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Leaving the Valley: Top cities for dev and test pro relocations

Christopher Null Freelance writer

Sick of the Silicon Valley rat race? Good news! Thanks to the dramatic shift in workplace habits due to the ongoing pandemic, there's a good chance you can now live wherever you want and still keep your current job in tech.

COVID-19 is upending everything we know about life and work, and it is poised to do so for years to come. Developers and test professionals have a chance to come out ahead, said Darrell Rosenstein, a tech recruiter. 

"The idea that you need to live in Silicon Valley to be successful in tech has been fading for some time, and the recent expansion of telecommuting is the final nail in that coffin."
Darrell Rosenstein

One techie who left the Bay Area for Kansas City, Kansas, recently posted in Reddit that it was "one of the best decisions I’ve made," noting that traffic was nonexistent, homeownership was attainable, and commuting now took all of five minutes.

Jeff Zhou, the founder of Fig, a fintech company based in Houston, said the firm is looking at approving its entire team to relocate to "better quality-of-life cities." 

"After five months of quarantine and living in a general state of caution, most team members are very excited about trading our smaller city apartments for better weather, more space, and lower rent."
Jeff Zhou

Here's what dev and test pros need to know about relocating outside of Silicon Valley.

A pay cut may follow you

While moving may sound like a no-brainer, be warned that caveats abound: It may not be quite so straightforward to move from your Mountain View studio to a Kansas City McMansion and keep the $150,000 salary you had before. Some employers are already wise to this trick and are prepared to slash compensation if you move from a high cost of living area to a lower cost one.

Furthermore, this is a time of extremely high unemployment—10.2% as of July 2020. Employers may not be thrilled with you living the high life three time zones away, and you may suddenly find that both employer expectations and competition for your job have dramatically increased.

But can you have your cake (live in Cleveland) and eat it (work in Cupertino) too? While the jury's out on whether this will be sustainable in the long run, this much is clear: You need to pay careful attention to where you decide to put down stakes, and have a solid contingency plan in place when you arrive.

If you're kicking back in Wichita Falls, Texas, and telecommuting suddenly goes out of vogue, finding your next gig may abruptly get a whole lot harder. Some relocators quickly regret the decision. (One of the most-cited reasons: the weather.)

Figuring out where to relocate

If you're considering a move out of the Valley, the next big decision of course is where to go. Much has been written on how to analyze and rank cities and regions based on the "best" place to live or work, but this calculus is fundamentally too complex to fit into an easy top 10 list.

The problem is that "best" is subjective. A sun-seeker who hates driving probably won't gravitate to Seattle, while a devoted winter sports enthusiast won't put Phoenix high on the list. But both cities show up regularly on lists of top places to find a tech job.

Nevertheless, we're going to give it a try. The sections that follow break down some key attributes that can help determine how good a fit a city is for developers and testing professionals, then wrap that all up with some overall recommendations that tie all of these data points together.

Cost of living

Probably the most widely cited metric in determining the ideal place to live is cost of living. The problem—and let's be honest here—is that no one wants to live in a lot of these places. By limiting the search to studies that cover somewhat larger metro areas, you can get a better sense of where you might seriously consider living.

Numbeo offers an interesting list that uses a wide range of factors to determine cost of living, placing El Paso, Texas; Wichita, Kansas; and Lexington, Kentucky, at the top of its list.

Expatistan, a site that compares cost of living on a global scale, includes a significant analysis of US cities, with Memphis, Tennessee; Albuquerque, New Mexico; and Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, coming out on top.

Motley Fool ranks its top 10 cities by dividing the average local salary by its cost-of-living index. By that measure, the top three cities are Kalamazoo, Michigan; Huntsville, Alabama; and Des Moines, Iowa.

For another twist, check out MoveBuddha's list of states and cities that will pay you to relocate there.

Finally, don't forget taxes, which can dramatically change the picture, especially if you're planning to buy a home. These tend to be broken out at the state level; Wallethub has a comprehensive breakdown of what you can expect to pay in income, property, and sales taxes. (Hello, Alaska!) The state income-tax situation is trickier if you work in one state but live in another; consult an accountant for more thorough advice.

