Go west, young man, go west

August 16, 1999

Maybe wax in your ears isn't such a bad thing after all.

You're a techno-savvy, Internet stomping, bit crushing computer nerd. You can cut code like King Kong climbs buildings. You can reinstall an OS on a dead system with nothing more than a QIC-24, a WYSE-50, a break-out box and a couple of paper clips. You are one of the Internet elite, the high priests of the holy Oracle. People bow down before you, and shower you with supplications and sacrifices.

NOT. Your life is more like adminspotting. That's because you live somewhere other than that holy mecca of meccas, Silicon Valley. Every day you hear that there's gold in them thar hills of Californiay. Your old friends are driving BMW's, scoring Porche's with the proceeds from their second IPO and not returning your e-mails. You look around your grungy little cubicle in some dark and dreary office park outside some post industrial homogenized suburban planned community hell and say to yourself, "Self, it can't be much worse than this." The Sirens call is alluring and irresistible.

Oh, the ways of the Devil are many! I have made the journey, my friend. I have seen the Dark Side, the Left Coast. I did not turn away from all the ways that you can be tempted from the path of goodness. And there are many.

Living in the Strangest Place on Earth

I moved to San Francisco in 1996, well, Los Gatos, which is South of San Jose, but that's close enough to the City and it has so much more cache than a former farm town with a silted in sea port. There were days when I thought that moving was the biggest mistake of my life, so far. I thought that I knew what I was doing. I thought I had done my research, and performed "due diligence." I was wrong. No one can prepare you for the culture shock of moving from a suburb of Washington, D.C. to the epicenter of the Internet.

First and foremost is the money. There's so much here, that greed is not just an occasional sin. It is a cultural institution. It rivals Wall Street. You are supposed to be greedy in this business. That's how Bill Gates got rich, didn't he? That's how people who started Yahoo, Netscape, and Amazon.com did it, didn't they. Never mind that these companies have yet to show a significant profit. When your company IPO's, you're on the escalator to the holy land of American culture: the top tax bracket. So be prepared for the dark side (there's a dark side to this?!?) - greed follows the "Trickle Down Theory" even better than the money does. Everyone, every vendor, every home owner, every car dealer knows that anyone who knows a keyboard from a mouse probably has stock options out the wazoo and is really only wearing that greasy t-shirt and torn jeans because that's Valley chic. And all those young turks don't know zip about making a reasonable deal. They were raised on sticker prices and half off sales. While they were learning their trade, no one told them about negotiating basics. There's an enormous price inflation for just about everything. Theater tickets are $8.50, fuel is $1.50/gal, food isn't cheap (even if the state is an agricultural exporter).

It's the economy, stupid

If you're coming here, you're going to work for a startup. Face it, why else would anyone move here to suffer all of this bizarre crud. Any idiot with an MBA and a business plan can get venture funding. Remember that. There is so much money out here that the VC's are hard pressed to put it all to work. You do not have to sacrifice a penny. In fact, if you're good, you should demand perks. The more chutzpah you've got, the more they seem to fall over you. Make sure that there's things like a well stocked refrigerator, telecommute policy (reimbursements for the xDSL, loans or loaner PCs, etc.) Remember too, that most startups fail, so don't count on those stock options until they're liquid!

Hi there, I'm a Capricorn with Java, C++ and ODBC, what's your sign?

It's a tight market, salaries are high, talent is in short supply. You don't need a recruiter, they need you. I have yet to meet one that has done anything favorable. I have heard and seen many who are unethical, slimy bottom feeders that will do just about anything to make their commission. Work directly with employers and make a deal for a sign-on bonus. Recruiters make 15%-25% of the first year's salary. Eliminate the middle man and take your cut. Unfortunately, a lot of startups won't pay for a relocation (why, I don't know, it is probably too much for their brains to handle). If you hire onto a big company, they will move you, all expenses paid.

