Why tech workers are leaving San Francisco
Jeanna Barrett had spent the last 20 months in Seattle helping grow a location-based mobile app. In April 2011, Groupon acquired the startup, and it declined to keep her on staff.
Fine by her.
“I called my parents after I found out I didn’t have a job at Groupon and said, ‘I’m moving to San Francisco.’ I just knew I wanted to make it work,” Barrett said.
Barrett is one of thousands of hungry tech workers that move to San Francisco each year. The influx of people and money centered around technology has been extreme even for a city with a sports team named for the 1849 gold rush. Software engineers and marketing strategists look to the city by the Bay as the place to live to be a part of innovation. The tech explosion of the last two decades has transformed the area, turning its metro areas into some of the richest in the world.
It’s also changed what used to be a crunchy town. As rents skyrocket and people age, a growing number of once-zealous overachievers are leaving the city, disenfranchised by what tech has done to the area, wondering whether the industry is really doing all the good it promised.
Three years after moving to San Francisco with dreams of life in tech’s Mecca, Barrett felt like she was done. She was frustrated by “the busy rat-race lifestyle,” as she called it.
So Barrett left. She moved to Belize and says she’s never been happier.
“I drank the Kool-Aid for so long,” she said.”I was under the impression that I had a great, amazing job, and why should I not be happy?”
San Francisco and tech, it would seem, are turning into any other city and industry.
‘I stopped recognizing it’
Jennifer Rice moved to San Francisco in 2007. The tech industry wasn’t her main motive, although she did have a decade of experience working in it while living in Dallas. She heard great things about the lifestyle, especially for someone who loves the outdoors.
Rice ended up landing a consulting job, where her clients weren’t in tech. Within her first year in the city, she learned only one industry dominated conversations in San Francisco.
“I certainly feel like technology was a virus. Everything is getting gentrified. You go everywhere, and it’s like tech bro heaven. I stopped recognizing [the city],” Rice said. She noticed the changes when she first moved there and said it’s only gotten more noticeable in the past couple of years.
“Technology was a virus. Everything is getting gentrified. You go everywhere, and it’s like tech bro heaven.”
Each person’s story of departure is unique, yet there are many relatable themes. Individuals point to issues like the housing crisis in San Francisco and sexism in the tech industry, which aren’t new problems but increasingly more of a concern.
Despite living in San Francisco to work in tech, many of the people we spoke with became annoyed by that industry. Other concerns echo similarities to life in any big city. What’s clear is that Silicon Valley as the obvious choice for people in tech is itself being disrupted.
Venture capitalist turned blockchain engineer Preethi Kasireddy “Why I’m leaving Silicon Valley” on Medium a couple weeks ago. She’s not giving up on the tech industry, but she’s moving to Los Angeles. As for why she chose that city, diversity, weather, and L.A.’s own booming tech industry were all factors, she wrote.
The reactions “have been majorly very positive, particularly from people outside the Valley. They find it nice to hear you don’t need to be in the Valley to do what you want to do,” Kasireddy said.
Rice writes that the kinds of people she met in San Francisco most days tended to be “homogeneous” — often they were engineers, venture capitalists, or entrepreneurs. Of course, the Bay Area has plenty of teachers, doctors, and accountants as well, though they’re perhaps just a little more difficult to come by than in other cities
Tim Ferriss, an author and angel investor who spent 17 years in the Bay Area until he recently relocated to Austin, echoed that struggle to break out of the tech bubble in a recent AMA on Reddit.
“There is also a mono-conversation of tech that is near impossible to avoid,” he wrote. “This can be dodged, but it takes very real and consistent effort.”
Rampant gentrification is a persistent issue in San Francisco, and it’s only getting worse. UC Berkeley’s Urban Displacement Project is monitoring the problem, and recently updated its map evaluating SF neighborhoods. From 2013 to 2015, five tracts (out of 24), including the Tenderloin, Chinatown, and the Bayview, moved from low income stable to “at risk” of or ongoing displacement.
“I even feel like I got there too late,” said Rice, who in the historic Fillmore District. “There were mom and pop shops, really small locally owned. It felt like a neighborhood. Now, there’s a Rag & Bone. My little post office guy, where I had my PO box, he had to move out because he couldn’t afford it anymore.”
As local charm and diverse communities disappear, and popular retail stores and chain restaurants proliferate, San Francisco is at risk of becoming more of an “Any Town, USA.”
And yet, San Francisco isn’t just any “Any Town” these days. The perception of those who have left is that it’s the tech industry’s town, and the tech industry sparked some of the change. Living in San Francisco has been part of the incentives package to come work for tech companies like Facebook, even when their headquarters are hours away.
Every weekday morning, thousands of Apple, Facebook, and Google employees board buses from stops throughout San Francisco to travel to their offices in Cupertino, Menlo Park, and Mountain View, respectively. People who could have lived in San Jose or other cities much closer to their offices instead live forty miles and a traffic jam away in SF.
