Berlin Tech Scene

It’s 38 degrees celsius in Berlin this week, so I’m going to keep this post relatively short. I chose to move to Berlin four years ago (that’s in 2014) directly following my PhD. I chose this city for a number of reasons, one of which is the apparent burgeoning tech scene. I wanted to do a postdoc in Europe, but I wanted the possibility of not having to move city/country again after the contract ended. At the time, three cities stood out for me: London, Paris and Berlin.

London was my first home abroad; I moved there when I was 17. But the political climate in the UK has been toxic for about 10 years now. I’ve considered moving there many times, and each time I’ve rejected the opportunity. Quelle surprise: Brexit finally happened 2 years ago!

Paris is where my heart resides (metaphorically). I love that city. It is where I have felt most comfortable in life. And the opportunities there are vastly underrated in the english-speaking world. However, in 2014 France was experiencing the worst effects of the 2008-induced recession. I could have gone there. But moving to Paris with neither a job nor a place to live is a level of stress which I do not wish on my worst enemies (ok, maybe on a few of them).

There were a few smaller options, such as Zurich, Bern, Amsterdam, etc. Most were rejected for a combination of personal reasons and/or being too small.

And so I came to live in Berlin.

First impressions

The reputation of Berlin abroad is: big city, heavy tech scene, lots of start-ups, lots of English speaking, great diversity.

The last two are true.

Having moved here from Chicago, with a previous residence in Paris, I found Berlin to be quite small. This, both in terms of size and density. The current population is 3.4 million. The area is 891 sq km which, coincidentally, is almost precisely the area of Grand Paris, which has a population of 7 million. More importantly, once you leave Berlin there are no major centres of population for quite a distance in every direction, meanwhile Chicago and Paris are the focal points of populations of about 15 million people each.

I was involved in the technical meet-up scenes in both Paris and Chicago. Both cities have enormous tech talent. During my time at the University of Chicago, I was the largest single user of compute resources at their Resource Computing Center (Apparently they’ve renamed it Research Computing Center now). I did large scale simulations on GPUs, which was particularly cutting-edge at the time. This led to a lot of interesting conversations with the guys writing high-frequency trading algorithms for some of the large commodities firms in town. We would meet on the fringes of the larger tech community and discover a shared passion for shaving half-a-millisecond off computations (yeah – I know how weird that sounds; for context see the reputation of my school).

Coming to Berlin was a cold bath in a tech-free zone compared to my previous experience. I would persistently begin conversations with techies only to realise that they had no idea how basic computing concepts work. I’d say maybe 50% knew what HTML was. Most had no idea what a compiler is. 99% could not program in any programming language. But they all worked in technical start-ups and attended meet-ups.

Weird, huh?

Ok, so it’s always an asshole move to come somewhere new with various preconceptions and insist that the place match those preconceptions. I parked my dreams of start-up heaven. I engaged more with the academic community than with meet-ups. And I kept most of my opinions to myself.

Getting to know the nerds

I’m not usually a fan of the word nerd. But it’s important to distinguish the real tech-geeks from the rest here. Over the course of my first two years in Berlin I began to get to know a number of the people with heavy technical skills.

I founded and ran the Julia Users Berlin group. We had a slow start, but eventually we picked up members and ran quite successfully for a couple of years. But we rarely had more than 15 attendees, with a population of less than 100 who were interested enough to join the meet-up group and receive updates.

I spent considerable time trying to understand the scene here. I was beginning to realise that I want to spend roughly half of my working life outside of academia, and in order to do this I need to live in a place where this is possible.

Through my teaching, I became known to my students for Advanced Scientific Computing. This is an amazing course, for which I inherited the outline from Tiziano Zito. I will be writing up the experience in a future blog post, but there is a bare sketch available now on my website. Some of my more industrially-oriented students were involved behind the scenes of PyData Berlin, which resulted in my being invited to speak there the past three years.

I used this opportunity to meet a wider community of numerically-oriented computer people. This resulted in an interestingly tiered perspective on tech in Berlin.

Tech in Berlin (c. 2014-2016)

My take on tech in Berlin for the years 2014 – 2016 is that it was almost entirely web dev oriented. The scene had been dominated for years by Rocket Internet. The business model of which, was reputed to be: copy successful businesses, localise them to new markets, do it cheap, do it fast, get out. I cannot attest to the accuracy of this model. But I have heard it often enough to believe that it is at least the public (techie) perception of the approach.

Berlin was a city of starving artists. They sold their talent extremely cheaply. And a number of successful companies sucked up this talent and oriented it towards web driven products.

Berlin has no history of heavy industry. None. Check the history books, you’ll figure out why.

In other German cities it is heavy industry which subsidises the tech scene. Car manufacturers pay enormous salaries (eg. €130,000 for a programmer with 2 years experience) for programming talent. These guys have a guaranteed job for life. They have decent technical skills. And they can basically choose their own terms and conditions.

None of these circumstances exist in Berlin. I know of programmers receiving as little as €30,000 per year. I know of PhD data scientists on €50,000 and grateful for it. Yes, the cost of living is low. But any mathematically-inclined idiot must be able to realise that we all need to put aside money for our retirements and by then the cost base of Berlin will equal that of any other western European capital…. so accepting a lower salary now, due to lower cost of living, is a fool’s investment.

Thankfully, these figures have changed a lot since 2016.

The highly talented (and experienced) software developers who I have met in Berlin typically break down into a number of groups: individuals doing a deeply technical job, alone, for a company; people working in highly computational roles within Zalando; people who don’t stay. A number of other groups have appeared on the scene since 2016, but I will address them in a future article.

The individuals, working alone, are always extremely happy to meet an experienced programmer with whom they can discuss: esoteric programming languages (Delphi anyone? – one of my favourite languages), compiler design, numerical computing, etc. They live here for any one of a variety of reasons. And they back up my impression of a lack of a deep-tech scene.

It took me longer than I would like to admit to meet the people at Zalando. They are great. They are super talented. But they are busy. They typically do not engage in out-of-house meet-ups. And, they’re  not exactly cheerleading how wonderful it is to code-up Berlin’s answer to selling fashion online. Many see it as a regretful obligation in order to earn in accordance with their needs and to keep their families in Berlin.

Finally, there are the people who realise that they can earn 2-3 times as much elsewhere. They will have a higher quality of life. A less booming housing market. Etc… They just go.

Changing scene

The Berlin tech scene has changed enormously in the past couple of years. In a future article I will talk about what I’ve seen in 2017 and 2018, starting with the appearance of the Amazon research lab, looking at the Innovation Hubs, and culminating with my own experience of starting a company via the first cohort at the Entrepreneur First incubator.

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