Written by The Business Journal Staff
Software developer John Ornelas’ friends in San Francisco have a hard time understanding why he would want to pack his bags and relocate to Fresno. For Ornelas, however, the move has led to greater creative freedom and workplace stability.
In his four years of working in the Bay Area, the Bakersfield native was part of an environment that consisted of high turnaround rates, high costs, and little in the way of control in his work, where conditions were stricter. Fresno, however, has been a far more pleasant atmosphere, where he has been able to flex his creative muscles.
“I love it here – I actually really, really like it,” he said. “It’s a little bit slower paced, but I don’t feel like I’m in a small town. I don’t feel like I’m in the middle of nowhere. In a lot of ways, I feel like Fresno has more to offer me than San Francisco.”
Ornelas isn’t alone. According to Bitwise Industries CEO Jake Soberal, approximately 30 percent of users at the downtown tech facility are from outside of Fresno. And like Ornelas, many of them are a part of the growing exodus from the Silicon Valley and the wider Bay Area.
According to a poll released by the Bay Area Council, a public policy group, 46 percent of people living in the Bay Area have plans to leave, with high and ever-climbing housing prices cited as the primary reason. With its low cost of living and growing tech scene from places like Bitwise, Fresno is quickly gaining a reputation as a place for developers and tech workers to not only work – but to take chances.
The failure of an app or other tech startup could lead to sizable financial losses. In expensive cities like San Jose or San Francisco, this could ruin a person. In Fresno, however, lower prices make for a more ready recovery. This means they may be less likely to “play it safe.”
“I think what is changing at a high level is our community of entrepreneurs and technologists in the Central Valley feel licensed to try – to sort of set out and dare to do something different that might have historically been perceived as ‘other’ or ‘too’ risky for Fresno,” Soberal said
For some Fresno natives, relocating to the Bay Area was the next step necessary in pursuing a career in tech. This was the case for developer Crystal Maldonado, who studied at San Francisco State University after high school. After college, she worked in San Francisco and Oakland. After spending time in Los Angeles and Utah, she found her way back to Fresno.
Maldonado’s time in Fresno was supposed to be temporary, but the appeal of Fresno and a growing tech scene compelled her to stay.
“I’m lucky enough to still have my grandparents around, so I’m spending a lot more time with them,” Maldonado said. “And I became aware of Bitwise and all these other cool, up-and-coming things going on downtown.”
In previous years, opportunities in the software field were few and far between in Fresno. In recent years, however, this has greatly changed. With the advent of companies like Shift3 and Decipher, and the inroads laid by groups like Bitwise, a growing number of opportunities have opened.
This has included a significant increase in the number of apps that are currently being developed downtown and elsewhere. Coding education classes from Geekwise Academy and the 59 Days of Code competition have been major factors in this recent trend. Over the last year, one Geekwise cohort has found growing success with their company OMW and the custom restaurant-ordering app Ordrslip. Meanwhile, 59 Days of Code has spurned the creation of apps for services ranging from saving energy to booking tattoo sessions.
“If you give resources to the gritty talented people in the Central Valley that are sort of implicit in the Silicon Valley, the people are going to do some really outstanding things with it,” Soberal said.
Low-cost living and stable conditions
For Bitwise Industries public relations counsel Katherine Verducci, the low cost of living – combined with homesickness – had her looking to return to Fresno from San Jose. This was especially true when she had her daughter. However, it was after the move that the difference in living conditions truly hit home.
“It was like we stole something,” Verducci said. “We went from this condo that we were bursting at the seems, to this house with a pool.”
This has meant not only money saved, but also time. This comes largely from cutting down on commuting time, which can often be necessary for working in the city. For Maldonado, this means getting “a little more your life back.”
More stable pricing, meanwhile, has led to greater staying power in the area. This has resulted in the further bonus of community. It’s a stark contrast to Verducci’s experience in the Bay Area, where shifting costs meant constant moving to chase cheaper places to live in the region.
“It wasn’t like you have any kind of [strong] community without driving over to see someone, or taking the train,” Verducci said.
Constant changing of jobs, meanwhile, could often lead to a less tightly bonded workplace.
“One of the things that I think is genuinely toxic about the Bay Area work environment is this idea that you’re going to change jobs every 18 months, whether you like it or not,” Ornelas said. “Companies kind of know that, employees know that, so… there’s no sense of community that really bonds and gels, because everyone knows that everyone’s kind of just on their way somewhere else.”
Changing the landscape
As Fresno’s tech scene continues to grow, and as the Bay Area’s troubles with costs and detachment mount, many in the Central Valley’s software scene are speculating that the current trend will only continue.
Meanwhile, Fresno’s boomerangs and implants from the Bay Area and elsewhere are likely to add to the local alloy for years to come.
“The presumption from the start is Fresno is a place worth being, and I have never been one to ascribe this belief that nobody wants to live in Fresno,” Soberal said. “I think that one of the systemic things that’s happened in the last five years is it’s become viable to chase big technology dreams in Fresno.”