Why Switzerland?

by John Walker

Everybody asks, when they hear I live in Switzerland, “Why Switzerland”? Well, here's why. Like most historical narratives, there's a lot more contingency than destiny involved. Notwithstanding that, I'm happy with the outcome.

How I Didn't Choose Switzerland

I had been thinking about getting out of the U.S. (and, in any case, California) since the early 1980s. In 1990, the newly-hired Autodesk V.P. for Europe approached me and another Autodesk founder who, like me, had escaped management in favour of software development, to see if we would be interested in moving to Europe to start up a European software development, localisation, and product support centre.

The pitch was, in essence, “You guys aren't interested in running a big company, but you've got the zero to 100 (employee) part down pat. Would you be interested in doing it again, in Europe?” There was no long-term commitment involved—just a standard two-year international assignment with relocation there and back for the whole family paid by the company. If, after the job was done, which it would be within two years unless we completely botched the thing, and didn't wish to stay on, we could come back and pick up where we left off.

Well, this sounded like a heck of a deal to me. In fact, such a deal that I accepted before I had any idea to which country I would be going. At the time the betting was that we'd end up at Sophia Antipolis in the south of France because that's where so many other high-tech companies were located and besides some of the Autodesk senior management thought the south of France was fine place to visit frequently.

Well, by the time I got on a plane in the middle of Desert Storm (January 1991) to visit the site of the future European Software Centre, it had been sited in Switzerland, a country I had never set foot in before. The choice of site was made entirely by the V.P. for Europe and I played no part in it whatsoever—I simply went where they told me to go.

Why I'm Still Here

After living here for a year, it was obvious that it was a lot better than California—better than any place I'd ever lived before—so I decided to stay and, 18 years later, I'm still here and have never regretted the decision. Are there better places? Probably, but I'm happy here. And, in any case, what you're looking for depends on who you are and what's important to you. As an amateur astronomer, I wish the weather were not so frequently foul (the Leonid meteors have been clouded out for eighteen consecutive years), but then the foggy northern California coast wasn't any better in that regard.

I'd certainly recommend to anybody who's thinking about emigration to jump at any opportunity to take a foreign assignment from their company, even if it isn't in a place that seems attractive (well, maybe not Saudi Arabia…) because there's nothing to lose if you don't like it and it is an excellent way to discover what is important to you in a location. Besides, in an increasingly globalised world, international experience is an excellent thing to have on one's résumé in any case.

And if You're Considering Switzerland…

If you are considering moving to Switzerland you should read David Hampshire's essential (and funny) Living and Working in Switzerland. I read this book before moving to Switzerland in 1991 (I was given a copy by the Neuchâtel Economic Promotion office), and I think it probably cut about a year off the time it would have taken me to figure out things on my own. In retrospect, I found its description of the culture and politics somewhat more appropriate to the German-speaking cantons than the more laid-back French-speaking area in which I live (which has been part of Switzerland for less than 200 years), but that makes sense since 65% of the country speaks German and about half the population lives in the greater Zürich area.

The main thing to keep in mind about Switzerland is that it is not a uniform, homogeneous country—it is a federation of cantons which are very different from one another. The federal government taxes at a maximum rate of 11% and is concerned mainly with defence and foreign policy. The canton of Geneva is as cosmopolitan, left-wing, and anti-business as anywhere in France, while some of the mountain cantons such as Zug are probably as libertarian as any place on Earth.