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Where should an aspiring indie Mac developer and his family move: SF Bay Area or Seattle (or Other)?
April 5, 2008 1:34 PM   Subscribe

My wife and two kids and I are not able to renew the lease on the house we're renting in a Maryland suburb of DC (the landlord is selling his other house and moving back into this one), so we're looking to move at the end of August. I've also been contemplating a career change for a while, and as this "opportunity" has dropped in our lap, we're thinking about making a city change as well, that would benefit my intended Mac development career, possibly to the SF Bay Area or Seattle. (more inside)

Currently, I am a video post-production professional (doing mostly offline/online editing for History/Discovery cable TV series, but with some simpler motion graphics, some small video engineering work), but I'm working toward my goal of becoming an independent Mac software developer. Of course, with my current workload, I've been finding it very hard to ramp up on the coding, and also could really use the support and inspiration of a weekly coder meeting like NSCoder or something akin to that.

So, my big goal is to find somewhere where I can:
A.) Continue doing video work on a freelance or employed basis, while I
B.) Meet regularly with a like-minded community of independent Mac developers,
C.) Find a reasonably priced rental with 3 bedrooms within a 45-60m drive from the city, and
D.) My wife can continue to homeschool the kids, assuming living expenses are reasonable enough, or a place that has phenomenal public schooling, if expenses are high enough to require her to go back to work.
E.) Optional and ideal would be finding an indie Mac software house that needs video work, and would be willing to entertain programming questions from a budding Mac dev. ;-)

Right now, I'm considering the Bay Area (maybe living north in Petaluma or such), Seattle, and taking a glance at Portland and Chicago. I suspect the Bay Area would be best for me professionally, since there's a decent amount of video production and incredible Mac developer resources, but I'm afraid the housing situation may preclude that.

Sell me on your city - any advice or recommendations are welcome. Thanks!
posted by mboszko to Work & Money (13 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
 
I'd wonder what a reasonably priced rental is for you?

Having lived in the south bay (SF) for the last 15 years, this is one of the most expensive places to live in the country but you get what you pay for.

The expense of living here is really the only thing that would drive me away.

I've lived in Chicago but just didn't care for the harsh winters.
posted by fenriq at 3:18 PM on April 5, 2008


Seattle is incredibly expensive, not only real estate, but food, gas, (sales tax is 9%) and childcare is insane. The traffic is crazy, and the market for freelancing is pretty competitive unless you have some serious contacts. Plus making friends here is not easy, everyone is pretty insular. I would suggest that the Bay area might be better, since things are just getting more and more crowded here.
posted by nikksioux at 3:34 PM on April 5, 2008


If you're willing to go as far out as Petaluma, you'll find reasonable housing and decent schools (although California is cutting school budgets) in the suburbs. There are obviously lots of opportunities for freelance work in both video and programing. Rentals have gotten more expensive due to the housing crash (it's the worst in the far bay suburbs than it is anywhere else in the country). That being said, I've found that the salaries and opportunities make up for the prices if you can be on the ground and do some hunting. However, I would caution you again estimating commute times based on Google Maps as the bay area traffic is hideous. Also, it's very difficult to find jobs at a distance in the bay area. I'm not quite sure why that is.

From what I've heard from friends in Chicago, the job market is difficult right now out there, but housing in the suburbs is still cheapish. The schools in many of the suburbs are some of the best in the country, but don't expect the kids to be exposed to ethnic diversity or diversity of opinion. I grew up in the suburbs and found escaping to be one of the greatest moments in my life.
posted by Gucky at 4:38 PM on April 5, 2008


I guess I'm not sure what might be considered reasonable, and that would party end up depending on what work I can get to start off. Right now in MD we're paying $1800/mo for a 3-br townhouse with finished basement. But then I've also got a steady workload of freelance work and that keeps everything going smoothly. If I'm going to end up with possibly cutting my income in half because of the move, then I guess I'd need to cut that figure in half for rent. I'd love to find a place for around a thousand a month, but not holding my breath.
posted by mboszko at 4:42 PM on April 5, 2008


@gucky, thanks, that's helpful. Honestly, I'd love to live in the city, but my wife's not too keen on it; plus I'm assuming it won't be until I get to the suburbs that it will be affordable enough.

