A New Yorker’s Take on San Francisco

I just got back from San Francisco. This wasn’t my first time to the west coast, but it was my first time to Northern California. Overall, I had an amazing time.

This trip emerged as a major convenience for me. My brother was heading out to California for the Real Estate Connect conference, since his company is intimately involved with Real Estate technologies. But he didn’t want to go alone, so he paid for my plane ticket and hotel stay the first few nights to convince me to come out. (Thanks, Alex!)

I got in touch with some people I knew out there, but many of them weren’t going to be around during my stay, due to summer vacations, etc.

Joseph Sofaer, a friend of mine from NYU, was gracious enough to delay a trip to Europe to show me around the area. I was even lucky enough that the first first day I was there, he invited me to a party at the Facebook headquarters in Palo Alto, CA, where I briefly met Mark Zuckerberg, saw Robert Scoble walking around, and met about twenty other software developers in a room of 300, who worked for companies like Yahoo, Pandora, del.icio.us, and, of course, Facebook itself.

The train ride home, I was riding with the creator of the MillionDollarHomepage, probably the best website idea of all time.

Palo Alto and Software is Sexy

The vibe in Palo Alto was enviable, especially for a native New Yorker. When I pull out my laptop on the train or in a cafe in NY, screens full of code or running with full-screen vterms, I get stares and strange looks. (Including right now, as I write this blog post on the LIRR…) In Palo Alto, my brother and I walked by two or three cafes, and in each I saw young guys and gals at their laptops, coding away, screens full of GNU make output scroling by, emacs and vim buffers splitting off. I overheard conversation snippets like, “we’re hoping to release our next version in a couple weeks”, “you have got to try metaclass programming with Python”, and “did you see that article on /.?”

In New York, people aren’t that proud to be a geek. You go to a typical gathering and say, “I’m a software developer” and the typical response is, “Oh…”, followed by silence, followed by, “I think I need another drink…”. Sexy in New York, programming isn’t. If you want sex appeal, go into finance, law, or politics.

Opposite in Palo Alto, of course. Which makes you feel great as a software developer. What are you into? If you answer, “Stocks, bonds, and the market” you’ll get the treatment I described above. You answer, “Ruby on Rails” and you’ll be having a 2-hour, heated conversation.

BTW, the Silicon Valley excitement about Ruby on Rails is palpable. Everyone wants a Rails developer.

A quick anecdote to illustrate the NY disdain for geeks: I was out with a friend once who had attend culinary school and was trying her way up the restaurant ladder, to become a chef. She complained, however, that the money in these entry level jobs (food preparer, etc.) in the kitchen was way too little, that it was difficult to get by. So, someone suggested, “Why don’t you waitress on the side?”

Her response, “Waitress? I’m trying to become a chef. That’s like saying to someone who wants to run a company, ‘Why don’t you work as an IT guy?'”

Something tells me that joke wouldn’t work that well in Palo Alto.

San Francisco and Good Coffee

It was great to be able to get a little sense of the Silicon Valley vibe on my first day in Northern California. But by the end of the day, my head was spinning. I was ready to head back to an environment that was less technobubble, something a bit more real.

My second day there, I walked around some neighborhoods on my own, particularly Union Square (which is a bit of a tourist center), the Mission (which reminds me of Astoria, but with a different set of ethnic groups), and Noe Valley (which reminds me of the Upper East Side, but with houses instead of apartment buildings).

In the Mission, I ended up stopping by a coffee place named Philz. I asked for an iced coffee. I then watched as the barrista (who I think was Phil!) took a scoop of coffee beans, ground them in a grinder, put them in a coffee machine, and made a fresh cup of coffee. Some ice went in with frothed milk atop it. I kid you not, the BEST iced coffee I have ever had.

Later in the day, when I met up with Joey at his apartment, I mentioned that I had just stumbled upon the best iced coffee of my life a couple hours ago. And he said, “Oh, man… if you want good coffee, you have to try this place Philz.”

I laughed and said “THAT’s exactly where I was!” and he responded, “Man, you had ‘just stumbled upon’ possibly the best coffee in the world.” So that was a bit of good luck. We ended up going back to Philz later that day 😉

Joey had to leave the next day for Europe, but we spent the rest of the afternoon chatting about software ideas, in particular details about his latest idea, a Blackboard replacement application hosted on the Facebook Platform. If you’re on the Facebook, check out the application called “Courses”. It’s quite cool, even if it is in the early stages.

The Weekend

My brother’s real estate conference was winding down, so he snuck me in so I could catch the last couple presenters. Unfortunately, I had missed the presentation by Craig Newmark (of craiglist fame), which was apparently pretty good. Instead, I caught a panel by some head honchos of real estate technology at Google, Yahoo, Microsoft and Realtor.com. This panel was mighty uninteresting. Despite the fact that these guys were all supposed to be team leads and head-techies-in-charge, they all gave tired lines and made me question whether they actually knew what they were talking about.

Nonetheless, it was interesting to see a conference of this kind — lots of buzz, lots of software developers all gathered together, a lot of excitement about an emerging market.

That afternoon, we took a bus tour of San Francisco, which was well worth it due to the hilarious tour guide named “Silvio.”

We spent that night at a Vietnamese Restaurant named “La Colonial“. Excellent.

Saturday morning, we walked around the city, starting out in Union Square, moving through to Civic Center. We stopped at the Asian Art Museum, where I saw an exhibit on Manga and Japanese Wood Block art, both very good, among others. Finally, we ended up in the Lower Haight and Haight Ashbury, where we spent the afternoon lounging and exploring.

At night, we headed to North Beach and ate dinner there. We ended the night at the bar at the top of the Sir Francis Drake hotel, which my brother said reminded him a bit of Windows on the World, when that was still around.


For a short trip, I got to see a good chunk of the city, and even got to take that important visit outside the city. Overall, I had a great time.

As a technologist based out of New York, I have to say that San Francisco is quite appealing. The weather, the laid back attitude, the independent shops, cafes and restaurants, the technology buzz. But moving there would certainly seem like selling out. Sure, we may not be able to reproduce Silicon Valley but we can do our own thing. New York is too strong a city to be left in the hands of financiers and lawyers.

2 thoughts on “A New Yorker’s Take on San Francisco”

  1. Hi Cary,

    That’s an interesting term, had never really heard of it before.

    I wonder why the Wikipedia article doesn’t mention the effect this has in terms of acquiring and keeping talent. Agglomeration gives skilled workers especially good bargaining power. As a skilled worker, I much prefer to live and work somewhere I am not locked into my employer. This is a win-win:

    It prevents the employer from locking the employee in; it lets the employee rest easy that she can find other work in the same industry if for some reason her job goes stale; it forces employers to compete with their job offers, resulting in better screening/interview processes and happier employees; and, it gives employers access to bigger pools of talent, resulting in increased productivity levels.

    I haven’t formally studied the principle, but I imagine ideas like this must be relevant. (Perhaps I’ll add some comments to this effect to the Wiki discussion.)

    Hey Craig — thanks for stopping by! Love your work 🙂 BTW, it was great when you accepted the conference award on behalf of the craigslist community. Brad Inman is making a big deal about the award, and you just got on the mic and said, “Don’t get that excited.” No one laughed. (I did, nervously.) Classic!

  2. Great post Andrew!

    I think NY needs people like you to have a Silicon Vally outside the valley. I am surprised however, it was your first ever visit to the Bay area. The vibe there is certainly motivating!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *