If there is one thing that is more cliche in Silicon Valley than wearing a Patagonia vest, sporting Allbirds, discussing the latest S-1's dropping or planning a future trip to burning man, it's writing a blog post about moving away from the Bay Area.
I fought the urge, but once a blog post is swimming around in my head, I have to write it. Actually, what I want to talk about the most are the trends that got us here, how the world is different now and what the future of the Bay Area could look like. Yes, my family and I are moving to the Raleigh area in North Carolina, but more about that later.
A bit of background: I've spent my entire career working in tech in the Bay Area. I moved here during the last recession in 2009 and have basically been here ever since. I've lived in San Francisco, Mountain View and Palo Alto. My wife has lived here her whole life and now we've got three kids, all under 5 years old. I've gotten to work for what I believe are some of the best companies in the Bay Area: Salesforce, LinkedIn and now Zoom.
I'm not going to rehash the great things about the Bay Area in detail because those are well known: the weather, mountains, coast, incredible food, amazing schools, incredible intellectual capital and the best career/life changing companies in the world to work for. In my eyes, there is really just one main downside to overcome… the cost. On one side of the equation are all the amazing things about the Bay Area and on the other side is the cost.
There is no doubt that COVID has drastically changed that equation for many. Suddenly the dynamics of the situation have changed. You have a really small house or apartment because of the cost, but now your job is not tied to a physical location. Is the Bay Area still worth it? For many, the scales get tipped and the answer will be no.
I've read so many articles about whether working remotely will stick once this terrible virus goes away and I think that while many people will return to the office, many people will decide to stay remote or find in office tech jobs outside the Bay Area. Here are my reasons for why this will be a lasting trend that will result in a new normal far beyond where we were pre-COVID.
1. Some of the most well known and largest tech employers are embracing long term remote work to a level that has never been seen before. These companies are leaders and have set expectations for the industry. Every week more companies are added to the list. The ability to work from home is going to become as expected and iconic of a tech company as having a ping pong table.
2. Long before COVID, large tech companies in high cost areas like the Bay Area had started to invest heavily in “2nd HQ’s” in low cost areas. The majority of hiring in a lot of these Bay Area tech companies, even pre-COVID was focused on the lower cost areas. Now, it will become even easier and more attractive to transfer roles to the other HQ office in Salt Lake, Chicago, Denver or Austin.
3. COVID has forced a massive WFH experiment. Some will like it, some won't, but millions more have tried it that might not have ever tried it without COVID. It has accelerated exposure and adoption.
4. The tech scenes in other lower cost states have really matured over the last few years, better companies, more options and stronger startup ecosystems. (I'm looking at you Texas, Utah and North Carolina)
5. The tools to work from home are better. Companies like Zoom and Slack exist today because previous chat and video software products (which we have relied on heavily when working remotely) did not live up to their potential. Identity management tools like OKTA and a variety of other cloud applications have made it so you can truly be anywhere to run many, complex applications.
6. Hardware is more accessible to enable video connections. That means every laptop and phone has a camera, which was not the case 10 years ago. Not only that, but the cost of building video enabled rooms into conference rooms has fallen off a cliff. Now that you'll be able to plug your work video conferencing into a Google Nest Hub, Facebook Portal or Amazon Echo Show will enable you to create video conferencing experiences as smooth as your high priced video enabled boardroom with the hardware already sitting in your house.
7. A new generation of companies even before the pandemic were proving out that larger firms can go fully remote. InVision, Gitlab and Zapier are great examples.
So what is my prediction about the future of the Bay Area?
I'm still pretty bullish on the Bay Area. While a lot has changed, some things have not changed. It still has world class schools, companies and weather. Those with a lot of the power and money in tech are less likely to leave in the wake of COVID because they are not worried as much about the cost and likely living in a space they are comfortable with (or hiding out in their 2nd homes in Napa, Tahoe or Carmel). Working in office with those leaders and executives will have some advantages post COVID. However, one of the Bay Area's competitive advantages as the tech center of the world is the in-person connections where networking and deal making happen. Those in person events will return, but will it be to the same extent? How long will it take? Will virtual happy hours stick? Maybe Silicon Valley VC's will have gotten used to making deals over Zoom and invest in companies that are further away from their offices? I think there will be a new normal that will weaken the Bay Area's grip to some degree.
In general, I think the concentration of talent, money and other resources has been good for Silicon Valley and have enabled it to become the worldwide leader in technology. However, too much concentration for too long has led to some of the highest costs in the country. And that is not a good thing in my opinion for a lot of reasons. It was never going to be sustainable, especially without bold efforts by the local government and the community to change that.
I do not see any area in the US surpassing the Bay Area as the strongest US tech hub anytime soon, but I do think what we are experiencing with COVID will greatly strengthen and accelerate the already blossoming tech hubs throughout the US. Lower cost tech ecosystems have much to gain in this environment and if I were them, I'd be welcoming any talent leaving the Bay Area with open arms.
In the meantime, the Bay Area will still be strong and traffic will be better. And while I don't think housing costs will fall off a cliff any time soon, it might cool off the growth rate we've seen over the last few decades.
The Bay Area is still a place where dreams come true. Spending the first 10 years of my career here was probably the best professional decision I ever made. I do not wish for the demise of the Bay Area as a worldwide tech leader, but I do hope for a stronger, nationwide tech ecosystem in many states that brings innovation, high paying jobs and taps into talent that would never be able to come to the Bay Area.
Why now and why did we choose the Raleigh area?
When I was in grad school, I had a case competition at UNC. My wife tagged along for the weekend and we really liked it. Three strong Universities in the Research Triangle creates a ton of intellectual capital. It also has a growing tech scene, a relatively temperate climate, it’s a few hours from the beach and has extremely affordable housing. We've also had a few more family members make their way to the east coast recently.
COVID really did become the straw that broke the camel's back. Luckily at the beginning of the year, after living several years in a 800 square foot cottage with 2 kids, we rented a 3 bed 2 bath place in Palo Alto for an amount that made me cringe every time I paid the rent. We felt lucky to have a bit more space when COVID hit, but in May we had our 3rd kid. Combine this with me working from home, we were bursting at the seams. Since I'm not going back to the office anytime soon, the kids need space and I need a dedicated workspace. We figured that now is as good a time as any to try an adventure in a place we've been talking about living in for years. Being able to move to a lower cost area without changing jobs made the leap even more attractive.
To my friends and colleagues in the Bay Area, I'll miss seeing you all in person and will surely be out to visit frequently once this terrible virus goes away, but until then, I'll see you on Zoom. :)