An Australian developer in New York


This article is by Justin J. Moses, an Australian software engineer who moved to New York in August of 2010. He is a consultant in the financial services industry.

Moving from Sydney to New York City has taught me a thing or two. The first is — never trust everything you hear. The second — in New York, the best advice is often the loudest.

So perhaps I should fill you in. April last year saw me running a fledgling startup in Australia and looking for a sea change (of sorts). After hesitantly following up on a suspicious job offer in the US, I found myself immersed in a series of interviews, culminating in a day-long face-to-face in New York City.

By August, I was relocating to the US of A, ready to start working with the big boys on Wall St (or at least their quantitative brethren). Having been to the city before, and growing up with so much American pop culture, I figured that the differences would be minimal; the transition would be smooth and painless. But alas, the best laid plans of mice and men and all that jazz.

9 to 5
One of the first things I noticed was the work ethic. Americans makes us look positively lazy. Public holidays are optional – well, other than the big five – and I was literally scoffed at when I enquired about (and consequently explained) long service leave. We’re used to our four week minimum of annual leave – they’re lucky to get two. It becomes obvious very quickly why Americans aren’t big travellers.

There’s more to it than that of course. As a nation exemplifying the virtues of capitalism, it isn’t surprising that social welfare is mediocre at best. In essence, access to health and education – for both you and your family – is heavily tied to your job. Most people have heard the horror stories of those who fell through the cracks of the US healthcare system, and who could forget the dental plan episode from the Simpsons? It’s bad enough to lose your job if you’ve got a mortgage to pay; it can quickly become a nightmare with a dependent or two.

All this boils down to the fact that, as an employee, you’ve got less bargaining power, and losing your job can mean more than just accumulating debt. Indeed, in the current economic climate, unemployment coupled with untimely health issues can quickly spell bankruptcy. Our system in Australia, however flawed, starts to look awfully good in comparison.

The Cult of the Entrepreneur
However, what America lacks in social welfare, it makes up for with innovation. I’ve heard it said that we have it too easy in The Lucky Country, and if necessity is the mother of invention, then we may be a nation of orphans. The number of hip, fresh and successful startups scattered across the United States is staggering: Yelp, Mint, ZipCar, Trunk Club, Zappos, Netflix, Hulu and GroupOn – just to name a few.

As any avid reader of TechCrunch will tell you, there are new VCs coming out of the woodwork every day and acquisitions of niche tech companies are going gangbusters; some even suggest there’s another bubble ready to burst. With every man and his dog running a startup on the side, working in New York City feels like fighting on the frontlines. There’s even the aptly named “Silicon Alley”, a collection of venture capitalists stretching down Broadway right in the middle of Manhattan.

Credit Culture
You’ve probably heard that the US is addicted to credit – indeed New York is still reeling from the recent crisis – and it would be fair to say that we’re developing a similar problem in Australia. Trust me when I say we’ve still got a way to go. In America, your credit rating affects so many aspects of daily life that a poor result can be about as damaging as a criminal record. Correction – it is worse. Want to buy a car? Rent an apartment? Purchase insurance? Get a new mobile phone? Set up cable or the Internet? Credit checks are far more pervasive than you would believe. In fact, some employers even perform them before taking on new hires. Talk about a Catch-22 if you’re out of work and stuck in debt.

For an alien, with new and unblemished social security, you are nonetheless considered untrustworthy, and have to consciously work at building up a good score. After years of recalcitrance, I’ve finally succumbed to owning a credit card simply to earn a rating and prevent the kind of complications that I’m becoming quite sick of. While I agree in financial accountability, I find it frustrating that I have to buy into the credit system just to prove my reliability.

Tips, Commissions and Virtual Equity
Every savvy traveller to the US knows you tip anybody who provides a service. Ballpark is around 15 to 18 percent, but typically people just round to 20 percent, as the math is easier. Whilst many will insist that this ensures good service, I tend to disagree, as the tipping culture has become such a fait accompli that no one dares abstain. There is also a high prevalence of commission-based income – higher than we’re accustomed to in Australia. Sure – it’s expected on high-end electronics, even furniture – but on shoes?

