As I See It: Searching For The Silver Lining
June 22, 2020 Victor Rozek
All clouds, it is said, have their silver linings. Hurricanes are the winds of profit for the building trades; obesity sustains a huge (no pun intended) diet industry; bad relationships sell boatloads of self-help books; and sheltering in place has been a godsend for delivery companies, not to mention cardboard manufacturers, and the sex toy industry.
Even IT, one of the more bombproof sectors of the economy, is not wholly immune from the laws of cause and effect. Silicon Valley, arguably the most prestigious assembly of high-tech prowess on the planet, was not spared the consequences of COVID-19.
MIT Technology Review reported on a Stanford University study that showed “as many as 83,000 people” in the area had been infected. At the time, Santa Clara County had only reported “about 950 confirmed cases,” so this was an increase by a factor of 85X. The study suggested that about 4 percent of Silicon Valley residents were walking around with the infection. Many didn’t know it.
But enough were symptomatic that 132,000 jobs were lost in the Bay Area, about 10,000 of them in the tech industry. Some offices were shuttered; many people were instructed to work from home, and some were told they could continue doing so even after the pandemic subsided.
That’s a lot of disruption and, as in the aftermath of hurricanes, there are people poised to profit from the adversities visiting Silicon Valley. Among them, landlords in Austin, Texas.
The problem facing the Silicon Valley unemployed, or underemployed, is that the cost of living in the Bay Area remains ungodly high. Even though COVID-19 drove rents down about 9 percent to 15 percent, the average monthly cost for a one-bedroom apartment in San Francisco is still a whopping $3,360. That’s $40,320 right off the top of your annual income, all before taxes and wine bars and $20 plates of brie and sourdough.
In Austin, on the other hand, the average apartment rents for about $1,500. It is also home to the University of Texas and has a lively music scene featuring, blues, rock and, of course, kick-ass country. And where there is lively music, it is often accompanied by lively drinking. For the health conscious, Austin also has parks, lakes, lots of waterways and the other, lesser-known Colorado River, good for hiking, biking, swimming and boating. And being Texas, it has men who wear big hats and women who wear big hair.
More important to IT professionals is an area called Silicon Hills, recognized as the tech epicenter of Texas. Dell started the Texas tech boom back in the mid-1980s, and since then a who’s-who of high-tech aristocracy discovered cheap land and an educated work force in Austin. IBM, Hewlett Packard Enterprise, Cisco Systems, Oracle, Intel, Apple, eBay, and everyone’s favorite defender of irresponsible speech, Facebook all have established either their headquarters or business offices in the area. But that’s just the tip of the proverbial motherboard. In total there are some 5,500 startups and tech companies in greater Austin. An IT professional’s wet dream.
In fact, IT specialists from Silicon Valley are reportedly heading for the Hills in surprising numbers. And those who haven’t left yet are considering it. Katie Calanes, writing for Business Insider, reports “. . . social networking site Blind conducted a survey of thousands of techies in the region, two-thirds of which said they would consider leaving the Bay Area if their employer allowed them to permanently work remotely.”
And why not? If you have to drive to work every day, it’s handy to live reasonably close to your place of employment – although commuting from San Francisco to Santa Clara is about as much fun as a daily colonoscopy. But if you can work from home, why not live somewhere less crowded and more affordable? Besides, the Bay Area is full of transplants who came for jobs and quality of life only to discover that their quality of life was diminished by how much of it they could actually afford. Another advantage to Austin is that Texas has no personal income tax. Compared to California, that’s another 13.3 percent of your salary that stays in your designer jeans. There is one notable disadvantage however: once you leave Austin city limits, you’re in Texas.
The time for fleeing is auspicious. Apple, for example, already employs some 7,000 workers in Austin, and is investing in a second billion-dollar campus that will initially employ 5,000 more, with a possible ramp-up to 15,000.
Google got its spurs in 2007 with its acquisition of the email security and archiving service Postini. It has since acquired some 300,000 square feet of office space where its teams work on everything from Android and G Suite operations, to support functions including finance and marketing. Next to those offices a tower is currently under construction. When finished it will offer 35 floors of workspace, and Google leased all of it.
So, at the very least it can be safely said that many of the major tech players are bullish on Austin. A livable city, affordable housing, and a growing IT job market, make it an attractive destination for displaced IT professionals from any region. But it seems that if every cloud has its silver lining, the reverse is also true.
Amidst the great opportunity lurks COVID-19. KVUE, the local ABC affiliate, reports that Travis county, where Austin resides, just recorded its single biggest increase in COVID-19 cases since tracking began. The former weekly record was 118; the current one is 161. That’s a 14 percent increase, and although not encouraging, it pales next to the 32 percent increase in nearby Hays county, and the 41 percent spike in Burnet county.
So, as in all endeavors, opportunity must be weighed against risk. Technology, it seems, can save us from a great many things – excessive labor, tedious research, manual data collection and storage, not to mention boredom – just to name a few. But there is one thing it still cannot save us from: Ourselves.