Why I’m leaving Google and staying in Paris
I’ve been a Product Manager at Google for almost ten years. I’ve worked for Google on Search, Ads and YouTube, across Zurich, London and Paris. In June I’m leaving Google’s warm, comfortable embrace to join Shift Technology, a French startup based in Paris. (We’re hiring! Especially developers and PMs.) This article is my personal point of view on what’s happening in tech in Paris, not that of my former employer nor my new employer.
I’m not here to trash Google. Google remains an incredible company and an awesome place to work. Google’s most impressive achievement has been efficiently scaling high quality software engineering and the application of cutting edge research to a global organization. If you want to be involved in building great software or great organizations, you should talk to Google.
Rather, I want to share the excitement around tech in Paris. Paris had a slow start as a European tech capital — Berlin was an early leader, and London took over about five years ago. However, the last five years have been transformative for the City of Lights. It might not yet be visible to people outside of France, but in 5 years time Paris will be London’s equal as a tech ecosystem. Here’s why.
France has elevated two educational paths above others: business school and engineering school. For students who are strong in math — and math is highly valued by the French education system — these two paths are comparable in prestige to medicine and law in the English-speaking world. Result: Lots of top-notch business and engineering students.
France has probably the best set of engineering schools that you’ve never heard of (unless you’re French). Schools like ENS and Polytechnique produce engineers who are the equal of the best American schools. There’s a strong emphasis on the theoretical side of computer science (math, algorithms, data structures, complexity, etc). This has perhaps been a handicap in the past, when startups simply needed more PHP developers, but it’s an asset as the tech industry turns more and more towards machine learning.
There’s also business talent in France, but the story is more complicated. When I arrived in France four years ago, I was surprised by the number of talented people who had chosen to go to business school. A bit concerned actually. You can only make use of so many business graduates, and France was missing the chance to produce graduates with deep expertise like doctors, engineers or scientists.
I still suspect that too many people go to business school, but it has had a very positive side effect I didn’t appreciate initially. Each year a large number of highly ambitious, mathematically-minded, business-savvy graduates enter the French economy and are faced with the choice of selling shoes at Decathlon or trying to be the next Mark Zuckerberg. Many try their luck in tech, resulting in an explosion of early stage startups. In addition, French startups tend to be very commercially aware, avoiding many of the pitfalls that await technical founders (see HBO’s Silicon Valley).
Twenty-something years into the internet revolution, everyone is aware that a certain set of economic infrastructure can significantly impact the success rate of tech startups. Incubators, accelerators, angel investors, VC funds, and so forth help transform initial sparks into sustainable businesses.
Paris now has all these things, in style. One of the world’s biggest startup campuses, Station F, opened late last year. The Family have incubated a set of success stories and built a community. The alternative education institution 42 opened in Paris in 2013 and has now gone to Silicon Valley. There are plenty of VCs investing in France. Even the president is putting his weight behind AI. Make no mistake: France is focused on succeeding in tech.
There’s also one very important factor that is consistently undervalued by governments trying to emulate Silicon Valley. Big companies like Google, Facebook and Uber are increasing their investment and visibility in Paris. They have come because France has great engineers and is an important market, and because the French government is finally defrosting relations with American tech companies.
These firms bring immense amounts of value into markets where they establish engineering or research offices. They act as central nodes in the tech ecosystem, injecting experienced people, best practices, money and connections to the global marketplace. They also provide a secure fallback option — you can go back to a big tech company if your AI-powered croissant delivery service doesn’t work out.
When I first started visiting Silicon Valley in 2008, a colleague took me to Friday night drinks at a friend’s apartment. Engineers from many different companies were drinking beers and talking about technology. An engineer had a problem scaling his database; another gave a quick tutorial. A founder was struggling to find a decent PR agency — she left with a recommendation in hand. These weren’t guarded conversations at a networking event, they were friends chilling out together and unselfishly helping each other.
If you read about “Silicon Valley culture” these days, you’ll probably discover the heady brew of self-help startup mantras (“fail fast”, “celebrate failure”, etc) that has become the Valley’s signature recipe. However, I’m convinced that the West Coast culture of collaboration was a critical factor in building the Silicon Valley ecosystem. Success in technology requires knowledge, and this culture allowed knowledge to spread rapidly. As new companies pushed new technical boundaries and explored new economic models, the things they learnt quickly diffused throughout the entire community.
It has been wonderful to meet startup founders in Paris and find the same openness. There’s a feeling that something is happening in Paris and that we’re all facing an enormous opportunity, together. Founders are happy to discuss how to structure an organization, give references for people who might be a good fit for an open position, and share best technical practices. The sense of community being built in tech in Paris is delightful and important.
Modern, global work culture
Your parents have probably told you stories about how they visited Paris in the 1970s and were spat upon by a French waiter who refused to speak English. It’s simply not true any longer. Everyone under 40 speaks very good English, and they are happy to speak it. They occasionally laugh at my French, but always good-naturedly (“D’où vient ce petit accent ?”).
In a similar vein, if you think white collar Parisiens work 35 hours a week, you are mistaken. Londoners are at the pub long before Parisiens are on the metro. There’s a strong work ethic in Paris amongst professionals. At its worst it can be rigid and old-fashioned — in the style of “don’t go home before your boss” — but the new generation of French tech companies are emulating Silicon Valley in their workplace culture, with Paris’ professional drive.
One thing remains true though: France — especially Paris — shuts down in August. Everyone takes vacations, and everything stops. In July, you’ll often hear “à la rentrée”: literally “at the return”, usually signifying that your incredibly important project will have to wait until everyone is back from their August seaside vacations. (Google Translate even translates “à la rentrée” as “in September”.) C’est la vie.
No-one knows what will happen in 2019, but Brexit has already had an impact on France. The prospect of Britain leaving the EU has refocused attention on France, in two ways:
- The French government has been asking how it can make Paris the destination for businesses who are considering alternatives to London, leading to policies that support business investment, particularly in technology.
- French entrepreneurs are no longer looking across the Channel when deciding where to start their businesses; and London is drawing away less French talent.
My wife’s French friends from our time in London are emblematic of how France is benefiting. A generation of young French professionals spent their 20s in London, perfecting their English, building a global network, and honing their skills. They are coming back to Paris in their early 30s, mostly to start families in France, but also because London is becoming less attractive. They are starting their own businesses or joining friends’ startups, bringing invaluable expertise and a global culture.
So what’s missing?
Firstly, time. As my wife likes to say when our dinner guests are wilting from hunger at 9:30pm: “I don’t cook slowly, I just start late.” Tech ecosystems are snowballs, with success breeding success. Paris is clearly playing catch-up to London in terms of medium-sized startups and the cherished “unicorns” (tech startups with billion dollar valuations). However, all the signs are that Paris can catch up.
I’d also like to see the French government do more to attract international tech companies. I understand that US tech companies haven’t always been model citizens — I’d love them to pay more tax in Europe — but the tide seems to be turning. Responsibility is the new buzzword in Silicon Valley. If that enables further warming of the relationship between the French government and US tech companies, it could really help Paris.
Lastly, we need more experienced people. President Macron sent out a widely shared call to environmental scientists early in his presidency. We need a similar call to software engineers, data scientists, product managers, UX designers, and all the other professions that are critical to building great software. Paris is a delightful city and France is a beautiful country — if you’ve ever thought about spending time in Europe, I’d be happy to convince you that Paris is the right place for you.