Talks and Travels in California
In February 2018 I helped judge the Developer Week Hackathon, and spoke at the Developer Week conference in San Fransisco. My talk was a primer on neural networks for developers in the Artificial Intelligence(AI) track of the event. It was an amazing experience! I’m a South African based in Johannesburg, and I had never been to the United States before. I also decided to make it a vacation and explored San Fransisco, Los Angeles, and Las Vegas after the event. The thought of speaking at a conference in the tech innovation hub of the world, and solo travelling a country I have never been to was both exciting, and scary for a number of reasons.
Expectations vs Reality
Travel Expectations: I expected to have a lot of administration overhead and hassle whilst travelling since I was a first time visitor in the US. I carried all the relevant documentation for my trip, and had many nights prior imagining being interrogated and harassed — scary, however, I was excited to learn how the process works and experience something different.
Travel Reality: My travels to, within, and out of the US was seamless! I had no issues whatsoever. The officials I dealt with were friendly and accommodating, making a trip that I was nervous about quite a surprisingly pleasant experience.
Local Expectations: I expected the local people to be generally conservative, and resistant to conversation and interaction. I have met a few people from the US at local events in the past and they all seemed like great people, but my warped view of US locals was mainly derived from the perception that the media created. However, it was still an exciting thought to meet people from different cultures and learn about their lives.
Local Reality: The people were great! Almost everyone I met was helpful, friendly, and accommodating. I ended up making good friends with many people from wildly different backgrounds who lived in various states to a point where we hung out together later. Some did mention that California is an exception to other states — either way, I formed some good relationships and enjoyed the company.
Developer Expectations: I had some expectations regarding the stature of developers in Silicon Valley. I expected everyone I meet to be unbelievably smart, very experienced, and devoted to technology. The scary thought was delivering a disappointing talk to this audience, the exciting thought was learning from knowledgable people in the industry.
Developer Reality: My expectations of the developers were somewhat debunked. I met many nice people, but they were as smart, competent, and passionate about what they do as many developers in South Africa. I remember thinking, “techies will be techies, we’re all the same”. It was both comforting to know that I can relate to almost everyone, and it brought a sense of pride for what we have achieved in SA in the technology space. Don’t get me wrong, I did meet some really smart people, doing really interesting things, but on average, the stature was comparable to people I know locally.
Conference expectations: I expected the scale of the conference to be huge with many people attending allowing for great opportunities for networking. I also expected it to be organised like a well oiled machine.
Conference reality: The conference was huge. There were many thousands of attendees and quite a number of exhibitions from tech giants and startups. It was organised very well, and the speaker experience was very comfortable— with that said, it was somewhat similar to conferences I’ve attended and spoken at locally, just on a much larger scale with a few extra perks.
Talk expectation: I’ve given many talks in the past and I’ve become pretty comfortable speaking, however, without knowledge of the audience in San Fransisco, it got to me. I wanted to make sure that people learn something new and hopefully become inspired to use that knowledge to further themselves and do extraordinary things.
Talk reality: The talk was received well. As a speaker, I always critique myself a bit too harshly, but having a full room, tons of questions, compliments after the talk, and someone say “Thank you, this was the best talk I’ve seen”, made me feel like I nailed it.
I visited three cities in around two and a half weeks. Here’s some highlights from the places I visited.
San Fransisco: What a vibrant city. I enjoyed meeting new and interesting people in the tech industry, building relationships, and exploring the fascinating city. It was also great to catch up with friends from the US. The night life was unlike anything I’ve experienced, there was a certain charm that seemed indigenous to San Fransisco. I also decided to cycle the Golden Gate Park and surrounding areas in a day, it was a great experience and likely something I wouldn’t usually do in my home city.
Los Angeles: I was fortunate enough to be staying in Beverly Hills, so the surrounding attractions were fantastic. Everything was upscale, clean, and safe. I ventured to the beaches, West Hollywood, and Universal City which all had their own unique and amazing experiences.
Las Vegas: I think I was in Vegas for a bit too long. Two days should be enough in the crazy city. There was lots to see and do, always something new to catch your attention. I’m glad this was my last destination because the amount of travelling and this city took a bit out of me. I always wanted to say it…what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas…
Observations and Quirks
There were definitely some quirks that I observed in California and Las Vegas, and I couldn’t help but compare them to everyday life in South Africa. Sure, I was probably mostly visiting tourist spots, but it’s worth mentioning.
- Niches: Most developers that I spoke to seemed to have started specialising in a niche at an earlier stage in their careers. This was surprising since more developers in SA strive to be generalists. After thinking about it, my outlook is that there’s many domains to apply a niche in the US so it becomes feasible for a developer to apply their skills in different areas. In SA the domains are narrow which means the only real way to grow is to become a more well-rounded developer — this is just a naive theory.
