Going back to Cali: How these 4 SoCal natives found their way to Silicon Beach

John Siegel

LA, most Angelenos new and old will agree, is a pretty cool place. Even still, places like Silicon Valley and New York City have established themselves as the power players in the global tech community — despite the burgeoning local tech ecosystem. For years, graduates of LA and Orange County's prestigious colleges were drawn to these areas, leaving the City of Angels to revel in industries elsewhere.

But things have changed. No longer must grads from Cal Tech, USC, UCLA and Harvey Mudd book a ticket north post commencement to land a tech gig. The number of jobs available to recent grads, and those who just like the area more, abound. For these graduates, moving to LA was never a certainty, but they came — and they've stayed.

 

Brittney Hall, an operations leader at El Segundo-based GoGuardian, thought she knew exactly what her path was going to be after graduating from Stanford. But after working for a few years in the Bay Area, she began to worry that her professional future was up north and away from home, until she started seeing more and more companies opt to set their roots down in LA County.

Hometown: West Los Angeles

College: Stanford University

Were you aware of the tech scene in LA when you were going to college?

I graduated from college back in 2010 so I had not heard of Silicon Beach at that point; it was still very posh to say you worked in Silicon Valley. It wasn’t until a few years later that I first heard of the LA startup beach scene; at that point I knew I had to make my way back home to Los Angeles!

Why did you decide to work in LA? Was it always in the plans, or did you find your way back here?

I was born and raised in the middle of the city, so I always knew I would come back at some point. The question was, when? I started my career in Silicon Valley and worried that I wouldn’t have ample opportunities for cutting-edge software in LA; however, the waters warmed and I noticed a slew companies opting to head down south in lieu of the high-priced Bay Area. That was my signal to start planning the next phase of my life, back home with my family and friends.

What differentiates working in LA from other tech communities like Silicon Valley or New York City?

Working in LA is very unique! There are lots of talented people here, just as in Silicon Valley, but it is a discernibly more laid back culture. Where its counterparts can be perceived as aggressively competitive, LA has a more inclusive feel. Your success here isn’t so tightly tied to what university you attended or the company you come from; it’s more about what you can do.

Why did you decide to work for GG?

I was deciding between GoGuardian and a couple of B2B SaaS startups, the latter of which seemed to be pretty similar to the companies I had just come from in the Bay Area. GoGuardian’s technology focused on forward-thinking theories around attention and the changing nature of the classroom in the age of technology. I liked the disruptive nature of the product and was excited to see how it would impact a long-unchanged industry.

 

Not many people in LA tech can say they grew up in Venice, but Dylan Caldwell, a software engineer at El Segundo-based Ace Metrix, can. The Bay Area was always in the cards for Caldwell, but trips to his hometown gave him insight into something big stirring down the street: Snapchat.

Hometown: Venice, CA

College: Berkeley

Were you aware of the tech scene in LA when you were going to college?

I was pretty aware the scene was booming, particularly starting when Snapchat set up their HQ in Venice Beach, a hundred yards from where I grew up. To add to that, what used to be vacant lots in front of my building became beachside office buildings for companies like theCHIVE.

Why did you decide to work in LA? Was it always in the plans, or did you find your way back here?

Working in LA was always in the plans, although that was not driven by opportunities in tech but rather by being back with friends/family and preferring the LA scene/weather etc. I always knew (or at least assumed) there would be plenty of opportunities here as well.

What differentiates working in LA from other tech communities like Silicon Valley or New York City?

This is difficult for me to address, as I haven't actually worked in either of those places. I have friends who are in Silicon Valley working for some of the giants, but most of what we discuss simply highlights the differences between startups and huge tech companies, not necessarily the differences between LA and the Valley. I lived in a bubble in Berkeley, and we certainly had reps from Facebook and Google making appearances on campus, but I never truly got a good feel for what it would be like to work up there.

Why did you decide to work for Ace Metrix?

Getting out of school, I really didn't have enough on my resume. I didn't take advantage of some of the things that were available to me, be it from lack of passion at the time, or the fact that I didn't devote my studies to Computer Science until sometime in my 3rd year (I was "engineering undeclared" prior to this). As a result, I was ready to take anything that provided freedom to learn. When I got the offer at Ace, I was also on my third round of interviews for a job at Northrup Grumman. That position involved staring at thousands of lines of Fortran code looking for potential pitfalls, so needless to say, I immediately took the job at Ace and I've never looked back. 