The problem (or benefit, depending on your political sensitivities), is the burden of bad business falls not solely on the owner but rather is spread among the workers. So a recession – or even just a bout of bad weather on a restaurant – will not only hurt the bottom line, but will directly impact the earnings of the employees. Consequently, they have less to spend and thus begins the domino effect. It’s a system that sides more with the enterprise than with the workforce, and whilst encouraging aforementioned entrepreneurs, it certainly makes it hard for those in service and retail to budget and save.

Live and Let Live
Perhaps you’ve heard the comparison: Sydney is to Los Angeles what Melbourne is to New York. Having spent little time in Melbourne, and having avoided LA for the last 29 years, I’m not a great authority on the subject. However, the unofficial axiom of New Yorks seems to be “It is what it is”, and from a Sydney-sider’s perspective, it’s a breath of fresh air.

If you want to sport a waxed moustache twirled to the limit and ride a unicycle whilst walking your cat on a leash, no one will look twice (well, perhaps they’ll covertly stare for a moment). The truth is, differences are celebrated here. It makes Sydney seem downright conservative. As much as I miss the active lifestyle – and the gorgeous backdrop – I don’t miss the pretention, or the cronyism.

New York is a city with the potential to make or break you. The rent can kill, there are middlemen for the middlemen, and everyone is trying to make something of themselves. But don’t be fooled by hearsay – despite the size, it’s a friendly city; New York will welcome you with open arms. Almost everyone is from out of town, and very few are so settled that they can’t squeeze in a few more friends.

It’s the beating heart of an incredible country, with so much opportunity and yet, like the rest of the nation, it can chew you out and leave you up the proverbial creek. For all my self-deprecating on our obsession with regulation, I find myself grudgingly admiring the ecosystem we’ve created in Australia. We might not breed the best executives or entrepreneurs, but the stability that we rely on daily is so solid that most of us couldn’t fathom forging a career without it.

I love it over here, but I confess I do miss our lucky country.

Image credit: Clemmesen, royalty free, Justin J. Moses


  1. Being an American, I’m puzzled by your reference to one’s job being tied to a child’s education. Most kids here attend public school. It’s not just free, it’s MANDATORY that your kids attend school until age 18. There are some private schools, but getting into them is generally just a matter of how much money you are willing to pay. College is different. It isn’t free. It’s expensive. Really expensive. If you plan on attending a four year university (even a state college), you can expect to spend almost as much each year on education as you would make in a year working an average full-time job. The federal government will agree to LOAN you the money for college, but interest rates are high and most people I know get in way over their heads with “student loans”. Don’t even think about skipping out on payment. The government will find you. They’re good at that.

    Other than that, the article is pretty spot on. Not all of America is like New York City though. Not even close. Most of the country is much more conservative than New Yorkers, which have the highest tax rates in the entire country, and is definitely no business friendly environment compared to literally anywhere else in the country.

  2. @William,

    You’re right – education is a bit of a grey area. In this instance, I was referring to huge cost of college education in the US vs Australia (due to AU government subsidies on undergraduate studies).

    As for primary and secondary education, private schooling is actually very common in Sydney, but not so much in regional Australia (personally I’m not sure about the other cities in AU). You mentioned school being mandatory until the age of 18. That seems a little high to me. In NSW I believe it is 16 – after you’ve completed the School Certificate.

    In regards to student loans – I have heard some of those horror stories as well. In NSW there is a similar plan to defer the fees of university (but not the cost of living on campus) – however it is government controlled and much less exorbitant than the loans in the states. (Obviously we have student loans as well, but they live within the private sector) .

    Yes – I often hear that New York is a country onto itself; “New York isn’t America”. From my travels in the states so far, this seems to be quite apt.


  3. @Willian: Sure, everyone in the US gets a “free” public education. But you don’t get the best one unless you are in a good school district, and you don’t live in a good school district unless you have the resources to live there.

    This is especially true in New York, where the funding model for public education is utterly and completely broken and is solely driven on keeping the various organized labor groups happy. NYC adds another layer of insanity — the custodians who clean and maintain the school make six-figure incomes, receive a subsidy to buy personal SUVs (so they can drive in the snow to work, supposedly) and are not accountable to the local school administration.

