Life as a UX Designer Working Down Under — in New Zealand
A place where my dental coverage pays for Botox
The mixture of breathtaking nature, high living standards, job prospects, sheltered and safe environment, Aotearoa New Zealand.
Kia ora! (Kiwi greeting)
This is a story of what it's like working down under as a UX designer in tech.
I've been living in New Zealand for eight years, so I feel super qualified to tell you all about it.
The coolest (and windiest) little capital
Since I moved here in 2014, I've been living in Wellington. However, I've travelled around New Zealand for professional and personal reasons.
In general, New Zealand is a safe and friendly place. I've never felt unsafe during the night walking home from the CBD (central business district aka city centre). New Zealand is a strong supporter of the LGBTQIA+ community and equal rights to all genders.
When I arrived in Wellington, I remember telling my partner how clean it was.
However, in the last few years, Wellington has been going downhill. Rubbish is more prevalent everywhere. I don't even see the tiny cleaning machines on the street at night.
I visited Auckland in January, and I still saw those cleaning machines…so it might be just a Wellington council thing. But regardless, the city is less clean than eight years ago.
Cleanness (or lack of it) spreads into public transport too. So whenever you take a bus or train to work, I'd never dare to wear white or cream-coloured clothes. But I understand people have a different level of cleanliness, so as an Eastern-European person, I'm kind of a clean-freak. I like things tidy and immaculate.
The famous saying in New Zealand: You can't beat Wellington on a sunny day!
The famous saying in Ireland: You can't beat Dublin on a sunny day!
You can't beat any cute city on a sunny day, eh?
How to get a job in New Zealand
There are many ways to get a job in New Zealand. The NZ government immigration website offers reasonably easy-to-digest information about the different visa pathways.
I came to New Zealand on a resident visa. However, it's pretty unusual nowadays because most people arrive on a work visa. It's worth checking out the short and long term skill shortage list. Many IT jobs are listed, so you have a great chance to secure a visa.
Speaking the language
Even though Māoris are the indigenous Polynesian people of Aotearoa (who speak Te reo), the professional work language is English. We use British English spelling here.
I've met many foreigners who spoke English at the intermediate level in the last eight years, especially in the software engineering field. So if you have an IELTS level of 5.5 or 6, you have a good chance to get a job in New Zealand. Of course, the better you speak the language, the more opportunity you have to reach your career goals and your true potential.
I did my last IELTS language test 2 years ago, and I scored 8.5. This means I practically have a native level of English. I firmly believe the constant work on my English knowledge & getting better at it every day helped me
advance my career
secure jobs at the management level
fully integrate into the culture
understand & participate in office jokes
Make a couple of Kiwi friends etc.
So if you're a non-native English speaker like me, I'd encourage you to keep learning English. Then, when you arrive, learn some Kiwi slang. As well as, try your best to incorporate some Te reo Māori in your daily life, e.g. Kia ora (greeting, which means hi).
Also, as a designer and developer in New Zealand, you must use a typeface that supports macron. What's a macron? The macron is the horizontal line above any of the following vowels, A E I O U in Te reo Māori. Why care about this? Because it's appropriate culturally, some websites can also be viewed in English and Te reo.
The best way to get a job in NZ is to apply for roles at companies you find on the accredited employers' list. They can support your work or resident visa on a successful application. Otherwise, you can only rely on luck to get your visa supported. Although, it's not impossible to get your visa approved even if your future employer is not on the accredited employers' list (my partner and I are living examples of it). It just takes longer.
New Zealand's employment policies prefer locals and people already in the country. Companies need to justify hiring talents from outside of New Zealand and not a resident.
Where to find a job? Check out the following international sites: Seek, LinkedIn, and Indeed. Or our local listing site, TradeMe. The last one didn't work from outside of NZ in the past, so if you're visiting the site from overseas and can't see anything, I guess it's still the case.
Path to citizenship
There are multiple ways to become a Kiwi. You can read about them here.
