB restaurant (I think, VUB is the largest university in Brussels - I might not be right). I was really surprised. The restaurant is organised by the type of food you want to eat - healthy (that’s almost always empty, no interest for healthy food in the student population), vegetarian (some interest), wok (lots and lots of students like that), regular menu and pasta. The menu of the whole restaurant is online and known for the whole upcoming week so you can plan well ahead.
But, that’s theory. In practice, for 5 euros you get a whole menu (a soup, main meal, side dish, salad, desert) from whichever “type” of food you like. To give an example, you can get a tomato soup, spare ribs (2 times 5 ribs) with a spicy sauce and a Mexican salad along with either rice or french fries and a dessert (pudding, fruit, whatever). For 5 euros. And no - it doesn’t taste like 5 euro food - it fast extraordinary. Awesome. Great. Tasty and delicious. Just look at the pictures.
There are some nice student restaurants in Croatia, but nothing like this. I’m gonna definitely be spending my lunches there :D
Well .. that’s it for now. Those are the things that were noticed almost immediately during this last month. So, use Belgium transport regularly, don’t be scared you’ll be hit by a car (you won’t), mind the wind and eat in the VUB student restaurant! :D
USA government is currently shutdown, it’s in a standstill, waiting till the parties reach the agreement and continue to non-govern. I say non-govern because this has been one of the most passive Congress ever. It passed only 220 laws about a hundred less than the previous record low. I don’t want to comment on politics, but among those 220 there was one important act that will shake the venture industry and the whole investment ecosystem - JOBS act.
JOBS act - Jumpstart Your Business Startups Act - is an act that will change the venture world and the perspective startup founders have towards the challenge of raising capital. JOBS act was in the cooking for about a year now, but only 2 weeks ago did it get out of the oven when the Title II part went into effect. Let me explain.
Fundraising is hard for anybody and obtaining capital is especially hard for the early stage companies and startups. In the past, startups and early stage companies were not allowed to raise capital by publicly advertising, by general solicitation. It had to take place behind closed doors, in private. General solicitation was allowed for the large companies that could spend huge amounts of money for due diligence and all sorts of insight analysis to be able to get listed on the stock exchanges.
Apart from that, companies have been allowed to raise funds from only accredited investors. Accredited investors are people of a certain net worth or certain income per year. The number of those investors is limited (report by the Government Accountability Office says there’s “only” 8.5 million accredited investors in the States) so the supply is scarce, making the whole fundraising process really competitive among startups.
Even though some questions and details are left open and uncertain, since of 2 weeks ago, the ban of general solicitation went away so startups and other early stage companies are allowed to publicly raise capital using Facebook, Twitter, AngelList or any other platform to inform potential investors. The other ban of accredited investors stays and it’s expected to be lifted next year. Effectively, that means that we’re currently in a transition - a period when startup founders can publicly solicit and therefore reach a broader audience of potential investors but only accept investments from accredited investors in the same time. And that’s a big thing for startups because more deals will be made and the amounts of the deals can potentially be bigger.
In the next couple of blog posts I’ll try to put together a lot of the aspects of the JOBS act, pros and cons and how investors, founders and platform makers will cope with it in the near future.
Remember late last year when, trying to compose a new mail from your gmail account, you were pi**ed off by the New Compose option Google made you click? Remember how you searched (Googled) to find an alternative just so you wouldn’t be forced to have a pop-up window every time you wanted to send a mail? Eventually, you found the way - "temporarily switch back to old compose" did the trick.
You were happy, couple of months passed and in March there was another “try” into making you use the new compose. Even though experienced, you were slightly scared that the learned trick won’t work this time. But, it did and you got yourself out of the pickle once more. One thing I am sure you asked yourself was - how long will this “temporarily” actually last? Well .. due to the official Google statement, I’m sorry to inform you it has just stopped.
That was me. And that was you. Don’t deny. Even though a whole bunch of people I know, both UX designers that actually know this kind of stuff and regular common people that have no idea, had quite a lot of things to say about the new compose in their inboxes, none of those things were positive. “How to change?”, “What to do?”, “What are my options?”, “Will it stay?”. Now, it will.