  4. You’re definitely right that there’s a lot more subtle differences than you’d expect. Superannuation & LSL in Australia might be missing, but if your employer is good, you’ll find something in their places..
    There may as well be no such thing as internet banking here, cheques / checks are going to stay for the next 100 years.
    Healthcare is an expensive nightmare here, house prices are an expensive nightmare in Australia.

    Anyway, welcome & enjoy :)

  5. Interesting. Being neither American nor Australian, but having lived and worked in both countries, I suppose I’m qualified to comment, but with two reservations: I lived in Brisbane, not Sydney; and I don’t live in the US, I live in New York – trust me, they’re very different countries.
    Despite the innovation and entrepreneurship, what is remarkable are the differences in social mobility and class stratification between the two countries. Australia tended to have more of the former and less of the latter – not perfect, but better. It’s odd that a country that prides itself on its classless society and its Horatio Alger-like stories of personal advancement suffers from such stratification. Maybe this is a consequence of the heterogeneity of NY, but it’s one of the very few things that I don’t like very much. (BTW: I agree with you that the health and social services (the “safety net”) in Oz are far superior to those in the US)

  6. Considering there are 35,000 aussies living and working in the tri-state area…. i dont think that Justins story is news…….

    Having said that i agree about his take on the entrepreneurial spirit here in the USA (though some interesting things regarding startups happenign in Sydney at teh moment as well (google Pollenizer and Spreets).

    As an startup founder based in New York ( ) I can tell you there isn’t any other place i’d want to be at the moment but miss Sydney heaps from time to time because of the lifestyle benefits.

  7. Hi Justin,
    I think you misunderstand the nickname “The Lucky Country”. It is meant tongue-in-cheek. As in, Australia is lucky to have such great natural resources that they don’t have to bother with innovative businesses or good government (

    Also, in regard to your reply to William. The American public education system provides a total of 13 years publicly funded schooling. This appears to be identical to NSW (

  8. @Chris,

    Very true – I can still remember learning all about it in Year 11 English. True to form, I was being facetious and playing with it a little, because I liked the phrasing and it worked well. I often do that with my writing – sometimes to my detriment.

    Re: Schooling – the public systems do seem to be quite close. The differences I was alluding to were in the subsidies on tertiary education.


  9. I believe that there are exceptions to having to attend school in the U.S. until you are 18. You can leave at age 16 if you graduate early and attend college, graduate early and get a job or go to court with other reasons. Otherwise, parents can be fined and even jailed if their kids fail to attend. Homeschooling is technically legal here, but the government has made it a very difficult and complicated process.

    As for the social welfare safety net, we went 150+ years without ANY type of government “safety net”, but no one here ever went starving that I know of. Now that it is in place, the benefits are minimal, and unless you are a single mother on welfare, there is no free lunch when it comes to healthcare. I finally got to the point when I could no longer afford private health insurance after premiums were raised to higher than my actual salary. I have diabetes as well, which makes things a lot worse. If my income isn’t high enough any given month, I can’t buy insulin. Period. NO help from the government is available in my own case, unless I somehow become permanently disabled.

    As for the quality of the public school system, parents who want their kids to attend the best public schools can usually get them in if they fight hard enough and jump through the right hoops. What school you go to is not always a matter of where you live. It varies state by state. Real estate prices here are insane in places like New York and California (which have the highest taxes in the U.S.) but many parts of the country are very reasonable. It is getting more and more difficult every year for individuals and families to afford home ownership every year though, largely due to increasing property taxes, income taxes, building permit fees, high prices for water, sewer, garbage collection and petrol. At least the interest rates are relatively low as of late.

  10. Interesting article. It is a shame the comments section became overrun with education evangelists – this ain’t youtube.

  11. An interesting take, though you have just arrived and hold only one experience moving (and it sounds like you’ve never settled and worked in another country), so I feel a lot of the generalisations you make are getting a bit ahead of yourself.