After being here for five years, I got my new Zealand citizenship (only because I came here on a permanent resident visa). But it usually takes about seven years to get your citizenship. You can apply for citizenship after five years have passed from the issuing date of your permanent resident visa.
When you become a citizen of New Zealand, you can also legally work in Australia without applying for an Australian visa. It's sweet as ('sweet as' is a Kiwi slang; it means it's awesome).
Years of experience
Your best chance to secure a job from outside of NZ is if you already have a couple of years of experience. If you have three years or more, you will have no trouble getting a job in IT.
Unfortunately, many applicants are even in New Zealand looking for an entry-level design position, especially since Vic Uni runs its Master of user experience design programme. I have a friend who spent 18 months job searching in Wellington (she had to take another part-time position in an unrelated field) until she finally found an entry-level design job.
New Zealand has many opportunities but only for experienced people, not junior designers or developers. So your visa will unlikely be supported if you're looking for an entry-level position. Sadly, it's the current reality.
Also, Wellington is much smaller than Auckland. So if you'd like to increase your chance, try to apply for jobs in Auckland.
When it comes to a Kiwi-style resume, there are a few things to keep in mind:
don't add a profile image to your resume (in Europe, we frequently do that)
always state your visa status
start with a professional blurb — how you stand out from the other designers
keep your resume short, a maximum of 2 pages
remove things that indicate your age (to minimize bias)
If the application allows, always submit your candidacy with a cover letter. Customize your cover letter, don't just use a generic template where you only replace the company's name and job title you're applying for. Make the cover letter short and punchy. It's your chance to stand out. I always received compliments on my cover letters. I usually add keywords to the letter, using the job description as a guideline.
Have at least two case studies in your design portfolio. Three would be even better.
Don't leave your best case study to the last. Make your first case study the best! Hiring managers usually decide based on the first one.
You don't need an online portfolio. So if you don't have one, it shouldn't stop you from applying for jobs.
However, you do need a link to share with recruiters or HR. It could be a pdf uploaded to Dropbox or Google Drive.
You should avoid sending a Figma link. It's kind of a lazy design that shows the designer doesn't care about the user experience of their portfolio. Also, not everyone is familiar with Figma (believe it or not), so why make it harder to access and digest the content?
Reference and background check
Kiwis are big on reference checks. They usually ask for 2–4 people, ideally your previous managers' details. And no, you can't just give your friends as references. I might have been an exception, but all of the references I had to provide needed to have a proper email address using companies domain (not a @gmail.com) and LinkedIn profile.
I moved to New Zealand from Ireland, where I lived for over four years. So when I compare the work culture to the Irish work culture, I can't say there's a lot of difference here. The only thing I find different is people, on the dot, get up at 5.00 PM regardless of what they are doing. It's 5.01 PM, and no one is in the office anymore except if you work in consultancy or agency as I did for a year.
It's not uncommon to do your work around your life. It's perfectly acceptable to take care of your relatives, pets, and friends during the day. You just need to communicate with your team and manager, e.g. you need to take an hour off during the workday because you're taking a friend to the airport. But do make sure you make up for the time after work. I mean, nobody will check on you, nobody will ask if you did the extra hour, because New Zealanders are one of the most non-confrontational people I've met in my life, but for your peace of mind.
But when I compare the work culture to Eastern Europe, Hungary (where I worked previously before moving to Ireland), there are many differences.
Mainly in the working hours and style. In Hungary, we start in the office fairly early, around 8 AM. Here, in New Zealand, we go in around 9ish. I say 9ish because you can come in earlier or later. Nobody checks on you. You just need to attend your meetings which are primarily online anyways. In Hungary, the lunch break is 30 min long, but if you can finish faster, that's even better. Here, you take an hour. You can even have a pleasant 15 minutes walk after lunch to clear your head nearby the ocean.
My impression is that, in New Zealand, work is not more important than your health, family, pets, and friends.
