I Left My Heart in San Francisco
The exile of a digital nomad
I’m a digital nomad. It sounds exotic and romantic: Have laptop, will travel. But mostly, it sucks. I wish I was back in San Francisco. It’s not an option because I’ve been exiled by a flourishing economy.
When I meet people in my travels, they tell how they’d like to live in America. When I explain why I left, they respond with incomprehension or disbelief.
You see, I had an enviable life in California. I worked in the technology industry. On my last consulting gig, I earned $25,000 per month, staying in a corporate apartment in New York City, riding taxis past the Occupy demonstrators in Zuccotti Park. Working as a consultant, without regular employment, I bought and remodeled a home in rural Marin County; raised a son and sent him to summer camps and good schools and on to university; studied meditation and healing therapies; and developed open source software projects.
Leaving California, I don’t really miss the social privilege or the material gains. Truthfully, I never saved much money (it went to my son’s tuition) and I never made wise investments (my assets were wiped out by the 2008 financial meltdown). It’s the richness of life in the SF Bay Area that I miss the most. Until recently, a freelancer with in-demand skills could pursue an avocation as an artist, a healer, a social justice activist, or any number of oddball and non-mainstream endeavors. Northern California provided an economy and open-mindedness that gave birth to social experiments as diverse as Burning Man, queer community, and open source software.
For me, I found an opportunity to fulfill a higher purpose by developing open source software. I use my skills to “create more value than I capture” (in the words of my contemporary, Tim O’Reilly). Working with other software developers, we build the frameworks, libraries, and tools that are the foundation of the digital economy. It is a community driven more by practicality than ideology. Developers work on open source projects in their spare time, between consulting assignments, and sometimes at work with the blessing of their employers.
RailsApps is my open source project. I provide example applications for use by developers who use the Rails web development software. These generic web applications save time for developers when starting new projects. I also work on Rails Composer, a tool for generating starter applications.
In 2012, I gave up my consulting career. I began full-time work on the RailsApps project. Open source is much more fulfilling than consulting. Instead of focusing my time on the needs of a single company, I contribute to the success of hundreds of organizations, including entrepreneurs launching startups and non-profits delivering social benefit.
Since most developers work on open source in their spare time, projects are jeopardized by babies, burnout, and budget cuts. I wanted my project to sustain itself without corporate sponsorship. Though developers are loathe to pay for the software they use (probably on the principle they could write it themselves if they had time), I found they were willing to pay for well-written tutorials. To support the project, I sold instructional tutorials. For $19/month, developers received exclusive access to a dozen tutorials and my undying gratitude.
At its peak in September 2014, RailsApps subscriptions brought in $11,000 per month from 550 subscribers. It was only half my former consulting income but I was able to pay my son’s college tuition. I was living the dream, enjoying the amenities of San Francisco while building open source software.
It helped that I rented my house in Marin County and moved into my girlfriend’s house in San Francisco. She’d bought her home in the Sunset District before housing prices left the earth’s atmosphere. I paid only $1,500 per month to live among surfers, working families, and a few tech workers who fled the high rents in SF’s hippest neighborhoods to live near the ocean.
As housing prices started to climb, I didn’t think much about my own situation but started to notice the problems faced by others. Two years ago, when I was teaching a Rails beginner weekend course, a recent graduate of a coding bootcamp told me he was excited to land a junior developer job with a $90K per year salary. There was just one problem, he said. He couldn’t find a place to live in San Francisco, even though he was willing to pay $4000 per month.
In December 2014, my relationship with my girlfriend ended. Suddenly my life was ground zero for the impacts of the changing U.S. economy. Sure, I’d seen articles in the New York Times about income stratification and the decline of the middle class. These were distant abstractions until I faced the prospect of paying $3000 or more for a small apartment. If I could find a vacant unit, I would have to convince a landlord that I’d be a better tenant than an employed person with a $90K-per-year junior developer job. Even if I went back to work as a consultant, a landlord would probably not rent to me. I’d have to find a job that paid well, overcoming the age discrimination that is endemic to the tech industry. It didn’t look likely that I could continue to live in San Francisco earning income solely from the subscription sales that financed my open source project.
I approached a well-known company and asked if they might sponsor the open source project. The marketing manager was delighted to discuss it. For $250/month, he wanted the email addresses of all the developers who use Rails Composer. Apart from ethical issues, I decided $250/month simply would not help when San Francisco housing costs $3000/month.
