Sep 2009

Six Months in San Francisco

I feel like there’s been four stages to my life. The first stage was being a youngling at primary school: I don’t remember much from there except that I fantasised about handball being an olympic sport. The second stage was the PC demoscene, where I grew interested in many things that I love today about computing: art, music, and my first experience with a community and culture that you could love and immerse yourself in. The third stage was my twenties: an introduction to university, Linux, coding, the Mac, Haskell, research conferences, industry conferences, the working life, and balancing it all with healthy doses of relaxation, food and the beautiful world that Sydney had to offer. The fourth stage was tearing myself away from that fairly sheltered life and my emotional base, and moving to San Francisco.

I’ve been here for six months. It’s felt like two years. It has been a truly wonderful experience: making new friends, learning a new culture that’s both significantly but subtly different, and doing it all without my family nearby, who’ve been my anchor and support for the past three decades. Part of the motivation was proving to myself that I could make it on my own: prove myself worthy in the eyes of my peers, be social enough to make genuine friends here who I cared about and who cared about me, living on my own and simply paying the rent. Part of the motivation was to shake things up from a cruisy life in Sydney and experience new things. I’m glad to report that the experiment’s going pretty well so far.

San Francisco is a city of immense contrast. For every stupid hipster who thinks that owning a Prius absolves them of their environmental debt to society, there are remarkable individuals who understand and challenge the daunting realism of politics, lobbying, energy, transformity and limits to growth. For every poser upstart get-rich-quick guy chasing after VC funding for Facebook apps, there are the quiet anonymous developers at Apple, Google, and startups you’ve never heard of who work on all the amazing technologies that the entire world takes for granted today. The Tenderloin, so unpleasant to walk through, has some of the very best restaurants and bars that the city has to offer. The nouveau shiny high-rises of South Beach contrast with the destitute run-down feel of western SoMa, only a few blocks away.

It’s a make-or-break city: rents are insanely high despite the rent control laws, and there’s no lower-middle class population here because either you’re flying high, or you’re not flying at all. It’s natural selection in action: either you keep up with the pack and continue being successful, or you fall and become left behind. And so, in contrast to the relaxed lifestyle of Sydney, San Francisco is full of ambition. While it lacks the non-stop pace of New York or the late-night industry of Detroit and Chicago, the people here want to change the world, and they have the innovation, the smarts and the determination to do so.

The tech industry here is simply amazing. Despite being here for half a year, I’m still floored when I go to a party and every person I meet there ends up being a Web designer, or a coder, or a sysadmin, or a DBA, or a network engineer, or a manager of a bunch of coders, or a VC funding a tech company, or a lawyer or accountant or marketing or PR person working for a tech company, or a level designer or artist working for a games company. Even the girls. It boggles me. It’s like the entire Bay Area simply exists to build software and iPhones and tech solutions. I was truly daunted in the first few months to find out that everyone around me was, well, just like me. A few months ago, I was at my favourite little tea shop in San Francisco decompressing and minding my own business, when three people sat down next to me and started talking about VGA BIOS exploits. (Turns out that they work for VMware.) I mean, seriously?

I wouldn’t say that I’m totally acclimated to the Bay Area yet, and perhaps I never will be. Visiting Australia just a month ago reminded me just how different the two cities are in their lifestyles. People are always doing something in San Francisco: there’s so many interesting people there that you feel like need to divide your time between groups, let alone having time to yourself. Even the serious introverts there are out on most schoolnights. The people here are always switched on; even at a party, there’s an air of networking going on and the feeling of opportunities to be seized. You almost always end up talking shop at any event, because people here are defined by what they do: one of the very first questions you’re usually asked is “Where do you work?” or “What do you do for a living?”. In Sydney, asking that question so soon would just be a little bit weird. You usually save that for far later in the conversation, when you’re running out of things to say to the pretty girl to try to hook up with her. (And don’t even get me started about the American dating scene.)

And so, for all the wonderful parks, bars, tacos, restaurants, pirate shops and museums of the city; the incredible beauty and varied terrain of the North Bay; the charm and chilled suburbia of North Berkeley in the East; and the innovation and serenity of Silicon Valley just south, I still miss Sydney and the culture I grew up with for twenty years. I don’t mean that in a yearning way or mean to imply that San Francisco is somehow inadequate, because it rocks: I’m having a wonderful time experiencing new things, and it was the right decision to move here. This is where I should be at this stage in my life. Sydney will always be where my heart is, but right now, San Francisco is home, and it’s as fantastic as I hoped it would be.