We are entitled to at least four weeks of paid annual leave a year if we work regular hours in a full-time or part-time job. In addition, we also have lots of national holidays. In the Wellington region, we have an extra 12 public holidays.
This was definitely unusual coming from Europe to NZ. Kiwis usually take at least two weeks off during the summer, around the Christmas period. It's not uncommon that most people and families add another two weeks to this, so they are on leave for a month.
In general, nothing happens business and recruitment-wise from mid-December to the end of January. Keep that in mind when you apply for roles. Don't get alarmed if you don't hear anything for weeks during this period. People are very likely having a blast on the beach drinking beers from a chilly bin under a pōhutukawa or in a bach enjoying a barbie.
The notice period can vary depending on your role, the time you spent at the company, and your employment status (full-time permanent or temporary contractor). It's usually a month for permanent employment and two weeks for contractors. The notice period can be up to 90 days in consultancy and agency.
Medical & healthcare & sick leave
Unfortunately, I'm super experienced with hospitalization in different countries. I've been in hospital in the following countries: Hungary, the UK, Ireland, Singapore, the US, and New Zealand. Hands down, the service in New Zealand is the worst of all. It's pretty sad. Long waiting time, poor service, nurses and doctors seem overworked and stressed. The famous Kiwi kindness doesn't exist there.
Oh, and paracetamol. The holy grail of medication in New Zealand.
Do you have a headache? Have some paracetamol.
Do you have back pain? Have some paracetamol.
Do you have a toothache? Have some paracetamol.
Did you have a cesarian? Have some paracetamol.
I'd never heard of paracetamol before coming to New Zealand. So if you end up in the hospital or go to your GP with pain, you'll most likely be prescribed 100 tablets of paracetamol. It only costs $5. It's pretty effective, though…but most people are popping them like candies here.
For a 15-min GP visit, we pay somewhere between $50–80. It depends on your age, where your GP is located etc. It's a funny thing to say, but I always enjoy my visit with my GP. He's a fun older man who listens, who seems to care. I visited a few other GPs before finding him. Find a GP you like and trust because whatever you need, e.g. a specialist appointment or more paracetamol, that'll be your go-to person to sort things out for you.
But the good thing about Kiwi healthcare is it's free. The employment agreement usually offers at least five sick days. But, commonly, some companies provide more than five days and an additional 5–10 days of well-being day. Well-being days are when you are not sick, but you feel you don't want to work or can't work because you're not in the right headspace for whatever reasons. You don't need to explain why you take a well-being day. It's pretty neat.
Also, if you end up with an injury (e.g. ankle sprain, some kind of accident), and you need hospitalization and rehabilitation, it's all covered by ACC. It's a fantastic concept for a small amount of money that is deducted from your monthly salary. We have a similar thing in Hungary, we all liked it.
Despite healthcare being free in New Zealand, I'd highly recommend having private insurance. It's a few hundred dollars a month for a whole family (some companies even offer discounts or cover the entire fee as a perk). Depending on which tier and add-on you have, private insurance can pay for your dental treatments, surgeries and specialists, and even for your botox (I know!). Please, don't judge, I'm closer to 40 than 30 now, so I need to think about this very soon.
Taxes and other fascinating stuff
I find the New Zealand tax system straightforward, easy to use and understand, and I dare to say, even fair, especially when I compare it to the Hungarian tax system, which did my head in (because I handled my tax every year). When I compare it to the Irish tax system, it's pretty much the same.
Personal income tax
The tax you need to pay depends on your salary. If you earn more, you pay more.
Here are our levels/rows as of April 2022:
39% from $180,001
33% from $70,001 to $180,000
30%: $48,001 to $70,000
17.5%: $14,001 to $48,000
10.5%: $0 to $14,000
Some of the key attractions of the Kiwi tax system:
no inheritance tax
no general capital gains tax
no local or regional taxes. Property owners only pay 'rates' to councils and local authorities. Rates depend on the RV (rateable value of the property).
no payroll tax
no social security tax
no general healthcare tax
Tax exemption for new migrants
As a new migrant, you might not need to pay tax on most of your overseas income for your first four years living in New Zealand. You may only have to pay income tax on what you earn in New Zealand. More info is here.
