Guest posts

Why GeoPhilly organizer Sarah Cordivano left Philadelphia for Berlin

“All in all, Berlin is magic,” the former Azavea project manager writes of her new home.

A spot of Philly at Hamburger Banhof art museum in Berlin. (Photo by Sarah Cordivano)

Writing Home is a series where Philly tech expats write to us of their new lives. Wanna write one? Email editor Juliana Reyes at

“Don’t be surprised if you end up deciding to move here.”

That’s what my American friend living in Berlin told me when I arrived for a month vacation earlier this summer. I had just left a project manager position at Azavea in order to take some time off and figure out where I’d like to live and work next. A trip to Berlin seemed like a great opportunity to relax and reset. Berlin has many excellent things going for it: it’s a culturally vibrant city with a fast-growing, bootstrapped tech scene and somehow still manages to be affordable (at least for now) compared to other major European cities. It’s extremely English-friendly and benefits from Germany’s welcoming policy for skilled foreign workers.

When I visited in May, the weather was beautiful every day and I embraced the attitude, culture and lifestyle of the city. After a month in Berlin, exploring, meeting wonderful people, going to meetups (like GeoBerlin and MaptimeBerlin), I headed back to the U.S. On the plane ride home I decided to move to Berlin.

I applied for a job-seeker visa from the German Embassy in New York that gave me six months to search for a job. I spent the rest of the summer packing my things and preparing to move. As a side note: downsizing all of your possessions so they fit into two suitcases is an emotionally taxing feat and I wouldn’t recommend it to anyone without plenty of time and zen-level calm.

My plan was rough. Arrive in Berlin, find an apartment, find a job. I did research ahead of time and met with everyone I could relating to geo in Berlin. I soon decided to go beyond geo. After spending the past six years working with mapping and spatial analysis in Philadelphia, I was open to, even excited for, a career shift into something different within tech.

Once I got settled, a friend working at Zalando referred me for a job as a producer. Zalando is Europe’s leading online fashion platform, founded in 2008 right in Berlin. With a tech force of over 1,600, and tech hubs in Berlin, Dortmund, Dublin and Helsinki, they operate on radical agility and have immense logistics challenges amid rapid and steady growth. After several months of searching and interviewing, I recently joined a team trying to solve these logistics challenges in new and incredibly innovative ways.

It’s important to not understate this: moving to Germany means constantly doing complex and confusing paperwork. Google Translating mountains of forms and documents (even the manual for your washing machine) becomes a way of life. The silver lining is that of the 3.5 million people living in Berlin, an estimated 30 percent are foreign born, so you are not alone. Professional assistance (such as Expath) is available to help with the pile of administrative work required to move to a new country. It’s not easy. But if you are patient and organized, you can do it. Seriously. You can.


A piece of the Berlin Wall at Postdamer Platz. (Photo by Sarah Cordivano)

All in all, Berlin is magic. It’s down to earth, it’s friendly and it’s alive with energy and possibility and openness. Weekends are filled with live music and festivals (beer, food, film, comedy, art, everything) and weeknights are consumed with restaurant popups, outdoor movie screenings and watching the sunset from the banks of the canal. The workplace environment is industrious but with a reasonable work-life balance.

On the tech side of things, Berlin has literally hundreds of tech-themed meetups in English and a warm culture of collaboration and innovation, especially with regards to socially progressive work, cutting edge data science (like SoundCloud, Zalando, PyData) and blockchain (such as the Ethereum Foundation). And it seems to somehow lack the impersonality and intense competition of New York or the banal VC-driven startup ethos of Silicon Valley.

I still miss Philadelphia every day. I miss the view from the Ben Franklin Bridge, sandwiches from Sarcone’s Deli, spotting and documenting Toynbee tiles all over the city and the passionate and vibrant civic tech scene. But if I’m not there, I’m truly happy to be in Berlin.

Companies: Azavea

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