Thanks also for the note on the freelance situation. I'm doing as much research on my own as I can, but I'm hoping to hear more from people in these cities as to what they're experience has been. I know the postings on the internet don't always translate into the real opportunities you get from networking.
posted by mboszko at 4:47 PM on April 5, 2008


I should note also I'm willing to go for a much smaller place than what I described us being in now. So long as there's 3 bedrooms (for my wife & I, 1 boy, 1 girl), I'm willing to consider whatever. We've been wanting to rid ourselves of the crap we've been hoarding, and this is a really good opportunity to get rid of a lot of cruft and start living simpler.
posted by mboszko at 4:50 PM on April 5, 2008


I'm all for seizing the moment, and the idea of an abrupt career change when it feels like the right thing to do. That being said, if you've never earned a living as a developer before, of any kind, and you're apparently supporting a family, I'd recommend being really, really careful before you get too far ahead of yourself on the package idea of "moving to SF/Seattle to become an indie Mac developer".

Fundamentally, I think there are three risky assumptions that underly that idea:
1) That going from "no real experience as a coder" to "supporting a wife and two kids as a coder" is really just a matter of gumption and pluck, then...

2) That the reliable income stream for being an "indie" Mac coder is a viable option for one person, let alone an entire family, and finally...

3) That where you live is going to the most important factor in your development as a professional coder
Let me explain a bit:
1) That first assumption is the one that scares me the most, from your post. Making a living as a developer is no easy thing, and there are people who grew up as talented programmers, majored in CompSci, and been coding since they left college who still find it a grind. That's not--absolutely not--to say that you can't become a successful professional developer. It's just to say that it's hard, and it's not something you can just assume is going to happen (and easily stake your family's financial well-being on it). Maybe I'm mis-interpreting your degree of caution, and you plan on doing this whole thing very carefully--in which case, I'm sorry for that--but your basic question seems to indicate a "throw caution to the winds" attitude that definitely gives me pause.

2) Beyond the basic challenge of earning a living as a coder, period, the group of "indie" programmers who are making a comfortable, reliable income, without a salary, benefits, etc., is really small. There are definitely people who are making a go of it, and that's great, but I really think the vast majority of them are young, single, and have committed to living hand-to-mouth, job to job. I've been through my own version of that "let's give it a shot" adventure, with a wife and two kids. Even though it turned out OK for us in the end, trust me...that's a lot to ask your family to go through. Even when things are going fine for the moment, that lack of certainty is tough, and if you're not already well-established in a field (like you apparently are right now), it's going to be substantially more risky for them.

3) The last issue is maybe the most relevant one, though, to your decision about where to live. I think the days of "getting a bunch of coders in a room and talking about their work in person" as the best and only option for learning to code are long gone. Again, that's not to say that it's unimportant--I work at a company where the coders do that on a regular basis, and it's awesome. It's just that the most important time you're ever going to log against becoming a professional programmer are going to be solo, in front of a code editor and a debugger window. You could do that in Dubuque, or Moscow, or anywhere in the world.
In the end, that sort of peer-support network you're talking about really happens as much or more online now than it does in person. There's no reason you couldn't join a Mac programmer's network tonight and start getting that kind of interaction and guidance. You don't have to leave Maryland to get it, and you definitely don't have to pile on the economic risk of moving to SF or Seattle just to get that kind of benefit.

The final point, to me, is that I don't think "becoming a Mac coder" should be the overriding criterion for where you want to live. Find someplace where you can:
(a) Be happy
(b) Support your family doing what you already do
(c) Afford it
If there are in-person Mac coder groups there (and there very well might be), then great. But even if the nearest Mac coder is 300 miles away, there's still no reason you can't achieve your goal. You could live at a research base at Antarctica and do what you want to do, if you're talented (and lucky).

In all honesty, I think that's really the most salient point--if you're really set on taking advantage of peer interactions to become a much better Mac programmer, there's no reason you can't do that right now, like as you're reading this post. Before you jump off into a "Swiss Family Robinson"/"Mosquito Coast" adventure with your family, you can get a really good sense of how ready you really are. Tonight.

If you can track down some good Mac developer communities online in the next few days, engage productively with them, and get positive feedback that you're on the right track, then go nuts with the whole idea. If you're still mulling this idea over "in theory" a month from now, without having actively engaged with existing online Mac dev communities, I'd be really careful.
posted by LairBob at 5:11 PM on April 5, 2008 [1 favorite]


A few points from a Bay Area native:

Berkeley's fabulous, especially the North Berkeley area. Suggest looking into house rentals there for short term, see how you like it. Great, safe, it's foodie heaven. I lived there for about a year. Prices are not insane.

