Gold Rush in Silicon Valley

Software engineers from all over the world rave about working in the San Francisco Bay Area. But when their non-tech partners follow them, they tend to struggle professionally – and may end up as ice cream vendors with Ph.D.s.

published by Uniglobale Magazine, Germany, 4/2016; text, photos, and translation: CF >>

“With trembling knees, I stood at her door, resume in hand.” It’s quiet on the Stanford University campus, an owl is calling out now and then. Ten women and one man sit around a table in the moonlight, listening to Clotilde’s story.

“I had applied for a research assistant position and hadn’t heard anything from the professor for weeks,” the young woman continues. She felt like a student, ready to be kicked out of the office at any time. But she got her half-minute, her elevator pitch in the professor’s doorway – the opportunity to mention that she had worked on health policy, and in Moscow. The advertised position was about tobacco regulations in Russia. The professor listened, suddenly interested. She got the job.

Techies thrive, others not so much 

The women at the table listen up. For months, they had simulated job interviews, edited resumes, and optimized online profiles shoulder to shoulder with Clotilde – and now there was a first success story! One that suggests that there are niches in the Silicon Valley monoculture for people who do not happen to be programmers and do not even hail from the United States. The women pass around wine and cookies that Clotilde brought – a group tradition. If you find a job, you spend a round.

It’s late in the evening, but the women have all the time in the world. They all followed their partners to California – who won’t be out of the office until midnight. It’s a tricky situation for those who follow, hence Clotilde asked that her surname be omitted for privacy.

Silicon Valley is experiencing a second gold rush. “If you’re a good programmer and you come to the West Coast, you can pick your employer,” says Emrah Gursoy, who heads the Stanford partners’ career training program and is himself a consultant at Hewlett-Packard. “Companies are having trouble filling their positions.” Because the U.S. market can’t meet the demand, California tech companies sponsor H1B visas for foreign programmers. More than 230,000 applications were filed in 2015, but the government issues a mere 65,000 visas by lottery. U.S. universities are now training more software engineers, but until the newcomers can fill the gap, companies are scrambling for the few talents.

And they are coming up with a number of ways to do so: Software companies are increasingly moving from Silicon Valley to San Francisco, 50 kilometers to the north because it is a more attractive place for programmers to live than the suburban jungle of the Bay. Big companies like Facebook and Google, unable to relocate their headquarters, charter air-conditioned commuter buses with Wi-Fi to pick up employees from the hip neighborhoods – for free, of course, just like the cafeteria food and recreational facilities. “Companies treat their employees with more respect than in Europe,” Gursoy says. “They know that programmers will be with the competition in no time if they don’t like it anymore. Staying with the same employer for longer than two years is unusual here.”

Intern salaries start at $5,000

Above all, they lure with money: $100,000 for software engineers is common as a starting annual salary, with outstanding talent earning up to a million a year. The big companies lure young programmers with intern salaries of $5,000 and up straight out of college – and try to get the best to stay.

But the women around the table aren’t software engineers; they are successful teachers, doctors, and project managers in their twenties and thirties. “If you’re applying for a job in the U.S. for the first time as a foreigner, you’re usually taking a step back,” Gursoy admits. He, too, accompanied his wife from Turkey to Stanford; but with an MBA and work experience in the U.S., he had an easier time; it helped that recruiters knew the institutions on his resume, he thinks. To share his experience, he has so far volunteered to help 60 partners of Stanford scholars – almost all women – find jobs.

Gursoy is proud that so far, all of them have found jobs. But even if some, like Clotilde, are able to build on their careers in their home countries: Many of them only find internships or temporary jobs that barely cover the rent: as mail carriers, ice cream sellers, or receptionists with diplomas or doctorates. Most of them live not far from Marc Zuckerberg’s first mansion in garages or tiny apartments. The rent for a two-bedroom apartment in San Francisco costs on average more than 3,000 euros a month, and the trend is rising – unaffordable without a tech job.

Success and the mere hope of success, epicenters of progress, and social fringes lie close together in Silicon Valley.

The epicenter of founders

488 Market Street in San Francisco – the so-called Runway – is one of the epicenters: a converted factory building in the city center, where 80 startups are working on their breakthroughs, table to table, shoulder to shoulder, next to Twitter headquarters. The runway wants to come across as free-spirited and provisional, with exposed pipes, concrete and loft architecture, but doormen at the entrance and a sophisticated security system closely monitor every visitor. Single-speed bikes lean against wallpaper tables, the obligatory foosball table in a corner; it looks like businesses could move out or on at any time. And so it is; the founders are the new pioneers, their frontier advancing ever further.

All the accents of the world can be heard in the elevator and the coffee corners; if women or people over 35 were to be seen, one could almost talk about diversity – but they aren’t.

