Written by: Leonard Parker | Houston Business News | 21st April
Austin has something of a mythic reputation in the Bay Area. The Texas capital has come to represent a land of opportunity for those priced out of San Francisco, and especially during the coronavirus pandemic, an escape route for tech workers no longer bound by physical offices.
The moniker “Silicon Hills,” a nickname that’s seldom spoken aloud within the Lone Star State, has come to represent the city’s burgeoning reputation as a tech hub. From Dell’s ascent in the 1990s to the SXSW conference’s function as a start-up launching pad to Apple’s forthcoming second campus, the city has long punched above its weight in the tech world. And every day more tech companies seem to be fleeing for triple digit temperatures and zero digit state income taxes.
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As more and more Silicon Valley workers decamp for Austin, the expectation is that the grass will be greener, and likely located not far from a swimming hole. To find out if that myth is true, we spoke to five tech industry professionals ranging from Salesforce alums who’ve experienced the work culture in both places, to founders who left S.F. during the pandemic, to the CEO of Austin’s premiere tech incubator.
The consensus was that the grass is definitely a different color, and for now, it looks very green.
Perhaps more than anywhere else in the world, San Francisco’s technology culture is all-encompassing and leaves little time or energy for a life “outside” the bubble of a tech campus or hacker house. In Austin, working as a coder or data analyst or web developer still means you qualify as “a techie,” but it isn’t exactly the same as working “in tech.” Since there’s simply so many more people working in other industries, tech doesn’t feel like something you’re necessarily “inside.”
“Tech is an industry [in S.F.], wherein other parts of the country, tech is a subset of other existing industries,” says Vivek Sodera, co-founder of email client Superhuman, who recently moved to Austin. “I think we’re going to start to see Austin not just be a subset of existing industries itself.”
Like San Francisco, Austin has plenty of issues of diversity, but on a professional level, you’re much less likely to find yourself at a bar surrounded entirely by tech workers.
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“It was just everywhere in San Francisco, you're running into somebody from Snowflake or Uber or whatever. In Austin, you're free from that a little bit,” says Holly Firestone, who worked in Salesforce for several years in both cities, and now is the vice president of community for Venafi in Austin. “I have tons of friends that aren't in tech, which is just not something you experienced in San Francisco at all.”
Anthony Brown, co-founder and CEO of music platform Breakr, moved to Austin in the fall and has found that the smaller pond has been simpler to navigate than Silicon Valley, where elite gatekeepers make it hard to access certain strata of the industry. Even with limited networking options due to the pandemic, he’s found it easier to build connections.
“There's less of the tech community here. So I feel like you can get connected to the right infrastructure faster in Austin. So I think that's actually a competitive advantage for Austin; there's enough high quality people here in the city that if you do come and you are in the tech ecosystem, that you can actually build a really powerful kind of network.”
A small pond, or what some tech investors have described as a “tier two city,” also has its drawbacks. For some (especially those working outside the tech world), the ubiquity of hoodie-wearing coders in San Francisco can be a negative, but that density is part of what’s allowed Silicon Valley companies to flourish. Some of that simply comes down to a matter of geography and the fact that not everyone is driving to work.
“In San Francisco in particular, you're confined to 7 by 7 miles, and there's a lot of serendipity that happens when you're walking down the street and you bump into people. I think that is going to be a challenge that Austin needs to figure out, which is how to create that level of serendipity that you get here,” says Sodera.
One Austin tech founder and CEO, Joah Spearman of travel recommendation site Localeur, has noticed that Austin does have a talent gap.
“There is not this deep bench of director- and VP-level tech talent in Austin. And there's this belief that if there was that here, the companies that get to $200 million evaluations would get to a billion,” says Spearman.
But according to Joshua Baer, CEO of one of Austin’s biggest incubators, Capital Factory, that gap is getting smaller.
“The type of people that we’re attracting, certainly from my own personal experience and somewhat logically, are educated entrepreneurial people who can live anywhere and they're choosing to come here and that's a good thing. That's going to fuel our talent. It's bringing in people who have Silicon Valley ethos, you know, who think big and want to go do big things,” says Baer.
What makes Austin so appealing to many tech workers is that although you’ll still be able to do big things professionally, there’s opportunity for a richer personal life. To state the obvious, home ownership is much more achievable for transplants, however that's caused a ripple effect that's made it harder for many Austinites to own real estate (the average home price rose 10.1% in the past year to $433,493). It has also amplified long-running issues of racial diversity.
The rising cost of living in Austin is worthy of a story of its own, but the difference in culture between Austin and San Francisco is broader than just affordability. According to Spearman, much of it simply comes down to mindset, describing Austin as a “work to live” city, compared to the nonstop pace of San Francisco’s “live to work” culture.
“In more rigid tech cultures, from the moment you leave your house, to get in a bus or a van to go to Silicon Valley to work at Apple or Google or et cetera, you’re kind of like property of your job until you get back to your house,” he says. “There are people that live like that in S.F. Austin doesn’t have that.”
Although these days it’s hard to find the archetype of the Austin “slacker” outside indie films from the '90s, the work culture is still undeniably more relaxed than a place like the Bay Area. Firestone notes that pre-pandemic, it was unusual to see coworkers in the office past 7 p.m. in Austin. That felt much closer to the norm in San Francisco. Brown, who spent several years working in finance in New York, said neither city compares to his time there, but that Austin’s certainly slower paced than San Francisco.
“I think there’s just something about the Texas vibe that makes people chill out and be a little bit more relaxed,” he says.
Quality of life and affordability may be the largest factors driving San Francisco tech workers to Austin, but it begs the question what will happen once they arrive. Many Austinites were already priced out of one of the nation’s hottest real estate markets years ago, but another issue is the effect on Austin culture at large. The exodus out of San Francisco can’t just be about leaving the problems of the city behind, but rather an active desire to become a part of something new.
“Being an Austinite is an experience. It's about showing up and participating, being part of what's happening in Austin,” says Baer.
“If you want to move to Austin, the thing that you should be expecting is that you're going to have a closer relationship with the city that you're living in, not a more distant relationship,” says Spearman. “I think for a lot of people who are in S.F. and work in tech, their closest relationship in S.F. is with their job. Whereas in Austin, your job should be secondary to your relationship with the place that you live in.”