My Career: From Start to Finnish
After a stint in Silicon Valley, Finland was the ideal place to live for Zak
Get to know more about Zak via LinkedIn.Zak Allal
Zak Allal, Algeria. Doctor and entrepreneur
Doctor, professional pianist, composer, entrepreneur – Zak Allal is a man of many talents. And, it must be said, a man of the world. Born in Algeria, he has lived in Paris, Spain, Switzerland, the UK, and in both coasts of the US. The latter saw him based at Singularity University in California's Silicon Valley, where he regularly collaborated with Google and NASA.
When COVID-19 drew that chapter to a close earlier this decade, Zak returned to Algeria and pondered where the ideal place for him would be to settle down in. He sought a place that promised a balanced lifestyle, but also somewhere to still enjoy success in business and entrepreneurship.
Zak solved this by putting together a Google spreadsheet with some metrics and coefficients, a simple decision matrix. As he filled it with various metrics and the results of assorted global rankings, one thing became clear: Finland consistently rose to the top.
Finland was ranked first on Zak's Google spreadsheet.Zak Allal
And so, Zak moved to Finland in the spring of 2022, where he now works in medical IT and neuroscience. Along the way he has also developed the Finnish Companion, a website and app to help make learning Finnish more accessible, receiving financial backing in extraordinary circumstances to take it to an even wider audience.
When I landed in Finland I… went to a work event 12 hours after I arrived. Somebody was retiring, so it was a good opportunity to meet everyone from the neuroscientific community where I got my job offer. There I spoke with someone who had been living in Finland for 15 years. He didn't speak a word of Finnish. I was so surprised: “How could you live for 15 years in a country where you still go around speaking English?”
This got me curious about why someone hasn’t learnt the language. Then, the more I discovered, the more I couldn't believe that there was a scarcity of learning resources. There was no one go-to Bible. Like, if you're learning French, for example, they have this very famous red book called Bescherelle and it's kind of like a conjugation book. When I was learning English, I had a collection of books of English grammar in use for basic, intermediary, and advanced. But certain classics or resources or Bibles didn't necessarily exist in Finnish.
Support for the Finnish Companion was bolstered by the jury of Tahko Ski Lift Pitch, led by Mika Suutinen, which gave it an extraordinary 10 000-euro angel investment even though as a non-profit it was technically ineligible for a competition accolade.Zak Allal
Also, I discovered that Finns are so nice that they speak English to you, even if you speak Finnish to them. And then they are also shy and introverted, so you don't really get opportunities to correct yourself.
When I was working out the best way to learn Finnish I… thought about when you're a pianist and what pianists do. Like when I premiered at Carnegie Hall in 2013, there was always this joke: How do you get to Carnegie Hall? Practice, practice, practice. I thought, well, how am I going to learn Finnish? I started to think that pianists and professional musicians in general, what they do well is drills. They keep repeating and repeating until it becomes second nature. What musicians have mastered as a skill is this art of taking something that they're not familiar with and then they start deciphering it and slowly learning it, and then repeating and repeating to the point where they can go and perform it in front of 1 000 people. By this stage they don't even need a score or a music sheet, they are just in a trance, a meditative state where they don't even look at the keyboard anymore, doing something in a very natural way.
How to learn Finnish? Zak emphasises practise, practise, practise.Zak Allal
Also, I've been coding since I was a kid. It’s second nature to me, so I just created this small website for myself which would prompt me with a verb, or a noun and it would also ask me partitive of this noun or the third-person plural. I noticed that my Finnish was getting better and better and then I was like, “OK, so how about I do something even better? I'm going now to make it generate verbs that are similar.” This became the Finnish Companion.
The difference between the Finnish startup scene versus Silicon Valley is… Finns are people who don't speak a lot but actually over deliver in terms of quality and efficiency. Sometimes I've seen where they don't market things well. They are very shy. In fact, it's kind of embedded in the Finnish DNA that selling something too aggressively is kind of bad, it's like a lack of humility. But in the Valley, it's always self-promotion. “I'm here. I'm selling myself.” Everyone is a leader. Everyone is successful. Everyone is an entrepreneur. So, it's not the same energy here. Something also that I did notice when I was in the Valley, some of the biggest mistakes that we used to see, was young entrepreneurs would open a web page, book a domain name, have a nice presentation deck, and then start talking about a startup. When I was in Finland, I immediately understood from the very first day that it's all about the quality of the product before the marketing. It is very important.