Karsten Beyer’s accent is unmistakably Saxon; the lanky young man introduces himself as COO of Data Virtuality, “the first logical data warehouse.” During a semester in the U.S., Beyer realized he wanted to live the American Dream. “I was thrilled to see how quickly you get to talk to people,” says the now 26-year-old. “When I first came to San Francisco, I asked my neighbor on the train if he could set up a hotspot for me because there was no Wi-Fi. As it turned out, I was looking at the vice president of programmers at Path, a Facebook competitor.” He looks happy. “I’m still in touch with him to this day; he’s become one of our mentors.”

Beyer finds the non-committal nature of U.S. culture, which many Germans criticize, practical. “In Germany, you stand around bar tables at events and talk for ten minutes, even if you’ve determined after 30 seconds that it’s not interesting to you,” he says. “Here, the speech is lightning fast and I can politely say goodbye after 30 seconds if it doesn’t spark.”

A few years later, Karsten Beyer got his chance. At the time, he was working in his first job for a Saxon venture investor and was allowed to accompany one of the portfolio companies to the U.S. for a three-month funding program: a startup called DataVirtuality, founded by a Ukrainian student at the University of Leipzig, who had discovered that all attempts to merge data with different formats failed because of a fundamental flaw. As part of his doctoral research, Nick Golovin found the only alternative so far that took a fraction of the time and ran without errors. “The software allows companies to merge customer data, for example, and automatically send emails as a result of certain events,” Beyer explains.

Grow or be overrun 

But the young company had a problem. “German startups reach a limit at some point,” says Christian Claus in his office in downtown Palo Alto, which looks like a vacation resort – with wooden houses among palm trees, classy restaurants next to even classier boutiques. “For the first rounds of financing, they still find German investors, but to successfully roll out a concept and become a global market leader, they need growth capital. A start-up that doesn’t grow will sooner or later be overrun by U.S. or Chinese competitors.” The capital for this is not available in risk-averse Germany, but very much so in Silicon Valley.

Claus works for the German Accelerator, an institute under the umbrella of the German Federal Ministry of Economics that invites promising startup founders to the Valley for three months so that they can test their product on the U.S. market and, if possible, convince a venture investor of their merits. According to its own statement, the ministry hopes this will make the startup culture in Germany more competitive and create jobs in Germany with the money from U.S. investors.

The Germans are late bloomers in this regard; when the institute was founded in 2012, most European countries already had accelerators in the Valley. “Silicon Valley’s success is also based on the fact that foreigners are constantly coming in with different ideas,” Claus says. Only two out of five startups in the region were founded by U.S. citizens, he said.

In the case of the former students from Leipzig, the calculation worked out: “We were surprised to see how quickly people open their address book and recommend you to mentors, other companies, or potential investors,” says Beyer. For those who belong, the Valley is very small.

The company brought its marketing department to California, while its programmers stayed in Germany, where wages are cheaper and workers are more loyal. Investor Karsten Beyer switched sides: He joined Data Virtuality as an operational manager and stayed in San Francisco.

“I made a rule for myself,” reveals Karsten Beyer. “If I wake up in the morning and feel, ‘whew, Monday, I’m not up for it,’ then I quit. During my school internships or student jobs, I had that every now and then, but here, not even close. On Fridays, I tend to say to myself: ‘Whew, going to the beach? Actually, you want to finish the project.'” Work-life balance is not a common concept in Silicon Valley. Those who no longer feel that work is life simply change jobs.

The Runway is teeming with CEOs and COOs in hoodies, and many a founder rents a hacker house, spartan hostels with bunk beds to cut costs and furnishings. “The successful people are very focused on their business,” observes Christian Claus. “They are so convinced of their product that they neglect everything else. Some look like they are sleeping on the street and next thing, you know, they sell their company for 50 million.”

Other founders are happy to leave the Wild West and return to cozy Germany. “Some realize here that ten other companies are up to the same thing, a dating app, for example,” Claus says. “They then quickly carve out a niche for themselves, focusing on data security, for example, so that no U.S. company competes with them in Europe.”

Bedrock in the valley of youth

By local standards, German software maker SAP is a bedrock; it opened a branch in Palo Alto 23 years ago and has 2,500 local employees. This is where Josefin and Alexander Graebe, 23 and 28 years old, met. Both come from small villages – she from Baden-Württemberg, he from Siberia – studied in Mannheim and did their first internships at SAP.

For Alexander, who has a master’s degree in information systems, Silicon Valley was the logical step. “If you want to get a foothold in the tech industry, you just have to have done it,” he says of the sprawling corporate campus in the hills behind Stanford. “I just wanted to get to know the companies and developers and see how high the standard really is here.” And, how high is it? “They’re really looking for hardcore programmers; you can’t get very far here with superficial stuff.”

