Go West, Young Man

If you’re in tech, you need to move to San Francisco. The advice holds especially if you’re a student, not having dug your roots too deeply anywhere yet.

There are several reasons why you want to come here:

The Opportunities
All the coolest companies you’ve heard about are here. In a radius of roughly 30 miles, you’ll find Airbnb, Amazon, Apple, Facebook, GitHub, Google, LinkedIn, Salesforce, Slack, Stripe, Twitter, Uber…  And all of them are hiring (shoot me an email!). There is no place in the world with a comparable density of exciting, impactful projects, maybe to the exception of Beijing — but certainly nowhere in Europe.

Any engineer here with even a little experience at a startup receives a constant stream of phone calls and emails from recruiters. I’m not saying this to show off: ask anybody from San Francisco to show you their inbox. 1-3 recruiting emails per week is normal.

Beyond the opportunities you’ll receive personally, tech is currently reshaping the whole world — and San Francisco is at the center of it. I feel lucky every day, getting to witness what’s happening here. It’s often compared to the renaissance in Florence during the 15th century.

Some people get super annoyed when you say this. They’ll tell you talent is everywhere and curse about those damn Americans who think they’re the center of the world. I don’t mean to be insulting, and I agree talent and energy are everywhere. It is true that several tech ecosystems around the world are blooming — including Paris. But statistics like the amount of Venture Capital invested support the thesis that nowhere comes close to the Bay Area yet. Which leads me to…

The Money
You’ll earn more here than you would anywhere else. The difference is especially stark if you don’t come from the US. The entry salary for a software engineer who’s straight out of school hovers around $110k per year. If you’re good, it’s not uncommon to see software engineers with 5-6 years of experience make $300k-$400k per year in total compensation (which includes your base salary, yearly bonus and stocks). I know several people making this kind of money in big companies. Looking at it from the outside, getting into Apple / Google / etc looks intimidating, but it’s a lot easier than you’d think.

Compare these salaries to what you’d get anywhere else in the world. Straight out of school, a software engineer in France would be lucky to earn 45k€ ($52k). Interns make more than this here — those in Paris will make around $1k per month or less.

And yes, life in SF is much much more expensive than in, say, Paris. But in my experience the difference in compensation more than makes up for it. Don’t take my word for it: check out Numbeo, a crowdsourced database with the cost of living of a bunch of cities in the world. Its page comparing San Francisco to Paris states that you need to earn 46% more to live the same way in SF as you would in Paris. So these $52k in Paris translate to $76k in SF — still less than many interns here. And there is no way you’d ever get these $300-400k packages I mentioned in Europe.

The People
If you decide to move here, it means you probably have more ambition than average. Consider that everybody else you’ll meet in the Bay Area will share that with you. The self-selection effect is strong, and you’ll met the smartest, most energetic and ambitious people you’ve ever seen. The phenomenon tends to feed on itself — enthusiasm is contagious.

When I arrived, I met a guy who told me “the difference between French and San Franciscan entrepreneurs is that the French build startups to have a job, San Franciscans to change the world.” The insult stung, and was definitely an exaggeration, but the second part contains a little bit of truth. It really is surprising how big Californians allow themselves to think. Entrepreneurs here will tell you they want to cure cancer, colonize Mars, or disrupt the trillions-of-dollars car industry. They’ll make you reconsider what you can aim for.

California is stunning. It’s sunny year long — some people actually say they miss seasons, though I certainly don’t. You can drive just 4h and see some breathtaking landscapes in Tahoe or Yosemite, or just 1.5h North or South and find yourself in the middle of gorgeous woods. The food is great, San Francisco’s streets surprisingly walkable (something rare in America), and people very nice and welcoming.

