Recently, I returned home from an internship in Silicon Valley. Having spent the vast majority of my life in Raleigh, North Carolina, this was an entirely different experience than anything I had ever been through before, and it really opened my eyes to just how different the Valley is from the rest of the country. There are immense opportunities on the West Coast that don’t exist outside of the infamous technological center of the United States, but there are also many aspects of the area that cause me to question whether or not I would like to live there. As such, I thought I’d share my experience for others who might be in the same boat.
Let’s start with the good: SV is rife with opportunity for technology startups and emerging businesses. An enthusiasm for entrepreneurship seems to have infected the entire populace, with so many new apps and ideas being thrown around that it seems like every engineer is busy working on (or simply thinking of) the next big thing. Feeding into this, investor opportunity is everywhere, with venture capitalists searching for promising new businesses and incubators looking for teams to help churn out revolutionary new ideas.
Beyond that, the Valley is an engineer’s paradise if for no other reason than the people who live there. In my experience, most (if not every) engineer who works in the area is truly passionate about what they do, and there are copious opportunities for these people to pursue to technologies or play with new ideas. There seems to be some sort of “hackathon” every week put on by some prominent company, and these events are well attended by like-minded people with broad passions and expertise. These, combined with frequent talks about new technologies/practices from industry leaders, form a networking utopia.
Even for non-engineers, the Valley offers a wide range of cultures, giving all kinds of people a place to thrive. San Francisco in particular offers a broad scope of things to do on the weekends, whether you’re a party animal or simply looking to explore different walks of life.
On top of all that, the whole “always 70 degrees and sunny” thing is pretty nice too. I will say that towards the end of my time there, I did miss being able to sit by an open window or on a screen porch to enjoy a heavy rainstorm.
Now, on to the negatives: Silicon Valley is, without a doubt, a bubble. The best way I’ve heard it described was as an “echo chamber”: once one idea gains traction, everyone and their brother is working on an imitator or the same exact technology, looking to make some money while the trend is around. Many ideas proposed in the Valley really don’t solve a broad problem that people outside the core Valley demographic experience, and simply further the notion that Silicon Valley doesn’t really care about the outside world. And yet, investors pour money into them like there’s no tomorrow. It feeds into a sort of arrogance about the area, where residents believe that those outside of Silicon Valley are beneath them somehow, and that there is little value in doing things outside of the software space.
Much of the technology that has emerged within the Valley has been hurtful to the community at large. Some startups will make a business out of reserving public goods, such as parking spots and restaurant reservations, and offering them at premiums through their applications. This ends up boxing many people out from these goods and results in empty, unpurchased spots/reservations that hurt the owners of these establishments. This phenomenon has gotten a fair amount of media attention, but so far, there doesn’t seem to have been a huge response to such things.
There’s also the cost of living. Granted, the salaries software engineers make out there tend to make up for the difference fairly well, but those in pretty much any other profession are likely going to find themselves strapped. Apartments in the area are ludicrously expensive, with a one-bedroom apartment in San Francisco easily costing several times what it would in Raleigh (as an example). As such, most people living out there have to sacrifice apartment quality if they want to find a reasonably priced place to stay.
Transportation is also a hassle out there. While many companies have shuttles to take their employees to/from work at certain times, people living in unserviced parts of the Valley have to deal with an immense amount of traffic. This is true for any densely populated area, however, and is more of a minor concern. (Plus, the fact that there are intergalactic spaceboats of light and wonder everywhere lends some welcome eye candy to the commute.)
Basically, if you’re in the situation where you’re choosing whether or not to live in the Valley, ask yourself if the positives outweigh the negatives. It’s a fantastic place to be for developing engineers, and there are tons of like-minded people starting careers in the area. Living in Silicon Valley is an experience you aren’t going to find anywhere else in the world: if the area appeals to you, you won’t regret your decision.