In this era of globalization, many people travel to distant countries for their work, especially in high tech industries. What is it like to pack your bags and move to a different continent? Sofia Szpigiel talks about the challenges, and the surprises – both the pleasant and the not-so-pleasant ones. Six years ago, she left Buenos Aires in Argentina and started a new life in Eindhoven, where she now works at ASML.
‘I had just finished my software engineering master’s degree in Buenos Aires and wanted to do a post-master’s course abroad. Normally, a PhD is a four-year course and other types of post-masters are very expensive. One of my friends in Argentina told me about a two-year post-master in Eindhoven called Professional Doctorate in Engineering, PDEng. Not only that, if the university accepted me, I would get a student’s salary. So it all seemed to be the perfect fit. All I needed to do was find out where Eindhoven was.’
What were your first impressions?
‘Apart from the weather, the food and the city architecture, the main difference was the Dutch people’s directness. I wasn’t used to people actually saying what they felt, but I got used to it and I now very much prefer being open and honest with people. Please don’t misunderstand me, the Dutch people are very kind and polite, it’s just that they are straightforward about their opinions. This is particularly good for me because I’m not so good at picking up nuances or secondary meanings when people speak to me. I prefer the ‘Dutch directness’.’
How did you get into software engineering?
‘I got my first PC when I was just six years old. I loved playing games and later on surfing the Internet, which was then very basic, but nevertheless I thought everything associated with computers was fascinating. I soon started elementary programming, and by the time I was fourteen I was entering programming competitions – encouraged by my parents and school teacher. That’s when my passion for software engineering really took off. I won a few local competitions and I reached the national ‘Olimpiada Informatica Argentina’ competition a few times. I knew then that I wanted to be a software engineer.’
What do you miss about Argentina?
‘The social life is very different. In Argentina, social activities are more outdoors and often spur of the moment. Whereas, in my experience, the Dutch tend to be more indoor types and like to plan their social activities a bit more. I also miss Argentina’s weather. I don’t like the winters here. It’s not so much the cold, but the very short days and the darkness in the morning and early evenings. But all that is easily outweighed by the very attractive stability and order of Dutch society. People here are so fortunate that the social, political and economic systems are all very stable. I feel very safe and secure in the Netherlands.’
How did you end up at ASML?
‘As part of my two-year PDEng at the TUE, I did my final project at ASML, and had a nice time. Not only was the work highly stimulating, the cultural diversity of this very large company was also breathtaking. For the first eighteen years of my life I lived in a town called Mar del Plata and I did not meet anyone from a different culture. So when I became an intern at ASML – a company with people from more than ninety different countries worldwide – it was so enriching, on so many levels. I thoroughly enjoyed my internship at ASML, and it seems that ASML was also impressed with me, since they offered me a position as software architect when I graduated.’
What do you now do at ASML?
‘I’ve been here for four years. The first three were spent on surveying and analyzing how ASML produces and maintains software. As you might expect from a company that grew exponentially in three decades – from a company of thirty people in 1984 to an intercontinental organization with more than 13,000 employees – the software situation is less than optimal. After we had surveyed the situation, we then set about implementing a new methodology of creating and maintaining software while at the same time optimizing the value of our huge amount of legacy software. In total we are implementing a fundamental shift that is really quite complex to explain. But one of the easily visible innovations is that now software developers work in teams, not in isolation. And this is much more fundamental than you might think at first, since it required an organizational and individual mind-set paradigm shift. Thankfully, when I was a student I had attended several soft-skills training programs, and I am now able to put these to effective use.’
And the results?
‘Well I hope that we are making people’s lives more fun at ASML. When you think about it, all technology – and especially software – is meant to help people. When it doesn’t work as expected, people get frustrated and the quality of their lives is negatively impacted. We are revolutionizing software development at ASML and I sincerely believe that engineers will be happier for that. It also has a major commercial impact as well.’
What do you like best about working at ASML?
‘There are so many things to like. For example, the product we make is amazing; it pushes the physical boundaries of what is possible, imaging billions of structures in a few seconds with an accuracy of a few silicon atoms. It’s also enriching almost everyone’s lives on the planet with more affordable communications, medical systems and entertainment. Another of my favorite things is the teamwork attitude here. Everyone seems eager to listen and help. Perhaps that’s because we’re all engaged in making just one end product, so we’re all on the same team, working towards one common goal. Whatever the cause, the teamwork atmosphere makes working here very satisfying.’
What’s your advice to others thinking about moving to the Netherlands?
‘Well, it is a big step. I initially came for a two-year post-master’s degree so I knew that if I didn’t like it here, I would not need to suffer for several years. My general advice would be to just do it. Obviously there will be a bit of a culture shock, but if you are passionate about your work, this is definitely the place to be. The Dutch seem to me to genuinely appreciate hard work, commitment and above all, talent.’