Average wages

If you work remotely, why do the average wages in your area matter? A number of reasons: Chances are you aren't going to work for the same employer forever, and while telecommuting will probably still be in vogue, it won't necessarily be universally so. Finding work locally could well become necessary at some point.

Also, as noted previously, employers may not be so keen to pay California wages in Idaho. If you can demonstrate that competitive wages are higher where you live, you have a better chance of receiving a higher salary.

The catch is that where salaries are high, so is the cost of living.

ZipRecruiter's list of highest-paying cities for software developers offers some oddities, such as Rome, New York; Dallas, Texas; and Philadelphia, Pennsylvania—all in the top 10.

Indeed's list of top-paying cities for software engineers includes many of the usual suspects, but the inclusion of Chicago, Illinois; San Diego, California; and Atlanta, Georgia, may be confusing to some. The state-by-state map at the same link is also quite helpful. Developers in Georgia make 3% more than the national average, while those in Idaho make 31% less.

Once you've narrowed down a list of locales, you can also use the tools at PayScale and Comparably to get more insight into pay ranges based on factors such as years of experience and your programming platforms of choice. This Dice salary report is also instructive, particularly its graphic of top tech metros by salary, adjusted for cost of living (For more detail, see the charts in the TechBeacon article, "Best places to work in Tech).

Tech-centricity of the city

No software developer wants to live in an analog backwater, do they? A municipal fixation on technology is a good indicator of that city's ability to attract high-tech businesses and provide tech-related support services for other types of businesses—and, as a result, ensure a brighter future down the road.

There's no easy way to qualify what makes a city "high tech," but USA Today broke it down by an area's overall percentage of workers in STEM jobs. The surprise winner: the California-Lexington Park metro in Maryland, a big aerospace hub.

Meanwhile, PC Magazine broke this topic down by overall tech salary, while Worth has a more qualitative list.

Remember that, for now, anyway, hiring is down across the board, including in the tech sector, with Indeed showing declines in tech hiring as steep as 45% in some tech-centric regions. If you can take your job to go, it's probably wise to do so.

Overall livability

Similarly, no one wants to move to a new town just because it's cheap to live there. COVID or no, eventually you're going to venture out of the house, and at that point you're going to want something to do. Factors such as amenities, walkability/public transportation, traffic, climate, nightlife, bars and restaurants, and school quality all play into the overall livability of a city. Some of these factors will matter more or less depending on your interests, family situation, and overall temperament.

Two good sources to research on this front are AreaVibes and AARP. AARP's livability scores are obviously weighted more toward older residents, but the numbers are still instructive, particularly when viewed alongside AreaVibes' numbers.

The final analysis

To put all of this information together, we created a spreadsheet that took each city's average salary for developers (from Indeed), then adjusted it for cost of living (from Numbeo) and total tax burden. We further adjusted this number based on an average of the AreaVibes and AARP livability scores to create each city's "TB Factor," which presumes you will have to take a pay cut to your relocation city's average developer salary.

We also ran the same analysis based on the prospect of keeping the average San Jose developer salary, with no pay cut required, which offers a considerably different view. The big caveat: None of this data is even remotely gospel, except for maybe the overall tax burden information. However, it does provide some level of insight into how various regions stack up against one another.

We ran these numbers for more than 30 cities that were commonly mentioned in the above-mentioned resources. And here's the bottom line: If you have to take a pay cut, it's likely going to be a hefty one. If money is important to you, even a lower cost of living is unlikely to make up the difference of your lost salary.

In a pay cut situation, only one city—Austin—outperformed San Jose in TB Factor (though Boise, Idaho, tied), and nothing came close to the high TB Factor of Mountain View.

On the other hand, if you do get to keep your Bay Area salary (or even the greater part of it), the picture is a lot different. A wide range of cities pop up on this list with the same or higher ratings than San Jose, including (in order) Boise, Huntsville, Austin, Lexington, Dallas, and Madison, Wisconsin.

That's a huge if, though, so it's critical to determine what your post-move salary is going to be well before you start calling realtors.

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