Now, every time you want to write a mail, a pop-up window on the lower right corner will come out. While in the middle of writing your mail you want another mail, no problem - another pop-up window is right next to the one already open. So, now you can multitask - write one, write another. And then, you receive a mail, you can instantly see who is it from, do you have to answer it right away (of course you do!) - so, now you have 3 pop-up windows at the lower right corner of your screen. Multitask away!
To make things even worse - on smaller screens, you couldn’t multitask even if you want to (the red lines above mark the inbox width).
Yes, I am a bit sarcastic here and you can imagine why - I really don’t like to new compose in my gmail account. I think it’s bad and, even though it’s an noble idea to try to improve my productivity by allowing me to see the received messages (and to browse through the rest of the inbox) while writing a new message, I really don’t need it and I don’t want it. I don’t want to move my head up-down while I’m at a 30’ screen. I don’t want to move my mouse all the way to the lower-right to tick a CC button just so I could add a contact in. Not to mention the attachments (all sorts of those), partly visible and dynamic “+” or the “let me get out of your way” FROM field in the compose window. Thanks, but no thanks.
So, what am I going to do now? Close the account and quit gmail? Well, unfortunately no. Thankfully, there’s a little lifesaver (or gmail-saver?), and no, there’s no “temporarily” option now - you can choose a "Default to full-screen" option. That options allows you to get a centered compose window every time you want to write a new mail. It’s definitely better than the alternative.
To sum up - the new compose is the worst UX step Google has taken so far. Even though I know that I cannot do much about it, due to the numerous complaints and criticism (just check the Twitter feed, try the Quora posts where mostly smart people post), it is really weird and unimaginable that they pushed it through.
PS - This is definitely not the "Bring the old Facebook back" kind of post. I do welcome change. But good change. I am an everyday gmail user, it’s definitely a part of my life, both professional and personal one, but I simply don’t see any value whatsoever in this change except for running more miles on my mouse and getting more exercise for my neck (up <=> down-right).
PS II - Million dollar question - How can I “Discard” a message from a new compose window? I can minimize it, I can send it, I “can” add an attachment (if I really try), but how can I discard/cancel it? If After already filling in TO and SUBJECT fields, I suddenly change my mind and don’t want to send the email at all (I want to discard it, cancel it, trash it) and the “X” at the up-right of the compose window will not discard it - it will still be saved in my drafts.
EDIT - Found it! It was in the “trash can” (where usually a delete option is).
What do you need to do for an International Internship in the United States?
Firstly, let me be absolutely clear - I don’t want to be misunderstood in any way and I surely don’t want to underestimate the *other* parts of the startup world, but the fact of the matter is this - most successful technology companies, startups and other parts of the startup ecosystem (accelerators, VCs etc) come from the United States. And that’s a fact. Yes, there are outliers all over the world (Skype and Spotify for example), but mostly they come from the States.
Consequently, the demand for the (summer) internships is high - every student wants to go there, gain some real experience from the epicenter, they don’t mind getting their hands dirty and sleep in a sleeping bag just to get the opportunity to be involved. Just like I don’t. On the other side, companies update their “jobs” and “careers” sites, spread the word through their employees, social media and other channels and get their application forms filled much faster than they initially thought they would.
Not only do the local wanna-be-interns have a greater chance of getting picked (they can always come to the company for a real-life interview while making a good first impression), the international interns have another obstacle to pass - getting through the process of acquiring the much needed visa. It would be (relatively) ok if the interns went through the process themselves, but the company (employer) has to go through the process as well.
So, since I applied for a number of summer internships, I did my homework - I Googled, Quoraed, talked to a couple of local ex-interns from Google and Facebook and went to my local USA embassy to talk to the officials to find out about the legal requirements and the procedure for the internship regarding the visa eligibility. Here’s what I found out.
Since most of the international interns are students, the “internship” visa they would be applying for is a "J-1 Visa" - that is a nonimmigrant visa and is part of an Exchange visitor program. You can find out more about it here.