Spent most of my childhood in south Marin, which is an insanely priced area all around, but it's got unbelievable weather and is on Mt. Tamalpais, which is such a nice thing to have nearby. If you can afford it, live here (Mill Valley, Larkspur, western Corte Madera, Kentfield), take the bus or drive into the city. Food and social options are not as diverse as Berkeley/Oakland or the city, but not too bad.

The city (San Francisco's proper name among locals, of course) is as safe as Manhattan, but urban environments are always a mixed bag for kids growing up, so I'd second your wife's hesitation. Too much asphalt and too much humanity all the time, basically.

Petaluma's too far. I know all about U.S. 101 and can tell you that the commute is just deadly any further north than even Terra Linda. Novato is pushing it. Your mileage may vary, though!

Really, for what you're after, I'd look into North Berkeley or other neighborhoods that are close enough to, or contain, the brain trust of the near Bay Area software community. And in-person networking among peers just can't be beat -- especially if you're keen on displaying the occasional demo, which your particular field of work lends itself to (Mac, A/V, editing).
posted by Jubal Kessler at 6:36 PM on April 5, 2008


So, my big goal is to find somewhere where I can:
A.) Continue doing video work on a freelance or employed basis, while I
B.) Meet regularly with a like-minded community of independent Mac developers,
C.) Find a reasonably priced rental with 3 bedrooms within a 45-60m drive from the city, and
D.) My wife can continue to homeschool the kids, assuming living expenses are reasonable enough, or a place that has phenomenal public schooling, if expenses are high enough to require her to go back to work.
E.) Optional and ideal would be finding an indie Mac software house that needs video work, and would be willing to entertain programming questions from a budding Mac dev. ;-)


None of this sounds like Seattle.

A you can certainly do here, though video work isn't what it'd be in SF or LA.

B is sorta true here, but for every entry-level codemonkey job that requires Cocoa, there are 20 that are looking for C#. And as LairBob noted, you'll be fighting for every one of those job with all the CS grads UW pumps out every year as well as people just like you trying to break in, only they're going to be 22, single, and willing to work for $30/hour.

C... well, we live in a reasonably priced 3BR rental in the Seattle city limits, and we're paying $1400/month. You'd do better in Tacoma, but in the Puget Sound region, every mile away from downtown Seattle is another 5 minutes on I-5. My boss commutes from the east suburbs, and it's 45-60 minutes on the bus each way.

D is impossible, unless you're a coding genius. In order for her to stay home, if you're living in Seattle proper, you'll probably need to pull in $90K. My wife tried staying home and freelancing after our daughter was born, and it nearly bankrupted us. And daycare in Seattle is incredibly expensice. We're paying nearly $1000/month... and that's cheap. The school system isn't bad, though.

E... well, it's a Microsoft town. Not saying there isn't a thriving Mac community here, but there's a lot more code written for Windows here than OS X.

I can't speak as much for San Francisco, but I can guess you'd see more Mac jobs down there along with a much higher cost of living.

Take LairBob's advice -- seek out the virtual Mac community first. As a web developer, I actually have few other coders I see in real life. My community is strewn across the world. And they're based in small towns and cities just as much as they are in the tech capitals. If you're a good freelance coder, it won't matter where you live. You could live in Tulsa, or Omaha, or Waco, pulling in Silicon Valley contract wages in a low cost of living area.

But really, really think hard about whether you want to do all this. Web and software development is a young person's game. The industry takes in fresh young 23 year olds and pumps out jaded, burned out, disgruntled 30 year olds. Talk to independent Mac developers online. See if they like it, if they look and sound like what you want to be. And then be ready for long hours and a couple of years of low wages until you've got the experience to start asking for the bigger bucks.
posted by dw at 1:26 AM on April 6, 2008


Don't plan on driving to work in downtown San Francisco unless you like paying $4 toll + $18/day for parking, or have an employer that will provide parking for you. Look at buses and BART and Caltrain (all about $7 roundtrip).

Ditto Jubal that Petaluma is probably too far, unless you found work in San Rafael or points north. Novato is a good cutoff (it's an hour or so by bus to downtown - but an hour when you can get work done rather than cursing the traffic). I don't know the video community well, but do check out Emeryville (Pixar, for one thing). Silicon Valley / the South Bay will probably have the highest proportion of Mac developers, I'm guessing. I think "decent public schools in the Bay Area" would make a good separate AskMe.
posted by salvia at 12:10 PM on April 6, 2008


Thanks very much LairBob and dw.

