San Francisco’s real problem

Amidst all the hand-wringing over San Francisco’s unaffordability problems and the resulting protests, there’s something that isn’t getting discussed much.

As an experienced software developer (amongst other things), I get contacted by recruiters on a fairly regular basis. And the conversations pretty much always start–and finish–with “Of course, you’d have to relocate to the San Francisco bay area.”

That’s the problem people aren’t talking about. You can’t get a job writing software for Apple unless you work in the Infinite Loop campus. Facebook lost the bidding war for Waze because they insisted that everyone would have to move to the San Francisco bay area. Google recruited a bunch of software engineers in Austin, TX, then shut down the office and told them they had to move to the bay area. Same for Google engineers who had been recruited in Norway and Sweden. Skia Inc were based in Arkansas; Google relocated them to the bay area. Google bought QuickOffice, who were based in Texas and had offices in Russia and the Ukraine, and moved all the development to the bay area. Facebook bought, based in Brooklyn, and shut it down and moved the developers to the bay area.

I could go on and on, but you get the point.

So it’s not just that techies are deciding to move to the SF bay area for their own reasons. That alone would lead to gentrification problems, of course, but it’s worse than that: The big tech companies are actively eliminating jobs in other parts of the country and moving them to the SF bay area as part of their acqui-hiring.

I don’t want to live in San Francisco. Sure, I like the city fine, and Berkeley is wonderful, but I can’t afford to live in San Francisco or Berkeley. Or in Mountain View. Or Sunnyvale, or Palo Alto. The entire area is unaffordable. Nobody’s going to pay me the salary I’d need to buy house for $1.2m+ and still be able to afford food.

How bad can things get for San Francisco? Well, so far there seems to be no shortage of people willing to take a job in SF, even though it means they’ll never be able to afford to buy a home. Right now, people will even move there if it means living in bunk beds in a dorm. Eventually, though, things become unsustainable. Massachusetts has had similar problems; the big hospitals there find it hard to recruit doctors, because there aren’t many experienced doctors willing to live in a run-down 2-bedroom apartment. Stores all had ‘for hire’ signs, because nobody could afford to live there on a store manager’s salary. And then we left, along with thousands of other people that year.

It doesn’t have to be that way. IBM has chip design and mobile development in Texas, minicomputer work in Minnesota, R&D teams in the UK, consulting based in New York, and so on. Around 40% of IBM employees are now mobile, working from various locations around the country, including home offices.

Sure, if you’re a 3-person startup, it makes sense to have everyone in the same office. But the fact that Google, whose products include Hangouts and Google Docs, seem to want to relocate everyone to the same campus, is frankly bizarre to me.

Of course, if the big tech companies did start locating engineering in other parts of the US, it might help them keep wage inflation in check. But they had other ways to do that

It’s time for Google, Facebook, Apple and the other big tech companies to stop acting like startups, before it’s too late. In the mean time, if you live in San Francisco, thank people like me for not making the situation even worse.