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Location, location, location: A perennial discussion

wiredferret profile image Heidi Waterhouse Originally published at heidiwaterhouse.com on ・6 min read

Last night, part 87 of a perpetual discussion flared up again. The one about where you live and why it matters. It started with an article by Sean Blanda – Our Remote Work Future is Going to Suck. I encourage you to read the article, it’s not 100% right, but Blanda brings up excellent points about market forces, communication patterns, and the difficulties of moving to remote.

From there, the conversation split into a couple things:

  • Remote transformation vs born-remote organizations
  • Money
  • Co-location as a requirement/limiter

I have this weird view on in-person conversation, because on one hand, I miss it desperately, and it was a huge part of my job, and I am grieving the loss of it. On the other hand, I’m the person who wrote a LinkedIn article about refusing to move to California in 2016.

I’m going to set aside the first part, because I feel like that one is being discussed adequately*. Yes, we have to change a lot of things to make remote work. A lot.

Money

Let’s talk about money. It objectively costs less for me to live in Minneapolis than it would in Oakland, where my company is based. My quality of living is higher with the same amount of money.

I know a lot of companies are talking about adjusting people’s pay if they move out of expensive metropolitan areas and into someplace cheaper, because after all, they’ll be able to maintain their quality of living. That is… so wrong I can’t even with it. It’s the same impulse that has led to us historically underpaying women because women’s jobs were a side-gig, and men were the breadwinners.

Please pay attention to this:

Your value to the company is what it would cost to replace you.

What would it cost to fill a you-shaped hole, and how much will they lose/spend while trying to do so? That’s what your worth is to the company. That’s all.

Now, obviously, if the requirement for replacing you is someone else who is willing to live within commute distance of the office, that’s a premium they’re willing to pay. But if what they want to use your labor for is unique to you and not locationally specific, then, well, dropping your salary because you live somewhere cheaper is a jerk move.

I say that as someone who has been getting paid west-coast software money while living in the midwest. Go ahead. Try to find a Me to hire in the bay area. If you want a Me, you will pay me.

Co-location, or The Room Where It Happens

I didn’t capture the eye-rolling VC tweet about how he’s only going to give funding to people he can meet with in person, and that’s why it matters to be in Silicon Valley, but a lot of us were reacting to that tweet and the hundreds of similar comments we’ve heard before.

Bullshit. Watch me. pic.twitter.com/C3yKwUajcd

— Ian Coldwater 📦 💥 (@iancoldwater ) July 26, 2020

And here’s the thing I care about: It’s really easy to be working in technology and not be ~in tech~. And that is hard to remember when you are trying to straddle the lines. It’s like when Extremely Online people are talking about the latest meme, and then you try to tell it to your kids and they aren’t amused because it’s not part of THEIR world.

I built my career here, and it's good.

And living here helps me remember that the vast majority of people doing technology aren't "in tech" in the sense of "working for VC or FAANG".

— Heidi, The Sticker Thoughtleader (@wiredferret ) July 27, 2020

Do you know what the biggest DevOps Days in North America are?

  • Minneapolis/St. Paul
  • Chicago
  • Toronto
  • Austin
  • Boston

When I go to these conferences (I’m only missing Austin, and I was supposed to go this year!), I talk to “the usual suspects” — folks I see on the conference circuit, working for vendors, that sort of thing, but I also get time to talk to all the other people, especially in the open spaces.

You might think that DevOpsDays MSP is full of Target people, but you’d be wrong — there are so many people from Target wanting to talk about DevOps that they run internal events. I’m talking to people from US Bank and Jostens and SPS Commerce and West Publishing and Medtronic and 3M and Cargill. When I go to Seattle, I’m talking to folks from Starbucks and Nordstrom and REI and Home Depot. And these people are at a technology conference in their hometown because it’s accessible and might not eat their entire training budget for the year, and because it gets them what they need. 8.4 percent of the jobs in Minnesota are “technology”.

These are the people I think of as “doing tech” instead of “being in tech”. Most of us who are “in tech” are also doing tech, but it’s fatally easy for us to get in a little bubble of thinking that all the interesting problems happen in companies with SaaS-problems and Facebook scale. Nope. There are plenty of interesting problems, smart people, and technical solutions everywhere. They’re just not building the things we are. They have different constraints. They really would love to stop using COBOL, but on the other hand, COBOL works for what they’re doing. Also, if you are wondering where many of the people over 40 and women go when they “age out” of the tech centers of excellence, I have a hint for you.

When we get these think pieces about why co-location is essential, it seems like we’re only talking about a few cities, in a handful of countries. That is bubble-thinking, and it’s what a lot of people from ‘flyover country’ push back against reflexively. And when you think about it, even more so for people from other parts of the world. It’s a terrifying idea to me, as someone earning America Tech Money, I’ll be real.

Counterpoint

Marco made some really good points in his Twitter thread. I don’t want to just hijack the entire thing, but he’s correct that where you live or don’t live is an expression of privilege and it’s not the same calculation for everyone.

It’s one thing to call out xenophobia. It’s another thing when you’re mad at Silicon Valley and you take any opportunity to talk shit about those how are based here. If you think living in the Midwest with a tech job means you’re not the problem, you don’t get what the problem is

— Marco Rogers (@polotek ) July 27, 2020

If you call yourself advocating for global worker rights and dignity, you need to get that shit out of your system. I wasn’t “in the right place at the right time”. I moved myself across the entire fucking nation, away from my whole support structure, in pursuit of what I have.

— Marco Rogers (@polotek ) July 27, 2020

What I think we’ll learn

I think this involuntary experiment with all-remote is going to be really educational, and we’re already seeing some of that.

  1. It has always been possible for disabled people to work from home, just a lot of employers have not bothered to try.
  2. Childcare is not a nice-to-have, it’s essential, and its failure kills women’s careers disproportionately.
  3. We had automatically shaped our jobs to our preferences before this happened, and having remote forced on the people who didn’t want it has felt miserable. And we miss each other.
  4. The important part about co-location is not actually sharing ideas, it’s getting to know each other so that lossy communication didn’t get interpreted badly.

* Blanda says that soft skills will get flattened and not appreciated as much when it’s not possible to witness them. I would argue that soft skills/communication skills are even more vitally important when we are dealing with restricted/low-bandwidth remote communication (as opposed to in-person, not in the technology sense). The glue work may or may not be about remembering birthdays, but it’s absolutely about seeing gaps, helping teams communicate across boundaries, and making sure people don’t get stuck in their own rabbitholes.

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Heidi Waterhouse

@wiredferret

Heidi is a developer advocate at LaunchDarkly. She is passionate about clear communication, humane workplaces, and conference speaking. In her spare time, she sews dresses with pockets.

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