London vs. San Francisco Tech Industry Job Market and Culture
August 17, 2018 3:07 PM   Subscribe

I'm a San Francisco-based tech startup software engineering manager. Career-wise, the SF area is a good place for me to be. For strictly personal (relationship) reasons, I could be motivated to pursue a move to London. I'm trying to understand what implications that could have for my career trajectory and earnings potential.

I'm an experienced software developer (10+ years) currently leading the engineering team at a small startup in San Francisco. The job market here for people like me is pretty good and I'd planned on settling down here for the long term... until I met a nice woman who lives in London. I am now trying to understand what the job market is like over there for people like me, and also get a sense of how the professional and industry cultures differ.

I'm a US citizen with no UK or EU work authorization so I would have to pursue visa sponsorship. How much of a disadvantage does that put me at? I really like the nice woman but I'm not quite ready to marry her yet (and not inclined to get married just for a visa).

How much does Brexit-related nervousness affect all this?

I would be glad to have the opportunity to live and work in another country for a while. However, I'm not going to do it if it means taking a big hit in compensation (as measured by cost of living vs. salary) or if it will substantially limit my job choices and advancement potential. What should I be looking at in evaluating this decision? If I do decide to pursue a move to London, what is likely to be the path of least nuisance for getting established professionally there?
posted by 4rtemis to Work & Money (11 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
I work for a major Bay Area tech employer and have many teammates on the other side of the pond at our London office. My impressions:

- You might take a big hit in compensation, especially if you are not willing to work in the finance industry. COL in London is around the same as SF, but software engineer salaries tend to be lower across the board. At my employer, which pays close to top of market for SWEs, a transfer from Bay Area to London = 30% pay cut. My vague understanding is that this is because the highest salaries are at finance firms which aren't considered in our "market" benchmark. Despite the grumbling, turnover on our LON-based team is fairly low and morale seems fairly high (they apparently accept that lower salary is the price of working on an interesting product).

- Visa sponsorship at large companies seems pretty easy to come by, much easier than the US H1B lottery system. I have friends from both first-world and non-first-world countries who immigrated to the UK for software work. No datapoints on startups, though.

- If you're willing to accept lower salaries (see above point), the SWE job market seems pretty robust in London, and doesn't appear to have limited my acquaintances' long-term career advancement.
posted by serelliya at 3:32 PM on August 17, 2018 [1 favorite]

Hi there! I'm an American who has lived and worked in LA, Boston and Seattle, and I just moved to London for a new job which I start on Monday. I mean *just* moved, as in I got here 3 days ago, so -- I think I can give you a little guidance from my perspective, but take it all with a grain of salt because it's like asking a newborn baby what being human is like. I work in software development, although I specialise in games so I had less broad of a swath of companies to choose from, but I didn't have any trouble finding companies who were interested in speaking to me, despite being someone that would have to be sponsored. The recruiter I spoke with when I first embarked on this adventure told me that in general, it is easier to get visas here than it is in the US - at least, in terms of companies being allowed to sponsor for them. Not nearly as strict as it is in the USA. I am at a place in my career where I have enough experience that I am lucky enough to get interest from most companies who are hiring for someone like me, though, and YMMV.

(As an aside, you may notice I wrote "specialise" instead of "specialize" and that's because I have a British computer which changes words for me and it's very hard to get used to, but I realise - ha! - that I have to get used to it).

In terms of compensation, I believe that you are looking at a pretty big drop in pay unless you move up a notch or two. I had to get a promotion to basically break even - but I really wanted to make this move. That being said, from my research, if you work in finance software you'll be very well compensated, if that is something that floats your boat. Otherwise, you may be absolutely out of the game when you see the median salaries.

Regarding Brexit related nervousness - well - economic anxiety is kind of a thing around the world at the moment. Things are "good" in the US and UK but feel very precarious. The pound has fallen tremendously for myriad reasons, which means that the low salaries will feel even more painful to you. On the other side, though, whatever American money you bring over will have a more favourable exchange rate, and if the pound bounces back (which I hope it will), you'll have made a really good investment. As an example, when I negotiated my new job, comparing pounds to dollars, I was getting a slight raise, but as the pound fell a bit over the year, it's actually a slight paycut.

Brexit's a delicate subject here - you can skip down the street shouting I HATE DONALD TRUMP SO MUCH! and you'll just get a lot of high fives, but bring up leave vs. remain and it gets very hushed and uncomfortable. I've been following it closely in the news and have a pretty good understanding of the issues, but basically, nobody knows exactly what will happen and it's kind of like watching a car crash in slow motion. My thinking is that I get to have a front seat to all of it, we have a very global economy despite all of the people trying to will it not to be so right now all around the world, so I don't think Brexit related worries are as isolated as one might think. The troubles in Turkey right now are directly affecting other economies in Europe right now, for example, and it all has impact. At least, that's my way of looking at it.

