It was slowly becoming real. I’d received a message from a Facebook recruiter over LinkedIn in July 2010. In August, I had phone interviews and then an on-site interview. A week after the on-site, I received an offer letter.
Facebook, the company that touched the lives of more than 400 million people per month, wanted to relocate me, my wife, and our infant daughter from Arizona to Silicon Valley so that I could work on the site reliability operations team. It was my dream job, in a place that always had an almost mythical allure to me. When I said yes, I was filled with excitement.
Five years later, I quit. Not because of the job — I loved working at Facebook. I left because I couldn’t afford to live in the Bay Area anymore, even on my generous six-figure Facebook salary.
I grew up dreaming of working in Silicon Valley
As an Ohio teenager in the 1990s, I held Silicon Valley on a pedestal. In my mind, it was a far-off land filled with people like me: people who spent their free time in front of computer screens just getting the darn thing to do interesting things. It’s easy to take for granted these days as computers and devices have infiltrated every corner our lives, but back then it wasn’t uncommon for people to shun the beige boxes and the people who just seemed to “get” them.
I got my first job in tech when I was just 17 years old, at a Cleveland-based internet service provider. It was 1998, and I had a deep admiration for the companies that were formed or hit stride during the early commercialization of the internet: names like Yahoo, eBay, Sun Microsystems, and Apple. Many of them seemed to be located in this one relatively tiny area of the country. Silicon Valley was hallowed ground to me, full of successes and failures, drama and activity.
Eventually the pull of Silicon Valley became too strong to resist: I moved to San Francisco in 2004 with only my computer and a few cardboard boxes. I worked remotely for a company based in New Jersey, and even then, being single, making a decent sum for a 23-year-old, and sharing an apartment with a newly met stranger, I quickly found out that the actual living costs add up if you’re not living under a rock. Trying to get a leg up on salary, I sent in some résumés to a few major companies, but the valley was in a recession at the time and I wasn’t even able to obtain an interview.
I relocated again to Arizona in 2005 at the suggestion of an Ohio friend who had settled in there. In the intervening five years, I adjusted nicely to the climate and scenery, found new work, and honed some of my system administration chops.
My first true taste of working for a Silicon Valley company came across in 2009 when I was hired by PayPal to be a part of its Scottsdale, Arizona, network operation center. At the time, I felt like even if this was as close as I got to working in Silicon Valley proper, my teenage self would still be proud.
Working at Facebook is like Disneyland for tech folk
There were plenty of considerations surrounding taking the Facebook offer. Could I survive in a place where almost everyone is imported top-tier talent? My doubts mounted as I remembered my first ill-fated run in San Francisco. I wasn’t looking forward to finding housing. I also had a 3-month-old daughter now and couldn’t afford to retreat in failure for a second time.
But I knew that if I didn’t take the job, I would always wonder what the ride would’ve been like. Behemoth companies don’t rise very often, and the prospect of being a part of one that was pre-IPO was exciting. After weighing the benefits and concerns with my wife, we decided to accept the offer for my dream job.
I consider myself to be fortunate to have joined Facebook when I did. The company was on pretty solid ground and growing rapidly but could still be considered medium-size at around 2,000 employees. It was starting to produce scale-driven technologies that would be necessary for the site grow over the long term. There was plenty to contribute to as things got more established.
Work-wise, I loved it at Facebook. The company treats its employees very well, and you always feel spoiled, especially if you’ve had enough experience in your career to know how most companies in America operate. Benefits at some companies can be explained as simply as “water and coffee.”
The offices are like Disneyland for tech folk. Vast open stretches of adjustable desks with large monitors, micro kitchens never very far away that are stocked to the brim daily with rotating snacks and beverages, games like chess and ping-pong, and, of course, an army of culinary staff that cook up daily menus and operate mini restaurants across its main campus, all free operating as a benefit. Heck, I was even lucky enough to create an on-site arcade with another employee that became one of the more popular stops on campus tours.
The only problem: It’s really hard for a family of four to live in the Bay Area on just one income — even if it’s a great income
The big problem for me was that Facebook has made the strategic decision to only open engineering offices in places where it believes it can attract the best talent. Somewhere along the way, Facebook decided this can only mean top-tier markets: Silicon Valley, Seattle, New York City, Boston, London.
All of these areas have tremendous costs of living, especially when it comes to real estate. Unless you’re coming in as a top-level engineer at the company, the company requires you relocate to a city with an engineering office. Facebook pays well in absolute terms, but if you’re a single-income family you have to live pretty frugally, as those rent checks eats into your monthly disposable income. My salary was about on par with what I was making at my last job in Phoenix — just barely breaking into the six figures — but housing costs were significantly different.
Most of the comparable houses we looked at were twice as expensive. Plus, we had an infant, and all the expenses associated with that were new territory for me. We asked one of our friends from the area to be our roommate to help soften the blow of Bay Area rent. It wasn't the best living situation, but it was a small sacrifice for the job.
