San Francisco or Seattle?
What's the best place for a person in technology to live?
If you work in technology you know that there's a deep seated rivalry between San Francisco and Seattle. Which has the most startups? Which has the most successful technology companies? Which is the best city for innovation? Which is the most pleasant city to live in? At the end of the day it comes down to a simple choice: San Francisco or Seattle.
Before I moved from Seattle to San Francisco, I read what felt like dozens of articles comparing the two cities, their merits as places to work, and their relative importance in the realm of technology. I wasn't really interested in the abstract pissing contest, but I did want to know where my career would have the most potential to grow in the long run.
Now, after almost a year in San Francisco, I think I have an interesting perspective on the differences between working in Seattle and San Francisco. I have a deep love for both cities, so I hope this comes off as objective.
San Francisco vs Seattle: Take Home Pay
I know, money isn't everything, but this is a finance blog and I'd be doing you a disservice if I didn't address it up front. I have an interesting basis for comparison here since I moved from Tableau in Seattle to a company in a very similar industry in San Francisco, with a similar job title and role. In other words, I feel my salary "level" didn't change, I just moved to a different location.
My base salary in San Francisco is 32% higher than what I was making at Tableau in Seattle. However, I also had a 10% bonus at Tableau that was nearly guaranteed, so the difference is a little narrower. It's hard to compare stock options since my new company isn't public yet, but based on my own back of the napkin calculations, I believe the take home from stock over the course of the next 4 years would probably be similar. There's more potential stock upside at my new company, however, which is one of the main reasons I made the move.
More money, better stock outlook... seems like I am making out like a bandit, right? Unfortunately, there are a couple more factors to consider. First of all, state income tax in California. I owe the state at least 8-12% of my income. Second, cost of living. Our PITI in Seattle, plus maintenance expenses, would have been around $2,200 for a 1000 sq. ft. 2 bedroom in Ballard . Living in a 1 bedroom, 750 sq. ft. apartment in Mission Bay costs $3,800 a month. That's $20,000 a year more. $20,000!
Bottom line: Tie
After taking cost of living and taxes into account, Seattle and San Francisco are roughly comparable. Thinking from the perspective of a start up employee with stock options, I would evaluate on the potential of the companies that you are looking at rather than where they are. San Francisco salaries will be higher, but you'll need to make at least 40% more in San Francisco to actually be better off. Where you end up financially will largely depend on the success of your company, and not your base salary.
Opportunity Density and Career Flexibility
One thing I noticed as I began to look for a new job last year was how hard it was to find good opportunities in Seattle. Simply put, there aren't that many startups. If you want to work for Amazon or Microsoft (or F5/Expedia/Tableau), the jobs are a dime a dozen, but that comes with the baggage of big company bureaucracy. I wanted to work at a small company with a small team and good prospects.
There's really only 5-10 mid-sized startups with a bright future in Seattle, and many of them are highly focused on a particular industry. For example, I interviewed at Auth0, and despite the job description being well-suited to me, the product was so targeted (and so far outside my area of expertise) that there's no way I could have done the job effectively without 6 months of on the job learning. That's probably why they didn't offer me the job. The point is that high potential startups are rare in Seattle and they are spread across multiple industries. There's no flexibility.
Compare this to San Francisco. I can name off the top of my head 10 pre-IPO companies in my industry (data + analytics). I wouldn't work for all of them... even most of them... but they're here. I know for a fact the same is true across multiple other industries as well. The density of opportunity in San Francisco is simply insane, and it offers a significant advantage to anyone who works in technology.
Bottom line: SF takes this one without a doubt.
At this point, you're probably thinking "More money, more opportunities... why would anyone want to work in Seattle." The answer is simple: work-life balance.
In San Francisco, the density of startups and myraid of job opportunities ensures that everyone is "on" all the time. There's always the looming potential of a new role at a better startup. Even if you aren't looking for a new role, there's weekly team bonding events and company outings to attend. They may be optional, but when your boss is going, optional is really "optional/mandatory".
You'll notice I didn't say much about actual hours worked. I am not sure that people necessarily work more hours in San Francisco versus Seattle. Hours worked aside, it's definitely much harder to ESCAPE work in San Francisco. If you're not working, then you are networking with work people. If you aren't networking with work people, you're probably spending time with other people in technology who are talking about work, or trying to recruit you (or vice versa). It's a constant onslaught.
Compare that to Seattle. I have friends who work across the technology giants (Amazon, Microsoft, etc), along with deep experience from my own time at Tableau and anecdotal tales from those who work at Expedia and F5. Generally, people work a 9 to 5... or even a 10 to 4.... and when they go home they leave work at work. There are work events, but they are once or twice a year and certainly not mandatory. At the end of the day, people working in Seattle generally have better balance between work and home life.
The bottom line: You can find good work life balance in either city, but it's easier to find in Seattle.
In Seattle, it's so much easier to escape from work and technology when you leave the office. The mountains, trees and lakes certainly help to distract, as well.
