Today's interview is with Alex Berger. He sheds light on the differences between his home country, America, and Denmark, as well as the process of adapting to a new country.
My academic journey starts with a bachelors in the US, during which I did a six week summer study abroad to the British Isles. Inspired, I wasn't able to get abroad until after I graduated at which point I took a classic three month solo trip through Europe. This is what gave birth to my travel blog which has served as essential professional and recreational tool over the years (check out some of the photos I have taken along the way here)!
My student job during the bachelors was working for a commercial real estate firm. It was a great job, but by the time I graduated I realized that commercial real estate wasn't my true calling. This was synchronistic, because this was at the end of 2007 and 3 months later the bottom fell out of the market and the recession started. As is often the way with luck, our personal networks, and opportunity right was I was wrapping up the real estate job and preparing for my Eurotrip I got a call from a friend asking if I'd be interested in pivoting mergers and acquisitions. It was something I'd always found compelling.
I took the interview, and I did everything you're not supposed to do; I told them I had a three month trip planned that I had to take, that I still had a 2 month commitment to the real estate company I needed to respect and couldn't start early, etc. - but they were interested enough to delay the process, and took me on once I got back from my trip at the start of 2008. In the role as in house research and marketing I did a lot of industry research, and thoroughly enjoyed the role as the firm was industry agnostic meaning we were constantly dealing with clients in new industries. This was perfect for my curious personality, and where I was in my career because there was so much to learn.
Lucky for me, they were quite a bit more flexible compared to standard American companies. By leveraging holidays, I was able to manage two extended trips a year and do my travel blogging in parallel during the three and a half years that I was there. After 3.5 years I'd mastered what I was doing and it was time to decide: do I become a mid-market M&A deal maker, or pivot? With the youngest broker in the office at the time in his mid-40s and our clientele mostly 60+ I realized I was a bit young and would benefit from broader work experience. At the same time I started thinking about taking my travel blogging to the next level and doing it as a full time job. Additionally, I felt the allure of the startup community, was watching technology evolve and began to explore starting my own business within the educational gaming industry.
Shaping all of this was also a strong wanderlust paired with frustration with the political, educational, and social climate in Arizona which was aggressively insular, extremely conservative, and had a strong bias against innovation, science and technology. I wanted to get out of Phoenix and go somewhere more liberal and progressive. This is when it struck me, what better way of getting out there than taking another degree and picking up a Masters and/or PhD.
This led to conversations with mentors and the conclusion I was primarily focused on a tier 1 university, with a world-class brand reputation, a robust alumni network and strong research credentials. Obviously, it also had a lot to do with money. I compiled a long list of potential universities and then went through it one by one to check if they had a communications program. This is where Denmark entered the picture.
I honestly didn't know much about Denmark, but on one of my previous trips I had done two days in Copenhagen. It was July. It was sunny. There were just great vibes, and people were hanging out in the parks listening to music. So when I was looking at the list of universities Denmark stuck with me, and I did some more research. The more I researched, the more I came to love the idea of moving there, it truly is a country that punches outside of its weight class. Relative to Denmark's size and population, its global impact is huge and very impressive. So, I applied University of Copenhagen as well as Georgetown, Oxford, Stanford, LSE and others. But it was scary, because relocating and starting over in a whole new place is a big step. Moreover, there is a lot to be said about the process of applying to universities in Denmark as an international student. Obviously, different countries have different grading systems, and that's fine, but it is relatively difficult to translate value between them. The same goes for how programs are defined and what's expected of students. However, it all came together really nicely and Denmark is where I ended up, in no small part because of a tuition waiver which was offered as part of my degree acceptance.
I was lucky timing wise as Denmark was very open. In recent years the visa process has become more difficult and restricting, making it harder for people to come here. However, with that being said, once you are here, the logistics of it all have become a lot easier. I do give props to International House here in Copenhagen, and related initiatives because they have improved significantly when it comes to logistical support. They have become incredibly helpful in terms of getting CPR numbers, getting registered, and so forth. It's hard to integrate and succeed when you're bogged down by the basics and accelerating the resolution of these makes a huge difference.
I did my masters here, and the initial plan was to do the two years and then take the best international job I was offered. I graduated with a Master's degree in communication and cognition, did my thesis on social media and social impact, and everything else tied to it. By the end of that journey, I had fallen in love with Copenhagen and knew that I wanted to stay here.
Because of my past work history, I didn't have a lot of student jobs, mostly because I focused more on the student experience and exploring my projects. So, when it came to actually looking for jobs, it was difficult. Compounded by the reality that most of the roles I was applying for had 200-500 applicants. It was also just a bit of misunderstanding on my part of the Danish job market. I sent out about 150 applications, interviewed with about 20 companies, made it to the final round 4 times, but never actually go the job. I got a lot of feedback, had a robust network and that's also where the YPD program was invaluable. But with that being said, none of it is traditional Danish work experience. I had a lot of experience from outside Denmark, but let's face it, there is a bit of bias towards anything done outside the country.
During my time at university my group and I had won the Communication Case Competition. The year's case company was Maersk, which led me to an opportunity where I got an unusual opportunity to sub in as a medical cover under the then head of Group Relations as PA for two months, which was great for the CV and a wonderful learning experience.