But… The Rent
Of course, San Francisco’s got a couple of downsides too. Everybody complains about the rent, for good reason. Because of some absurd zoning regulations forbidding anybody to build anything in about 70% of the city, there’s a massive housing shortage, translating into some of the highest rents in the world (and some of the lowest skylines for a city that prosperous). Expect to pay easily $2500 per month for a studio. If you find a roommate, you can find a small room for about $1600/month (as of 2018). Again, the salary more than makes up for it if you’re a software engineer, but you’ll have less living space than you would anywhere else.

The Monoculture
People complain about what they call the “monoculture” here. The high-rents chased away anybody who couldn’t earn the big bucks, like artists. If you hang out in New York or Paris, you’ll meet lawyers, teachers, artists… Here it’s all tech, tech, tech. Not necessarily a bad thing if, like me, tech is your passion. I for one love hearing stories about how my favorite products are built “behind the scenes.” But some people crave more diversity of conversation topics.

Starting a family
The high cost of living makes it very hard to start a family too. I sometimes feel like SF is a game where you have 10 years to become rich. If you win, you get to stay longer and start a family. Otherwise you have to leave and the mayor personally comes to kill your tiki torch. Statistics do show that the Bay Area is one of the regions with the fewest children, relatively to its population, in all of America.

The Public Infrastructure
San Francisco is the poorest managed city I’ve ever visited. The homelessness rate is very high, the sidewalks disgusting (if you live or work near the center, you’ll see human feces and syringes on the ground almost every day), and you often find tents lined up in the street. I don’t mean to blame the homeless; their situation is absolutely tragic, and is largely a result of, again, the artificially inflated cost of housing. But it’s not just the homeless. Roads are in a terrible state, public transportation is slow and unreliable, there is a lot of traffic, and even the electric grid is bad (there can be occasional power cuts during the couple of weeks of rain every year).

A pattern I’ve noticed is that newcomers here tend to fall in love with the city at first sight. That “honeymoon phase” will last 1-3 years. After that, they stop noticing the kind of people they encounter and the opportunities they’re exposed to on a daily basis here, and start minding the rent, bad public transportation, and human feces.

But the good news is: if you don’t like it here, you can always leave! 3 years in SF will not only have been an amazing experience you’ll always remember; they’ll pay dividends for your whole life. I know some people who went back to France after 6-7 years (often to start a family), and they told me that having a “Silicon Valley” stamp on their resume earns them a 10-20% premium on the offers they get in Europe.

And it’s surprising how quickly one can build a network here. I met someone the other day who used to live here and moved back to Paris. Common acquaintances kept popping up in the conversation. I was astounded when he told me he’d only been living here for 3 years, and left more than 10 years ago! Maybe it’s true that “you can check out any time you want, but you can never leave.”

The Roots
“But moving to San Francisco is so hard!”, I often hear. And it’s true — especially getting a visa can be quite an ordeal.

My objective in this post is to convince you that you need to move to SF. There are already tons of articles out there on your options as far as visas are concerned, so I won’t get into too much detail about that. I’ll just say that if you qualify for it, the J1 visa is probably your best bet to get your foot in the door. O1 visas are great too, and easier to get than most assume.

Nobody said it would be easy, but it’s more than worth it. And if you think it’s hard now because you have a lot of things going on wherever you are, tell yourself that it’s only going to get harder with time, especially if you’re a student. Roots only get deeper. When I moved here, I jeopardized my small development agency (ended up closing it shortly after moving — remote is hard) and my relationship with a girlfriend I’d moved in with and had been dating for 3 years (broke up shortly after moving too — remote is hard!). All for a place where I had no network, and no plans.

I tried hard to convince a couple of friends to come. One of them is a technical genius, and I don’t use the word lightly. He’s like Rainman smart. These friends told me something like “I agree, I’ll come eventually, but I can’t now. I’ll come when the time is right.” 6 years later, as I predicted, none of them have come, and their roots have gotten deeper. They built companies or careers, took mortgages, got married…

Today, a couple of them admit they made a mistake.

They wish they’d seized their chance to go West.