Forging a Swiss Lens: 3 Ways Zurich Changed My View of Silicon Valley
Guest contributor Matthew Daiter reflects on life at a Swiss startup — and his return to Silicon Valley.
There we were, floating down the Limmatplatz on our makeshift inflatable pizza raft. One by one we peeled off the sides, shooting alpine water at one another while ensuring our raft didn’t pop. Stares accompanied our shrieks while we nearly capsized our boat through a turbine. This would only serve as a minimal precursor for the wasps, sunburn, and my almost-lost passport that accompanied our virgin outing of our “Italian Crusader I”.
Our outing was an end to my time living in Zurich, and working in the Swiss tech sphere. Starkly contrasting the rain and stress that had greeted me on my first day in Switzerland, this day felt lighthearted. Drinking beer on a pizza, followed by eating a pizza, and eventually simulating a pizza at Seat 3, Gate 75 in Zurich Airport, all distracted me from my recruiter’s lingering responses to my questions at at my new job in Silicon Valley.
“Intense,” my recruiter responded to my question about my new hours. “And with a lot of responsibility. Occasionally people work weekends here.” He added, “We’re composed of small teams. If you pull hard, people will notice; but be warned that if you mess up, people know where to point the finger.”
People work weekends? Even during crunch-time at our startup in Switzerland, the office was vacant outside of workdays.
“Is there over-time pay for working weekends?” I asked.
“No overtime. Vacation days are given out on occasion, but no guarantees.”
I couldn’t help but question my own actions pertaining to my return back to the States.
On one hand, living in Switzerland felt artificial and forced. My hasty departure from the States landed me in an awkward visa situation, granting me permission to live in Luxembourg and long-term sublet in Switzerland. The spoken language carries a heavily localised dialect, rendering it difficult to pick up without costly courses. My nationality hampered my ability to obtain medical treatment or open a bank account in Zurich.
But on the other hand, living in Zurich forced completely unanticipated personal growth. Weekends once filled with work and JIRA tickets were now occupied with impulsive SCUBA trips off the Italian coast, ibex-spotting excursions in southeast Switzerland, and under-the-bridge “nature raves” a quick train-ride away from Zurich proper. Being able to remove myself from the constant specter of work made me more creative and driven; in fact, this replenished focus led to developing the research that landed me and my co-publishers a spot at the European Conference of Computer Vision in 2016. Zurich, with its initially cold and unwelcoming air, proved to be filled with incredibly inviting and skilled individuals that force-fed life into our startup. Tucked away in the Swiss Alps happened to be a large village of congregated intellectuals pushing the frills of science without the warping magnet of fiscal motivation eroding personal development.
Would returning to the States — with weekends working, long commutes, and a culture of outworking others as a sense of social validation — be worth the effort?
Returning felt almost foreign. My smile dropped when I left my apartment for my first commute to my job in Sunnyvale. In front of me, a homeless man pleaded for help to cross the street. Bodies rushed past him, urgent to catch fleeting express trains to their six-figure jobs in South Bay. Tripping over the impoverished to make thousands per week symbolized one of many culture shocks on my return to the States: polarization seeps into the foundation propping up San Francisco. This is the system I support?
My first train ride would commence my stark re-entry to American Reality. For five days a week, a three-hour roundtrip commute and a ten-hour workday would become standard. Money replaced personal time: from DoorDash’ed desk dinners to Ubers for when public transport closed, money became an excuse for the sacrilege of sleep and after-work personal space. While I hammered away at code for 12 hours a day, my far-sight eye muscles relaxed and my long-term vision diluted to a two-week gaze.
My (multi-thousand kilometer) leap of faith revealed far more about Silicon Valley than I could have imagined. There’s a lot of emerging discussion around Hacker News and the Bay Area that spawned from various domestic American events about immigrating to another country to pursue founding a startup. Switzerland tectonically shifted my view of entrepreneurship in Silicon Valley, debased American Reality for me, and redefined my idea of success. Invariably the right move for me at the time, I hope this article sheds light on the process of immigration and starting-up abroad. Here are three ways my “Swiss lens” changed my vision of Silicon Valley.
1. LESS CHOICE LEADS TO MORE CONCENTRATION
Routine seeps into Swiss culture. Trash must be disposed within certain types of bags. Trains must depart on time. Assigned laundry days are commonplace. The streets are cleanly swept and washed down daily. Like clockwork, Switzerland moves to an implicit schedule expressed throughout the perceivable culture.