    That said, I also hail from Sydney. I moved to Los Angeles last year (circa April) from London. Previously, I had also lived long-term in China. Because I moved with an employer I was able to negotiate far better conditions (and visa category) than it sounds like you have, notably I have maintained European holidays, just had a 4-day week approved, and have had great moving assistance. In addition, I am well on my way to green card status and my bank here, HSBC, made me a ‘premier’ customer when I turned up, which has helped greatly in resolving banking hassles, which extend far beyond the credit notion and I am surprised that you didn’t mention. For example, the idea of using the internet to instantly transfer funds between personal accounts in two different banks is still a pipe dream in the US. The VP of my bank branch, a foreign national who was aware of the inadequacy of the US financial system, said that behind the scenes they actually have a computer print and mail a ‘check’ (sic)! It makes you realise where credit cards, paypal and all that over-priced and ineffective jazz found the room to grow. The disorganisation of hundreds of hodge-podge local banks was simply too great a hassle!

    New York is certainly a beautiful place, and absolutely incredible for the arts, but the cold in winter and the lack of daily opportunities for exercise and time in nature are too big a draw back for me. I’ll take medical marijuana, a four day work week and year-round sun over Big Apple cultural perks any day! Peace out :)

  12. @SydneySiderInLA , if you are going to apply for a green card , make sure you google “The Heart Taxation Act” first and understand the ramifications first (you’ll find my blog in the results.

    Its a draconian tax implication which means i personally (and my wife) will be leaving the USA before Dec 2015 because of this.

    You’ve been warned.

  13. @SydneySiderInLA – ah the NYC/LA rivalry begins :)

    Visa category – I’m on an E3 rather than the H1B (which I presume you’re on to move to green card status?) , but I can – and likely will – switch over as needs apply. The visa didn’t really make a difference to my working conditions – I still negotiated my package regardless. Rather, I was referring to the general work environment of those around me.

    You’re somewhat correct – I’ve also lived in Japan, although the latter was only for half a year and was never intended to be permanent. Though I confess, I *am* prone to generalisations from time to time. (Good to see you keep up the Queen’s English by the way).

    Checks [sic] – you’re right – frustrating as all hell. The looks of stunned wonder when you explain the Utopian banking system in Australia are priceless.

    @Dean – just read your blog. That tax sounds nasty. Can’t you apply for citizenship though? Both AU and the US allow duality, right?

  14. @Justin “heart tax act” applies to citizenship as well (you do realise if you had citizenship and went back to live in australia you’d still be paying USA tax as well though right? yes yes offset but still needing to file etc)

    • @Dean, I know you mentioned briefly taxes being offset, but I think clarification is in order. The likelihood of ever having to pay addition taxes for an Australian moving back home is zero. I know, I lived in the states for 10 years on a greencard and have recently moved back. Australian marginal tax rates are higher at every income bracket. Now if I decide to move to Dubai…

      • Dubai wouldnt be on the top of my list but the point being keeing USA citizenship will cost you big time in almost any country but yes Australia and the USA are close enough for it to not to cause a problem, of course most other countries….it would.

        I’m surprised you didn’t get caught up in a AMT with deduction differences for the last 10 years?

        • just re-read your comments – you didnt live in australia ffor the last 10 years and just moved back.

          …..did you give up your greencard yet? did you file this year yet?

  15. New York rocks! Nice article and thank you for sharing your views on the working life there.
    I’m also an Aussie in America, a Software Engineer, as they call it here Silicon Valley (west coast). It’s definitely a breath of fresh air to have the opportunity to experience the life style, culture and business. One needs to keep an open mind and just experience the good with the bad since this is what makes life such an experience vs being stuck in the one place.

    I’ve been documenting my journey in Silicon Valley here:
    for anyone interested about the west coast of America and what it’s like to live in the heart of the high tech industry.

    If your an Aussie living in America let’s connect!
    I’m also on LinkedIn:

  16. That tax problem is only if you:
    A) declare
    B) have been around 8+ years

    A standard international tax strategy seems to be holding assets out of visibility or in the name of another legal entity. The earlier means you sometimes have to lie, the latter means you are telling the truth but untouchable if you play your legal cards right.

    In short: not a biggy, I will personally probably stay less than 8 years anyway…

  17. What an awesome, straight up piece writing you put up. Full Marks from me.

    As someone who has never dashed over to the states I must admit your depiction of New York makes me want to jump on a plane and give the big apple a chance to impress. As a 30+yr old Sydney has just got a tad little boring & it feels as though most people here are stuck in a clock going from 9 to 5 cycle of deja-VU.

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