Six Tips Before Moving To San Francisco as a UX Professional

If you’re in User Experience, there’s no other place like the Bay Area.

There are thousands and thousands of jobs and, seemingly, that many job openings. All the great product stuff gets done here — which means you won’t have to do silly micro sites or get as many stupid questions like, “Hey, can you write code too?” The Bay Area is a manageable size, more so than a Los Angeles or New York.

That’s read: If I have never have to sit on the 405 at Manchester Avenue trying to get to Santa Monica in under two hours, it won’t be too soon.

It’s not my dream place. Vancouver or Portland are, but for different reasons. I’m living the true San Francisco experience — my apartment was built in 1915; I’m two blocks from Golden Gate Park; and I live in a neighborhood that you only enjoy if you love fog and hate sunlight, which eternally pleases me.

It’s not for everyone, or maybe it is.  If your New Year’s resolution is to settle on the Left Coast, here’s a few tips and things to consider before you pack up the U-Haul and leave for the city by the bay.

There are a lot of jobs here and a huge shortage of truly talented people.

About two and a half years ago, I was interviewing with Microsoft for the typical social media/user experience consulting gig. I asked them, “So, where would you like me to move?” They hinted toward San Francisco, and it took me three milliseconds to make the choice.

I moved, and it was the best decision I have ever made.

The recruiters were literally begging me to move. So move, I did. I really wanted out of Los Angeles pretty badly. There’s not a lot of product work down there, the user experience environment is built more toward agencies, and the culture is kind of less about doing great work.

Other than being total A-list talent, it wasn’t as hard to stand out (and get interviews) as you would think.  You do have to bring your A-game; but as long as you have a solid resume and a decent portfolio, it’s easy to get in the door. You won’t be able to fake your way through it, or if you do, you’ll have a series of one year gigs. There are plenty of places willing to take these people, but they aren’t very stable.

As an agency professional once told me, “The best people are in-house now.” That’s true. The agencies struggle up here to keep talent, because the payoff to work for a startup  is so strong.

A few Los Angeles user experience professionals called me, and I recommended they should get up here as quickly as possible. Some of my ex-Angelino peeps are at some really cool companies or founded their own (Yammer, Blurb, Oink, Gogobot)… or, “So how’s MySpace hangin’?”

The hardest thing was getting in the door at the first place. After you establish street cred, you’re golden to stay here as long as you want.

Sunnyvale is not San Francisco, and eBay isn’t a startup.

Deciding where to live in the Bay Area is almost as important to your career as it is to your personal life. Are you looking to break into Yahoo or eBay, or do you want to join some hot startup? The rules are bit like this: most of the large companies are down on the peninsula; and the hipper startups are closer to San Francisco. A younger crowd tends to gravitate to San Francisco as a city, and companies build their talent pools and company cultures around this.

It is quite a culture difference.

Last weekend, I was down in Sunnyvale, which is fine for a lot of people. However, it’s surburbia. Leaving the party I was at, I was matching street corners to places in Orange County or the San Fernando Valley. Some people like suburbs, but it’s not for me at this time in my life.

Decide what kind of company you want to work with, and where you get to live will kind of match. San Francisco is way too far from most of the larger companies to make the commute, but you’re probably looking for different things.

If you decide to move to San Francisco, there’s a neighborhood for you.

I live in Inner Sunset, which is  best known as the former world headquarters for Craigslist. They moved, but the site literally reflected the neighborhood — an unpretentious place where you have everything you would ever need and would forget why to go to other places. A lot of doctors in training live here because UCSF is up the hill, so it makes for a comfortable, smart neighborhood.

The standard joke is you can just look at someone and figure out what neighborhood they should live in. I’m more of a North Beach guy (I lived there for a year and a half just to say I lived there). Inner Sunset is a slower place but still has all the  conveniences  I like: easy cab access, decent parking and a good enough pizza after 9pm. There’s a bus stop (I kid you not) downstairs from my place, and the N-Judah is a block away.

When you visit, get a local to give you a tour of the city. Ask them to bring them to neighborhoods you would like.  Request to visit their favorite haunts. Everyone has one or two (mine is Tony Nik’s). It’s a town that you can lose yourself in.

That said, San Francisco isn’t perfect. This a city that isn’t as clean as it could be, and the city government seems to waste more money than it spends wisely. The homeless population makes walks through certain neighborhoods an obstacle course. Muni, the mass transit system, varies from amazing (I can get into downtown in 20 minutes) to the absurd (There are fights, and it’s unreliable at times). And don’t get me started on the cabs.

It all depends on what you want. If you want a city, San Francisco is one in spades. But if you want the suburbs, better to move down to San Mateo or Mountain View. You can always visit the city and retreat back safely.

Tolerance is key, both in culture and ideas.

You’ll hear a lot of startup ideas: good ones, bad ones, copycat ones. But everyone has an idea. Everyone has come here to reinvent themselves; and if you want to do it, this is as good of a place to do it than anywhere else.

It reflects what San Francisco and the Bay Area is: a place where people can be almost anything they want to be. That’s why San Francisco is such a city of neighborhoods because each one fits a person perfectly in their time of life.

Each neighborhood is also much more diverse than you would think: Castro isn’t always about the LGBT population; the Tenderloin is gentrifying; and there’s at least one person that didn’t go to Stanford that lives in the Marina. But the neighborhoods do have their constituencies, and they demand respect.

It’s not as expensive as you would think.

This is not a cheap place to live.

San Francisco is one of the few places where’s it’s normal to have roommates well into your late 30’s because apartments are so expensive here. Average home prices on the  peninsula  have survived much of the housing slump. Because of the current tech boom, finding an apartment in the city is a combat sport (be first or be gone). When I moved up here in 1996, I had to go through ten apartment interviews to find a  roommate, and I hear those times are back.

Once you get past some of the high rents and the need to budget for parking tickets, it’s not that much more expensive. In fact, going out to get a great meal can be sometimes cheap; and if you move to the right neighborhood, there’s no need to have a car.

You’ll see a pay increase from just about anywhere in the United States unless you’re in some cushy job where you are now. And when you move here, you’ll be renting anyway. If you decide to settle here, you’ll get a real taste of California real estate, but that can wait after you’ve made your first million, right?

Check out the meetups, but look to Twitter to do the real networking.

I was at a meetup about a year ago having a beer with one of the attendees. He was a smart guy. About mid-way into the conversation. He paused.

“You know, if you had a full tank of gas, you could eat and drink for free for a month by going to meetups and events. That’s if you could put up with the people.”

I did a search on and found a staggering 210 events in the next month matching a search for “technology,” But your mileage may vary.  Most of the meetups seem to be attended by a) people hiring (which is good), b) people looking to break into the industry (which may not be good), and c) people that hold the meetups on the oft chance they’ll get the next great gig and it’s more about them than building the community (which sucks).

The people that are super  talented are a) too busy to go to meetups or b) can’t figure out the return on investment.  The valley also is relatively spread out, so you never see everyone you want to meet.

In the Bay Area, I would look to Twitter to network. The real leaders in the space here seem to use Twitter as their broadcast channel, and it’s much easier to engage in conversations. What makes this easier is that you can engage in conversations like, “Hey, I would like to move there, what’s it like?” and “Are you hiring?”  before you get here. It’s cheaper. And trust me, this works. I hired a designer this way