We knew as our family grew that we wouldn’t want to live with a roommate forever. So when the opportunity arose for me to supplement my salary by selling my Facebook stock, I took it. I’d been granted a few thousand shares when I got hired, and after the company had its IPO in 2012, I sold all the shares that had vested.
We could finally rent a house for just our family, no roommate. It was great, but that also meant even larger housing costs. In order to afford that, selling stock became necessary every quarter it vested. Obviously, this is not the path to financial security, but when the sum of money that lands in front of you isn’t life-changing, you look to the short term and what it can do for you right now. In many ways, this follows exactly with the Silicon Valley hustle that many startups fall into. The path in front of you isn’t always clear, so you hedge your bets.
If you're not familiar, companies tend to use stock grants as a carrot to get new employees on board. Your initial grant is typically your largest — unless you're a game changer/rock star performer, and while I am reliable and stable, I am not a rock star. You get refresher grants, but the number of shares included in those is determined by the stock price when they're issued. So as Facebook's stock price climbed, the upside to those grants gets smaller and smaller.
Your fortune, or lack thereof, is all a matter of timing. If I had started at Facebook just a few years earlier, it’s likely I’d still be working there and not writing this article. The difference in equity can be staggering, and rightly so, as the risks are higher while the company is nascent. Still, it’s hard not to dwell on the “what ifs.”
In 2013, we had a second child. Facebook is amazing with its family benefits, and when I think about that period my heart fills with gratitude. Thanks to Facebook’s paternity leave policy, I was able to spend four months of fully paid leave solely focused on my family. This is a huge deal when you have a newborn. If there’s just one benefit that can escape Silicon Valley’s tech companies and spread across the country, I hope it’s extended paid parental leave for both parents.
Finally in 2015, the last of my initial grant vested, and the additional money I was getting from those grants started to dry up. I was faced with the real estate market of 2015 in the Bay Area. I realized I would have to make downgrades in my family’s quality of living in order to just continue onward. There were a few choices on the table: move to a bad part of town where rents are cheaper, move into an apartment, relocate to another city with a Facebook engineering office and an equally expensive housing market, or leave the best job I may ever have and return to Arizona, where my wife and I were happiest living.
We considered each of the options. My kids were still too young to have much of an opinion about the area. The constant feeling of crowding in the Bay Area got to my wife. After bringing up the possibility of moving back, it only took about a month before I had secured another job.
We left to go back to Arizona where the real estate, while still higher than much of the country, has a better possibility of ownership someday for me. That just wasn't in play at all in the Bay Area, where anything within 30 miles of the office is over $500,000, realistically near $1 million for what we'd want. Yes, this is a #FirstWorldProblem. I won't pretend like I couldn't have done without a lot of things to make it work or that I was thinking long-term.
What if the great tech companies thought beyond big, expensive cities?
My point with this is not to be a sob story, but to tell you that for a lower-mid-range worker, sometimes your dream job can't make up for the cost of living in the Bay Area. It can easily work for a single 20- or 30-something with no family and a few roommates, and they can prosper greatly from it if they’re able to save responsibly. Especially for those that have basic needs that can be simply attended to by a company’s excellent benefits packages that include meals, laundry, and transportation. But for a person with a family of four who has a certain lifestyle that they want to try to maintain (a nice-ish $40,000 car, the ability to go out once a month and leave the kids with a sitter, a house that wasn't last remodeled in ’70s, etc.), it can be difficult.
I couldn't afford to live in the expensive areas that Facebook dictated you live in and maintain our middle-class lifestyle. I didn’t want to drop my hobbies, or compact our family into an apartment. There’s a lot to like about the Bay Area: the climate, wine country, the beaches, San Francisco, the eclectic tech crowd. But in my eyes, the cost is too great for what you get.
And I wish companies like Facebook would reconsider their exclusive focus on places like Silicon Valley. I don’t share the view that top talent will only come to densely populated, expensive cities. Offering office locations in areas with affordable real estate can be a massive benefit to both the company and its employees. They could also find an untapped pool of candidates that would meet their hiring criteria but hadn’t considered them because of the need to relocate.
Now, a year after we’ve moved, it’s again feeling like home instead of an extended vacation. My kids transitioned easily at their age. My wife and I are still a little sad to have left the amazing people we met in the Bay Area. But we smile when we experience all the things we were missing during our time there. We’re still renting but getting more for nearly half the cost. Our money goes further here, and I’m making roughly the same as what I was when we left.
If I could go back and make the decision over again, I would still take that Facebook job offer. The roller-coaster ride of Silicon Valley is intense and surreal. I just wouldn’t want to live there forever.
Matt Kulka works for Local Motors in Phoenix, Arizona. He loves to drive cars around race tracks, his expensive hobby that he just doesn’t want to kick.