Alex Payne

Writer, backer, erstwhile technologist.

San Francisco: Thoughts for East Coast Geeks

Since moving to the Bay Area several months ago, I’ve been asked by East Coast geeks what I think of the place. There is, at least for webby folks, the sense that it’s just a matter of time before you do a stretch in San Francisco. The sheer density of companies and projects is just too strong a pull.

Despite having spent several months here this time around plus a couple months when I lived here in 2005, I still don’t feel like I have an accurate sense of all of San Francisco’s neighborhoods. I can navigate through some parts of the city, but far more of it is either hazy might-have-seens or pure mystery to me. I won’t, then, try to hold forth on geographic generalities and which neighborhood can beat up which other neighborhood’s dad. I lived in Hayes Valley when I first moved here because it’s charming and has a good comic book store. I now live in SOMA because it’s two blocks from my office and depopulated enough to be unobjectionable. I’m nothing approaching an authority.

The climate in the city itself is lovely once you learn the trick: always have another layer. The temperature ranges from the high 50s to the mid-80s; this means you can get away with jeans, a t-shirt, and a hoodie basically all the time, which is fantastic. People seem to wear whatever they want, regardless of the weather, and it’s generally temperate enough to do so. The East Bay is purportedly hotter, but I don’t find myself there frequently.

San Francisco is not my favorite city. I’m not in love with the place, and I don’t expect to be any time soon. It doesn’t have the depth of London, the density of Tokyo, the freneticism of New York, the history of DC, or even the clever urban planning of Portland. Most of the city smells like urine. I don’t want to spend the rest of my life here, by any stretch. I’m here for work, and for the tech community.

If you’re coming from a place like DC, you may wonder how the tech community could be a significant enough factor to base one’s living decisions around. The East Coast has nothing like what San Francisco has to offer the technically minded: essentially a never-ending string of geek social events, opportunities to mingle, network, and collaborate. There may be User Groups and Bar Camps in all sorts of places, but the Bay is the hub, the nexus.

Just as you see famous actors and actresses just going about their daily lives in Los Angeles, so too are the superstars of the tech industry up close and personal in San Francisco. The difference is that if you’re here, you can probably talk to them and kick around ideas. If you’re working on a cool project, even better. Collaboration seems to happen in the blink of an eye here.

As an example: there exists in the Bay Area a culture of bug fix exchange between the developers of various projects. Quite frequently I’ve “traded” a fix or feature on Twitter for one on an acquaintance’s application. There’s a constant backchannel of tweaks and shared knowledge, and you can tap into it if you’re in the area and have something to offer. Coders here are eager to share, and to improve through sharing. There’s a feeling of Open Source made corporeal.

The downside is that it’s hard to get away from all that tech culture. I went to a reading by a group of magazine journalists this past weekend and the evening’s MC referenced Twitter in an introduction for one of the authors. Web talk came up at dinner later that night; even the written word isn’t an escape. I’m starting to understand why, just as New Yorkers periodically escape to the Hamptons or upstate, San Franciscans head for the wine country, or Tahoe, or even LA. It’s all too easy to be narrowly obsessed with all the tech goings-on, caught up in the Bay Area echo chamber where every new release of every little thing is terribly relevant. And no, going to tech conferences in other cities doesn’t really count as getting away.

There’s enough in San Francisco, tech community aside, to equate with any East Coast city I’ve visited. Food is great and varied, there are plenty of neighborhoods to explore, sights to see, et cetera. You won’t be bored if you move here. But I haven’t yet found that thing that captivates one to stay, nor have I met anyone who’s been here for all that long. If you’re going to move for your career, do it; do it yesterday. Just don’t expect to want to be here forever, is my advice.