Bilal Akhtar

"I was offered a six-figure salary with a signing bonus and stock options. I turned it down," says Bilal Akhtar. (Aaron Wynia)

Features | From Pivot Magazine

California dreamin'

An alarming number of Canada’s most talented computer engineering grads move to the U.S. Bilal Akhtar explains why he won’t be one of them.

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“When I was nine years old, my dad, an engineer, gave me a computer programming book. I taught myself how to code and, within a few years, I was learning about web apps, HTML and making patches for Linux, the open-source operating system. I fell in love with programming—it involved logic and puzzle solving, and I felt like I was making a contribution to computing.  

My family moved to Canada from Saudi Arabia when I was 14. We decided on Kitchener, Ont., because my older sister wanted to study software engineering at the nearby University of Waterloo, the best engineering school we found in Canada. Three years later, I decided to enrol in the same program.  

When I graduate next spring, I want to start my career in Canada. But most of my classmates want to go to the U.S. Some people say the migration out of Canada—the brain drain—is slowing down. From what I see, it’s speeding up. A recent Brock University report found that 40 per cent of Waterloo’s computer engineering and tech-related grads move to the U.S. They see going to Silicon Valley as a measure of success, and they think you need to be there to be successful. I used to want to move there, too.  

Then I interned at WhatsApp. For four months, I worked out of Facebook’s headquarters in Menlo Park, Calif. Working there felt powerful. I was working on a product that everyone used, either directly or indirectly, and that had an impact on people’s lives. I was there when the Cambridge Analytica scandal broke, and I watched the company respond from the inside. Internally, people asked a lot of the same questions people asked externally. It felt like Facebook knew that people had lost trust in it—and that it had a lot of work to do if it wanted to gain it back.  

When I finished my internship, WhatsApp offered me a job: six figures with a signing bonus and stock options. When I told my parents, they said, “No way are you going to turn that down.” I did.  

I realized after that internship that so much of the idolization of Silicon Valley is based on pure hype. I learned a lot there, but it felt like I was living in a bubble—and that turned me off. It seemed like everyone was in tech, and there was always pressure to work late. People regularly stayed past 7 p.m., in part because companies provided free dinners.  

Beyond the office, there were other issues: the cost of living and housing is high—renting a one-bedroom apartment costs more than $2,000—and there’s a huge economic divide between poor and rich neighbourhoods. I didn’t always feel safe: once, I was so close to someone getting mugged on the street that I got caught in the crossfire of their pepper spray. Traffic and public transportation are much worse than they are in Toronto, too, which probably explains why everyone thought Uber Pool or the latest bus start-up would replace the transportation industry.  

One of the biggest reasons my friends want to move to the U.S. is the money. The average tech salary in Silicon Valley is $140,000. In Toronto, it’s $73,000. But if you factor in the cost of living, tech workers in the Bay Area make only about $20,000 more than those in Toronto, and Canadian salaries are increasing. That Brock report showed that tech salaries in Toronto jumped seven per cent between 2016 and 2017.  

The other reason people move is because of a shortage of high-level job opportunities in Canada, but it’s a chicken-and-egg problem. Talented people are going south and, as a result, companies keep their best teams down there, attracting even more people.  

It was during my second internship that I realized I could build a tech career in Canada. I was working in the Toronto office of PagerDuty, an IT company based in San Francisco. I enjoyed it, I was surrounded by smart people, and I was close to home. I met colleagues who moved between the company’s offices, and they said that Toronto, as a city, had a lot more going on. San Francisco has nature, but there are more festivals, restaurants and things to do in Toronto.  

I admit San Francisco and Seattle are the strongest tech hubs in North America. You’re surrounded by top-tier tech companies that continue to grow quickly. I know I could miss out by not being there, and that it will be harder to get a great opportunity here. Even though the Canadian tech sector is growing quickly, it’s not fast enough to keep up with pace of new tech grads. The brain drain may continue for a while.  

But I’m optimistic. Amazing tech companies are coming here: Microsoft and Amazon both recently opened offices in Vancouver, Google is bringing an office to Waterloo, Sidewalk Labs is creating a smart city in Toronto, Facebook has an AI research lab in Montreal. Homegrown success stories like Shopify are emerging here and touting the Canadian spirit. The start-up scenes in Vancouver, Montreal and the Toronto-Waterloo corridor are booming, and plenty of expats have left high-ranking positions in the Valley to start companies back home. Down the line, Canada will become a strong tech hub. But to get there, we have to be careful and understand our strengths. We’re less expensive, we’re more diverse, and we want to solve problems for everyone, not just the problems that matter to the Bay Area.  

That’s why I want to stay here, and why I think eventually others will, too. I’ve lived and worked in both countries, and I know the pros and cons of each. I’ve spoken to plenty of people who don’t like living in the Valley but enjoy themselves whenever they stay in Canada. I haven’t convinced any of them to stay—yet. But I’m already here, and I love it. So why would I leave? .  

As told to Bryan Borzykowski