Six Tips Before Moving to Seattle as a UX Professional

You’ve heard all the nightmares: it rains all the time, the traffic is bad, Microsoft and Amazon dominate the job market, the male to female ratio is so bad the dating scene isn’t, yadda yadda. However, if you’re one of the California natives that can work through some of these, read on.

Seattle is a great place to find your next User Experience position, at a place with work-life balance and you can work on products focused on business value instead of the me-too economy.

When I talk to others here, there’s a growing sense that the Pacific Northwest could be the next Silicon Valley, and Onward Search ranks the Seattle market as the third largest in the U.S. for User Experience opportunities. Microsoft, Amazon, Facebook, and Google are at within a bus stop from where I live, and it’s half the price of a San Francisco walk-in closet. There are a lot of pluses to living in the Emerald City.

But before you move out of your 510 square foot shoebox in the Mission next to the homeless shelter and drive your U-Haul up I-5, here’s the list.

Cost of living? High, but not even close to the Bay Area, and it offers similar neighborhood experiences.

There may have been a rapid increase in home and rental prices in the Seattle metro, but it’s nothing like the Bay Area. Consider this: a North Beach apartment I rented in December 2009 for $1,500 is now renting for nearly $3,000 a month. The market isn’t as constricted here, and there’s a ton of construction underway to increase the housing stock.

The downside — no rent control. The first apartment I moved into in Seattle is going for close to $500 more than I paid for it, and I moved last June.

Salaries aren’t as high, and companies are less willing to get into a bidding war because there aren’t as many places to go. Outside of Microsoft and Amazon, most salaries will be lower than in the Bay Area, but you keep much more because the State of Washington doesn’t levy an income tax. Net, I’m making much more than I did in the Bay Area.

Seattle is topographically similar to the Bay Area, so there’s a very real division between those that live in Seattle and the Eastside. Each has its advantages, but will also affect the decision about where you work, and there are many places to live that are similar to living in San Francisco without the hassles. Where I live is like a mini San Francisco, but I pay $7 in tolls every day to cross a bridge twice. I mark that up as a quality of life expense.

There’s a lot of jobs here, but not many companies — and they’re big.

I used to describe Seattle this way: It’s Microsoft and Amazon and Microsoft and Amazon and a few startups and Microsoft and Amazon and a few agencies. Also, there’s Microsoft and Amazon.

If you stay here, there’s a pretty good chance that you’ll end up working for at least one of them in your career. Many designers have created careers contract surfing between the two. There’s a pretty good chance that the boss you have at Amazon used to work at Microsoft, and vice versa.

That’s changing.

Companies see the Pacific Northwest as the next source of technology talent. HP, Oracle, Disney, Facebook, Google, Twitter, and Groupon are growing their bases up here to join established companies like Zillow, Tableau, AT&T, T-Mobile, Starbucks, Staples, Adobe, Boeing, and BestBuy to build technology teams. Walmart Labs and Google also recently opened locations in Portland. There’s also a growing startup community lead by Madrona Ventures that’s drawing talent, plus many of the mainstays that have been here forever, like White Pages, Moz, and Inrix.

This provides opportunities to find new challenges that many designers need coming out of companies like Microsoft and Amazon. This provides a necessary labor circulation that encourages the growing of skill sets.

But much of the work here isn’t exciting conceptual design and innovative startup work: it’s products you’ll be iterating on forever that are less focused on valuations and more focused on making money. That limits the number of greenfield opportunities but offers stability.

What I do like about Seattle is there seems to be a greater work-life balance than the Bay Area — there isn’t this constant push to be the next valuation unicorn, and that’s good if you’re just looking for a place to do great work.

Seattle is the world’s biggest small town.

Because I recruit as part of my job, I have a spreadsheet that maps all of the design resources in Seattle that I’ve found so far on different social networks like LinkedIn. The list totals about 1,800 names, roughly 65 to 70 percent of the market. How connected is this market? I’m a connection or two away from many of them, which turns Seattle into the design version of the Kevin Bacon game.