So - you would probably be looking at earning less and possibly spending more (London is pretty expensive) - but you can't directly compare for so many reasons:

Quality of life. Taxes in California are actually pretty similar to the tax you'd pay in the UK, but I believe you get much better services here. For example, the NHS, which is truly amazing (I'm told, I haven't used it yet) - but beyond that, in the UK and in London in particular, it just feels like they're doing a little better at *having a society*. I can't stand the inequality and suffering you see on the streets of San Francisco. You don't see that in the streets in London because there are so many more services for people who need help. The public transportation is incredible. The city is clean and well tended. To be fair, I am currently staying in central London so my perception is coloured by that, but I feel pretty confident in saying that what you pay in taxes you see much more directly here. (speaking of taxes, it is a bit complicated as you need to file in both the US and UK, but there are some simple ways of handling that if you talk to a professional about it).

How the economy works and how people spend money -- it's just plain different. Prices are not directly comparable and you don't have to tip. I won't have a car, and I don't know what other types of expenses I both won't and will have, yet. You kind of just have to feel it out. I did research when I first started on this journey by looking at what the things I normally buy cost in the UK. How much are chicken breasts? My moisturiser? toothpaste? Movie candy? ETC. At the end of the day it was clear to me that my quality of life was going to go up, not down, and I was going to be expanding my world so much that it was worth the potential change in income. You may or may not come to the same conclusion!

Getting the visa was actually pretty difficult. They request a lot of documentation that is not always easy to find. And if you have pets it's a real THING to get them over. The time difference makes it hard to arrange for all of this, if you're interviewing, you'll have to get up very early in the morning to have video calls with whomever you're interviewing with at the end of their day. And if they decide to fly you out it may be a little tricky to arrange for all of your interviews at once, if you are talking to more than one company. The standard of communication with folks in the UK is not the same as in the US. It's odd, in some ways they don't have nearly the same knack for "customer service" as they do in the US, and in others, they are more efficient and thorough than they are in the US. Actual moving requires you speak to so many people and you'll just keep discovering all of these little dependencies and things you need along the way.

Regarding cultural differences, the biggest thing that I noticed when interviewing and interacting in a professional capacity is the politeness and decorum in the office. People joke and are familiar, but they will not interrupt you and they will be extremely pleasant and friendly and folks seem to have a very high degree of emotional intelligence. This actually required a lot of adjustment for me, as I've been working for almost 20 years in the male-dominated interrupt culture that is game/software development. I have picked up some very bad habits that I will have to work hard to unlearn.

My partner is coming with me, and he quit his job and will be looking for a new one when he gets here. In many ways getting here feels like an exciting new start, I feel almost like a teenager, learning how to grocery shop, learning how to open a bank account, learning how to interact in the big, busy world, and finding myself more at the mercy of strangers than I've been in a very long time. It's exhilarating and anxiety provoking and exciting.

We decided to make this leap for several reasons, we visited London last year on vacation and had the time of our lives, we've been talking about wanting to travel more, and living in London makes all sorts of world travel easier, we've been wanting to learn how to live in another country and be more mobile, based on how many crazy things are happening in the world right now, and we were up for the adventure. We are jazzed and excited and thrilled and I think that is 100% how you have to be to do something this big.

No lie, I have done a lot of hard things in my life, but the preparation and getting everything together for this move has been hands down one of the most stressful and difficult. It's been a good six months of traveling, planning, scheming, paper-working, getting up at 6am and making international phone calling, etc. The stress has been no joke and I think I may have aged 5 years this year in getting through it. But! Now that I'm here (my partner gets here in 2 weeks, he had to stay behind with two of our cats because their rabies shots were out of date) and I'm wandering the streets of London, walking along the Thames, seeing all of the people from all over the world just livin' life, having a pint at the pub, walking past so much history, it's all so very worth it. It will have to feel that way for you in order to be worth the work. But it is totally doable.
posted by pazazygeek at 4:00 PM on August 17, 2018 [28 favorites]

My rule of thumb about England tech is that pay is 1/2-2/3 what you're making now and they're 5+ years behind Bay Area-style internet culture/mentality (for better or worse). It's been several years, but if trends have held then you're also going to see a lot more siloing within departments. There may also be dress codes.
posted by rhizome at 4:50 PM on August 17, 2018

The path of least resistance may be to get a job at a multinational company based in the Bay Area with an ample office in London. I guess you're trading complexity for time here.

