Reflections from an SF Tech Entrepreneur After One Month in Washington DC

Reflections from an SF Tech Entrepreneur After One Month in Washington DC 2013-07-18 08-14-08

I can’t believe it, but I’ve already spent a month here in Washington DC for my new job. It’s been a very different experience compared being in SF and I thought I’d note some of my observations as an SF entrepreneur transplanted into DC.

Note that I’ve never worked for the government or even for an organization larger than perhaps 20 full-time employees, so I’m coming in with a very particular perspective.


Attire – People dress more formally here: men wear suits or at least long-sleeve shirts with nice pants and shoes. Women wear a range of dresses, skirts and shoes of various heel heights. While it’s been rather uncomfortable – especially walking in the sun or trying to think hard with fabric inched around your neck, I do like how nice everyone looks. And it makes wearing T-shirts and flip flops a real treat.

Happy Hour – I was always working late as an entrepreneur and going out after work for drinks was never really a thing at Ridejoy. But in DC, Happy Hour is a cultural phenomenon. There are tons of bars with great HH menus, often half off drinks and food. This is terrible for my diet (many a dinner has been hot wings and beer) but it’s a great way to meet people or hang out with new friends and explore the city.

Resume Questions – The people are very friendly here. I’ve found that people seem more likely to start conversations with strangers than in SF. The caveat being that you’ll quickly get to what I call “resume questions”: Where do you work? What do you do? Where did you go to school? And they want specific answers! In SF it is totally acceptable to say that you work “in tech” or that you are “a developer at a startup” or even that you are “on a quest to balance your chakras”. That would not fly out here.


Through conversations with my coworkers at the Smithsonian as well as with the other Presidential Innovation Fellows and just folks I’ve met in DC, it’s clear there is a very different culture about “how things get done” in this town.

Acronyms – Silicon Valley’s acronyms are no doubt odd to the uninitiated (MVP, CTR, LTV) but DC seems to take acronyms to the next level. Each of the 19 museums at the Smithsonian and many of the different departments all have their own acronym (NMNH = National Museum of Natural History, AAA = Archives of American Art). Most federal agencies and offices of the Executive branch has an acronym (OSTP = Office of Science and Technology Policy, GSA = General Services Administration). Government conversations are filled with this alphabet soup and you often have to stop the discussion and ask for definitions.

Buzz words – again, every industry has these. Here are a few good DC ones I’ve learned:

  • “Stand up” – a verb meaning to kick off or launch (“I stood up a committee on that issue”).
  • “Air cover” – a noun meaning soft authority or higher level pressure to convince people you’re working with that they should go along with your ideas. (“My boss gave me a lot of air cover when I tried to implement this new system”)
  • “Wins” – a noun meaning an action that can be celebrated or considered successful. Used in business too, but even more here. “Getting a working demo of the new database was a crucial win for this initiative.”

Meetings as actual things – It turns out, what goes on in a lot of large organizations are meetings about things. Landing a meeting with an important person carries some cache “I had a meeting with the Deputy Secretary of …”. Your influence is often determined by what meetings you are invited to, what committees you sit on and what working groups you participate in. There are still many folks here who, like me, consider meetings simply precursors to actual accomplishments but it is surprising how much (meetings = value created) here.


Weather – after many years of always carrying around a light jacket in SF, the DC heat is intense. It’s routinely in the 80’s and even 90’s every day and humid too. When you build a city on a swamp, that’s what happens. Also random rain showers means you need to keep an umbrella on hand.

Transportation – compared to BART and MUNI (even when not on strike) I have been nothing but impressed by DC’s Metro system. It covers the entire city, goes fast, is clean and has AC so it is not brutally hot. Thumbs up.

Buildings – you can’t help but be steeped in history in Washington. Especially with all the free Smithsonian museums, as well as the monuments and memorials, the nation’s capital packs a punch. I’ve walked past the White House a bunch of times, and was even welcomed inside the South Court Auditorium, and it’s still hard to believe I’m really that close.

I’m just getting my feet wet with this city but so far I’m very much enjoying it. Have you been to Washington? What were your thoughts?


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Jason Shen

Jason is a tech entrepreneur and talent expert. He is CEO of a performance hiring platform called Headlight, a Fast Company contributor, and an advocate for Asian American men. Follow him on Twitter at @jasonshen and subscribe to his private newsletter.

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  1. @jasonshen  @micah63 I don’t know, it’s just a skill to add to linkedin I guess.  I’ll endorse you if you catch one and post a picture!

  2. Critique of DC is spot on. As a recent grad in area, I’ve really been amazed at the Happy Hour Dinner Effect. Have you looked into the startup scene here at all?

  3. Welcome to DC Jason!  Your take on the city is spot on… as a DC native, I often forget that things aren’t like this elsewhere.  I’m looking forward to hearing about your ass-kicking adventures here!!!

  4. @pjcgwu Thanks! Is there a specific effect you are referring to or just that everyone goes to HH? Also have been meaning to check out 1776 and dropped into some tech meetups on Drupal and Ruby, but not much otherwise.

  5. @jasonshen  Just how Happy Hours are a daily event every day of the week in DC. 1776 is great to check out. There are also other great group like DC Tech Meetup:
    Also a ton of great political startups in the area if you are inspired by your work as Presidential Innovation Fellow.

  6. @jasonshen Thanks for the post. I’m an entrepreneur considering moving to D.C. I’ve lived in LA, Denver and D.C. Proximity to other major east coast cities is a factor for me. I’ll be curious to see if there are any interactions been the the tech communities in NYC, Philly, Boston and D.C.
    Following your adventure.

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