Working here has truly been a fantastic experience for me these last four years, and I'm not exaggerating when I say I have learned 10 times as much here than I did in school in the same amount of time.

What specifically made you move to LA instead of joining the tech scene in the Bay Area? 

Only the most dedicated, high GPA students were getting interviews with companies like Google, so that seemed out of reach and at the time. I thought to myself, "what's the difference between a startup in Silicon Valley or back in LA?" If I'm not going to work for one of the big tech companies with the (alleged) amazing perks, then I might as well go back home and find a job, which is essentially what I was going to do all along anyways. I simply didn't like living in northern California, so it would have taken an amazing opportunity falling into my lap to pry me away from going back to LA. Lastly, the dream at that time was to work for Blizzard, which is located in Irvine, so the fact that it was close was icing on the cake when deciding to move back to LA.

 

Grant Collins, a software engineer with music tech startup Stem Disintermedia, did not grow up in LA, but he did attend college in the area. Unlike some, Collins became acquainted with the local startup community as a student at USC. While he planned to take his talents north, his love for music is ultimately what kept him in the City of Angels.

Hometown: San Diego

College: USC 

Were you aware of the tech scene in LA when you were going to college?

Yes. I worked with a few startups making prototypes and advising and then started on an idea which led me to Troy Carter's Smashd Labs accelerator where I met a bunch of people involved in tech and startups here in LA.

Why did you decide to work in LA? Was it always in the plans, or did you find your way back here? 

I had planned to work in San Francisco or the greater Bay Area prior to my startup exposure in LA. Music is probably my longest standing and most involved interest so the opportunity to apply my skill set to a passion point was pretty much a perfect compromise.

What differentiates working in LA from other tech communities like Silicon Valley or New York City? 

Entertainment is a long-standing industry that usually overshadows tech in LA. I got lucky finding the right people who ended up being the bridge between the two. Working on software solutions to music and music industry problems is something that seems almost proprietary to LA as a city since this is where a lot of the creation and deal making happens. 

Why did you decide to work for Stem?

I met Tim Luckow and later Jovin Cronin-Wilesmith and just fell in line with their energy and the company's mission. Like I said before, music is really important to me so being able to build software that has some connection to it is all I could ask for. On top of that my brother is a musician so working on a product that could change the way he approaches his career is pretty motivating. 

 

Jake Miller grew up in southern Orange County before making his way to Oklahoma to be a Golden Hurricane at the University of Tulsa. Now a user insights analyst at Gravity Brands, Miller experienced enough during his time in Tulsa that made him certain where he'd head next.

Hometown: San Clemente, CA

College: The University of Tulsa

Were you aware of the tech scene in LA when you were going to college?

I was not. I only became aware of it toward the end of graduate school, when I began applying for jobs in California.

Why did you decide to work in LA? Was it always in the plans, or did you find your way back here?

I planned to come back to Southern California, because once you've experienced the weather, food and culture here it becomes impossible to be satisfied anywhere else. LA is booming, and it seemed like the natural choice for someone looking for a fulfilling career in the region.

What differentiates working in LA from other tech communities like Silicon Valley or New York City?

LA has a distinct culture and atmosphere that nowhere else has captured. Every part of the city has something unique to offer. Personally, I live in LA because I want to live in LA, and there happens to be a great tech scene here. If I lived in Silicon Valley or New York, it would be because there are tech companies there and I could tolerate being there. It's a different paradigm. Plus, being a newer entrant into the tech industry means LA has the scrappiest, most-exciting companies.

Why did you decide to work for company? 

Gravity Brands is in the early-stage period where foundational decisions are still being made. However, unlike many companies in this stage, our business model quickly yielded positive results. It's rare to find a company on this promising of a trajectory; many are either struggling to find a viable business model, or are so thoroughly established that the excitement of "being a startup" is gone. The founders here understand the importance of digital information to a modern, optimized business, and treat every position with the importance it deserves.

 

Images via participating companies and Flickr.

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