Thinking of making the move from the tech scene in San Francisco to Berlin?

Sara Kalinoski
May 28, 2019 · 6 min read

After four years of working at three different tech companies in Berlin, I feel ready to shed some light on how the Berlin tech culture compares to my 5 years in San Francisco. It’s different, but it’s good-different.

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Badeschiff on the Spree

But how could I leave San Francisco?
I got this question a lot from European coworkers when I landed in Berlin. Lately, I’ve met enough Americans in Berlin that have spent some time in San Francisco that I’m beginning to feel this route can be likened to modern day trade winds. When I started to feel that my five years in the San Francisco bubble was making me less relatable to my midwest rooted family and friends, and frankly a bit removed from reality in ways I was becoming uncomfortable with, I decided it was time to leave.

Where to next? There wasn’t another US city I was interested in or excited about. Possibly Austin? Not New York, not now. Minneapolis is an amazing city, but I wasn’t ready to move back to Minnesota. The influence of working with so many international coworkers peaked my interest in Stockholm, Singapore, and Buenos Aires. As we all know, Berlin is having a bit of a moment, and the court of popular opinion from all walks of life led me to considering Berlin as my next city. Ok, ok, and also this wonderful man I met in San Francisco who happened to be living in Berlin. At the time, all signs pointed to Berlin.

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Photo from my last weekend in San Francisco

Differences I’ve observed from working in tech in Berlin vs San Francisco

When I was interested in moving to Berlin and started my job search, I couldn’t find many articles that gave me an accurate picture of what sort of tech opportunities I’d have in Berlin. I hope this helps anyone considering the jump across the Atlantic! I absolutely loved my time in San Francisco, and these city comparisons aren’t intended to show how one scene is better or worse, only different.

  • Diversity of thought
    Berlin truly brings people from all over the world together. Different backgrounds are not only incredibly special, but they contribute to different outlooks and views on a problem space. As a product designer, I’m working with people from wildly different backgrounds in a greater age range than I did in San Francisco. Plus, I’m working with more parents or with people who have transitioned into the tech industry from different careers. Perhaps the most interesting part of this diverse culture is that I’m rarely working with Germans.
  • Global thinking
    Recently, one of our investors visited our office for a fireside chat. He pointed out one of the biggest differences with Europe start-ups: thinking how an idea can scale globally is considered early and often. I’ve noticed this difference in the way I approach design problem solving as well — I’m thinking more systematically with new considerations and a wider lens.
  • Integrating into Germany is built into the job
    Both tech companies I’ve worked for in Berlin offered complimentary German language classes at the office. Since moving to Berlin, I’ve consistently taken German courses twice a week, made possible by classes offered in the mornings or over lunch.
  • A different view on working hours, vacation time, and paternity leave
    One of the main things that attracted me to Europe is, from the outside looking in, there seemed to be a greater focus on enjoying life. I’ve not only found that to be true, but I’ve become more relaxed and loosened a few strong-held views on what success looks like. In numbers: I’m working in a fast-pace start-up, but rarely work overtime. When I look back at my time in San Francisco, I often worked late to meet tight deadlines. In Germany, I have 5 weeks of vacation time compared to 2 weeks in the US. Germany offers a full year of partially-paid paternity leave, split between parents in any way that makes sense. For the first time, I’m in a work culture where men in leadership roles are taking extended time off (4–6 months) to welcome their new children, in addition to women. I’ll never understand why the US doesn’t support parents starting families with adequate, paid leave.
  • Less name-dropping
    In San Francisco, one of the first questions you’ll hear when you meet somebody new is “Where do you work?” It’s easy to feel a lot of pride in working for a company your Grandma has heard of, and to contribute to work that touches billions of users. However, this can also lead to egos and a false sense of entitlement. In Berlin, many incredibly smart and successful coworkers have more modest career backgrounds, and this type of name-dropping is much less common.
  • Easier career transition (IMO)
    I’ve found it a bit easier to transition my career in Berlin, where I moved from visual design to product design. I’ve been trying to make this leap for awhile, often getting to final-round interviews for product roles in San Francisco, only to be dismissed because I don’t have enough portfolio work that shows technical problem solving. Berlin is experiencing a rising start-up scene and a need for more tech talent, and I believe that contributed to my transition into a product design role. In San Francisco, I’ve found that companies are less likely to take a chance on someone that doesn’t have a proven track record in a very specific discipline. To me, this is unique to cities like SF, NYC and London that have a huge talent pool and can find an exact match for any given role.
  • Greater culture clash
    In San Francisco I felt there is an understanding that many people can do any role, and everyone is replaceable. Working in house at some of the best companies in the world is a privilege, and there is a huge standard of maturity and professionalism. It’s not uncommon to see someone lose their job for unprofessional behavior. In Germany, however, employees have strong legal protection that makes it hard to dismiss someone, and there is a smaller talent pool to replace a role. This, along with an incredible mix of people from every background can lead to highly different standards for professionalism. To me, this has been one of the biggest differences between working in SF and Berlin.

The aforementioned conclusions on the differences between working in tech culture between two world class cities are based solely on my experiences. It would be interesting to understand the differences from various perspectives and another lens, such as the POV of a European comparing San Francisco to Berlin.

Overall, working and living in a new city has led to more personal and career growth than I expected to experience in this relatively short period of time. It was hard for me to leave the career opportunities and friendships in San Francisco behind, but Berlin has exceeded my expectations. I hope this helps you if you are considering to make the move to Berlin.

Feel free to comment or reach out with any questions if you are thinking about this transition from San Francisco to Berlin and feel free to reach out if you have any questions.

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Sara Kalinoski

Written by

Product design manager in Berlin via San Francisco. Currently at Delivery Hero. Ex Contentful, Apple and AKQA. saraamee.com

The Startup

Medium's largest active publication, followed by +771K people. Follow to join our community.

Sara Kalinoski

Written by

Product design manager in Berlin via San Francisco. Currently at Delivery Hero. Ex Contentful, Apple and AKQA. saraamee.com

The Startup

Medium's largest active publication, followed by +771K people. Follow to join our community.

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