In the process, there are three subjects - intern, employer (company, startup you want to do an internship with) and a "dedicated visa sponsor". While the roles of intern and employer are pretty much straightforward, a dedicated visa sponsor is an organization that works in close collaboration with the employer and the international intern while ensuring compliance with visa regulations (in accordance with the U.S. State Department). Basically, it is the middle man in the process, an extension of the U.S. State Department, making sure that the visa application is fully synchronized with the official and legal requirements and regulations. The list of the “dedicated visa sponsors” can be found here.
Even though the process lasts from 4 to 8 weeks, it’s pretty basic and simple and here are a couple of steps that would need to be taken:
1. Intern and/or the employer find a “dedicated visa sponsor” they want to work with.
As I discussed with the ex-interns, for its international-intern-needs Google uses Cultural Vistas (link), while Facebook uses CDS (link) (that was acquired by Cultural Vistas).
Obviously, there are a couple of others like International Exchange Center (link), American Immigration Council (link) or Council on International Educational Exchange (link).
I assume they aren’t that different, but from the talks I had with the ex-interns, I gather the Cultural Vistas are the way to go because they understand the “startup world” and its needs more and could be more efficient in the process.
2. Filling out the forms and issuing a DS-2019 form.
After getting in touch with the “dedicated visa sponsor”, the sponsor will send both the employer and the intern a set of forms to fill out.
The employer will go through a screening process (how old is the company, does it have regular funding/revenues, what does it do, etc.) including a site visit from the sponsor, while the intern will have a phone interview with the sponsor organization.
After all the documents required (like the company details, internship details, beginning and end dates, the intern’s training program - a month-by-month schedule and plan) are submitted to the sponsor, the sponsor will review them (in accordance with the rules and regulations).
Before the review phase, sponsor will help in filling in the paperwork and guide both employer and intern towards a successful application.
Once approved, the sponsor will send the J-1 visa eligibility form (DS-2019 form) to the intern.
In this step, administrative fees have to be paid.
3. Interview at the local USA Embassy and getting the visa.
The intern fills out and presents the form as part of the J-1 visa application at the local USA Embassy.
That is usually done in a two, three day period but can vary from the Embassy to the Embassy.
Once the visa is granted by the US Consulate/Embassy, the intern may enter the United States in J-1 status to start the internship with the employer.
Let me just share a couple of more resources I found that could be useful:
"How to hire an international intern", a blog post from Internmatch (link)
Official FAQ from the U.S. State Department regarding the J-1 visa (link)
A very good and useful FAQ site from one German sponsor (link)
As I mentioned above, there’s a sum of administrative fees (visa fee + administrative fee for the sponsor) as well. The sum ranges from $1000 to $2000. Who pays for them? It varies - both Google and Facebook reimburse those expenses to the interns, but I’m sure that some companies (startups for example) don’t and can’t. Personally, compared with the potential experience gained and the benefits of the internship, the sum is surely not a deal breaker. But, it’s there nevertheless.
As I said, the process isn’t that complicated but it’s demanding - many US companies simply don’t have the resources to deal with the procedure. You can imagine what kind of resources an early stage startup has and what’s in its primary focus (product, product, product!) and how can he afford to spend a week (in total) on this procedure to get an international intern to his team when he has an equally (or slightly less) qualified local intern “right next door”. Even “bigger” companies that don’t have a proper HR department cannot cope with the procedure.
Well, I’m not here to judge, I won’t make any conclusions, it is not my place to say whether or not this procedure for a 3-6 month internship is *really* necessary. But, since the startup world is flexible, fast, constantly changing and evolving, meant to bring communities closer together, share and exchange knowledge and experiences over the globe, I will say that I hope the procedure will change for the better. And if it doesn’t, I hope that this tutorial will help other international interns in their visa quest.
DISCLAIMER - I am fully aware that there are quite a number of *other* visa types (link), but the procedure described above covers my situation - a temporary stay by a student that would return to his home country after the internship ends to continue his studies.