The pluses:

  • Designers are very approachable because they may know you or of you.
  • Networking here is much easier than in the Bay Area because the community is more cohesive and accessible.
  • Getting intelligence on working environments is much easier because you probably know someone or of someone that has worked there.

The minuses:

  • Relationships are everything. You can burn bridges all year long in San Francisco. Not so in Seattle.
  • This limits access to great opportunities as a newcomer because the best opportunities are restricted to those in the know.
  • The person you’re competing against is someone you know, which can be awkward.

There are designers on Twitter here, but not nearly the number in the Bay Area. Many of the relationships are going to have to be built the old-fashioned way: by meeting people. This means going to meetups, inviting people out for coffee, and reaching out, one person at a time.

If you take great care in building relationships here, you can be successful. However, it may be a much slower go of it than in the Bay Area because of the transitory nature of the work there.

Design leadership opportunities are few and far between.

Seattle is three to four years behind San Francisco in design trends — let’s call it a fast follower — so many companies haven’t figured out that design can have an impact on the bottom line and staffed appropriately. Amazon and Microsoft are both engineer-driven cultures which have spawned a bunch of startups that (guess what!) were founded by ex-Microsofties and Amazonian engineers.

It’ll be a while before design  finds its place here as it has in the Bay Area, but things are changing. Just not fast enough.

The dilemma most designers in Seattle face: to grow their careers, they have to leave Seattle and move to San Francisco to get the experience they need building a design team. Many of the companies here recruit leadership from other places because they know the talent pool here for that leadership is limited, and this is similar to a trend that I saw in Los Angeles.

It’s a “chicken or the egg” problem.

If you expect to move here to find that dream “Director of User Experience” position and you don’t have that experience for more than a couple of years on your resume, you’re probably not going to get it right off the bat. You might have to network quite a bit, and step out of your comfortable zone — i.e. build a team from scratch over a few years instead of marrying into the family — to get the role.

There are a few places in Seattle with sizable design teams (pockets of Microsoft and Amazon, Expedia, Concur, Avvo, Disney, Moz, and where I work at now). If the place does have that position, it’s a true management role, i.e. you’re building a team and not leading the design yourself.

You know that rain thing? Not so much as you would think, but bring your Vitamin D.

When people talk about Seattle, they discuss the rain. It rains all the time according to those that don’t live here.

Not true. It is gloomy. The average cloud cover during the winter hovers in the 95 percent range.

If you have Seasonal Affective Disorder, Seattle is not for you. In December, the sun rises at 8 a.m. and sets at 4 p.m. November, December, and January can depress even the most cheerful of souls, so much so that I recommend that you move here during the winter.

Conversely, the summers here are amazing.

The sun rises just after 5 a.m. and sets after 9 p.m., so you don’t get that noticeable sunset feel until almost 10. The weather is never hot: most places in Seattle have never had air conditioning. With all that rain comes the benefit that places to hike around Seattle — and there’s a lot of them — are green year round. If you’re an outdoors or traveling person, the opportunities to enjoy the outdoors in places like Seattle, Vancouver, Portland, and Eastern Washington are endless.

It’s so green here, something I had never experienced before, that I had allergy problems for the first time in my life.

You know that Seattle Freeze thing? It’s real.

I’ve lived in Seattle for two and a half years, and I have exactly one friend that’s a native to Seattle (waving to Troy Parke!). There are some personal reasons for this — I spend a lot of time in Vancouver — but it’s incredibly hard to get to know people here, for many reasons, mostly because we’re one of the most introverted places in the United States.

They have a name for it: The Seattle Freeze.

Building relationships takes a lot of time here. There are a lot of meetups where you can build friendships, but a lot of the people from outside Seattle, so you just have to go with the flow. Once you get to know people, the relationships you build here are deep and lasting. You just have to work at it.

The upshot: This place isn’t the Mission.

The opportunities here, the reasonably fair standard of living and decent work-life balance make Seattle a very attractive place to work if you’re a user experience professional. There’s a lot of opportunity for learning and growing your career at a place that is sensible.