I interact in some small way with online Mac dev communities, but I'm just the kind of person that finds it harder to interact with people online until I've met them in person. I know that sounds antithetical to the whole geek/developer experience, but that's just what works best for me. I'm fine interacting online after meeting in person, but have problems gauging people before that point, and that leads me to interact much less. Still, I see your point, and I'm aware of that.

As for moving *just because* I want to be a Mac dev, that's not the case. Perhaps I misstated my intentions-- That's a big consideration in where we choose to go, but it's by no means the only one. I'm really sick of DC: the culture here-- and so many other aspects of living-- is not what I want. From short visits out west, and from what I hear from folks I know who live out that way, I can predict that I will be a much happier person overall living out near one of these cities, especially SF.

Of course, it may turn out that I really need to just spend another year or two in DC, setting up the move and converting to coding. I'm trying to be cautious, I'm trying to set up video work possibilities now and see what I can afford. But I do want to get out of here.

I'm working huge amounts of video freelance and burning myself out here, so sometimes it's hard to sit in front of my Mac again when I get home after 14 hours at work, and make progress on my app. Not like trying to build a new freelance network in SF would really net me any more spare time, but I've found a mental change of state does wonders for my motivation and productivity.

As for the CS students, I get the competition for those sorts of jobs will be fierce, but those aren't the sorts of jobs I want. I fully expect video work to big a big part of my income for a few more years. I really want to work for myself, in the way that I do video freelance now, only a higher percentage of it would be on my own projects. However, I do get the concept moving will likely make me a little fish in a big pond, which is opposite my current situation.

Jubal, thanks, I will definitely look into North Berkeley-- I appreciate your recommendations.

Really appreciating the MeFi wisdom, and I'm still working out our direction. I know 5 months isn't very long to plan, but I'm only 2 days into it, so hopefully I'm on the right track in researching my options. Thanks, everyone.
posted by mboszko at 12:44 PM on April 6, 2008


I interact in some small way with online Mac dev communities, but I'm just the kind of person that finds it harder to interact with people online until I've met them in person.

You don't have to move to the West Coast to interact with the Mac dev community. For basic, local interactions, DC has the oldest Apple SIG in the country. Beyond that, there are a number of Mac dev conferences across the country every year. I'm not up on them (I'm a web developer, sorry), but that will get you the person interaction you need. A sizable percentage of my online friends list are people I've met at conferences.

I'm working huge amounts of video freelance and burning myself out here, so sometimes it's hard to sit in front of my Mac again when I get home after 14 hours at work, and make progress on my app. Not like trying to build a new freelance network in SF would really net me any more spare time, but I've found a mental change of state does wonders for my motivation and productivity.

The thing with development is that it is also 14 hours+/day work, people can and often do burn out, and sometimes it's just tough to stay motivated because the industry changes so fast. Switching from developing as a hobby to developing as work can be very rough on people -- they find that it's very different when you're under deadline pressure or charging an hourly rate.

The grass is always greener, etc. I think you'd be better off plugging into the DC developer community, spending a year working on code and ramping down your video work, and then seeing where you are from there. If you have a few things to show a prospective employer, then you can start poking around looking for a job in the West. But make sure this is something you'd love to do as a career before you go hauling the family across the country. You sound like you'd rather phase out your video work and phase in this new job; it's going to be easier to phase the video work out with an existing freelance network than to try and build a whole new one with the idea of getting rid of it in 18-24 months.
posted by dw at 7:47 AM on April 7, 2008


Seattle pros:
- Lots of tech-related work/people
- Beautiful in the summer
- Lots of outdoor activities available
- Highly educated, literate, intelligent populace
- Decent public transportation in the city
- Many neighborhoods feel more like their own towns than part of a big city
- Secular homeschool community exists

Seattle cons:
- Rains 9 months out of the year
- Traffic is horrible if you have to drive (a couple of lakes in the way means that there are only a few major north-south or east-west roads)
- Expensive (but not as expensive as SF area)
- You need to join special interest groups/clubs to make friends as Seattlites tend to either already have all the friends they want or form friendships based on shared hobbies than on proximity with neighbors or coworkers

There is affordable housing in Seattle if you are willing to live in a mostly non-white neighborhood (Seattle is pretty segregated). There are also more families with children in the mostly non-white neighborhoods.

My brother recently moved from Seattle to San Francisco and he likes SF much better, specifically the weather, transportation, culture, and amenities. However he complains that it is a lot more expensive. He also is not in your industry and doesn't have a family. I think Seattle is probably more family-friendly than San Francisco but neither city is probably that great for raising kids.
posted by Jacqueline at 10:37 PM on April 7, 2008


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