If you're doing sysadmin you've got these classes of choices: (1) You can be a hired gun for Taos Mountain. They are the big sysadmin contract company here. I'd work for them. I could go on about their business model, but I won't bore you. You work on a contract from 6 to 12 months, then you move on or convert to full time at the customer (and Taos gets their cut). The other company out here is GNAC. They started out as mostly ex-Synopsys folks, but they've grown.

(2) You could work for an established, publicly traded company (HP, Intel, Cisco, Sun, etc.) Then you work in a large organization, doing the usual stuff, getting stock options to purchase the company stock at about a 15% discount (it is usually set at 15% of the lower closing price in a six month "window") They will also match your 401(k) contributions, something a startup won't. You get to haul big WAN pipes and large compute farms. It is just like Adminspotting.

(3) You could work for a startup. Hopefully a well funded one. Then you get to design the network and computing infrastructure, haul monitors and power strips and basically do what you want because everyone is too busy to worry about it or plan ahead. You'll get stock options that might be worth something some day, but your purchase price is anywhere from ($0.15 - 3.00) per share. If the stock IPO's at $40 per share, you've made a handy profit. If it does well, we'll start calling you "Joe Supernerd, Millionaire. He owns a mansion and yacht." Of course you have to wait until you're vested; that's usually 4 years.

(4) You could parlay your sysadmin skills into a product, hence my friends at WebTV and Brightmail, etc. This is the really fun stuff, I'll admit.

I don't see much difference between 2 and 3, personally, except for the money. Stock options on a pre-IPO startup have a very high value once the company goes public. The difference in your cost versus IPO pricing is generally a multiplier in the 100's to 10,000's range. Compare with working for Cisco, where you get a guaranteed 15% discount on your purchase, but the stock (only) doubles every year or so. Oh, and you'll get the same salary at both because the market is so hot they can't afford to short change you with the lure of future rewards. So why not go for door #3? (Barring 1 & 4)

Willie "The Actor" Sutton perhaps said, "Why did I rob banks? Because that's where the money is." (Or something like that. Maybe.) You can try the cold call and "I'll be in the neighborhood" plan, but if it doesn't pan out (and HR departments are just as lame here as anywhere else; you want to be face to face with the hiring manager), here's my "serving suggestion:" go to a conference (LISA, USENIX, etc.) where like minded people will be hanging out. Bring a pile of resumes. Schmooze at the hospitality suites (which are written off as recruiting expenses). Follow up a week later and "let" them fly you out. You can try to schedule them all for the same week, but then none of them will want to fly you out. I'd scam 'em: Have one buy you a ticket leaving early in the week, and another with a return flight late in the week. Throw away the unused halves. Don't tell them what's going on and just switch hotels.

The other option is to store everything back East, "move" here, stay with friends while you look for work and then have the company ship your stuff here. Think of it as an extended working vacation. Another variant is to work for a contractor like Taos. Then you're only committed for six months to any bozo, and while you're here, you can make contacts and look around for something more permanent. This is a classic, time tested approach.

I don't think we're in Kansas any more, Toto

Now that you've stressed about the job market, it is time to really crank up your blood pressure: real estate aka, where the f*ck am I going to find a place to live?

The way I found a place to live was my first employer put me up in executive housing for a month while I worked and looked for a permanent residence. In retrospect, there were not enough hours in the day and I would have preferred not to start work for a couple of extra weeks while I looked. This is a recurring theme, employers will hire you on half a days worth of interviews, but they want you to start yesterday. Insist on at least two weeks of transition time. When push comes to shove, most employers will let you have the time off. The ones that won't aren't worth your time. Another plan is to have the company pay for a trip prior to the move. Friends, visiting, touring helps. There are relocation companies that will help you find a neighborhood but they have a limited imagination. I said I wanted a place to live that was walking distance to a good cappuccino. I found it in Los Gatos. This is such a big area and there is so much diversity that it is almost impossible to see and do it all in a short period. If you like cities and can swing it, I'd say live in San Francisco. It is getting gentrified - the poor are being pushed out to make room for all us highly paid nerds. If you can avoid owning a car, then you are golden. Owning a car in the City unless you own a spot or a garage seems to be very difficult.

