San Francisco Tech Boom Spawns Cottage Industry of Consultants and Life Coaches

A Google bus plying the streets of the Mission. (David Gartner/Flickr)
A Google bus plying the streets of the Mission. (David Gartner/Flickr)

It’s easy to imagine San Francisco’s new wave of tech workers as happy-go-lucky 20-somethings, rich beyond their years. But that’s not necessarily always the case. They are often new to the city and navigating through work, social, and romantic challenges.

At least they aren’t going through it alone. A host of life coaches and consultants has sprung up to help them along the way.

Social Fluency is a start-up that professes to teach the art and science of communication. In 2011, the company moved its headquarters from Vancouver to San Francisco. They wanted to be in the heart of Silicon Valley so they could target their main clientele: tech workers.

About a dozen students came to a recent evening class at Social Fluency to practice the basics of rapport—how to start conversations, change topics, and exchange contact information. The goal, essentially, was to not be awkward.

Not everyone succeeded.

In one exercise, programmer Daniel Martin went off on a tangent about reading Game of Thrones. His female conversation partner found his remarks about George R.R. Martin’s fantasy series a bit odd. It wasn’t really connected to anything they had been talking about.

Like many Silicon Valley tech workers, Martin is a transplant to the Bay Area. Before moving to San Francisco, he lived in New York City, where he says he felt isolated and had trouble meeting people.

“To make friends you’ve got to be able to take risks and put yourself out there a bit,” he says. “And I’ve typically not been that good at that.”

Ken Murch feels the same way.

Murch also works in tech and hopes to build confidence at Social Fluency. He says in school he didn’t learn soft communication skills. Right now, he says he would have trouble “going up to someone on the street like an attractive girl or a high-powered CEO and introducing yourself kind of out in the cold with nothing leading up to it.”

You could say, who does? But Bay Area tech workers say that for them cold introductions are sometimes necessary.

New expectations at work

Social Fluency president Rachel Kjack says tech workers are now expected by their employers to have soft communication skills in addition to programming talent. That trend has been evolving since the first dot-com boom, but the need for workers now is bringing in employees from all over the world.

“Fifty percent of the people we teach are either new to the city, new to their job or new to the role that they are in,” Kjack says—rough life adjustments for anyone.

Not everyone in the Social Fluency class is struggling to adapt. Nick Chi says he feels pretty comfortable striking up a conversation. He’s taking these classes because he and some friends are part of a “mastermind group,” and they want to hone their social skills to perfection.

“We all came together because we have this vision of becoming better versions of ourselves,” he says.

The term “mastermind group” has become part of the lexicon in Silicon Valley’s start-up subculture. It means a group of people who want join forces, improve themselves, and get ahead. In many cases, the ultimate goal is a successful tech company.

Lani Klaphaak says she sees quite a bit of that motivated, self-betterment attitude in her tech clients. She’s a relationship and dating coach.

Most of Klaphaak’s clients are male and in the tech world. They’re problem-solvers, she says, and they come to her looking for practical solutions to their romantic woes. A lack of communication skills is only part of the problem she says. Many say they can’t escape from the isolated tech bubble that they live in.

Klaphaak describes the workday of many of her clients like this: they wake up early, shuttle to their South Bay campuses, work long hours, and shuttle back to the city. They are constantly glued to screens and disconnected from the world. Many suffer tech dependence—whether it’s to the phone, internet, Facebook, or online dating websites. So one of the first things she ends up doing is trying to help them unplug.

Learning how to flirt

Well, not getting them to unplug completely, but making the technology that infuses their lives to work positively for them instead of negatively. She tries to get them to limit their time online and in front of screens. She helps them develop routines that put them in touch with more people outside of the tech world. When it comes to dating, she hires a model they can practice flirting with and build confidence. Then, like many dating coaches now, Klaphaak helps them tackle the online profile.

Crafting the online dating profile has become almost like an art form, she says, and many of her clients don’t have the writing skills to produce a masterpiece. Often, she says, the profile is “really boring. It’s really generic. It’s not sensual or flirtatious. It’s almost like a resume.”

Klaphaak helps them rewrite it to be more genuine and unique. The goal is to make online dating lead to meaningful, real-life interactions.

The explosion of tech work in the Bay Area includes not only new employees, but new and expanding companies. These businesses are looking to solve their own problems with growth and communication. That’s where corporate consultant Nicole Gruen comes in.

“I focus on everything that is in the realm of culture and alignment,” she says, “or what I call making people happy at work.”

Gruen meets directly with employees at companies to assess worker satisfaction and collect information about what problems they have. In classic Silicon Valley fashion, she’s developing an app for that.

The app will survey workers and provide real-time data to companies on how their employees feel. It has questions about the food at the cafeteria or relationship with a boss. “Instead of relying on a manager to say how’s your team going,” she says, “you actually now get real feedback.”

The goal is the same as it is for dating and socializing—better communication. That’s the big takeaway in all aspects of this burgeoning new industry for tech workers.

Listen to the audio file of this story as it appeared on KQED News:

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