FS CLIPS: Sharing Our Stories of Foreign Service Life
A Project of the Una Chapman Cox Foundation
Interviewed by: Bonnie Miller
Initial interview date: May 6, 2022
Copyright 2022 Una Chapman Cox Foundation and the Associates of the American Foreign Service Worldwide
Q: Hello, today is May 6, 2022. I’m Bonnie Miller, and I’m interviewing Craig Houston, an EFM [Eligible Family Member] who is currently living in Brazil. So welcome, Craig.
HOUSTON: Hi, Bonnie, great to be here today.
Q: Thank you for participating in this project. And you were one of my 20 interviewees for ADST’s Partners in Diplomacy podcast series. I thought that your professional background was very interesting, for current EFMs [Eligible Family Members] and people who are thinking about entering the Foreign Service, regarding what family members can do while they’re posted in different places around the world, and how to work remotely. So, can you tell us about your background and your career description?
HOUSTON: I would be happy to. So, as you might detect from my voice, I didn’t grow up in the States; I was born in Scotland. I studied Aerospace Engineering at university and then went into renewable energy. And that took me first of all to Mexico. And that’s where I met my wife to be Jane; she was serving at her first post in Monterrey, Mexico, at the time. Since then, I’ve stayed in renewable energy effectively during that whole time, through a combination of working for an international company and in different locations, and then setting up my own company to continue that work while still being within State Department.
Q: So, you have the technical skills, and you’re an entrepreneur, and you’re a business owner.
HOUSTON: Yeah, I didn’t think that would be the path that I would take. But I think that being flexible to both the challenges and the opportunities that being part of the State Department family offers is an important one. So, this is where I am now. I’m quite happy to be those things, and I think there are lots of opportunities for others. And hopefully, we can help people navigate that a little bit through talking about some of my experiences.
Q: Great. So, when you marry into the Foreign Service, and you go from post to post, maybe your career trajectory changes from what you had planned at the beginning, but usually, with EFMs, that changes for the better, and it’s broader and more enriching.
HOUSTON: Absolutely. I met Jane in Mexico, and then shortly thereafter, she was posted to Beijing. And so that’s the first challenge: if you’re in my position, you’re working for a company in a country, and then you have to throw them a curveball, saying “Hey, guys, we’re going to Beijing now. Can I work there?”
This brings up one of the first challenges that EFM family members are presented with who want to maintain their careers whilst also moving with their spouse around the world. Some of the things to consider are: how flexible are your skills, how many opportunities do you have in your current position to be flexible? In my case, I was quite lucky on those two counts. I think renewable energy is really something that’s done globally, so there are opportunities globally. That’s not necessarily the case with every career. So that’s something to think about if you’re considering building a career through life in the State Department. The other one is location specific, the place you’re going to be, if you have an office. In my case, fortunately, we did have an office in Beijing; it’s a big center for a lot of things. So that transition was made easier because of those two factors, a flexible global career and also the availability of an office. That doesn’t mean there’s not a lot of hoops you have to jump through. There’ll be a few extra hurdles to go over, things like bilateral work agreements, either formal or de facto, and maybe a few more steps in terms of visas. But I think those are two factors to think about is the flexibility of your skills. Are they tied to a certification, either national or state, or can you really do that type of work anywhere?
Q: So, you started out in Mexico, then you went to Beijing. What were your other posts, including Washington, DC?
HOUSTON: So, after Beijing, we were back in DC. My wife did two tours in DC. After that, we were posted to Chiang Mai, Thailand, from 2015 to 2018. My wife happens to be fluent in Thai, so I was relying on her for a bit of language skills initially, but I did study a bit of Thai. Then we were back to DC again in 2018 for Portuguese language training, ahead of our current posting, which is in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, which we’re now coming to the end of.
Q: Okay, so, at your foreign postings, did you work in person locally or internationally, or in the embassy, or remotely? Those are three ways that EFMs can work.