It was clear I’d have to abandon the RailsApps project if I wanted to continue to live in San Francisco. So, to continue the project, I decided to leave home.
I’d arrived in my life at a perfect balance between intrinsic value, doing what I love, and market value, producing work that others will support. I wanted to continue my life in that sweet space. With high hopes, I left San Francisco.
I found there was good reason to leave America as well. Staying in the U.S., I calculated my health insurance under the Affordable Care Act would cost $650 per month. With earnings of $11,000 per month, I did not qualify for federal health care subsidies. If I refused to enroll in a health plan, I’d be taxed 2% of my income, and pay out-of-pocket for health care. I decided to find somewhere to live where health care costs were reasonable.
I became an American expat and a digital nomad.
I didn’t know that it would be difficult to duplicate the quality of life I’d enjoyed in San Francisco. The Bay Area is a great place to live. The air is clean, almost every neighborhood has healthy food, nature is close at hand, traffic is tolerable if you work at home and stay off the freeways, and you can live anywhere in the city and have fast, reliable Internet access.
I lived in Cape Town, South Africa for three months. It’s a great place to live, with stunning scenery, a low cost of living, wonderful people, and inexpensive health care. The air is clean and traffic is not a problem. The electricity shuts off for a few hours every week, just as a reminder that South Africa is a third-world country bootstrapping its way into the 21st century. The only place to find fast reliable Internet is in offices that have dedicated microwave dishes on the roof. I spent three months bouncing around borrowed desks, until my visa ran out. I’d return to Cape Town in a minute if I could work at home with fast, reliable Internet like San Francisco.
I was in Indonesia for two months, first in Bandung (where I found atrocious traffic and horrible air pollution) and then in Bali. Bali is an extraordinary tourist destination with friendly people and a remarkable local culture. A great place to visit, but except for a few hotels, Internet connections are unreliable, even in co-working spaces that cater to digital nomads. Lots of people lead alternative lifestyles, scraping by at the fringes of the market economy, but it is not the best place to find fast Internet and be a productive software developer.
I’ve been in Malaysia for over a month, in Penang at first, where I found great food, fast Internet, and a low cost of living. Now I’m in Kuala Lumpur. Like Singapore or Dubai, life is mostly lived indoors. Right now, the air is heavy with pollution from wildfires burning across the Strait of Malacca in Indonesia. I’m thinking about visiting Thailand and Vietnam.
It has been wonderful to travel and gain a wider perspective on politics and the world economy. I attended rallies for democracy in South Africa and in Malaysia and I was inspired to see people who hope to end their governments’ corruption and make a better life for their nations. I didn’t see much of that in the U.S., only despair at stolen hopes and dreams.
The RailsApps open source project is going strong. I love thinking about how much value I create by putting Rails Composer into the hands of thousands of developers. I’ve adjusted the business model and I’m now offering the tutorials for a one-time access fee of $95. I’m going to try a Kickstarter campaign for Rails Composer and see if that might bring in extra revenue. Update: The Kickstarter campaign is live.
Still, I miss a San Francisco that may no longer exist. I love open source and I love writing and teaching. There is intrinsic value in what I do, just as there is intrinsic value in teaching yoga, creating art at Burning Man, or campaigning for social justice. But the market economy is driven by extrinsic value. When a city such as San Francisco becomes saturated with investor-funded companies that pay $90K/year starting salaries, housing prices rise accordingly. There is little time to practice meditation, stay out late making music, or teach disadvantaged kids when people work 40, 60, or 80 hour weeks to pay for their housing. Life in Northern California, long teetering between the pursuit of intrinsic value and market-driven value, now looks a lot more like New York City or Singapore, where a single-minded focus on career is the only way to have a good life.
This, then, is a lament. For San Francisco, a city that was blessed with all things. A city that promised (and delivered) a good life, nurtured creativity and innovation, and attracted investment capital in abundance. Until that very abundance flooded the margins and fringes where creativity and innovation flourished outside of the market economy. People will continue to build open source software in San Francisco, and make art, and agitate for social justice, but I think it has become a bit harder. Somewhere else in the world might be easier and I intend to find it.
P.P.S.: I was interviewed recently on the Ruby Rogues podcast, where you can hear more about my digital nomad lifestyle.