Fresh Meat: Yelp Retiree Brandon Bickford

The second employee and chief software engineer at Yelp.... emeritus

Editor's note: Welcome to Fresh Meat, in which Portland comic Amy Miller interviews newcomers about their hopes and dreams and the foodstuffs from their native lands that Portland fails to prepare properly. This week Miller talks with Yelp Employee # 2 Brandon Bickford, who is originally from Redding, Calif. 

It's happening. This crazy internet thing has been so successful that people who graduated high school the same year as me ('98! '98!) are retiring already, and some of them in Portland. Meanwhile I'm still working every day like a chump.

Back in 2004, Brandon Bickford was hired to engineer a new website with a funny name, where people would review local businesses. He had no idea he was about to live the dreams of so many other San Francisco engineers—build a thing, thing takes off, collect a bunch of money, go on forever vacation. Long gone from Yelp, he's now settled in Portland, complete with an old house and a small dog. 

We chatted about Portland's technology lag and why Yelp sorta sucks.

Amy Miller: What's it like being retired but not broke in Portland at age 33?

Brandon Bickford: Ha! I am actually trying to get a job right now, but overall it's been great taking time off. If you can get past the climate, I think Portland is one of the best West Coast cities for art, food, music and nature that still has somewhat affordable housing. Also things are way weirder here than on Portlandia. That show needs to catch up. It's pretty nice not waiting in a line for the latest bar or pizza place.

I went through some serious tech culture shock when I moved here. I don't think I had sent an actual fax since the late 90s until I moved to Portland and then all of the sudden people wanted me to fax them. Or talk on the phone. I found myself lecturing people about how to "reply all," which I wasn't expecting from a seemingly major city. Are you feeling this gap at all?

Somewhat! I really miss Uber and Lyft. Uber, Lyft and related services are great for reducing drunk driving and car congestion. But it is a relief not being around people trying to recruit me all the time to work on their dead-end startup ideas, and it's great that people have normal jobs for the most part. That is, if you count working at a vegan strip club or a cupcake bicycle delivery service normal.

It's funny because I remember thinking early on in my engineering career in San Francisco, "Wow, wouldn't it be cool if I could go to a bar and find other engineers I could relate to?" And now going to a San Francisco bar, I never want that to be the case ever again. There are plenty of smart young engineers but I don't want to talk about Python while I'm drinking a beer. 

It's a relief going to a coffee shop and seeing people reading books or actually talking to one another.  People are actually very entrepreneurial here, although they seem to be more likely to start a fried chicken donut food truck than a Google.

Have you seen any difference in the Portland Yelpers as compared to San Francisco?

Yes. San Francisco Yelpers only talk about Rice-A-Roni and Full House.  Portland Yelpers only talk about IPAs and rivers. 

I don't know. There are more value complaints here than service complaints. And Portland Yelpers are more positive. Most of the really popular places in San Francisco, even though they were really good, would all eventually end up with a three star average. Because enough people went who thought it was too hyped up or had a slightly bad time and had to give it one star, either to be contrary or because they went during opening week and had slow service.

That's the sweet spot I liked. That's when you can actually walk in and get a table again. I'm all about that restaurant hype downslope.

Yeah and most popular things in Portland have 4 or 5 stars. Even VooDoo Doughnut and they're just doughnuts people wait two hours for.

Why can't Yelp have a fucking character limit?

It actually launched with a character limit! When we launched you could only use 150 characters or something (eat that, Twitter!). And then we raised it to 500. And now it's just...whatever.

How does this help anything?

It is pretty annoying in general.

And the longest reviews are from exactly the wrong people. If you have several hours to write about a restaurant, good or bad, and you're not a professional reviewer of things, I don't trust you. You're a jackass. And you need a real hobby that isn't shitting on people who are working all day.

For a while there was a product decision to not launch the ability to write reviews on mobile because they were concerned people wouldn't write enough on mobile and all the reviews would be short. And now we've just all grown accustomed to processing shorter bits of information. There should be an IQ test if you want to write more than 40 words about a local business.

Agreed. Is there still that creepy culture of Elite reviewers with all those weird parties? In the heyday I remember that the Yelp Elite seemed less like a group of foodies or critics and more like a bunch of horny singles with too much time on their hands that wanted to go to an open bar.

I think so. I haven't been around them in a while. But, yeah, I remember the early Elite events when employees were hooking up with users, and even the CEO at one point ended up hooking up with a Yelp Elite. 

There should be a next level of Elite status for that! How far into dates in Portland do you bring up your Yelp background and subsequent early retirement?

It's kind of hard because there aren't that many technology people here so if I say I'm an engineer sometimes people think I build bridges. But programmer is better understood. I just have to get used to women having normal jobs like teacher or waitress.

Oh, poor you! I like that about Portland. Waiting tables feels more real to me than working on a start-up, at least in the short-term. I like dating men who have salt of the earth jobs.

Yeah, but you're not gonna date someone who's changing the world by bagging groceries. How many Mars missions are your Portland boyfriends helping launch? People's ambition here seems to be more artistic or to open new food trucks or restaurants than to start a tech company or be a lawyer or a doctor.

What's wrong with that? Are you just looking for more balance?

Yeah, and it's not that there's a resistance to technology. We don't have Uber but I've seen several people using Untappd. I met a guy who had tried 1,200 unique beers and kept track of all of them with this app.

I can see that. I get frustrated with the level of myopia about the Portland economy. I keep hearing people say we have so many strip clubs because we're really "body positive." And it's like, no, it's because people in a city need to have jobs to live and there aren't enough other industries to sustain everyone so the industries that exist continue to grow.

Yeah, like New York doesn't have a huge stripping economy. It's not that other major cities just don't appreciate naked women's bodies.

So whens your non-compete clause up? Have you ever thought about building a new Yelp that's not so shitty?

I don't have a non-compete clause. I could start a new Yelp if I wanted. I don't hate it and I still use it all the time. But when I look at the website or the app, I'm like "This hasn't changed much." Most of the changes happened in the mobile app and not much has happened with the web app. Last year I think they finally changed the front page but it's still pretty similar to what it was in 2009.

And shouldn't there be a purge? Why do I care what someone thought about a restaurant in 2006? Maybe the restaurant has actually listened to feedback and taken steps to change. Isn't that sort of the point?

Craigslist purges every 7 days. I think it's a good idea.

One app I could make is a lost cat app. There's a crazy amount of lost cat posters in my neighborhood. And I saw one that was in one of those plastic paper covers, like you'd use for a school presentation. Because of the rain I guess. So maybe I could build an app and then the postings would be rain-proof all the time.

I think you should build that right... meow. If you could write a 50 word Yelp review for Portland, what would it say? And how many stars would you give the town?

I haven't actually eaten here, I only used the bathroom, but I'm writing this review to rate that, and my ex. I think I know a guy that works here. 5 stars!