Programming in Paris ... without a work permit

Snow was melting in Chicago as I finished a consulting job customizing software for a local hospital. So when I heard that my agency was working with a French company, "ITM," on a similar project in Paris, I begged for the assignment. I could practically see myself sitting in a cafe on the Champs-Elysees, typing code into my notebook as spring turned into summer.

Ultimately, my agency decided to pass on that project, but I was obsessed. I forwarded my resume directly to ITM, which agreed to provide a one-way ticket to France, a European work permit, and a three-week stay in a hotel. After that I'd be on my own. But hey, I'd be in the City of Light.

My French client was a large hospital in the south of Paris. ITM had initially shown the institution a system that had been significantly customized by a pediatric infirmary in the United States. That version, which the French hospital believed it had purchased, was not available; the software vendor didn't own the modified code. When I showed the director of the hospital management team what I could do to improve the off-the-shelf software, she angrily rejected the package, and ITM fired me.

Then, before I could catch my breath, the director decided to buy a different software package, and hired me as a direct employee to alter it to meet the hospital's need. In order to stay employed, I had to learn the fourth-generation language the system was written in. I was already struggling to master French. I seemed to have given up sleeping entirely, and I never saw the inside of that cafe I'd imagined.

Did I mention that my work permit never materialized either? When I asked ITM, they told me to call the U.S. Embassy. There, the ever-helpful embassy personnel berated me for having arrived without a valid work permit, and practically ordered me to return to the States immediately. I ignored them. Because I was now, apparently, semi-illegal, the only way the hospital could pay me was to deposit dollars in my U.S. account. But nobody told its payroll department about withholding. When I complained, they told me to file as a consultant. I pointed out that I had a letter clearly stating I was an employee. After hours of arguing (my French was improving fast!) the hospital corrected the mistake.

Meanwhile, every department expected scads of features that the software did not support. The dietary department wanted an inventory system that would track every carrot from delivery to consumption. The laboratory expected the software to perform calculations and determine results. The pharmacy demanded extensive verification of medication and food interactions as well as pediatric dosages. Sacrebleu! I spent more time listening to grievances than I did hacking code. Still, I worked hard to provide the features my clients wanted, and slowly they began to trust me.