My UK “Exceptional Talent” Endorsement Journey — a Guide for Digital Technologists

How I earned UK’s prestigious Exceptional Talent endorsement for Recognized Leaders

Flickr: Union Jack Retro Bin 30L — Outside the houses of parliament

I am feeling grateful and honored having been endorsed as an Exceptional Talent (‘a recognized leader’) by the Home Office, UK. The endorsement may be used towards securing a visa. I therefore decided to write up a guide outlining advice for fellow, exceptionally talented digital technologists who may be considering relocating to the UK.

Even as a U.S. Lawful Permanent Resident (LPR), in my humble opinion, I believe the current political climate discourages immigration — legal or otherwise. And, it’s always great to have options at hand and be mobile, especially as a technologist, aside from my infatuation with the UK. That is what led me to pursue this scheme — and I thought I had a pretty strong case with my patent applications, published research papers, press coverage, this blog, open source projects, business ties to the UK, and my experience as a founder of multiple startups.

Now, this article is not meant to diss Muricah🇺🇸 — I love and have always loved this nation. I’m not going to be stereotypical here like many, and brag about why “UK is better because of NHS, no guns, blah blah blah” (especially as a licensed firearm owner). I do think they have a better overall cuisine though! ;)

Nothing per se is better or worse, it’s what ultimately works out for you, the tradeoffs you’re willing to put up with and what your personal priorities are.

Benefits of the Exceptional Talent Visa

As one of the immigration advice websites stated, the following are some of the benefits enjoyed by the recipient(s) of this Tier 1 visa:

With a Tier 1 Exceptional Talent Visa, [one may]:
1. Change jobs — without the approval from the Home Office;
2. Launch their own business;
3. Perform voluntary work;
4. Work in whichever sector;
5. Get promoted in a job;
6. [Not] need a sponsor to get a visa or to extend it;
7. Bring family and/or other dependents in the UK.

That is pure freedom. Unlike the U.S. — the land of the free which ironically restricts the freedoms of lawful visa-holders. Your visa largely dictates what you can and cannot do — H1B means you’ll be at your employer’s mercy. F1 forbids you from even thinking about launching or being involved in startup businesses. The other pathways to a U.S. permanent residency often include long wait times (~ a decade) because of an ever-growing backlog and some hurdles — unless of course, we are talking about a Nobel Prize winner or an internationally recognized talent in the field of Arts (Justin Bieber anyone?). Translation: Really rich and famous, in which case you may have some leeway.

By contrast, UK’s Exceptional Talent Visa is designed far more realistically and geared towards attracting expert talent to the Kingdom who are able to successfully demonstrate — with no more than 10 pieces of evidence:

  • exceptional achievement in the field
  • significant contributions to the field — outside of their daily jobs
  • proof of recognition for this work; e.g. awards, press releases, works being widely used by others in the academia or industry
  • continuous learning and mastery of new commercial/technical skills
  • proven track record of innovation in digital technology; such as through experience as an innovator or founder of businesses (current or former), patent applications, etc.

AND

  • be able to secure at least 2 recommendation letters from renowned industry experts of two separate organizations (such as a CEO/COO, Senior member of a company, or a Senior-level Professor of a prestigious university). The experts must be from two different organizations.

I’m referring specifically to the Digital Technology field here for which the designated endorsement body is Tech Nation, formerly Tech City UK. If your field is arts, sciences, engineering, or something else your process and criteria will likely differ.

Luckily, in my case, the ten pieces of evidences overlapped and met multiple criteria leading me to pursue this opportunity. And the industry experts were more than happy to recommend me for the scheme!

Note: This is not an exhaustive list and the complete official PDF guide compiled by Tech Nation explains the nitty-gritty of the process. The evaluation process is holistic and point-based — taking into account the quality of every piece of evidence, the weight of the recommendation letters secured from leading industry experts who are willing to support your application, and your CV highlighting your achievements ‘til date.

Application Preparation

Preparing an application like this can be overwhelming task — for example, some endorsees were able to compress all pieces of evidence into merely 50 pages, whereas my entire application packet was ~183 pages and sent overseas in a box. My one piece of advice is to plan early and to execute the process in the following steps:

  1. Gather all pieces of evidence first — your achievements ‘til date: projects, open source contributions, documents showing startup experience, ongoing education/transcripts/certificates, patent applications (if applicable), awards, press releases, etc.
  2. Sort and choose the best 10 out of everything, based on the criteria you qualify under. Note, for digital productions — such as GitHub commits showing open source contributions, or an article, a website designed by you, or retweets of your work by other experts, the Home Office Guide asks that you include a paper copy comprising the work — as screenshots for example, and NOT merely a hyperlink. Your web browser’s “Print to PDF” feature will come in handy here. Try to restrict every piece of evidence to no more than 2 A4 sized sheets of paper — but this may not always be the case. Some of my works were several pages long and according to the guidelines, I sided with providing an entire copy of the work to be safe.
  3. Write the Personal Statement in the end, once you know what your pieces of evidence will be. Completing steps 1 and 2 will likely help you better articulate your plans in the UK — as it did for me.
  4. Request Recommendation Letters from esteemed industry experts affiliated with 2 different organizations, who have known you in a professional capacity and can attest to your success in the UK and your potential to contribute to UK’s economy. Best “experts” for this purpose would likely be the CEOs/CTOs of your company, Directors, Senior Managing members of an organization, Senior Lecturers/Professors of globally renowned universities who have known you in some professional capacity — for example, as a co-researcher. Additionally, the recommendation letters must be printed on the organization’s letterhead, list the contact details, including the address of the expert and be signed by them.
    Friends and colleagues would not make for strong references for this purpose. You may however benefit from asking a colleague for a “supplemental” letter of recommendation as a part of your 10 pieces of evidence as some folks have — but in my opinion a letter from a colleague or a friend should never be used to substitute the primary recommendation letters which are expected to be from credible experts. In my case, these supplemental letters were not necessary as the works alone made for better evidence.
  5. Craft a specialized CV — a brief resume won’t do. Unless your LinkedIn profile is as thorough as mine — detailing every single achievement and publication, in which case, you may simply export your LinkedIn to a beautiful PDF — as did I, it may be wise to craft a CV specific to the criteria of this application. To give you an example, the CVs of the industry experts who endorsed my application were between 10 and 20 pages comprising their publication history, books, research works and employment/education details. Your CV, according to the guidelines, should be no more than 2 — but there may be some leeway here. My LinkedIn easily took over 4 pages.
LinkedIn “Save to PDF” feature