Josefin came to SAP at the age of 19 through a dual business administration program. Palo Alto was only supposed to be one of her six practical phases; for her bachelor’s thesis, she wanted to observe the founding of the company’s own coworking space “Hana Haus” in Palo Alto. “But I had my clear five-year plan in mind, as always,” Josefin says, she and Alexander laughing meaningfully. “Also, of course, I had long since enrolled for my master’s in Mannheim.” But for the first time, nothing came of her straightforward plans: California intervened, the “exciting” project – and Alexander.

“We threw a house party and, as luck would have it, my roommate was her colleague,” Alexander Graebe recounts. “I already knew her and knew she would come, too.” For both of them, the internships were coming to an end and the return flight was imminent. But the party just stopped their lives – and gave them momentum again, but in a different direction. They fell in love, applied for full-time jobs, got them and married in May 2015 at San Francisco’s imposing City Hall. Their families were connected via Skype. There’s been no talk of going home since.

Josefin is Executive Director of the Chief Digital Officer, which means she supports the Chief Digital Officer in his meetings and travels – and gets to “see the company from above” along the way. Does she want to become a boss herself? She laughs. “Well, it would be interesting.” As a developer evangelist, Alexander touts SAP technologies to programmers, wooing them with conference talks, hackathons, and tech demos. After all, it’s not managers but programmers who ultimately decide which external technologies are purchased – or, as Graebe puts it, “developers are the kingmakers of tomorrow.”

“I first had to get used to the fast pace and spontaneity of life here, but I’ve since become more flexible,” says Josefin Graebe. “When we found our new apartment just a week before we moved, I didn’t mind at all. The notice periods here are just so short that searching beforehand is pointless.”

Nevertheless, the two have not gotten used to some things to this day: Josefin could imagine doing her master’s degree in the U.S., but she finds the tuition fees, tens of thousands of euros a year, too high. And when she was lying in pain on the doctor’s table before her wisdom tooth operation, she was first asked whether she would like to have this or that additional anesthetic for a few hundred dollars.

Most importantly, the two find it difficult to form truly deep friendships. “For many, Silicon Valley is simply a stopover to advance their careers,” Alexander says. “Neighbors and colleagues come and go – and even with those who stay longer, it’s hard to get beyond small talk.” But they don’t have much free time anyway; both often travel around the world for SAP, for Josefin this makes up half of her time. When they have a weekend together, they go to the sea or to the Sierra Nevada.

Many Germans have made a career in Silicon Valley. But career tutor Emrah Gursoy encounters one problem again and again: “Germans communicate in a very goal-oriented way, and many think small talk is a waste of time.” Yet this initial chit-chat serves a very important goal, Gursoy emphasizes: “The first sentences should build trust and signal interest to the other person. If you skip that, you’re considered cold.” Josefin and Alexander Graebe have quickly adopted U.S. politeness – something they are reminded of during their visits to Germany. “Every now and then, I ask a German cashier in a store how she’s doing,” Alexander says. “You should see the looks!”


Application tips Silicon Valley

– US-Americans spread their applications more widely than Germans, therefore companies receive more applications for a job and can rarely read all of them. Personal recommendations are therefore important; for this, it is important to build up a large professional network.

– To get in touch with interesting institutes or personalities, you can ask for advice or contact, but not directly for a job. The professional conversation may well turn into a job offer.

– Don’t shy away from the requirements of a job, even high GPA scores! It is possible to apply for a job in the USA even if you do not exactly meet all the requirements. The important thing is to be open about it and make it clear that you are willing to learn and have transferable skills.

– Hiring foreigners is considered a risk by many U.S. companies. The better the language skills and cultural fit, the easier it is to find a job. A possible misunderstanding: In the U.S., public universities are often equated with inferior universities – dispel doubts if necessary. Companies unknown in the U.S. should be briefly described in the resume (equivalent to company X in the U.S., y employees, or similar).

– Job interviews are often designed like expert interviews. You should not only be able to answer questions but also have several questions ready for the different counterparts. In Germany, you are often asked about your successes; US recruiters tend to want to know how you learned from failures. After an interview, it’s a good idea to send a thank-you email to remember yourself.

– Practical experience and volunteer work are highly regarded in the U.S. Bachelor’s degree programs are much broader than in Germany; if you can only show technical courses, you should have looked beyond your own subject to other areas.

– In the U.S., it is easier to fire an employee without severance pay but also easier to change jobs yourself. Job changes after six months are not a problem on the resume.




Bewerbungstipps Silicon Valley >>