A few months later through YPD related contacts I landed a three month paid internship with Biogen. It was a fixed student role, which meant that there wasn't a possibility for being hired afterwards, which I knew beforehand, but it helped cover bills, teach me about biotech, and flesh out the resume.
Through this whole period and process one of the key challenges was learning the Danish way of interviewing, because interview preferences truly do vary from country to country. My approach was to walk into the interview and tell all the stuff that I could contribute to the team on top of everything it says on my CV. But I came to realise that interviews here are a lot more about fact checking the CV, and seeing if there is chemistry. I was basically overwhelming instead of just giving the relevant pertinent information. It was an interesting process! I finally landed a job at Adform ideally suited to my skillset. Adform is a Danish advertising technology company with a global footprint going head to head with the world's largest tech firms. It is an amazing company to be a part of, and over the last four years I've seen it grow from a late stage start up to becoming a truly multinational firm. These days I keep busy as the Head of Global Product Marketing. A role that constantly brings new challenges and feeds my interests as a futurist and marketing professional.
If I had to give international students one piece of advice for when they start their job hunt here in Denmark, it would be to set aside everything you know and take a step back and get some perspective. Every time you find yourself saying, well this is how I would usually do, stop, and remember what audience you are talking to. For example, the American communication style is a layered approach, meaning it is very back and forth and you are constantly layering on more information. Whereas in Denmark, it's more similar to a traditional school debate style. You have the information you want to share and you say the entire piece, and then you wait for someone to respond in full. That's why Americans can come across rude or interrupting in professional circumstances because we have that temptation to push and up sell, to show attentiveness by responding in-flow, and we fill silence.
There's also the whole concept of Jantelov in Denmark, and it is important to understand where that comes from, because otherwise an American can be misunderstood quite easily. It's important to prove that you have integrated and taken it upon you to adapt to Danish culture, and show that during interviews. Make sure you are looking at your CV, the photo, the layout, and ask yourself, what message am I sending with this? Am I confident with what I am presenting? Can I sell myself based on what it says on my CV? Does my behavioural profile match the company? Basically, understand your audience and listen to what they are telling you and asking of you. Sometimes we are so focused on telling our story, that we don't listen what is actually being asked of us. Their questions are being asked for a reason. Beyond that, listen to what the interviewer is asking you, and don't take it as a defensive challenge. Take it as an invitation to clarify and address their concerns constructively.
You recently wrote a book, can you tell me a bit about it?
I knew that I wanted to write a book and self-publish it, but I was quite intimidated by the process. Based on past experience, I know that I have a 4 - 8 month passion period for new projects. That is the time that I can truly dedicate a lot of my energy, and after that I enter what I like to call maintenance mode. I will still complete my project, but the sparkle is gone. So based on that information, my goal was to complete my book within this time period, preferably six months. That led to the question, what story do I tell? I ended up taking the approach of a bathroom reader, where you can flip open to any chapter, read, and it will make sense. Assuming a busy reader and wanting an approach that made writing it easier to do in chunks. So I basically started creating a list of topics that I found interesting, and I started writing based on these topics. The book ended up being called Practical Curiosity: The Guide to Life, Love & Travel. By narrowing in on key areas and interests which I feel are closely related it also let me write about whatever I felt passionate about in the moment. So it could be anything from business, life, love, education, etc. accelerating my writing process. For example, there's a section on using the way we fold toilet paper to re-evaluate our daily assumptions and perceptions, right alongside a section on love, respect and empowered relationships.
I was able to finish the writing in two months, and after that it was all formatting and editing. When it came to editing I knew it would be extremely difficult to find an agent. Additionally, your family and friends are also your worst audience. They obviously want you to succeed more than anyone, but they also feel that they deserve insider knowledge or already know you and what you have to share. They will call you and get whatever information they feel they need, and therefore don't have the same passion or draw to read the book. They are fans by default, and they are already busy. I knew all of this, and tried to incorporate that. I didn't want to spend three months chasing down my friends asking them to peer review. So, what I did was asked for volunteers and then sent them the draft of the book. All they had to do was comment on each section and whether they liked it, hated it, or felt neutral towards it, and if they wanted to they could leave a comment. It was great, because it gave me the opportunity to flip through the book and it would flag any sections that were questionable, unclear, or needed work. It was a great way of receiving quick, relevant, and useful feedback, and it allowed me to complete my book in six months.
I am now working on a follow-up, which is basically a live reading of my book, and then I release it as a free podcast. For me this is a personal journey, and it is something I have wanted to do for a long time. I know that it will not be for everyone, but if it does resonate, or impacts someone out there, then I find it to be a fantastic success. In addition to that, I also have a vlog that is all about Denmark and am constantly dabbling as a photographer and in entrepreneurial projects.
My book is a way to keep the creativity in my life alive, and that was actually another thing that drew me to Denmark. Denmark has a million opportunities to be creative, and has such great work life balance that you have the time and the energy to delve into personal projects and to seek balance. It's amazing to have the ability to devote time out of your day to something you are truly passionate about. It means that there is a life outside of work and that the energy you bring to work and your community as a whole is much richer and engaged.