Once you have everything in order, you are now in a position to submit everything for Stage 1 (‘Endorsement’). The decision, according to official guidelines can take up to 8 weeks. In practice though, multiple sources have reported that it took only a little over 2 weeks for them — regardless of whether they pursued the Fast Track route or not.

There are 2 stages of this application — Stage 1 concerns having a government-Designated Competent Body (DCB) endorse you as an Exceptional Talent (or Promise). This step does not result in a visa by itself. If you have been endorsed, Home Office will let you know via email their decision based on the recommendation of the DCB. You can then proceed to Stage 2 — the actual visa application process — the relatively clerical workflow dealing with background checks, fingerprints, passport submission, etc.

Even though there are 2,000 places reserved annually for the Tier 1 visa category, these are distributed among the DCBs, giving Tech Nation just 200 spots for Digital Technologists, at the beginning of the year and the remaining spots become available to any DCB on an as-needed, first-come-first-serve basis.

The official guide explains how these places are distributed among the Designated Competent Bodies

Good news! Even if even if you don’t qualify for the Exceptional Talent criteria, you may automatically be considered for the Exceptional Promise route at Tech Nation’s discretion. However, it is important to note that merely holding a job or a title (e.g. a Developer, Cybersecurity Engineer, The Prince, etc. does not necessarily grant you an endorsement — as is the case with anything in life, you will need to earn it: by meeting all other criteria listed, gathering solid evidence, and writing a compelling yet realistic Personal Statement describing how you plan on contributing to the economy of the United Kingdom, based on your skills and experience — before a designated body can bestow this honor upon you. The Personal Statement describing a tangible plan (e.g. plans to find a startup, or work for an employer) combined with the evidences meeting the requirements will likely bear a fruitful result.

Settlement

One of the biggest benefits of applying for a Tier 1: Exceptional Talent endorsement and visa is that after 3 years* of staying in the UK and contributing to the British economy in some way, you may apply for permanent residency (an ‘indefinite leave to remain’). And perhaps, for British Citizenship in the fifth year — if that is what you desire.

*For someone endorsed under the Exceptional Promise route the waiting time to apply for settlement is 5 years with all else remaining roughly the same. You still need to demonstrate your contribution to the British economy either through innovations, startup experience, or through a job offer in the field.

“Underground signage” by Pass Enger on Unsplash

Cost, Process, Useful Links

In the age of Google, why reinvent the wheel? Allow me to leave you with some useful links and advice that helped me greatly with preparing my application packet:

First and foremost the following official resources trump everything else — including this article:

  1. https://technation.io/visa/
  2. https://www.gov.uk/tier-1-exceptional-talent
  3. https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/guidance-on-policy-for-uk-visas-under-tier-1-exceptional-talent

Now for some useful links — some of which also comprise accounts of what folks did after not being successful the very first time:

  1. https://thepresidentialhustle.com/how-to-got-get-tech-nation-exceptional-talent-visa-endorsement/
  2. https://medium.com/@ThePresidentHustle/11-faqs-answers-for-the-tech-nation-exceptional-talent-visa-6df50afbc4b0
  3. https://medium.com/@ryzalyusoff/how-i-got-my-uk-technation-exceptional-talent-visa-4e912af68ff0
  4. http://www.michellehua.co.uk/how-i-received-an-exceptional-talent-endorsement-by-tech-city-uk/
  5. https://blog.clarenceji.london/all-blogs/2017/6/11/road-to-the-uks-tier-1-exceptional-talent-visa
  6. https://www.forbes.com/sites/oliviapinnock/2018/07/06/uk-tier-1-exceptional-talent-visas-extended-to-fashion-professionals/#6bbab6767f6c

Special Thanks!

Finally, I’d like to express my sincerest gratitude to the following organizations and their industry experts for their continued support both towards my research goals and the endorsement:

  1. Tech Nation
  2. UCL Institute of Education, University College London
  3. College of Computing & Informatics (CCI), Drexel University
  4. Baiada Institute for Entrepreneurship
  5. Georgia Institute of Technology
  6. Sonatype Inc. — The multinational leader in #DevSecOps and open-source software security.

This article may be updated periodically based on the readers’ interest, demand for more information and to reflect on my ongoing journey.

Disclaimer: This article is not legal advice. You should consult a registered immigration adviser or a licensed attorney for any questions you may have related to the immigration laws or your application.

© 2018. Akshay ‘Ax’ Sharma. All Rights Reserved.