Tuning out the outside world proved to be one of the main advantages of Zurich. The lack of decision-making prodding for attention let our research team more whole-heartedly focus on the tasks at hand. My laundry would be done on Friday night at 6. The 33 bus for home always came to the office at 11:35 (I’m a late sleeper) and left at 00:06. My groceries rarely became unavailable or varied in price, making it easy to budget out monthly costs. All of this culminated in an easy commute to the office, focus on work, and leave without fretting about fiscal or scheduling issues.
When returning to the Bay Area, grocery shopping was one of many trivialities that caught me off-guard. Twenty variations of yogurt lined the grocery shelves, each with different price points and niches. At the top were premium and exclusive foreign yogurts. Scanning further down the aisle came variations in yogurt sale points. “No sugar added”. “Icelandic rations”. “Cashew-milk-made”. Overwhelmed by options, I found myself choosing products not due to a rationale on the product itself, but on the advertised price point and deals that accompanied it. As the only common variable between so many dimensions of a product I thought I had known, this was my fallback mechanism.
This was just for yogurt.
Noise — visual, auditory, cultural — can empower or dampen the focus and amplitude of executing your idea. Growing up in America normalized one extreme of this; Switzerland, the other. San Francisco is filled with all degrees of opportunity; you need to find your place and hone in on what you want. Switzerland can be quiet enough to hear a cigarette crackle at night. You need to construct what you want.
While having less choice was initially off-putting, it allowed me to tune out parts of my life that I found didn’t matter, leading to a more efficient work process and faster results.
2. STRONG PUBLIC INVESTMENT CAN OUTPERFORM THE PRIVATE SECTOR IN CREATING BETTER INDIVIDUAL EXPERIENCES.
I had always assumed that private companies simply outperformed Bay Area public services because of market pressure and their higher cost. Owning a car or using a ride-share app would get you to a destination faster and more comfortably than using public transport; private schools typically delivered better educational results than the public system (unless you lived in a wealthy school district); and private healthcare was so expensive because its quality was incredible compared to public clinics. Data existed to reinforce this: the MUNI in San Francisco has an on-time rate of 57%. The New York Times published extensive data correlating wealth and educational development; and for the hefty price of Cigna or Kaiser, San Francisco hospitals mostly outrank other national offerings.
Switzerland blew my logic out of the water.
In 2013, 87.5% of passengers reached their destination within three minutes of the advertised time within Switzerland. Compare this to the MUNI in San Francisco, which has an on-time percentage rate of 57%. The MUNI’s lack of predictability contributes to the creation of fallbacks onto private infrastructure filling the vacuum for an in-efficient public transportation system in San Francisco, such as ride sharing services like Uber or Lyft. These makeshift props for those that can bear the cost cause the general public to lose out and fluctuations in budgeting transportation for the month, leading to more induced stress and worse predictability.
Whether visiting Luxembourg from Switzerland, going on a weekend beach vacation to Italy, or bumming off to the Swiss wilderness, the expansive and well- maintained public transportation system makes daisy-chaining transport links easy and predictable. 1.5 hours of train, bus and cable-car travel can get you to the side of an alp in Amden or a lake in Lucerne. And for this reason, co-workers and I hiked on the weekend and explored Switzerland and surrounding countries. Getting to Yosemite National Park from San Francisco takes around 3.5 hours by car, and even more time by multiple non-coordinated legs of public transportation.
ETH Zurich and EPFL (Switzerland’s flagship technical universities and two of the top engineering schools in the world) provided top-notch education for all Swiss high-school graduates at an affordable price-point of 580 CHF a semester. Comparable schools in the Bay Area (Stanford and UC Berkeley) offer tuition for $16,329 a semester and $13,900 a semester, respectively, and only admit a select few. Not only did these easily accessible, meritocratic Swiss universities produce a wealth of qualified and ambitious young scientists and engineers, but having ETH Zurich twenty minutes away created a backdoor into one of the most qualified talent pools in continental Europe for scaling our startup. Recruiting events like Startup Speed Dating flooded our resume bank with highly capable applicants. With Switzerland’s popular percentage-based work system, these students could easily split work and research, and we could directly profit off of this talent pool.
Furthermore, ETH’s free public schooling system for auditors meant that a world-caliber education was only a short bus ride away. In an industry where uncommon educational trajectories are normalized, the Swiss educational system encourages continual educational development without the particular commitment of obtaining a diploma. When performing 3D-reconstruction research, sitting in on classes and hammering top-notch professors with our questions allowed us to move faster throughout our development cycles.
