I've recently been talking with several other people working in the European offices of Silicon Valley tech companies: Databricks in Amsterdam, Facebook in London, Google in Zurich and a few of my long-time colleagues at Uber, in Amsterdam. Most of us joined these places after spending a good amount of time working at other places in Europe. We talked about how the work environment is different compared to other software companies in Europe we've worked at, previously. We all came to similar conclusions on what we loved about the switch, as well as what the tradeoffs were.
Engineering Culture and Autonomy
The Silicon Valley engineering bar is still second to none. Not only does the Valley pay the highest compensation packages for software engineers: it also offers the largest professional autonomy for them. As a result, it hires people as good as it gets and fosters a culture of excellence.
Want to work at a place with a great engineering culture? Work with Valley engineers, daily. At companies with Silicon-Valley sister offices, you get to do this. It's not just about engineers, but the organization's culture. For hypergrowth tech companies, this culture needs to be solid great, to sustain this kind of fast expansion. And the recipes on how to do it are coming from similar Silicon-Valley companies.
Working at Uber, let me take the engineering culture here as an example. Does your company openly share architecture proposals across all of engineering? At Uber, we do. Does your company have a dedicated team for developer tooling? At Uber, we do. Do you release your work as open source? At Uber, we do. Do first-time engineering managers go through a thorough apprentice program? We do this here. Do you publish whitepapers on innovative software solutions? Also happening here. Are posts from your engineering blog regularly on the front page of Hacker News? Happens quite frequently.
Impact, Scale, Complexity
Many of the Silicon-Valley companies operate globally, reaching a large number of customers and are heavy on data processing. And at the same time, engineers usually often have a disproportionally large impact, day to day, at all parts of tech. It's pretty common for an engineer to impact millions of customers daily, when shipping their code.
Throughout my time at Uber, I've pushed code that was run by tens of millions of people on their phones. I took part in designing systems processing billions of dollars per month. I also proposed and shipped features that resulted in tens of millions of dollars in impact. While the impact sounds impressive, the scale and complexity of this work was even more interesting.
Before Uber, I rarely worked on large systems hands-on. Here I learned far more about building distributed systems and how to operate them in a resilient way, than I expected to do so. And even seemingly simple projects, like adding Google Pay as a payment method, has been remarkably complex under the hood.
Professional and Career Growth
Many Silicon Valley companies have good access to capital and deliberately scale quickly. This makes them a high-growth environment. Lots of products and features are launched, many systems are built and people keep being hired at a fast pace. In an environment like this, both professional and career growth happen much faster. Professionally, there are more greenfield opportunities to build highly impactful products and platforms. Career-wise, there are a lot more opportunities to lead and to move up on either the engineering ladder or to move over to engineering management.
It's not uncommon for the European tech offices of Silicon Valley companies to double every year - for years straight. Three years ago, the Uber Amsterdam office was around 25 engineers - we're now at almost 150, growing faster than ever before. Databricks in Amsterdam has tripled in two years, and that's before their latest investment and recruitment drive of €100M in the Amsterdam office. In their early days, Facebook in London and Google in Zurich grew at a similar scale.
Fast growth means quick learning. It also opens many career opportunities for those already at the company. I transitioned to engineering management soon after I joined, when an opportunity opened up that made a lot of sense for me to take on. All people reporting to me at the time have grown fast and have been promoted since.
Professional growth is also a big deal at these tech companies. The success of a fast-growth tech company depends on the people working there continuously leveling up. Best practices, like career ladders with clearly defined roles and managers coaching engineers, are a given. The fact that engineers mentor engineers regularly within the company, and that engineers in Europe often have Silicon Valley mentors is a big part of this.
Compensation and Equity
Steve Yegge working at Grab has summarized this one in his Get that Job at Grab post well: "Global demand for software engineers has competely outsripped supply (...) recently the demand had gone straight to crazy-town. (...) Compensation packages have gone through the roof." This is pretty accurate. Silicon Valley companies in Europe no longer compete with the local market - they compete with each other. They compete with good base salaries, target bonuses, and stock that is either liquid or would become liquid, after an IPO. Look to places like Levels.fyi to see what employees in different locations record as packages at these places. And we've then not talked about perks that are also often more extensive than what local companies offer. Perks like a four-month, paid paternity leave, that I just took in full.
Also, let's talk about equity for a moment. In Silicon Valley, it is not uncommon for a senior engineer would to get around 60-100% of their annual salary as equity. In Europe, this was rarely a thing for software engineers. Equity started to be part of packages at the executive level, engineers receiving little to none of this compensation. For Silicon-Valley based companies, equity is a given for all engineers. It's the recognition of being an owner, and meaningful stakes are awarded to engineers. Remember, these companies compete with each other across Europe. The equity numbers, of course, will be lower than Silicon Valley, but even the most junior engineers get a share in the company.
Working at these companies is not for everyone: there are tradeoffs that come with scale, working with US offices, and with autonomy.
- Late-evening calls are sometimes a thing. In general, the smaller the office and the more you are dependent on working with Silicon Valley, the more you'll need to have meetings in the evening. And expect to have oncall. If your main preference is work-life balance and fixed hours, local companies with local customers will offer much more of this.
- Work-life balance is not always 9-to-5. While I've found the work-life-balance in Europe at these companies to be quite good, the office is not empty at 5:30 pm, like it is at other local companies. At Uber, about a third of the engineers and almost all managers have kids. Balancing family and work is possible, but much of it comes back to the frequency of those late-night calls. As a manager, I have more of them - about two evenings per week - and for engineers, it depends on the team and project.
- Continuous growth, continuous change. It's not uncommon for the size of an office to double every 12-18 months, for years: both Uber and Databricks have grown, and continue at this scale, in Amsterdam. With this kind of growth, change is constant. Teams grow, then split, processes change to scale better and tooling needs to be continuously updated. What works now will not work well in a year or two.
- Travel. Depending on the role, people might be encouraged to travel every now and then to headquarters. The smaller the office, the more likely you'll travel. However, travel is rarely mandatory, as remote collaboration via video calls is a good alternative most of the time.
More Silicon Valley Opportunities Across Europe
Great engineering culture + solid compensation + vested interest in the company = great people who stay longer. Before joining Uber, my longest stint at a company was just above two years. It was at Microsoft/Skype, in London. People rarely stayed longer at that company. It was already a large office, compensation was decent, but it was not hard for anyone to get a 20-40% higher offers, especially with local offices of Silicon-Valley startups. It really came down to equity. Microsoft gave very little of that to engineers below the principal level. So the best people ended up hunted down by places that did. We lost people joining innovative teams as founding members at Facebook and Twitter, in their early days. It's hard to keep great people for more than a few years when others in the market can offer more exciting professional opportunities with better compensation.
At Uber, many of the first engineers in the Amsterdam office are still here. When you work on interesting problems, with great people, have continuous career growth, and there's little compensation upside elsewhere, why would you leave?
Within Europe, Amsterdam is a hub that seems to be attracting more Silicon-Valley tech companies at a fast rate. The Netherlands being the most competitive economy in Europe in 2019, one of the best work-life balances in the world, a 5-year tax break for expats and Brexit making Amsterdam the #1 destination for businesses moving from the UK all contribute to this. Silicon Valley companies with large offices in Amsterdam include Uber, Databricks and Messagebird. Notable mentions go to Getaround and Flexport - with more companies considering opening overseas offices, and expanding heavily in Amsterdam.
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