Something about my life in San Francisco felt a bit off.
On the surface, things were going well. I worked as a software engineer at one of the biggest success stories in Silicon Valley of the past few years. I worked with some great engineers and some of them became really good friends. With the mild San Francisco weather, I could ride a bicycle to work year-round down Folsom street. I had a nice weekend routine while living in the Mission: Tango at Bissap Baobab, rose milk teas at Boba Guys, and lots of books at Dog Eared Books on Valencia.
Still, after five years in San Francisco, I felt a vague sort of stagnation beginning to creep into my life. I tried to imagine what it would be like to live in San Francisco for another five years. In those five years, I’d probably ratchet myself one or two pips up the eng org, but other than that, it wasn’t clear what else I’d have to show for my time.
San Francisco never felt like home, a place to put down roots. Everyone I knew came from somewhere else, and no one was planning on staying around for long. Most people worked in tech, and they were too busy with their careers to have time to build real relationships with anyone else. As for housing, even with a good tech salary, I still felt like home prices in the area were way too high for me to ever contemplate buying a place of my own.
It had been clear to me for a while that I needed to shake things up and move to a different city.
Still, where to move? I was close to getting my Green Card (I’m Canadian), and my thoughts initially drifted toward other U.S. cities with active tech scenes: Seattle, Los Angeles, Austin, New York, Portland, Boston, Atlanta. I’d traveled around to lots of different U.S. cities, and the prospects for whatever reason just weren’t very exciting for me. As I found out, the best opportunities in life are never the ones you imagine, as after a series of random events, a radically different answer presented itself — Paris.
I had never before in my life considered living in Paris. After all, I don’t speak French. Nevertheless, I was transfixed by the idea as soon as it appeared before me. As a software engineer I learn difficult concepts on the fly all the time, and learning French would be no different. After a bit of preparation and research, I found the perfect Paris startup to join, a mid-sized health tech startup named Alan, and about ten months after the initial idea, I made the move and haven’t looked back.
Paris is different from San Francisco in too many ways to list. But, after a few months, one huge thing dawned on me. I realized that in San Francisco I was putting a lot of my life on hold, things like having a place of my own, getting married and having kids. On the other hand, in Paris I’m not putting anything on hold and I’m living my real life right now, as opposed to a temporary makeshift one. And I realized the reason why: in Paris you don’t have to be a millionaire to have a normal life.
It’s possible for my coworkers at Alan to have children without feeling enormous amounts of financial stress. One reason for this is that unlike in California, you can’t lose your job in France “at-will” with zero days’ notice and zero cause. What’s probably even more significant though, is that rent, health care and education costs in France haven’t skyrocketed the way they have in the US.
For example, average annual tuition in the US is $9,970, $25,620 and $34,740 for in-state public, out-of-state public, and private college tuition respectively. In comparison the elite private grandes écoles in France have an annual tuition that typically runs between 500€ and 600€. To give another example, my friend’s wife gave birth in San Francisco a few years ago and they had to pay $5,000 out of pocket for it even though they had health insurance. In France, you might pay 10% of that. My rent here is less than half what it was in San Francisco, except in Paris I don’t have roommates. These are just anecdotes, but everything I’ve seen here suggests to me that they reflect the broader reality.
Being an immigrant in France has also been a much more pleasant experience compared to the US. Two weeks after dropping my paperwork off at the French consulate I got a Passeport Talent visa that is good for ten years. If I stay and work in France for five years, I’ll be eligible for citizenship. At the French border and government offices, I felt appreciated for the talent that I had to offer. It was a stark contrast to the tense and somewhat humiliating interrogations I had to endure whenever reentering through customs into the US.
I’ve been enjoying life in Paris a lot, and I like the city even better than San Francisco, as amazing as it was. As per French custom, I kiss friends on the cheek whenever we greet each other. I can walk down the street and on every other corner find a small shop with the best wine, cheese, baguette, or pastry I’ve ever had. There’s a subway system with 14 lines that goes everywhere. No matter where you are in Paris you’re never more than a short walk away from a station. There is tons of green space all over, and it’s just a quick jaunt whenever I want to check out the Eiffel Tower or the Mona Lisa.
There are also a huge variety of interesting places to visit nearby that I never thought I would ever get to see. In San Francisco a two-hour flight could get me to Los Angeles, Las Vegas, Seattle and Portland. From Paris, I can get to Barcelona, London, Lisbon, Rome, Berlin, Amsterdam, and Zurich.
You might not think of Paris as a major tech hub, but it’s incredible to hear how much the startup community has grown in the past two or three years. Alan is at the very heart of the Paris tech scene, and is recognized as one of the hottest startups to join in Paris if not all of Europe.
Alan is a health tech startup. Right now, we have a quickly growing health insurance service in France, but our ambitions extend much further, to improving the entire healthcare system. Software engineering and technology are at the core of everything Alan does. We have a culture of engineering excellence, and our flat org structure, Agile methodology, and tech stack would be familiar to many a Bay Area engineer.
Alan is in a great position to succeed. Our competition is made up of old-fashioned incumbents who are slow-moving and don’t want to innovate. When the government tried to make it easier for people to switch health insurance, instead of taking up the challenge to provide the best health insurance possible for their customers, they dug in their heels and lobbied as hard as they could against the change.
While our mobile app is seeing strong adoption and engagement, another insurance company just announced that they’re shutting theirs down. Given the rate that we’re innovating and growing, it looks to me that it’s only a matter of time before we take the market.
Alaners work hard, and they are determined to see the company succeed. At the same time, I think they do a better job than my former coworkers in San Francisco at taking time to care for themselves and enjoy life. At a recent all-hands meeting, our CEO, Jean-Charles urged us to make sure that we take time off to feel rested and energized to work. I was amazed and dumbstruck. I’d never heard anything like that in San Francisco.
As for language issues, I’m doing just fine here even though English is the only language I speak fluently. Luckily for me, Alan decided to use English as its working language to accommodate the international talent it would need to achieve its international ambitions.
It’s common wisdom that in order to grow in life you need to move outside of your comfort zone. In Paris, I’m outside again. I walk amidst buildings, statues, and alleyways steeped in hundreds, if not thousands of years of history. I’m surrounded by a people who think and do things a bit differently than what I’m used to. I’m finding my voice again as I learn to speak their language. Sometimes it can feel disorienting, surreal, and challenging, but the stagnation that I felt in San Francisco is gone.