Finally, healthcare was not only cheap, but also of incredible quality. Under the Swiss system, having healthcare is mandatory; however, average healthcare in Switzerland costs only 200-400CHF ($201-$402) a month. With this, all basic services are provided at a fixed, up-front cost under national law. No insurance company can profit off of these basic services. For an average-salaried Swiss worker ($60,124 in 2016), self-financing healthcare is approachable.
When I woke up one morning with an illness, I immediately rushed off to ETH’s hospital for treatment. While I was turned down due to my nationality and lack of Swiss-specific living permit, I was able to obtain treatment at the free clinic within the train station. Although needing to pay out-of-pocket for treatment, Luxembourgish health care covered all of my costs from the social system through expedited invoices. Over the coming months, the clinic urged me to return for checkups (completely covered by social services) while taking high-grade and fast-acting pharmaceuticals (also completely covered by social services) to ensure a full recovery. Normally, clinics in the Bay Area are for the uninsured, with an attached stigma of lesser quality and optionality. Clinics in Switzerland allowed for quick and easy high-quality recuperation.
Heavy public investments created reliable, maintainable, and quality services. Zurich proved that a system optimized to the needs of the public instead of the individual can offer alternate avenues to provide a better experience that services everyone’s needs.
3. ADJUSTABLE WORK SCHEDULES BOOSTED EMPLOYEE RETENTION AND EASIER RECRUITMENT OF DYNAMIC LABOR POOLS
In Switzerland, employees can usually decide the percentage of a week they’d like to work in return for the corresponding percentage of a complete full-time salary. Having this concept integrated as a societal norm mitigated outside factors causing burnout and stress.
When I became hospitalized, not only were my medical bills completely taken care of, but my teammates emphasized that my return would be on my own schedule with my own ramp-up period. This became integral when returning to my role at Nomoko. In America, employers often limit sick days and can fire employees who can’t promptly return. American companies aren’t required by federal law to provide paid sick days to employees, leaving more than a third of Americans with absolutely no sick days.
When we needed to let go of my co-worker, she was legally entitled to receive 70% of her previous compensation for 6 months. Switzerland has an incredible unemployment system: if you ever become unemployed, the Swiss government will provide 70-80% of your prior compensation for up to 18 months. While this may seem overly generous, this doesn’t actually affect the unemployment rate significantly; in fact, Switzerland has the same unemployment rate compared to the United States. A massive societal safety net helped employees feel enabled to take a risk working for our startup.
Finally, vacation time is plentiful and without stigma. My American work- weekends were replaced with email-free Alp hikes. When I decided to take my (legal-minimum) four-week holiday on short notice, my boss encouraged me to go to avoid burnout. When I told my coworkers in Silicon Valley that I was going on a two-week vacation to Morocco, one team member shot back “we might not be able to find you, but email can!” American law doesn’t enforce employers to give vacation time off. 43% of Americans working at small businesses cited heavy workloads as a primary barrier to taking time off. While many tech startups in the Bay offer unlimited vacation as a perk, this can quickly be manipulated to ensure no large payouts become necessary for when employees leave, while disabling employees from going on vacation at all. Stigmatizing vacation doesn’t lead to more work getting done; it leads to disgruntled employees, output deceleration, and high workforce throughput.
Constant work-sprints in America led to slower results and resentment against my employer. Being able to pause led to higher spikes in creativity and further concentration within the workplace.
A SWISS MINDSET
When leaving for Switzerland, packing my life into a suitcase proved to be surprisingly easy. Irreplaceability trumped all else: I tucked away my typography books and electronics into my check-in bag, along with just a single hoodie for the approaching winter. A quick leaf over my valuables—passport, birth certificate with apostille, flight information—and then I departed.
Unpacking my life back in America has been difficult. Caught between multiple cultures, the culmination of working in Switzerland showed me first-hand that cultures tackle and optimise for various social and economic facets and that this active research on what the collective human effort can provide for its citizens benefits humanity as a whole. While I missed the Bay Area for its undying friendliness and creativity, some of its blemishes have become apparent only from gaining distance. Even while undergoing my reintegration to America, my mind still lingers in Switzerland.
Matthew Daiter has lived and worked in Zürich and Luxembourg for two years in the Swiss tech startup scene. Once having shoved his life into a suitcase and buying a one-way ticket to Europe, the invaluable entrepreneurial and life lessons defined his current experience and outlook in Silicon Valley.