A generation leaves the Valley

by Adrienne Porter Felt

California promised us fast careers, opportunities, and equity packages. We moved to the Bay Area at the tail end of the Great Recession, looking for better career prospects than our hometowns offered. We founded startups, earned PhDs from Berkeley and Stanford, and hacked on products with billions of users. Now—ten years later—we’re leaving en masse.

Silicon Valley delivered on its promises. Unlike many of our Millennial peers, our cohort of tech workers has achieved financial success (or at least financial stability). Still, my friends and colleagues are leaving their tech jobs behind. Two by two, my peers drift away from the Bay. Why do they leave?

I spoke to five people who have left (or are about to leave) the Bay Area. Like me, they all moved to California to work in tech in their early twenties.

I miss my family. I miss being around green grass and trees. I miss wide open spaces and lightning bugs.
— Clementine, a software engineer

It can be hard to leave your family, and the homesickness feels even keener once you start a family of your own. "I've been career focused for a long time and was curious what it would be like to be family focused for once," Missy told me. "If I have to name one reason [for our move], it's family," another friend agreed.

Tech workers in their twenties and thirties are also discovering that they can't live the way they expected, despite their high tech salaries. "The cost of living in the Bay is extraordinary," said Joel. (He moved to Los Angeles to find more affordable housing.) In Mountain View, a 1500 sqft house in need of repairs runs $1.89M. "We want to settle down [and] buy a house in a neighborhood that doesn't have a crappy school district," Clementine said about her plan to move to the East Coast.

I don’t know exactly what meaningful work looks like for me, but I do know the work I was doing wasn’t it.
— Missy, who left a big company

After ten years of dedication to work, some people simply burn out. "I used to live and breathe [my job], but one day I woke up and couldn't care anymore," Ashley explained. She left a corporate job in California for a small non-profit in Chicago. Missy, too, also wanted to try to find another path. (She's teaching now.)

When people decide to leave, there are four main strategies for exiting:

  • Job transfer. Large companies sometimes allow transfers to offices in other cities. "I switched offices but continued to do the same job. My team and my manager were also very flexible," said Jorge, a software engineer at Google. This generally requires a supportive manager and a lot of luck.
  • Remote work. Some companies, like Mozilla and GitHub, allow remote work. "My strategy is to negotiate working remotely for my current company or to work remotely for a tech company that is friendly to remote work," Clementine told me. "It's surprising to me how many companies are so against remote work, given all the other perks at these cushy tech jobs. I think that a larger remote workforce could help democratize opportunities."
  • New tech job. This is usually doable in large cities. For example, Joel nabbed a prime job at an upcoming company in LA. It can be harder elsewhere. "Every town has openings for software engineers. The difficulty is the jobs aren't exciting..." Clementine explained. "I thought about moving to Indianapolis, but I couldn't find any work that interested me," Ashley said.
  • Career change. Computer science skills can transfer into other fields, like finance or teaching. "Finding a teaching job was very easy," Missy said.

In many cases, leaving the Bay Area requires a career tradeoff. Silicon Valley's job market is unique, with a high concentration of high-paying tech jobs and corporate headquarters. This provides many opportunities for collaboration, funding, and upwards career growth. It also means you're unlikely to get stuck at a job you don't like (since you can move to the competitor across the street).

I do think that, in the long term, I had to make a career compromise. The blow was substantially softened by the immediate good job offer, though.
— Joel, an engineer

Even if there is a long-term career cost, many people are still able to find fulfilling technology careers outside of Silicon Valley. "I doubt I'll ever move back," Ashley told me. "I make half as much, but I love my neighborhood here [in Chicago]." Jorge agreed, "Nothing beats walking home from work, crossing the Charles river on the Harvard bridge, and strolling through a real city, with people on the streets."

I do not ski because I grew up poor

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