The corporate movers deal with much bigger fish than you (imagine a house, large family, pets, big shot corporate exec, etc.) When you move, all your stuff goes into the truck. It will be shipped to a warehouse and stored there for 30 days (or until you find a place, whichever comes first). I had my car shipped, too, by the way, and flew. Much less wear and tear on you, the car and the cat. If you want to do the cross country road trip, though, by all means, this is your golden (paid!) opportunity.

Remember, my company paid for everything (except for tips, which I generously and happily distributed). The packers came in the day before and wrapped, padded, boxed, crated and packed everything. My father helped me on the Virginia end. The big thing is that you have to keep track of what they're doing. You will get lots of paperwork to sign including a bill of lading. If it ain't on the list, then it doesn't exist. It helps if there is someone else there with you so you're free to supervise. Especially as things get moved onto the truck. You will get a large packet of instructions beforehand from the movers and the relocation company. This has all been done before a thousand times.

I then had about a week while the truck picked up more stuff (all my stuff fit in the "head" of the truck) and headed west. I took the time to clean out the condo, get it ready for the tenant (I rented it out), etc. I lived in the executive suite in Herndon for that time. I didn't tell them about the cat. Then one snowy Friday morning, I hugged by Dad good-bye, hopped into a shuttle with a ton of suitcases and foot lockers, etc. gave my cat a little "helper" (they now have anti-depressant drugs for cats with travel anxiety -- I am not making this up!) and got on the plane. When I arrived at SFO, the rental car company (not Hertz, but some off-airport long term deal) was there to pick me up. I loaded everything into the van and away I went.

Be afraid, be very afraid

Be prepared, even though you can't be, for sticker shock. Rent here is astronomical for a single person moving here from almost anywhere. Unless you've got $120,000 cash in the bank and ready to jump into a $500,000 mortgage, or accept living far, far, away from the office, you will rent at exorbitant prices. You'll be happy to find $1,200-1,500 for a 1 bedroom postage stamp in an okay neighborhood. The rents rival New York City. Landlords smell blood. If you are very, very lucky, you will find a nice one (surprisingly, there are lot of them out there); he won't raise your rent by 25% every year. When I first moved here, I got what I wanted by offering first and last months' rent, plus six months in advance, cash. That's probably overkill, but it got me to the front of the line. Lines? Yup, people line up to hand in rental applications like it was a sneak preview of Star Wars: Episode 2. People show up 15 minutes early and the line already stretched 30 people long around the corner.

Imagine 30 people handing in applications for (in my case) a 2BR/1BA cottage in Los Gatos. Everyone seems to be driving a BMW, have an immaculate credit record and a $150K/year annual income (all disclosed on the application, by the way). How is the landlord going to distinguish you, an outsider with no local references with some DINC (double-income, no children) couple who's lived in Cupertino for the past 5 years? Trust me, we all look alike. I had a "housing resume" printed up which had work, salary and housing history in a nice package. It politely screamed: "I'm making enough to afford this, I won't trash the place and I pay my rent on time." And as I handed it in, I told the guy, "I really like the place, I want it. Would six months' rent in advance get me to the front of the line?" People have bidding wars on the friggin' rent! I wanted none of that and I figured a big fat check was more enticing than another $50 bucks a month in the rent.

Once I had the contract for the rental in my hot little hand, I called the relocation coordinator (or the moving company dispatcher, I forget) and gave them the address. When they arrived, they unloaded and delivered. I wasn't sure where I wanted things, so I asked to leave a lot of stuff in boxes, which was okay by them. It would have been easier if they had done the unboxing, because they will then also take the boxes away. Do you know how many empty boxes you can fit in the back of Toyota Celica? Not many, even folded. I was pretty much on my own then, but life would have been much easier if there was someone else I trusted (and knew my tastes somewhat) to help supervise the movers.

So, it's not all that bad. As I've said before, location is very key out here. It is my personal opinion that you should choose a place (area) to live, first, then a place to work, close by, second. Then get the company to move you.

