Career choices

What’s it like to work as a developer in Seattle?

Coman Hamilton
Seattle is an increasingly popular choice both for major tech firms and young developers. Seattle skyline via Shutterstock

Now is the right time to be a developer in Seattle, says CEO of Shippable, Avi Cavale, who tells us about the seaport city’s booming tech scene and why he prefers it to Silicon Valley.

Amazon, Google, Twitter, Facebook and Apple – as more and more major tech companies open up shop in Seattle, there are less and less reasons for talented developers to move to Silicon Valley. After the DockerCon 2014 in Amsterdam, Avi Cavale, CEO of Shippable and a veteran of Seattle’s tech scene, told us the pros and cons of being a programmer in Seattle.

JAXenter: So Avi, how did you get started out in Seattle?

Avi Cavale: It started out when we came out of Techstars last year. When we started at that point we were still trying to raise money. VCs were saying “Hey, we don’t want to invest if you’re not in the Bay Area.” I thought about it and looked at what was in the Bay Area: the housing costs were almost 2x of what I had to pay in Seattle. Developers were reluctant to join companies because they always wanted to work for the hottest new startup in the Bay Area. So there was lots of churn happening. The third thing was that I was basically an alien there. I had no track record and it was very hard for me to attract the best talent in the Bay Area if you’re not from there.

On the other hand, in Seattle it was easier for me to hire because I had the track record and knew people there. The second thing was that housing costs were super cheap. The third thing was, we were going after an enterprise market. Why would I want to go into a different place and build the enterprise know-how. Why not be in the place where the enterprise know-how already exists so I can leverage that ecosystem in order to be better.

seattleWhy would you say that more and more companies are opening up in Seattle?

Oh, there’s multiple reasons! One is that your operating costs are much lower. The second thing is that most of your employees don’t pay income tax. They pay the federal part, there’s just no state income tax. If you look at California that itself is 10%. People make more money, so it’s easier again to bring employees in.

And now with all these companies arriving in Seattle, it’s not like you’re going to some random town where there are no other opportunities and this is the only company that you’re going to work for. That was the case twelve years ago when I joined Microsoft. There was no other big software company other than Microsoft, Boeing and Amazon. And I didn’t want to work for Boeing for sure. And Amazon wasn’t an option, so that’s it.

But today it’s everything. I can join Twitter, Facebook, Google… actually Google’s entire Cloud Engineering is in Seattle.

And Dropbox too, right?

Yes, just yesterday Dropbox announced they’re moving there. Apple is going to be there too. So I think if it doesn’t work out for one company, it’s not like you’re stuck in the middle of nowhere. You have options.

South Lake Union, which is where Amazon is based and all the companies are building up, is getting completely redone and remodernised. I heard that it’s one of the most expensive places west of Washington and north of California. That’s how expensive it’s getting to be. But at the same time, you can move half a mile away from there and you’ll get offices for almost 30%, 40% cheaper.

So it seems like there’s a lot of different companies developers can choose from. What about flipside – is there also plenty of talent for companies (and for developers to compete with)?

Absolutely. If you look at Amazon, they currently have 130,000 people working in Seattle at this point in time. Microsoft has 100,000. Google probably has another two or three thousand. Facebook is big. So I think there’s enough talent.

And then UW’s engineering program is one of the best for computer science. So there’s a lot of people coming out of there, like interns… that’s one of our big workforces. We hire lots of interns straight from UW. And these are passionate people that want an opportunity to prove themselves. And they’re pretty cheap because they’re still students. And just being close to their university actually helps.

Techstars’ Andy Sack and Chris DeVore are the two guys who created the whole startup ecosystem there. There are many, many companies funded with five million plus. And when you get funded five million plus, you can move quite a bit of risk. At least for the next 18 months you’re going to be there. So it’s not like I’m taking a huge risk. I learn a ton of stuff in the next 18 months. And you can easily get hired in any of the big companies if you want to choose to go there afterwards. So it’s a pretty good opportunity.

seattle in the rain

It rains on 150 days of an average year in Seattle. Seattle skyline via Shutterstock

And the city itself…how do you find living in Seattle?

Some people don’t like the weather. It’s pretty much like this weather here in Amsterdam today: cloudy, dark, rainy. But the good part is: the four months of summer compensate for everything you have to go through through the rest of the year. I mean, it’s the most beautiful place you can be for those four months.

And another thing I see is that it’s kind of in the middle of everything. You can do any external activity you want. You can do boating, rock climbing, skiing… everything is within a ten-mile radius of Seattle. It’s not like I have to drive three hours to go on a ski trip. It’s like fifteen minutes. You can actually leave work, get some night skiiing in and come back in and attend a meeting. You don’t get that lifestyle in the Bay Area.

And it also has a great reputation as an alternative city.

Yes, and by the way, it’s also legal to smoke marijuana (laughs).

That must be a big selling point for developers, right?

I don’t know… I mean, I’m not a proponent of it (still laughing), but… it’s legal. To each their own, you know?

But I think that’s what it is: it’s super organic, they have a big culture of local farming, there’s lots of alternative stuff going on. So I think downtown Seattle is one of the coolest places to be a developer.

So besides the obvious benefit of legal pot, is there any other benefits for developers?

I think there’s a huge ecosystem. There’s a lot of developers helping each other out, a lot of startups coming up. So it’s not like you go and work for a big gigantic company and you’re making a lifetime decision. It’s nothing like that. It’s a very evolving ecosystem that’s happening and I think there’s opportunities for that. It’s a great city just for hanging out. I’ve lived there for 14 years now. I had my first job at Microsoft. I thought I would never live in the city longer than five years, but… it ended up that way.

Any complaints?

I think people don’t know how to drive in Seattle. That’s all I can say. It just sucks to drive in Seattle. OK, I mean it’s one of the most polite cities that I’ve ever come across. So it’s kind of like, everybody gives way to everybody else. It’s not like California where it’s like go, go, go. It’s a little laid-back, so some people might like, some might not. But if you’re spending all your horsepower on writing code, the last thing you want is to be stressed about getting home.

Overall, I think it’s a fun city. And if you can get over the weather and the driving, there’s a lot it has to offer.

Ever worked in Seattle? Share your experience in the comments below.

Coman Hamilton
Coman was Editor of at S&S Media Group. He has a master's degree in cultural studies and has written and edited content for numerous news, tech and culture websites and magazines, as well as several ad agencies.

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