General Attitudes at Work
This one is a little more subjective, but it's something that I haven't seen anyone write about so it may be useful to those of you who are trying to understand the differences between the two cities more deeply.
In San Francisco, people take themselves seriously. Everyone is in the long term career game. Everyone is a potential startup founder. Because of that, it can be a lot more cut-throat. I have a great team at my new company, with a lot of positive feedback and friendly chatter. But, I also see and hear a significant amount of behind the back conversations and chess-playing. For better or worse, this also means that non-performers are almost immediately fired. In some ways this culture is a GOOD thing. Ambition is understood and welcomed. High performers are generally rewarded, but it can make it a little harder to enjoy being at work when you know someone is waiting for you to trip.
This does make the experience at work significantly different. Coming from Tableau, where no one could ever be fired, I was used to being more impetuous and honest. In a brainstorm, I would say whatever came to mind. If it wasn't a good idea, we'd simply move on to the next idea and build from there. If someone made a mistake, it was an opportunity to learn. On the other hand, some people really deserved to be fired and never were. It was much easier to "coast", "rest and vest", and let the team down with inaction. Admittedly, Amazon and Microsoft are much more serious, but you still see a pervasive, chill, "coasting" culture in Seattle that you don't in San Francisco. There must be 20,000 people resting and vesting at Microsoft.
I'm not sure one way is better than the other. I'm glad that I have the opportunity to be ambitious in San Francisco, and I am happy that my co-workers take themselves and their work seriously. It's probably a positive that bad employees are fired. On the other hand, I would love to have more freedom to be creative (with the inevitable failures that come with that) in San Francisco.
Bottom line: If your main objective is to climb the career ladder, San Francisco has a clear advantage. If you are looking for more freedom, creativity and balance from work, then it will be easier to find a good fit in Seattle.
It's not just about work... what about the city?
This one isn't as clear cut as it may seem. It's true, Seattle is overcast for 8 months out of the year. It's cold, misty and foggy. But once June rolls around the clouds disappear and reveal beautiful blue skies over the lakes, mountains and forests. It's pretty incredible.
San Francisco is essentially the polar opposite. The weather is cool but clear from October to May. Then, June through September is nothing but fog as the inland heat drags in moist air from the ocean over the city. Then suddenly in October, the skies clear and the temp goes up to 90. I couldn't have been more surprised after moving from Seattle.
As I write this, it's early November, sunny and 70 degrees in San Francisco. It's snowing in Seattle.
The bottom line: San Francisco is a clear winner, but Seattle is much better in the Summer. The greater Bay Area has better weather than San Francisco, though.
This is an interesting comparison. My girlfriend and I are both self-proclaimed foodies; she even has her own blog on the SF food scene. When we moved to San Francisco we expected the food to be better across the board. What we found was that there are a ton of exceptional cheap restaurants, and dozens of Michelin starred places for fine dining, but it's more difficult to find really special food that's moderately priced.
Seattle is the opposite. Almost every great restaurant is mid-priced and casual. There are really only one or two great fine dining restaurants, and although there is some decent cheap food it's not available on every corner like San Francisco.
The bottom line: San Francisco narrowly takes it.
Cost of Living
As I noted before, we are spending $20,000 more per year on rent in San Francisco. What's more, because great food is generally more expensive here, it's much more expensive to eat out. In fact, I have yet to find something in San Francisco that is cheaper than Seattle.
The bottom line: Seattle takes the win by a mile.
Seattle and San Francisco are both situated in the middle of fantastic regions. I am not sure if there is a clear winner here.
For outdoors enthusiasts, Seattle might take a narrow lead simply because of the immediate vicinity of the Cascade mountains. Hiking and skiing are never more than an hour away. Lake Washington is literally right beside the city for swimming and boating in the Summer. Two hours across the mountains you have Leavenworth, Chelan, and wine country. Everything is on your backdoor.
On the other hand, San Francisco has some incredible gems within driving distance, but they are slightly farther afield. Admittedly, Marin is right next door, with hundreds of day hikes to explore. Napa is only an hour and a half away. But in the winter, skiers have to hoof it to Tahoe 3 hours away. Monterey and Yosemite are also close enough for a weekend trip. There's certainly no shortage of amazing places to explore.
The bottom line: It really depends on what you're into. If you like to ski every weekend, Seattle is easier. SF and Seattle both have great hiking close by. Wine enthusiasts will definitely prefer San Francisco.
Finally a conclusion... and an interesting idea
As I said, there's really no clear winner here. I truly believe that anyone could be happy in either San Francisco or Seattle with the right job. Both cities have fantastic, growing economies, dynamic food scenes, and a plethora of activities close by.
I think the best situation is to work for a company based in San Francisco, but work remotely in Seattle. If you can make San Francisco money with Seattle cost of living, you can give yourself a significant financial edge. You'll probably spend plenty of time in San Francisco anyway, giving you the chance to enjoy the best of both cities.