HOUSTON: In Beijing, our company was international renewable energy consultants, and we had an office already in the city. Jane and I weren’t married at the time, and that actually made things a little simpler, so I could come in under a work visa that was sponsored by my company. I was effectively working on the local market there. It was an international company, but all my colleagues and I were in an office of about 20 people; all but two of us were of Chinese origin. And that was great to learn something else about different work culture. One of the great takeaways from that is that we were so much more similar than different. There are some nuances in managing people from a different cultural background, so there are things to learn there, too. If you’re going to go into a management role, then definitely being cognizant of some of the local sensitivities will help you go a long way. Talk to other managers to make sure you’re managing people in a way that is conducive to what they expect, and there’ll be cultural norms that, if you are aware of them, will definitely smooth the path. You won’t get it right all the time. But I think people do appreciate it if you’ve tried to make that step.
Since then, I’ve really been working remote in different guises. I set up my own company, partly because I want it to be even more flexible. I could see my wife’s career stretching out another fifteen, twenty years. And one of the things, if you’re working in a company, if you’re the one instigating these moves every two or three years, that can be great for you, can also mean sometimes you’re not in the strongest bargaining position for those roles. You are asking for that role, and they’re trying to accommodate you, so, keep that in mind in terms of career progression. You may have to take a sidestep or do something slightly different than the traditional career path to accommodate your other requirements about moving around. Ultimately, I took the decision to start my own thing, and that’s been great. It’s got its own challenges, taxes and a lot more things. But overall, for me, the more flexibility the better if you can do that with your skills.
Q: So, in any of your posts, did you learn the languages and use them for your work?
HOUSTON: At every post we’ve been in, I have attempted to learn the language, with varying degrees of success. I came in from Mexico with Spanish that was pretty good, good enough for business conversations. My Chinese was not that level. As most people probably know, Chinese is one of the trickier languages for someone coming from English. The State Department provided a short course, it’s more like survival Chinese. In an office environment, it’s talking over lunch and those kinds of things which in some ways helps you feel a bit more integrated. But in terms of business language, I think there’s a higher bar there. In Thailand, I went to the local university for the first three months to take a Thai language immersion course, which is really great to meet people to learn the language. Again, I wouldn’t say as business fluency, but it helps you in the other parts of your life which do connect your career as well. I think it’s definitely something that’s important. If it’s business, then you have to have a higher level of fluency. But for everyone, I’d recommend trying to learn some of the languages, which just helps your overall experience to be that much richer.
Q: Yeah, definitely good advice. It can help in business, but just for your comfort level in navigating the environment and for your social life as well.
So, were you able to get support from the State Department, including the Global Employment Initiative or Professional Development Fellowships? And how did that work?
HOUSTON: I’m glad you brought that one up, Bonnie, and the answer is yes. And I’ve been very grateful for the level of support the State Department has provided me. Where I’ve interacted with that is through the Global Community Liaison Office, which does a lot of things. Part of what they do is try to support family members to make these career changes or look for opportunities. They have a grant called the Professional Development Fellowship, which gives pretty generous funding, I think up to 75% of the cost of quite a range of different things. I was fortunate enough to receive two Professional Development Fellowships. The first one I used to broaden my skills in Data Visualization, which was an area of interest to me. And then, a couple of years after that, I did a Nanodegree in machine learning at the online school Udacity. This was part of my plan to build the skills and understand different aspects of technology that I thought would be important to develop my career in renewable energy. So definitely a lot of support. And I’d encourage anyone; if you write a decent narrative, you’ve got a pretty good chance of getting support. If you can use that to support the needs of your local mission, all the better.
Q: So, you could apply remotely and use the Professional Development Fellowship for remote learning, and that propels you into new directions for your career?
HOUSTON: Absolutely. I think without those things, it would have been harder for me to be in the position where I am. And it’s worth saying that for people who are thinking about whether they can even do this sort of training from some random place around the world, it’s become far, far easier to do that, and far cheaper. There are great online resources that, even without a fellowship, you can get very cost-effective courses to train in a lot of different things. So definitely use that if you can.
Q: I heard you discuss how the State Department really helped you to further your education. Are there any ways in which the State Department hindered your jobs or your career, in which they got in the way or demanded different things that were hard for you?