Without repeating what seriyellia said, I'll just add that my LON colleagues don't have the same "oh we are paid soooo handsomely, we can pay $$ for whatever nice things we like" air that I see with my West Coast USA tech colleagues, probably precisely because the pay for a high-performing mid-level engineer there is less than that of a college hire in Seattle. You act like a commoner (albeit a comfortable one) because you are a commoner, and frankly, it's refreshing.
posted by batter_my_heart at 5:32 PM on August 17, 2018 [1 favorite]

In terms of career trajectory, if you work for a big American company in London it won't really affect it (like, if you worked at Google or Facebook or something in London, career-wise it wouldn't be much different from working at a US-based satellite office, and honestly not much different from HQ at one of these companies unless you're top management level).

Compensation is the big issue, as others said. Some countries have comparable compensation levels to the US for software engineers, but London/England is not one of them.

If you were working at an American company, they usually pay local competitive rates, so you'd make less in London --- but if you ever transferred back to the US, you'd get a bump up to normal US range then.

I'm planning a similar move (I'm 20 years experience in SF and LA) to Japan, which has the same problem --- I expect a 30-50% drop in compensation. For me its worth it, but its certainly a consideration. But I'm doing it with a large company, so it will be fairly easy to move back if I needed to, and I don't expect it to hurt my career --- just my income.

The only danger I see in working for a smaller British company would be networking/resume stuff. That could potentially make it harder to move back, but probably not too much, as its not like people have heard of every SF startup either with how quick they come and go. (The last time I worked at a startup was 15 years ago, though, so I don't know how hiring/etc works in that world --- but at the big companies I don't think startup name recognition matters much).
posted by thefoxgod at 6:09 PM on August 17, 2018 [1 favorite]

Surprisingly not mentioned here, is the possibility to work remotely for a US-based company and get paid SF or near-SF rates and also live in London. US citizens get a 6-month stay in England so you won't have to hop outside of Schengen for a visa refresh as often as you would elsewhere.

I'm also a software engineering manager and I work remotely, I know several other people that are remote eng managers, and I see postings for job openings all the time.
posted by xtine at 10:38 PM on August 17, 2018

US citizens get a 6-month stay in England the UK

Only if they have funds to do so without working. Don't do this unless you want to risk seeing the inside of one of the detention rooms at Heathrow or Gatwick and needing a visa to come to the UK again. This happens: I've been caught in the fallout.
posted by ambrosen at 12:11 AM on August 18, 2018 [2 favorites]

Hi there. I am an old person who worked in a tech adjacent industry, lived abroad for eight years, and then came back to a US that did not want to hire me because I was too old. Age discrimination is real, it is particularly real in the tech industry, and it exists even if you don’t work abroad. As no one has raised this as a potential factor, I simply wanted to mention it. It would not have changed my decision to move but you should be aware of it. Again, people who stay in the US also face it so it doesn’t need to be a big factor in your decision.
posted by Bella Donna at 1:15 AM on August 18, 2018

"Surprisingly not mentioned here, is the possibility to work remotely for a US-based company and get paid SF or near-SF rates and also live in London."

FWIW, some US companies are definitely wise to this and will seek to pay the local going rate.

Three trends I've seen in London in recent years:

- Talent and startups leaving the city for cheaper living expenses
- Remaining talent working for the government
- Remaining talent moving into fintech

Seems to me that, increasingly, the government, banks and tech giants are the only people willing to fork out for the expense of a London presence.
posted by nthdegx at 3:21 AM on August 18, 2018 [1 favorite]

US citizens get a 6-month stay in [the UK] so you won't have to hop outside of Schengen for a visa refresh as often as you would elsewhere.

You do need to convince the immigration official you are not actually resident in the UK when entering as a visitor, and they will ask about previous visits. You do sometimes hear that "six months in twelve" is the rule, but such a rule does not exist--it's based on the immigration officer's judgement. (Approaching or exceeding six months in twelve is probably a sign you need to worry, though.)

Also, the UK is not part of the Schengen Zone.
posted by hoyland at 5:11 AM on August 18, 2018

This agency, who I know nothing about, produces this survey of London salaries every year which might be useful. I'm sure there are plenty of outliers either side of these but the tech ones don't sound wildly out to me (I'm a web developer in London but have been freelance for years so don't have a great feel for what salaries currently are).

Oh, here's another survey from a different agency, although they want your details before you can see it.
posted by fabius at 7:29 AM on August 18, 2018

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