July 14, 2020

Where are we going? Tech and the Bay Area in 2025

In 2017, I attended one of the first Arena Summits in Raleigh, NC. Arena is an organization that formed after the 2016 election to try to solve a problem: The Democrats in 2016 had no bench”. Bench is a sports term, here, and if you spend any time in politics you’ll know that the American political community adores sports metaphors. When we say that in 2016 the Democrats had no bench, what we mean is that Democrats were finding it hard to field candidates for national office in rural areas because young Democrats weren’t running for state and local office in rural areas. Young” here has that particular American politics definition that means under 40”, but the point stands. It was hard, in 2016, to field qualified Democratic congressional candidates in some regions, because there weren’t many qualified Democratic State Assembly Candidates. There weren’t many qualified State Assembly candidates because there weren’t many Democratic County supervisor or city council candidates, and so on all the way down.

This is one of the side effects of the massive coastal-and-urban concentration of well-paying jobs for college-educated folks. One of the ideas that Arena presented to counter this was Go Home”. Throughout the summit, there was an exhortation to figure out some way to leave the major urban centers and return from whence you came, especially if you could be convinced to run for local office there.

I think there’s a lot of merit to this idea, but it had some cognitive dissonance for me, because I am from one of the major liberal urban strongholds: I grew up and still live in the Bay Area. I could, and did, get involved in local politics. But the idea of making a huge difference by moving to where I was born and advocating for the liberal values of all men are created equal” wasn’t going to have the same impact in a region that started jumping on the Sanctuary City movement as early as Jan 21, 2017.

There was additional cognitive load from the fact that, for most of my adult life, the Bay Area has been the destination if you work in tech. We are the Northern partner to the Hollywood Dream; where multiple generations have traveled to Southern California to make it big on the Silver Screen, we are now at the end of the second or third generation of immigrants to Northern California who want to make it big in Silicon Valley. Being from here, but working in tech, gives me something of an out-of-body experience: I can see what it was like here before the Silicon Valley explosion, and I can see what’s changed as a result. Some people I’ve met seem to think that the Bay Area and Silicon Valley are synonymous. To me, Silicon Valley is just another part of the Bay Area.

This is an interesting time to exist in the world, and a doubly interesting time to be from the Bay Area, and a triply interesting time to be from the Bay Area and working in tech. For decades, Silicon Valley has drawn some of the best and brightest here, having us work on tools for lightning fast global communication while requiring us to all work out of the same office in San Francisco. Video conferencing has existed for at least a decade, realtime chat has existed for at least two, and email is around its 40th birthday. Even with all that, before March of this year, fully distributed Silicon Valley companies were seen as quirky rebels. The very idea of hiring a remote employee at many startups required VP-level approval. The world changed quickly: thanks to COVID-19, all Silicon Valley companies are now fully distributed.

We can’t know until it happens what effect a forcibly distributed Silicon Valley will have on the Bay Area. We’re starting to see early results, but we won’t really know what’s changing until it’s changed. The rest of this article is my attempt to make a prediction on what I think is going to happen, based on the trends I’m seeing.

So let’s talk about those trends. I find it hard to believe that any Silicon Valley company will be returning full-force to an office in 2020, and some may never do so. Even if we put aside the mega-corps that have publicly stated they won’t require employees back at the office ever, I’ve heard rumors of a half-dozen companies who are planning to not renew their SF office lease in late 2020 or early 2021. Those companies aren’t claiming to be fully distributed forever, they’re instead claiming to be remote for the foreseeable future”. In internet years, that’s forever, and so I expect to see more and more Silicon Valley companies with an SF P.O. Box, and little else.

At the same time, tech workers are waking up to the fact that they don’t have to be in the Bay Area and work in tech. Beyond the articles breathlessly suggesting mass migrations, I can think of 5 engineers without checking Twitter who are moving out of the Bay Area but keeping their current job. It’s a sign of where we are that that idea seems normalized to me, only three months in. For most of these folks, had they asked to relocate in February their boss would’ve interpreted that as a resignation. This flexibility is having an impact on hiring for Silicon Valley as well. I’m a hiring manager, and I talk to a lot of other hiring managers. I can say for myself I have no real intention to hire from the Bay Area candidate pool in 2020, mostly because of cost.

The Bay Area is, currently, an expensive place to live, with a shitty regional public transit system, and a dominant economic industry that couples with disjointed civic governments to promote rapid gentrification and displacement. I don’t blame a single soul for taking advantage of the small silver lining COVID-19 is providing, and taking their tech salary to somewhere they like better.