Where the road warrior got his start

Be prepared for lots of driving, well commuting, since you're likely as not to be crawling down the Nimitz or standing still on the Bay Bridge. My friend with the Boxter says he hits his max speeds on the clover leafs and on ramps. I have co-workers that live in Morgan Hill and leave for work at 6:00 am. That would drive my postal. I commute, telecommute, and drive from Alameda to Mountain View (because I like living in Alameda), and it is easily an hour each way (2.5 if I use mass transit). And I'm almost postal. Your car becomes your second home. [Update: As of November 1999, I take the ferry into the City each day. It is a very civilized commute.]

Don't expect to work on your tan while driving either. The sun shines only during the summer, once you're south of San Bruno, and after the fog burns off (could be 9am-1pm). Now, I drive the limit (okay, a little over) here most of the time. But it is mostly freeway miles. They have sound barriers up on both sides of most of the major routes, so there's not much to see. The mountains in the distance are nice. 280 is great. The approaches to the San Rafael and Dumbarton bridges are wildlife preserves and salt water evaporation ponds. At dawn and dusk they are wonderful, but it is tough to find a place to stop. Driving in Marin is very pretty, so is Skyline Drive (Rt 9). If you like motorcycles you can find all sorts of fun spots.

The bay area has a mass transit problem - none of the systems interconnect any place useful. The San Francisco bus and light rail system (MUNI) is generally reviled for poor performance. Generally there's a lot of sprawl. Also, people tend not to cross the bay, even though the toll ($2 westbound only) is small. That said, the people that do cross the Bay clog the bridges each morning and night.

Another face in the crowd

The hardest thing for me was to adjust to the California attitude. I'm a New Yorker at heart, and that's probably to my detriment here. Californians don't have the same sense of "personal space" as Right Coasters do. You'll come here, you'll think you're making bosom buddies left and right and it's all style. Making friends here takes the same effort as always, but there's this weird veneer. I prefer the in-your-face New Yorker style. At least you know where you stand at all times, even if you do get insulted from time to time.

One thing in the City's favor is San Francisco's history of permissiveness. People do a lot of partying and hot-tubbing and are very accepting of whatever your kink might be. The bay area is a very diverse place to live. People come from every ethnicity and background, which may be a strength. It reminds me a bit of Adams-Morgan.

Even Seattle gets some sun sometimes

The bay area has two seasons: wet and dry. The wet season is from late December through mid March (neglecting El Nino and La Nina). It will rain 5 days out of 6, though the rain is nothing like the fierce thunderstorms back east. It is more the plodding depressing rains which just make everything damp and cold. The dry season, which is the rest of the year, will see little to no precipitation, though lots of fog and wind (which is another reason why I moved here - the sailing is incredible). The bay area is full of micro-climates. Pacifica is one of the most foggy/cool places to be. If you live in San Jose it's almost always classic California sunny. For any other weather, you drive to it (which you can, in less than four hours). Wanna go skiing, no problem - Tahoe is thataway. Wanna go surfing, no problem - Santa Cruz is thisaway. Oddly enough, for all the recreational opportunities here, I'm so overworked most of the time that I have no energy left to enjoy it.

Life, the universe, everything

I wouldn't go back. I couldn't go back. Then again, I love living on my boat and San Francisco Bay is one the world's premiere sailing locations. People say that if you can survive the first 2 years, you'll be here forever. For me, the first six months were pure hell. The next six were tolerable. The second year was the best I ever had (fell madly in love, proposed, engaged, bought the boat, etc.), and now, in my third year, it is pretty darn nifty. I can't wait to go sailing to Mexico, though. For an alternative opinion, here's what my friend Hal has to say:

I would move back in a heartbeat. I've been here for 2.5 years now. All my family lives in New York and I miss the bejeezus out of them. I've got a great deal where I'm working, and I'm involved with a cause I believe in (stopping spam) so I'm going to wait out the IPO, but once I've cashed in I'm gone. The other thing which keeps me here is the people at the sailing school I work at some weekends.

Proof that I'm not crazy

Go West, Young Man, Go West - August 16, 1999 - Ken Mayer