Why Software Needs to Escape from San Francisco


Lately I've been hearing complaints from my techie friends about San Francisco. Sure, the city is a mecca for anyone who wants to build a startup—with ample capital, helpful angels, and some of the best software talent on the planet.

But it's becoming a monoculture. “You go to dinner and tech is literally all people talk about: tech, tech, tech,” sighs my friend David Silva, an engineer who lived in San Francisco for five years before decamping for the East Coast. Tech has crowded out other subjects of conversation.

That, I'd argue, is a good reason to break the region's lock on software development. Different cities have different moods and obsessions. Spreading the creation of software to other parts of the country doesn't just expand economic opportunity, it also encourages other ideas. As Accel venture capitalist Vas Natarajan puts it to me, “You can think of a city as a platform.” And each new platform opens up the possibility space.

What are, right now, the governing values of the San Francisco (and Silicon Valley) platform? I'd argue that it's a region enchanted with revving up the metabolism of everyday life, from how we summon rides (Uber) and how we socialize (Facebook) to how we interact at work (Slack). Its engineers are superb at making systems that scale insanely well, emerging seemingly overnight to disrupt entire industries. “There's a level of ambition here that isn't in other places,” says Tracy Chou, founder of Block Party and a veteran engineer at Quora and Pinterest.

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  • In contrast, consider my home of New York City. Techwise, it's an also-ran compared with San Francisco, with less than a third of the venture capital. But it benefits from a greater diversity of influences. This is a city defined, in varying degrees, by publishing, finance, art, advertising, theater, and nightlife. And it produces a different landscape of talent. The tech people may be less likely to crank heads-down on their startups until midnight—because, hey, there's an Inuit throat-singing ensemble doing a residency in Red Hook!

    The ideas platform is broader and weirder. When you think of New York's mainstream startups, many were founded to solve some problem that's almost hilariously artsy. There's Tumblr (fansites for emo teens) and Etsy (sell your bespoke handmade warez) and Kickstarter (get your poetry journal funded, folks!). SF has Patreon, sure, but NYC gave birth to the “check-in,” via Dodgeball and Foursquare. Cofounder Dennis Crowley wanted to use tech partly to make barhopping more fun. “Quirky problems,” as Deb Schultz, a digital innovation expert, put it.

    Other cities have their own mindsets. Pittsburgh, once the Steel City, has been reborn as a hotbed of robotics, propelled by the heft of Carnegie Mellon University (itself founded in part by a steel magnate) and catalyzed by rents rendered affordable courtesy of postindustrial decline. Meanwhile, Montreal and Toronto are now centers of AI: The Canadian government funded crucial deep-learning research there, so those towns lure top machine-learning talent from around the world. (Urban Canada is pro-immigrant; about half of all residents in Toronto were born outside the country.)

    Or consider the Denver-Boulder corridor, which is seeing a migration of millennials who crave its dynamism and work-life balance. “You get a house with a backyard for your dog,” notes Sue Heilbronner, cofounder of MergeLane, a venture fund that invests in companies with at least one woman in leadership. Meanwhile, Las Vegas is building a blockchain scene aided by Nevada politicians who, in a way perhaps indexed to the state's history with gambling, passed a law blocking cities and counties from taxing or limiting uses of blockchain. (What happens in crypto stays in crypto, folks.)

    The problem is that San Francisco and Silicon Valley have been strikingly successful, so they still get the venture money buffet. Other cities and states have to get creative. Why not copy Pennsylvania, which 36 years ago established its own venture fund and, later, tax breaks for startups? Pouring money into local universities is good too—they're hubs for innovation—as is preserving walkable downtowns with old architecture and affordable housing. Vibrant cities make for vibrant ideas. And each place has a story to tell.

    Source: Getty Images

    Clive Thompson (@pomeranian99) is a WIRED contributing editor. Write to him at clive@clivethompson.net.

    This article appears in the June issue. Subscribe now.


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