Escape Velocity

by Sarah J Bell

Sarah Bell

Sarah Bell

This is not a story about inspiring young women to enter computer science. This is not advice for how to advance your career. This is not even a story about how I built a really cool piece of technology. This is simply the story of the most learning-intensive year of my adult life.

I left Silicon Valley two years ago. For anyone seeking to build the best technology that affects the greatest number of people, this is a bad idea. Silicon Valley is for tech what Florence was for the Renaissance. You want to write the world’s best code? Surround yourself with the world’s best engineers, live where they live, eat what they eat, play what they play.

Living in California, it turns out, is quite easy to get used to. I had gotten very used to it, and therein lay the problem. I’d recently been promoted, and in the what-nexts, another promotion seemed too obvious, even uninspired. In that proverbial list of things to do before reaching <arbitrary age here>, better-at-the-same wasn’t standing out. There was something else, though. Something I’d thought of doing four years before, and even longer ago than that, back in college. Something that always elicited an internal snicker of jealousy whenever I’d heard of someone else doing it. That thing was living abroad.

I chose Israel for a divergent list of reasons: I’d always wanted to learn Hebrew, there’s a vibrant tech scene in Tel Aviv, my company has an office there, the weather was warm, and I wanted to understand the political situation in a way that cannot come from simply reading a book. The reasons, of course, continue from there. All told, it seemed like a perfect fit for me. The project sounded really interesting, everyone I’d video conferenced with from the office seemed warm and welcoming, and I had a general notion that I was going to land on my feet. Which I ultimately did, though not without spending three and half months living out of a suitcase. Not without living in four different apartments in four different neighborhoods of Tel Aviv. Not without encountering dysfunctional cross-office communication on my team. And not without that team ultimately getting disbanded.

On top of my personal experiences, Israeli office culture posed a challenge. In particular, it is exceptional to find a work environment in Israel that values “soft skills”. Whenever someone says “soft skills”, it feels as if they are saying “pink skills”: those fuzzy, effeminate skills that hard-core technical people will never admit to having. They’ll pay soft skills lip service but never actively seek them out. Never mind what my own balance of “hard” vs. “soft” skills might be; I prefer all of my skills to be appreciated, not just some.

In the end, what had seemed like a perfect fit from the outside had become a perfect storm. And yet, looking back at that time, I wouldn’t trade it in for smoother sailing. I now know that a suitcase can contain more than enough belongings to live on (though I really missed my teapot). I now know many pitfalls to avoid when building a team across sites. I have a freshly-calibrated radar for signs of a team under duress. And I have a newfound respect for the idea that some things are simply beyond one’s control, although it did take a trip to GHC last October to stop blaming myself for not being able to turn all my team’s problems around. At GHC, almost every inspirational speaker had a story of a team or a project or a manager they couldn’t turn around. The consensus among these successful technologists is that such situations are difficult to fix, practically unavoidable, and a valuable learning experience.

Coming back to that divergent list of reasons for moving to Israel, I’d done well on most counts. I’d become fluent in Hebrew, a far more difficult language than any I had tried my hand at before. For ten months, I lived four blocks from the beach, so I naturally took full advantage of the warm weather. I met interesting people working on many different kinds of tech, some of whom wound up becoming “kidney” friends (if they ever should need a kidney, I’d volunteer one of mine, presuming a blood-type match). Finally, while I can’t claim enough expertise to write the next book on the politics between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea, I’ve seen enough with my own eyes to disagree with any book I might pick up. In short, I learned a lot of things that must be lived, not just read.

I’m back stateside now, with the same questions as always, which I’ll pose to the reader: Is there anything you’ve been wanting to do for a long time? Something that you keep coming back to, even if the timing has never worked out? Something that inspires that snicker of jealousy when other people are doing it? Well, what are you waiting for?

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