As a result of all of this, I’m already seeing some immediate changes that give us a glimpse of where the Bay Area is headed. Home price is a rough indicator of the desirability of a region, and since so many people have, over the past two decades, flocked to the Bay Area, home prices have steadily gone up. Even in 2008, home prices in the circle of Bay Cities didn’t fall so much as flatline. Right now, I’m seeing the beginnings of a fall. Homes that I’ve been watching in Alameda, where I’m from, have lost as much as $100k in predicted resale value in the past 30 days, and for the first time I can remember I’m seeing sellers lower listing prices to attract more bids. Two years ago, that was unthinkable.

So let’s play these trends out, and show you where I think the Bay Area is going. Where will we be, 5 years from now, in 2025? These are a series of bets, and if anyone wants to stake some monopoly money (read: cryptocurrency) or beers on me being wrong, reach out.

In 2025, we still have Silicon Valley in the Bay Area, but it looks pretty different. Most tech companies still have a Bay Area address, because there’s still cultural cachet attached, but for many companies that amounts to little more than a P.O. Box. Most executives of those tech companies still have pied-a-terre’s in the area around San Francisco, as do a large number of sales folks, because the types of work that benefitted from in-person meetings in early 2020 still benefit from in-person meetings. Tech Venture Capital is still largely clustered in the Bay Area, but the companies they’re funding have the most distributed workforce they’ve ever seen, and VCs are full-throatedly encouraging distributed hiring for the cost savings.

As for the tech workers themselves, the majority of those left in the Bay Area are the ones who still want to be here, because being in the Bay Area is no longer be any sort of requirement for working in tech and making a good salary. Speaking of, those salary prices have dropped dramatically in the Bay Area, but have risen in the rest of the country. Tech VC money is spread through more of the country than ever, because tech workers can now live wherever they want.

In 2025, the 2010s career path of move to SF get an internship / take a bootcamp” → land a job in SF has been replaced with take an online bootcamp” → get a remote job in tech” → live where you want”. This started in the middle half of 2020, and has been slowly gaining ground ever since.

2025 is also a special year for the Bay Area: it’s starting to feel like a thriving region again after 4 years of COVID-and-recession driven pain. The slow exodus of tech workers spreading money around, combined with COVID closures, meant that the vibrant restaurant scene that was building in the Bay Area ground to a halt in 2020, and neighborhoods that were up-and-coming became food deserts almost overnight. House prices dropped significantly as a result, and the value of commercial real estate plummeted. Especially in 2021 and 2022, the Bay cities were unable to handle the rapid drop in the tax base, and struggled to restructure their budgets to match the region’s new needs. There were a few attempts in late 2021 and early 2022 to privatize ever more services, and Uber briefly experimented with getting into the paramedic business, before realizing that there wasn’t enough left of the ridiculously affluent population to support their business needs, and that most of their drivers had also moved to where it was cheaper.

The inner cities of Oakland and San Francisco started feeling emptier than they had in the past decade, but this was no real surprise to Bay Area lifers — it felt like 1995 all over again. BART, no longer crushed under capacity, was able to use its bond funds to make major upgrades throughout the region.

By late 2022, cities were starting to figure out how to handle this new world, and they found great and greater partnership in their citizenry. The people who were in the Bay Area were now there because they wanted to be, and those communities built on the activism of the late 2010s to rally around a greater sense of regional community.

Where we are now, in 2025, we’re seeing a reverse migration of some of the folks who were driven out by the booming 2010s, and are now drawn back by the cheaper housing. The commercial real estate quickly abandoned in 2020 and 2021 by tech companies is being leased for a song to new restaurant concepts, new community spaces, new art galleries, and new, smaller, tech companies with a local focus. While the Bay Area, and most of the world, struggled with how to adapt to a recession and a pandemic, tech entrepreneurship continued on its late 2010s path of profitable, small, boutique companies that were focused not on total market capture but on building the perfect product for their community. In 2025, many of these companies are flourishing in the Bay Area, but just as many are springing up across the country, from Buffalo to Boise.

As we reach the midpoint of 2025, we by no means have anything close to a utopia, in the Bay Area or anywhere, but the de-concentration of this country’s best and brightest is already being felt. Communities in the center of the country that were close to death are being revitalized, and learning from the successful late 2010s campaigns of cities like Tulsa on how to attract remote tech workers.

The Bay Area is my home, so I’m still here, and I’m one of the people working with boutique software companies and partnering with civic governments. Our community feels tighter than ever, because we know the people around us will be here for years. Instead of being pushed out by gentrification or pressured to cash out of their startup and move somewhere cheaper, we’re putting down roots. The people who want to live in the Bay Area live in the Bay Area, and the people who wanted to go home went home, and the people who wanted a new home found one.

This was a doozy, and thanks for sticking with this post. I’m sure I’m wrong about some of this, and I’d love to hear where you disagree with me. Ping me on twitter @phildini or email [email protected].

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