When you arrive to NZ, you might become a tax resident here, as well as somewhere else. If both countries tax their residents' worldwide income, you could be taxed twice on the same income. Read more info about this and decide if it applies to you.
You might have heard how crazy the salary of UX designers and software engineers is in North America. However, it's not the case in New Zealand.
You definitely get an excellent salary here, but most companies don't offer Silicon valley-like perks…maybe some bonus (or 'super' as some companies call it).
Indication of what you can earn as a full-time UX and product designer (salaries are in NZD):
1–3 years of experience: 70–90K
3–5 years of experience: 85–110K
5–8 years of experience: 100–165K
Over 8 years of experience and design management: well, you should probably start doing project-based work for hourly or project rates. I've been doing this for a while, and my overall income is over 200K.
You can see the biggest range in the 5–8 years of experience. I'd recommend negotiating salary. You can negotiate hard but also know the company's limits. I prefer to have the remuneration discussion upfront so we don't waste each other's time.
People and attitude
It's another famous saying here that people have a good work-life balance.
Maybe not everyone believes in work-life balance. Perhaps some people believe that there's only life, and work is a huge part of it…regardless of which mindset you associate with, you get a balanced life. There is no doubt about it.
How much of a work-life balance you'll have depends on where you work. As a designer or developer who works in consultancy or at an agency, you'll have a less balanced lifestyle. When I was in that shoe, I had engagement leads who made me work until 10 PM or on Saturdays and not occasionally. I felt they didn't care if my dog soiled in the house or how much extra help I needed to hire to take care of my life outside of work. Working in the consulting and agency field as a designer can be super demanding, even in New Zealand.
Choose wisely. No one tells you this. But if you see a sentence like the following in your contract' minimum working hours: 40', that is the sign that you're going to have unpaid overtime, a lot. When I spoke up about it, it wasn't well received. Sometimes you just need to leave a job. There's no other choice.
You will find as many micromanagers in NZ as in other countries. It's a personality trait. Some people give you autonomy, and some people like to micromanage.
People do the same towards you if you exude a good attitude at work. If you piss people off at work, they won't like you. They'll very unlikely tell you to your face (because this is a non-confrontational nation), but you'll feel something is off. And when you feel that way, it most likely something is off. Your attitude towards colleagues and companies will determine how successful your career will be in New Zealand.
New Zealand is a small country, far away from everything. It's equally easy to build and also ruin your professional reputation. Living and working in Wellington for eight years, I started to see the same people at work. I already worked with a software architect a couple of years back, designers I mentored before, a CEO I previously worked with who is now a product director, and the list goes on.
People have a super indirect communication style. So if you've never been exposed to a similar manner before (if you're not coming from Ireland, the UK, Canada, or Australia), start watching people, e.g. how they behave and write online (on Slack or Teams). Study how people raise issues with other people…you really need to be tuned to it. You can work here for years without even knowing you're not doing a good job…
The tech industry is multinational in New Zealand, so I was lucky to receive brutally honest feedback from foreigners. I'd have preferred kind feedback, but hey…
You can decide if you want to be a cultural fit or cultural addition.
It's up to you.
People are generally friendly. But to make a Kiwi your friends, you need to take the first step, and the second, then the third…They already have friends and families here, so it will take a while to befriend a Kiwi. If they don't have many friends already, well…that might be a red flag.
I keep inviting Kiwis to things, and I successfully made two Kiwi friends during the years! I'm super proud of this; you probably can tell. It's a Kiwi every four years. All of my other friends are foreigners. You'll find it's easier to form a friendship with other expats. It makes sense because other expats also look for relationships and friendships. They are like us, they don't have established social circles here. So don't be too hard on New Zealanders…they will get around eventually if you keep showing up for your potential friendship.
Climate and nature
New Zealand is a beautiful, stunningly beautiful country. Period.
If you've ever been to British Columbia, Canada, that's a similar place in terms of nature and beauty.
New Zealand has everything. It has rolling green hills, huge mountains with snow, lakes, ocean, and beaches (one of them is desert-like). You can hike, ski, surf, swim, bike…whatever sport you're into. New Zealand is famous for its fantastic outdoors. So if this is something you like, you'll enjoy being here. If you don't, then you might not see the country's appeal.
In New Zealand, most people have a car. It's a hassle to find a parking spot in the CBD, at least it is in Wellington. Usually, you need to pay between 8 AM and 8 PM, and it's expensive ($2/a half an hour).
We do have trains. Funnily enough, some of the trains used here are from Hungary. Small world. I haven't done many train rides in the last eight years because I've never lived close to the train lines.
Trains in NZ are not the most reliable transportation because of the earthquakes. If a larger quake happens, the rails are closed until a structural assessment is finished.
In Europe, it's fairly common to live in a city and commute to another city every day. So the train system is much more established, and trains run smoothly with lots of cars and sitting space.
Most people use the bus or car to commute. If people use cars, they tend to rent a long-term parking spot for a few hundred dollars a month instead of paying by the hour. It's a pretty good deal, especially if you could carpool with someone.
If you use a bus, don't forget to wave to your bus driver if you want to get on it. Otherwise, they won't stop for you.
Also, when you leave the bus, thank the bus driver loudly so that everyone hears it. The best Kiwi phrase to use on such occasions is 'Thanks, Driver' [pronounced: draɪ-va']. I love it! This is the only time I can actually make people believe I'm a born and bred Kiwi, not just a transplanted one.
People who live close to the CBD like to walk to work. Apparently, Wellingtonians are the fittest in New Zealand because we walk a lot. Up and down, up and down. I walk an hour when I go to the office (30 min each direction). It contributes to my 8K daily step goals, and it's free.
You can get by without a car if you live in the CBD. However, if you want to explore what's around you, you need to have a car (or you can sign up for car share if you live in Welly, Auckland, or Hamilton).
New Zealand shakes. We have smaller and larger earthquakes multiple times a day.
Are you ever going to be comfortable with earthquakes? Yeah, Nah (Kiwi slang means no). So probably not. But, you need to get used to shakes, especially if you live in Wellington or the South Island.
Drop, cover, and hold is your mantra when it comes to surviving an earthquake. Find a table or desk, and get under it until it stops shaking. You can feel the shakes much more in office buildings than in a house or an apartment. Office buildings are designed to sway and bear the earthquakes here.
We always need to be prepared for natural disasters. Always have a walking shoe in the office and a backpack with essentials such as a nutbar, water, first-aid kit, and torch.
You need to have food with long shelf life and water that last for a week at home. Always have some cash at home, and keep the tank full of petrol because you can just never know here.
Have you felt an earthquake, but you're uncertain? Check out GeoNet. If there's a shake, it's on the website within no time.
Pros and cons of New Zealand
There are so many advantages of living in Aotearoa. It would be another article itself, so you can read more about the pros here.
There's only one disadvantage that comes to my mind. It's so far from everything.
We say we are close to Australia. However, if I got in the car and drove at 50 KM/hour, I'd reach Australia in just under 50 hours…to put it in perspective. Never mind, we can't drive to Australia, though.
Everything is overseas for us. So if you ever want to leave, you need to hop on a plane or a boat (but it would be an interesting choice, but if you do, good luck on the Tasman sea).
The things I shared in this story reflect my personal experience and knowledge only. If you'd talk to other designers in tech, they might have different experiences. And if you ever venture to Kiwiland, your experience might be different too.
I'd love to hear your thoughts. How did you like my Kiwi story? If you'd like me to cover more New Zealand-related topics from a designer's point of view, leave me a comment with a topic idea.
Until then, ngā mihi nui