London vs San Francisco - back and forth

Posted by Jamie Henson on March 1, 2016

Last year, I had the opportunity to work in the Bay Area for a year. It was a lot of fun - not without its shortcomings, but overall a very positive experience that did a bang up job of dragging me up into what is more reminiscent of the ‘real world’ after graduating from academic paddling pool of university. As many found with their H1-B application (roughly 66% of applicants), mine was rejected in the lottery, meaning that for me, my life in San Francisco was adjourned.

I was not especially saddened by the news - the greater inconvenience was the the lumbering bureaucratic movement taking three months to tell me this. Besides, I missed the UK terribly by that point and the prospect of living in London was rather exciting.

Six months here, and I feel I’ve built up enough of a picture to make a decent comparison between London and San Francisco. The day-to-day lifestyles are very different as I was a full employee over there, and self-employed here, but independently of that there are several key differences, and one or two surprising similarities.

Tech

People readily think of the Bay Area when they think of technology jobs due to its branding as Silicon Valley. London has its “Silicon Roundabout” but it goes far further than that. Technology job listings are more abundant in the Bay Area, but so is the range of quality and long-term stability.

Out there, I found myself skeptical of several of the startups I encountered because I looked at them from a practical, rational, and probably somewhat British perspective - simply, what was the point in their product? How did they get so much funding? To entrepreneurs this marks the magic of the place, but to engineers with entrepreneurial leanings, it can be baffling when you step back to observe the bigger picture.

Truly, not every business has to be poised to be an institution that changes the world over the course of decades, but the American way of bombastic marketing and powerful, personified brand misrepresents realistic expectations in a lot of cases. I’d say that London has a narrower yet more refined approach, but the two can trade blows equally in a lot of respects.

People talk about the “bubble” bursting in Silicon Valley, a rather insular economic ecosystem. I see this happening when there is a loss of confidence somewhere in the chain, and the vast amount of money stops changing hands because investors are no longer happy with a scattershot investment approach, where there is a Facebook for every hundred thenexthipthing.io. Then they’ll take their money elsewhere. This of course won’t affect the thousands of structured, self-sustaining businesses operating in the area, in fact it may benefit them in some ways. London will endure, probably substantially longer than San Francisco will. Both economically, and tectonically.

Lifestyle

I find London a lot nicer to live in. Maybe it’s because I’m English and so I’m culturally a lot more used to the UK. That said, aside from the at times abrasive tech culture, San Francisco wasn’t a hostile place to live. It was highly multicultural, it just didn’t mix together very well. London is a very large city that has grown and diversified over centuries, moulding its identity along the way. San Francisco is a small, coastal city that has been dragged through a demographic overhaul very rapidly by one powerful movement, resulting in jarring societal consequences.

These consequences include an expanding gulf between “classes” within the city (as much as I hate the term “class”), and a suffering infrastructure (public transport, housing, social services) not able to cope with greater demand. Part of me resented being part of the movement that was, in my view, rocketing the city’s economic clout, yet at the same time making it very, very ill. In London, tech does not rule the city. No single industry does. Not even finance.

That said, there’s a lot to like about San Francisco when you take technology out of the picture. There’s a lot to like about Americans in general. When you look at it like that, and not a tech Mecca, it becomes a lot more appealing because it does have a lot to offer, and a lot of things to enjoy that are undeniably San Franciscan.

However, the exceptionalism people tend to apply to it is a tad distracting. Many cities around the world have a comparable if not superior commercial and cultural identity, yet their residents do not defend their city with the same rabid hashtagged fanaticism that (usually implanted) workers in San Francisco do. The world is a big place, and it’s really not that unique. It’s not a utopia to be built through a technological elite. It’s a city, where people live.

I’m not against living in the US, but the bureaucratic hurdles of being allowed to live there as a foreign citizen are ironically vertical given that it’s the “land of the free”. I will very happily visit, and I appreciate that the US is so incredibly vast and changing between the two coasts, but I feel better with my base in the UK. Plus, it’s a massive pain shipping musical instruments around the world…

Future

Working self-employed on American time is tough. It provides an extraordinary amount of flexibility, and as a 24 year old I have access to more free time than I know what to do with (note: “access” to, which is part of the difficulty), but it requires a lot of self-regulation and motivation. Not just motivation to work, but to not curl inwards and become a hermit in the hills. Without that office culture, social interaction has to come from purely recreational sources, which magnifies its importance when its not there.

A downside of London in the context of the above comparisons would be that it’s less welcoming, and more isolationist with lots of people just wanting to go about their daily business without interruption. Just try and talk to someone on the Tube!

Having decided that I don’t want to live in the US at this time, I need to adjust into making the most of my self-employed situation, including using my flexibility in a productive and constructive way. It takes a lot of getting used to.