- Hustle: Many people that I spoke to in California and Las Vegas have more than one job, this includes developers, waiters, train operators, hotel staff, etc. It seems that there is a culture to do as much as possible to live as good as possible, or perhaps the pay isn’t great. I appreciate the work ethic and willingness to do more instead of complaining and doing little.
- Prices without Tax: Almost all prices advertised exclude tax. Going in, I thought it wouldn’t be a big difference in the shopping experience, but it is. With not being used to price tags exclude tax, I often felt surprised when receiving a bill. I understand the reason is that different states have different taxes, but this is something that I couldn’t get used to. In SA, almost every price is advertised including tax. In the case that it’s not, it is explicitly specified. The cost of living is also amazing in South Africa taking quality of living into consideration.
- Payments: In South Africa, all payments at retail stores, restaurants, bars, and almost any other establishment are done via a chip and PIN card machine or by scanning a QR code using an app. The process is: Receive bill > write down tip and total> waiter brings card machine and inserts card > patron enters secret PIN > transaction is complete. In the US the process is a bit different: Receive bill >remember that tax was added > waiter takes your card away, swipes it, then brings it back > write down tip and total — and I assume thereafter the actual transaction happens. The problems here are possible human error in entering the final amount, cloning of cards, and someone capturing card numbers and security numbers without the card owner’s knowledge. This was a weird thing to get used to since locally, we have adopted wide measures to improve payment security.
- Tips: In South Africa, a 10% to 15% tip is acceptable. In the US, a minimum of 20% is expected. I don’t dispute the fact that the workers rely on tips to survive, but that shouldn’t generally be the case. People should be paid enough. It felt like the tipping culture created a subtle tension between the patron and employee.
- Public transport: The public transport system in San Fransisco and Las Vegas was affordable, convenient, and it just works. In South Africa, we face many problems with public transportation such that it is mostly not feasible to use it practically without putting aside a lot of time.
- Traffic: I used to think Johannesburg and Cape Town had terrible traffic, then I experienced it in San Fransisco and Los Angeles. The traffic in these cities were unbelievable — Elon Musk wanting to build unground roads makes total sense now. I also noticed that since most vehicles are automatic in the US, it reduced the “clumps” of traffic that usually build up due to inefficient gear changes on the highway.
- Valet parking: In the areas that I visited there was almost no available self-service parking at many places — there seemed to be an abundance of valet parking services which were quite pricey, this also meant trusting a stranger with your vehicle. In SA we rarely have valet parking services, and self-service parking is usually more or less good enough and widely available. Since vehicle theft is a problem, people are more hesitant to trust anyone with the keys to their car.
- Stores: There’s always a Wallgreens or CVS store around the corner. These stores, I think, are meant to be pharmacies but stock anything you need. It was strange to see an abundance of these hybrid stores everywhere and some even opened 24/7. In SA we have many grocery stores everywhere which usually close at around 20:00. The difference in layout and the stock that each store had compared to local stores was surprising. The other option for snacks and necessities is the store at a petrol station, which is true for both countries.
- Food: Some food in California was absolutely amazing, usually the Mexican food, and some was not good at all to the point that I felt ill. It was strange to find the two ends of the spectrum. Most places had not cooked the food well, and the fresh produce was usually not as fresh as I would normally expect. This gave me a huge appreciation for the quality of food and fresh produce in South Africa. I guess logistics is not as big of a problem locally since the country is a lot smaller; meaning farm-to-store time is a lot quicker. Perhaps the style of cooking is also something that I wasn’t accustom to.
Appreciation for South Africa 🇿🇦
I’ve gained a huge appreciation for South Africa. We have a beautiful country with great weather, no major recurring natural disasters, amazing food, a reasonable cost of living; and in the tech scene, I’m surrounded by arguably some of the best technologists in the world. I’ve also gained a greater appreciation for the culture at the company I work at, Entelect. We’ve fostered something so special as a software development company where work is exciting, growth is encouraged and nurtured, and real relationships between people are create. I’ve realised that this culture is rare to find and difficult to grow anywhere in the world without people who genuinely care for other people putting thought and effort towards it. Lastly, I’ve realised that there’s vast opportunity for using technology to solve problems unique to South Africa. There are hundreds of startups in first-world countries solving niche problems that sometimes don’t make a real difference to anyone. There are also many startups directly completing for a small market with other startups or tech giants which reduces chances of success. I see immense possibility for technologists in Africa to apply their minds and skills to solutions that can make a real impact, solve problems that are unique to the continent, and innovate in unique and creative ways.