I grew up in the Silicon Valley, attending high school in the early 1990s just down the road from places such as Santa Clara, Cupertino, and Palo Alto, where the world’s digital revolution was ablaze. Both of my parents worked for tech companies, most notably my mom, who went from being one of Intel’s first receptionists to a respected executive during her 40 years there. Granted, I was just 18 when I left San Jose for college in Santa Barbara, but I had a pretty good idea of what a booming tech scene felt like.
So when I graduated from UCSB 16 years ago, started reporting for this newspaper, and sporadically heard that Santa Barbara was on the verge of its own tech boom — that the arrival of “Silicon Beach 2.0” was imminent, a notion that hit headlines every few years — I’d mostly just scratch my head. Sure, there were a few companies here and there, but there was no noticeable scene that affected the overall community, no “ecosystem,” as techies are prone to say.
Then the rumors started again a couple of years ago, but this time, there were glimmers of truth. Sonos had Super Bowl commercials, people I knew worked at Yardi and Citrix, I’d been to events at QAD, and Lynda.com started sponsoring the film fest. Then I found myself writing about start-up weekends and hackathons, interviewing executives from companies such as AppFolio, and walking by places such as Invoca, where big open windows showed off colorful, buzzing offices full of young-ish employees — you know, what you think the inside of Google or Facebook headquarters looks like. As IPO became a more familiar abbreviation, I also noticed residual effects: more people in their twenties, thirties, and forties were living in town, supporting good restaurants and wineries, and getting involved with music and the arts — collectively contributing to a more interesting and eclectic Santa Barbara.
“Could it be?” I began to consider. “Could Santa Barbara really be experiencing a tech boom?” About six months ago, I got tired of wondering, put on my reporter cap, and started calling around to find the answer. It turned out that executives were eager to talk, thankful for the attention, and resounding in their response: Not only is Santa Barbara’s tech sector buzzing, but our relatively small region is becoming known nationally as a hub for quality start-ups. According to many experts, when it comes to doing tech in California, Santa Barbara is actually considered number three — albeit a distant third — behind Silicon Valley and Santa Monica (which, by the way, took that “Silicon Beach” moniker and ran with it).
There are challenges, of course, much like the ones we all face: Cost of living, especially housing, is high, yet wages struggle to compete with bigger cities. The talent pool is not especially deep. Physical growth is constrained by lack of available building space, which means companies must consider expanding elsewhere when they reach a certain size. Air travel from our pretty airport can be an expensive pain in the butt. (Though subscription-based airlines like Surf Air are helping.)
But the advantages of basing your tech firm here are myriad, as well — again, much like the ones we all enjoy. The quality of life here is unparalleled. Traffic doesn’t really exist, so commutes are usually 15 minutes or less, and that’s often on foot or bike. You can surf on your lunch break and catch a world-class concert after dinner. Renowned computer science, engineering, and entrepreneurial programs at UCSB, SBCC, and even Cal Poly up the coast — not to mention more of an engineering and STEM focus at schools like Dos Pueblos and Santa Barbara High — translate to a steady flow of marketable brilliance flowing into our streets with every graduation ceremony. And thanks to a reliable track record for bright people and quality companies, luring people from Silicon Valley to Santa Barbara is easier than ever before — if only because there are now more opportunities to explore if that first job doesn’t work out.
So after speaking with more than 30 executives and getting survey questions answered by nearly 100 companies and organizations, it’s quite clear to me that Santa Barbara is well on its way to becoming a digital paradise by the sea. And that’s something we’d all benefit from supporting because these are generally very clean, good-paying jobs that don’t require tons of space to employ smart people. Those who complain that there’s no way to keep their kids in town should take note.
What follows is just a sampling of the histories, people, and trends pushing this new reality, as well as the results of our first-ever survey.
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