HOUSTON: I’ve never felt that State Department hindered my career development. What it did do is force me to be a little bit more creative and flexible in trying to plan a career that followed my interests. The State Department provided a lot of support, and I think there are good reasons for that: they want people to stay a family unit. And it makes sense for both sides of that family to continue what they can to do for work that’s important and meaningful to them. And they’ll do a lot to support that.
I do feel somewhat lucky there. I mentioned flexibility and how transferable are your skills. That was working in my favor. I know other people who have had to pause their careers. Really smart people that have taken that decision. Maybe they delay it and come back to later, people do that. For me, that wasn’t the case, fortunately. So, I think coming into the Foreign Service, do look at your own skills and how realistic is it for you to transition or move your skills around in different locations.
Q: Speaking about flexibility in the State Department, can you tell us a little bit about your next step? And how has the State Department been flexible with your wife Jane’s career?
HOUSTON: My wife, at the end of this tour, will take leave without pay. So that allows Foreign Service officers to take a period up to three years of unpaid leave to take care of a sick relative or a loved one. Or it could be to support the career development of their spouse, which is our case. And also, with COVID making travel difficult, it’s been hard to get back to see my family in Scotland, so that was part of the equation for us as well outside of career. I think it’s really helpful that State Department employees ae highly trained and have a lot of skills. And I think otherwise, if you don’t have that sort of flexibility in the system, then people ultimately just leave. So, I think it’s a good way to keep people engaged long term, whilst also allowing us, the EFMs, to have a period where they can focus on their career as well. So, I’m really grateful for that.
Q: Great. So, what are some other resources that you or EFM’s that you know have used, including Facebook groups or anything else?
HOUSTON: I’m not on Facebook myself; I know people do use it quite a lot. In terms of reaching out, there are just a lot of groups there to understand, specifically, or people who have been to the post you’ve been to, so you could do that through the post itself, which is probably the first protocol. I would have to understand what are the unique challenges of working in a place like this, what are the opportunities that may not be that obvious from outside, if you’re going to a slightly more remote place? Maybe they don’t have good websites where you can research what the opportunities might be. So, try to speak to people who live there; that’s the best indicator of what it might be like for you. Some of those are on Facebook, other ones are just reaching out through the State Department’s own network of people. And again, go by the online courses; that’s a resource that you can make use of in a lot of places. Could be for training, and also for mentorship. Sometimes it can feel like you have a lonely path to remote work, and you’re doing everything remote. And so it can be good to reach out and maybe have a mentor.
And then, also look at what unique opportunities might be at your posts. For me, that was joining the local Green Team, which many places have, looking at renewable and other sorts of green themes and getting exposure that way. Volunteering can be a great path. And you done a huge amount of that yourself, Bonnie. My experience there was through an interest in air pollution, and that dovetailed with my interest in data and data analytics. So, the two sort of combined, and that gave me some really interesting things to work on that, hopefully, benefited the local community too. And then the mission helped me further my skills in a way that was interesting.
Q: So, what is your best advice for EFMs regarding having a successful career as an accompanying partner?
HOUSTON: I think the first thing is to make an honest assessment of where your skills are. If you’re on the cusp of deciding to come into the Foreign Service or not, that’s the point to ask yourself if this the kind of life for you. That’s for each person to weigh up, and career is going to be part of that decision for you. The time to make an honest assessment and have those conversations is before you’re on that train. But don’t view it all as negative. There’s a huge amount of positive things and unique opportunities that I wouldn’t have had if I’d stayed in Scotland and doing some sort of traditional path there.
So, take that honest assessment of your skills. Be open to opportunities that may come out of the uniqueness of your situation. In many cases, you’ll have unique skills that just don’t exist in that place. And that can be something that can be really valuable, and you just have to find where you can apply those skills. Flexibility in all aspects of life in the State Department does go a long way, so don’t have a very set path in mind but a direction that you want to travel, and be willing to meander a bit from there, if it gets you to the ultimate place you want to be in your career.
Q: Great advice, and you are really an example of how you have developed your career and enhanced your career while moving from post to post. And good luck in your next chapter and thank you for enlightening our readers.
HOUSTON: Thanks so much, Bonnie, great to talk to you.
End of Transcript
Download a copy of Craig Houston’s interview transcript below.