Leaving NYC for Nashville


Wes McKinney


December 3, 2018

For ten out of the last eleven years, I’ve lived in two places: New York City and San Francisco. The last two years have been in NYC. After founding Ursa Labs, a not-for-profit open source development group, I felt it was time to make my home somewhere that isn’t either of those places. After some contemplation and consulting many friends, I decided on Nashville, Tennessee. This blog explains some of my feelings on this lifestyle change, and why I hope to see an increased migration of tech workers, and open source developers in particular, to other parts of the United States.

A conflict of values

I wrote previously about some of the emotional struggle I’ve experienced living “in the thick of things” in the NYC quant finance world and later as a founder-CEO in the SF startup community.

As my friends are quick to point out, much of the struggle has been self-inflicted. The argument usually goes: who of sound mind would choose to build complex analytical software and give it away for free on the internet?

One thing is certain: many companies based in major cities like NYC and SF are extremely effective at extracting high quality labor from the world’s most talented young people. It should be no surprise why wealthy corporations want this to be: it is immensely profitable. In a single quarter in 2017, Facebook made around $450,000 in revenue and $190,000 in profit per employee. As Jeff Hammerbacher infamously put it: “The best minds of my generation are thinking about how to make people click ads. That sucks.”

I’ve increasingly felt that open source development is at odds with the values that are driving a large portion of the corporate world, particularly in the United States. Many companies won’t fund open source work because there is no “return on investment”. This is deeply frustrating, and being surrounded by people whose actions align with profit-motive can be pretty discouraging. It’s not necessarily that people who work in NYC or SF are greedy or amorally concerned with making money. In many cases they are just responding to incentives coming from pretty low on the hierarchy of needs.

The cost of living problem

Cost of living is a significant factor that drives the behavior of people that live in cities like NYC. When my Midwestern family would come to visit me in NYC or SF, they would be shocked at my low standard of living. I had to explain that many of the things that they took for granted at home are extreme luxuries in Manhattan. You know, things like:

  • A dishwasher
  • A in-unit washer and dryer. For many NYC-dwellers, having one’s own washer and dryer gives the feeling of having “made it”.
  • A spare bedroom for hosting out-of-town visitors
  • Central heating, ventilation, and air conditioning
  • Enough space to have people over or host dinner parties
  • A kitchen area that can fit more than one person
  • A comfortable and separate area to work at home

In 2011, while primarily working on pandas, I was paying $2000 per month for a ground-level “1 bedroom” apartment in the East Village. It was less than 500 square feet and had none of the above amenities (it was close to the 6 and L train, though). There were mice. But hey, people would say, that’s around the minimum of what you have to pay to have your own place in lower Manhattan. I’d guess that apartment costs $2500 per month or more now.

Non-wealthy people like myself in NYC are hyper-aware that they are part of the “underclass”. Throughout the city, you are surrounded by the dwellings of the megarich. I think a lot of the money-making hustle for younger people is just to be able to have some basic home amenities.

The Bay Area has well-documented cost-of-living problems. The running joke is that Palo Alto has become a “two exit town”. The implication is that you can’t afford to buy a home unless you need to have a favorable sale of not one, but two startups.

Even if one is not concerned with improving their standard of living, just maintaining the current standard of living can be pretty stressful. Losing your job can be financially ruinous if you aren’t able to find an equal-paying position within a month or two. Many people I know couldn’t afford to take a break between job transitions. The drumbeat of rent payments can keep you in an anxious state.

To add insult to injury, in addition to the grotesquely high rents, New Yorkers and Californians are subjected to some of the highest overall income tax rates in the country. This has been made worse with recent federal tax law changes so that state and local taxes (including property tax) deductions are capped.

Things appear to become much more difficult for people that have families. People I know who have had children and stayed in NYC or the Bay Area seem a lot more stressed out to me, both due to financial strain and increased logistical burden of child care and schools. With the parental leave situation being what it is in the US, new parents often can’t afford to take much time off work when a new child arrives.

A better open source development lifestyle

It’s important to note that, for many people who live in NYC or SF it might not be possible to leave without having detrimental impact on their careers. For people who work in finance, advertising, fashion, or similar field, moving away from NYC might also mean making a significant career change.

One of the great things about open source development is the freedom that comes with it. For the first time in many years, I am now geographically untethered with colleagues based in different parts of North America and Europe. Rather than pouring money down the drain on NYC living expenses, I would rather use the money to create a more comfortable and productive environment for myself to do open source work.

One of my goals in partnering with RStudio to build Ursa Labs was to leverage their infrastructure for building and supporting distributed teams. This way, people who are choosing to work with me on Apache Arrow can arrange their lifestyles in the way that best suits them.

Full-time open source developers in many cases will make less money than their peers who work at Google, Facebook, Microsoft, Apple, or another major tech company. If we are to enable more people to do open source development as a full-time vocation, we need to grow supportive tech communities in places that are more affordable. It shouldn’t be that software engineers should have to sacrifice their quality of life to be able to work on open source projects that they feel passionately about.

Why Nashville?

I thought about living some other places, like Seattle, Austin, Portland, Raleigh, or even Barcelona or Berlin. I lived in Knoxville until I was eight years old before moving to Ohio, so I perhaps have some bias toward Tennessee and the Southeast in general. My immediate family is spread beween Ohio, North Carolina, and Georgia. Beside that, though, I’ll give a few reasons why I’m “long” Nashville.

  • Nashville has been a fast-growing city for some time now. There is a tech community here, but without the overwhelming feeling of being in a “tech hub” like NYC, San Francisco, or Seattle.
  • It’s one of a handful of cities with 1000/1000 Mbps Google Fiber.
  • The Nashville airport is convenient (15 minutes or less from downtown) and well-connected, important for a frequent traveler like myself
  • Lifestyle-wise, for people like me who’ve lived and traveled in many major cities, there are many of the “creature comforts” here like hipster coffee shops, craft cocktail bars, and quality local restaurants
  • Tennessee does not tax regular income, putting it on similar financial footing to Texas and Washington
  • The traffic isn’t too bad (yet)

I hope to see more people move here. We need to grow vibrant communities of entrepreneurs and technologists in other parts of the US. If you’re passing through Nashville, please do drop me a line.

By the way, I am still a fan of both NYC and the Bay Area (with many friends in both), and will visit often!