The shuttles inspired fierce backlash at times. In 2014, protesters blocked buses. According to these protesters, the tech industry had helped caused housing prices in SF to skyrocket, especially near the shuttle stops, making it unaffordable for many to live there.
The perception among those who have left is that gentrification has in part helped brighten neighborhoods, but it’s also forever tarnished the community.
“Part of it is cool, admittedly, even better restaurants, but they’re pushing out the old,” Rice said. “When I moved here, it did not feel like a big city. It felt like all these different sets of global communities. That’s all gone … It’s turning into a New York, which, alright, some people might like.”
Rice didn’t. She packed up her bags this past summer and moved to Santa Fe.
A hamster wheel
San Francisco may have “cool” new restaurants, but that doesn’t mean the people in the city have time for them. The tech industry has been described as a “hamster wheel,” with employees pressured to “spin” the company past the competition and toward greatness.
For some recent graduates joining the workforce, the hustle can be positive — at least in some situations and for some stages of their lives.
Working at a tech startup was an easy transition for someone just coming out of college like Eric Toda. He joined Facebook in 2008, shortly after graduating from San Francisco State University.
“I loved how young everyone was. It felt like you were part of a rebel group, surrounded by people who constantly challenged each other,” Toda said. “I was 23, and failures were celebrated.”
In those days, only four years after its launch, Facebook was still a startup. Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg had joined earlier that same year. Four more years would pass until Facebook went public.
But as major tech companies are maturing, their employees are having trouble maintaining the “work hard, play hard” ethos.
“They have amazing perks that other companies would never have, but you’re still going to work. They want you to be a martyr,” Toda said.
“I needed a better lifestyle to be dad. I can’t be a father at Airbnb.”
Toda stayed at Facebook until 2013 and then moved to Nike to serve as its global director for digital brand marketing. A year later, he came back to the tech industry; first Snapchat and then Airbnb.
But it wasn’t sustainable for Toda as he entered a new stage of his life: being a father.
While some tech giants have made moves to better support work-life balance such as more generous parental leave policies, it is perceived as lip-service, rather than something the company actually embraces.
Toda ended up leaving Airbnb in September to join Gap.
“I needed a better lifestyle to be dad. I can’t be a father at Airbnb,” he said of his thinking at the time. “When I joined Gap, they said, ‘You’re going to surrender your email account to us,'” Toda said, referencing his upcoming parental leave.
Gender issues also persist. Other industries face sexism problems: Hollywood, Wall Street, advertising, journalism, to name a few. But there’s concern among the departed and those still there that the tech industry is one of the least equipped to handle this issue.
Alexandra Marshall serves as head of community and communications at tech startup Health IQ in Mountain View and previously worked at Goldman Sachs. She responded to a tweet about Silicon Valley facing a reckoning similar to Wall Street, arguing Wall Street had a better work environment.
As a woman, I will 100000% always say that Wall Street was better to work in.
— Girl Alex (@grlalx) November 20, 2017
“There is no standardization of HR practices or hiring or firing or policies for time off or parental or medical leave,” she added later.
Barrett also connected her tiredness to the sexism she said she faced while working in the tech industry in San Francisco.
“I was told I talk too much in meetings. I was in and out of the HR department all the time with, ‘People don’t like you. You’re out of line,'” she said. “And all I do is state my opinion as a business person.”
Making the move
Leaving Silicon Valley wasn’t easy for these people, but not because they didn’t have the financial means. Rather, some said they hesitated because they didn’t think they should leave.
Rice said she didn’t recognize how stressed she was until she was on vacation in Santa Fe.
“In San Francisco, everyone is on the hamster wheel and you spin and spin and spin just to afford to live there.”
“I really felt it in my body, letting go of the stress I was carrying, and I noticed it for the first time. It was going back to San Francisco after being out of it for a week and a half that I immediately felt my energy and my body just contract,” she said. “In San Francisco, everyone is on the hamster wheel and you spin and spin and spin just to afford to live there.”
Rice moved to Santa Fe and recently founded her own consultancy.
More than a year after her move, Barrett said she’s happier than she has ever been. In her case, she swapped her typical work outfit of jewelry and expensive haircuts with a bathing suit and a ponytail.
Toda still lives in the Bay Area while working at Gap. He noted that he personally isn’t done with the tech industry or northern California, but he said that innovation is not exclusive to his hometown.
Kasireddy, the blockchain engineer who is moving to Los Angeles, described her exit as a double-edged sword. One aspect of leaving San Francisco is she’ll miss people who work in and understand the tech industry. But that’s also exactly what she wants to get away from.
“I don’t want to go to a dinner and talk about work or party and talk about work,” she said. “People actually have other lives other than work, and not just LA, in most other places outside of [Silicon] Valley.”