Zak had to learn Finnish as quickly as possible after arriving here because his research job was transitioning into clinical work at the hospital.Zak Allal
My experience with the work culture in Finland has been…a healthy work environment. You have your personal space. I've also had accommodations in terms of lifestyle needs. When I was working, doing my postgraduate level 1 intern for a doctor, I had to wear headphones with noise cancelling all the time because the beeps of the machines would make me super stressed and anxious, and I just couldn't handle that. Actually, I put that in the Google spreadsheet before coming here.
I was also looking for a country where the work culture was non-hierarchical and informal. It was a deal breaker for me. You would talk to a professor who has a huge profile, he's like a neurosurgeon celebrity, but then you call him by their first name. You don't call him professor. Actually, I called my boss here in Finland ‘professor’. I think it was my first Monday at work. She came to my office, and she was like, “Don't call me professor, because people are going to be laughing, just call me by my name.” My boss has been very supportive in terms of adapting here.
The abundance of allotment gardens in Helsinki is something that Zak appreciates about living in the city.Jussi Hellsten
The positive sides totally outweighed the negative sides. But there have been a couple of cons that I've noticed and one of them that particularly kind of started to become a pet peeve. I'm originally from North Africa from Algeria, but I did grow up in France. I have also lived in Spain, in Switzerland, in the UK, in the US, both West and East Coast, so I'm kind of like a world citizen, almost half of my life lived internationally. If you ask me where I’m from, I'm not going to say the US because, well, even if my way of thinking and kind of my ideology is very American, I'm not a US citizen. So, I don't say I'm American. I do say I am Algerian because that's my citizenship. When I say that I'm originally from North Africa immediately there is a kind of a stereotype or a pre constructed idea that you are systematically a refugee, or you are fleeing a war zone. I have also faced situations where colleagues were trying to show me how to use a computer. Excuse me, I was working for Google in Silicon Valley!
A Finnish trait I have picked up is… I got accustomed to silence now. Mostly when I travel from Helsinki, I go to Paris – that's where I meet my family, my friends – or in Spain, I stay there two days, three days max. And I’m like, this is too loud for me. I just want to go back to Finland. I also like avanto (ice swimming). I'm a huge fan of self-improvement and optimising yourself; anything that's about healthy diet, fasting training and all of that. But I tried avanto and I did feel an amazing sense of clarity and joy for about two days. But not euphoric joy. It was just peaceful joy. I like the Greek term of ‘eudemonia’ which is I think a good qualifier of that because it doesn't have that serotonin of happiness. It's more, you know, it's more blissful, lasting happiness.
My advice for anyone thinking about moving to Finland is… don't get intimidated by the language. The people are super nice. Don't get intimidated as well because they look so serious at first. You think if you say something wrong, you're going to get sued by the International Court of Justice or whatever. You have to understand that they're just serious, and they want to they take duty and responsibility very seriously.
Finland is indeed the happiest country in the world, according to Zak.Zak Allal
Actually, I have a really fun tip. There's this book called Finnish Nightmares which I highly recommend. I saw it when I landed at Helsinki Airport. Very funny. You learn about the Finnish culture straight from that book, I think it's very nice. If you're moving to Finland, get that book. If you can't buy it, just go to the Instagram account.
Also, do be realistic about your expectations. Know that there are three hardships here: cold, darkness, loneliness. You have to be ready to face those. And they're not necessarily bad. They don’t not necessarily make your life miserable. I think they just make you discover another side of yourself, especially if you come from a place that is different from the Nordics.
The Finnish word that best describes living and working here is… sisukas. Finland trains you to become sisukas.
What I enjoy most about living in Helsinki is… first of all, nature. In Finland in general, you just drive 15 minutes north and you're already in a National Park. I live in Munkkivuori, so I have this very beautiful park nearby as well. I discovered that people could rent a public garden for farming, and they could co-share it, which was something I had never heard of before. I like that there's a lot of culture here, a lot of events. It's a small, big city. I like the silence here. It's also a very digital city, very innovative. The ecosystem is very efficient.
I think Finland deserves its title of the happiest country in the world, honestly. I'm not disappointed at all by my Google spreadsheet. It wasn't scientifically valid or wasn't really something of an academic standard, but it was enough. It was kind of a business decision, you know? It was good enough for making the decision and cutting the BS. Yeah, I’m not disappointed at all.