Business

Jul. 25, 2014 7:49 am

Comcast seeks tech scene good will, but some aren’t having it

Why Comcast's announcement of a new internship program irked members of the city's grassroots tech community.

Sam Schwartz, Comcast's chief business development officer, stands with the company's new "Home for the Summer" interns.

(Photo by David Swanson for the Philadelphia Inquirer)

Comcast’s newest internship program is an attempt to fight brain drain — and another move to become more involved with the local tech scene.

The brain drain the company is tackling is not the kind we normally talk about: when Philly loses college grads to other cities. This program targets college students who grew up in the area. Comcast is calling it “Home for the Summer,” the Philadelphia Inquirer reported, and it’s part of the company’s efforts to cultivate talent and spur activity in preparation for the Comcast Innovation and Technology Center, which is currently under construction.

The five college students who are part of the new Comcast program are also rotating between venture-backed Philly startups RJMetrics, Solve Media and Artisan Mobile.

In the past, local tech leaders have complained that Comcast has been largely invisible when it comes to the city’s grassroots tech scene.

But Comcast seems to be fighting that perception, with mixed results.

In January, the telecommunications giant announced plans to build a second, taller skyscraper, including, among other things, space for startups. In April, it sponsored Philly Tech Week 2014 (which, full disclosure, Technical.ly organizes), hosting 1,300 people for its headline event at the Comcast Center. Now the company is running an internship program with three Philly startups.

But it hasn’t all been smooth sailing.

When explaining the internship program, Comcast’s Chief Business Development Officer Sam Schwartz drew (social media) fire for being quoted in the Inquirer as saying: “Comcast can’t staff that [new] building and then for the next 50 miles around it, there is a wasteland and a lack of activity.”

Those on Twitter and the walled-off Philly Startup Leaders listserv took issue with many parts of the Inquirer story, resenting the suggestion that the Philly tech scene was nonexistent.

“And if one more person says (and I hope it is taken out of context), there is no tech community in Philly, I will scream,” wrote TechGirlz founder Tracey Welson-Rossman, also noting that it’s easy to misconstrue out-of-context quotes in a news story.

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Juliana Reyes

Juliana Reyes began as lead reporter at Technical.ly Philly in July 2012. Previously, she was a city services beat reporter for the Philadelphia Daily News, as part of a project called “It’s Our Money.” She is learning to drive, learning to bike (in the city) but is an expert at taking SEPTA. She grew up in North Jersey and Manila, Philippines but she left the tropics for Bryn Mawr College, where she majored in linguistics. She now lives in West Philly.

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  • http://arpitonline.com/blog arpit

    I work at Comcast and I have worked with Sam Schwartz before (though in a different group and have nothing to do with this program). That said, I am the co-manager of Philadelphia’s Android Developer community and also help organize the Philly Devops group so I am very interested in the local dev community.

    The reaction on this whole affair has been pretty negative and thats really disappointing. The comments on the original link go from being pretty negative to truly ghastly allegations of racism. Twitter’s been pretty much the same. How can we the local tech community be disappointed with Comcast when it doesn’t participate in the local tech and entrepreneurial scene but be this negative when they do.

    The lack of conversation around the merits of the program itself really does bum me out.

    Ah well.

    • Chris

      arpit,

      You’re absolutely right that the lack of conversation regarding the program is sad. It’s pretty great to see attempts at fighting brain drain, and Comcast should be applauded for this approach.

      However, I do disagree with what seems to be the message of your second paragraph. You state “How can we the local tech community be disappointed with Comcast when it doesn’t participate in the local tech and entrepreneurial scene but be this negative when they do.” – well, I certainly don’t speak for the Philly tech community, but I think it’s because *they still messed up.*

      If Comcast didn’t participate in the local tech scene, I think you and I would agree that they’re doing themselves and this community both a disservice. However, just because they DO participate with a very worthy internship program doesn’t mean they get a pass when a representative compares the Philadelphia tech scene to a “wasteland” and implies that this new building they’re erecting will be its savior.

      I am hopeful that Sam Schwartz’s comments don’t reflect his actual and complete understanding of the Philadelphia tech scene. Likewise I truly believe that there are a LOT of great Philadelphians doing great work at Comcast. But careless comments that dismiss the efforts of an entire community are worthy of criticism, and I hope you agree.

    • Ben Novack

      Part of the problem here, I think, is that Comcast isn’t “just” the largest tech company in Philly. It’s also one with, frankly, a truly terrible reputation in the city – not just as a tech company, but as an entity, period. They start out with two and a half strikes against them, and I suspect lot of people are just not really eager to give a lot of leeway to an organization that’s reviled all around. Techies gripe about Net Neutrality; non-techies bitch about terrible customer service and a total lack of competition. During my last job switch, I mentioned I might look at a position at Comcast, and my sister – who doesn’t work in tech at all – groaned and begged me, “Don’t make me say my brother works for Comcast.” Many cities are proud of their hometown mega-corps; I meet very few Philly residents who speak proudly about Comcast. My point is that whether it’s deserved or not, Comcast is not starting from a neutral position in terms of reputation.

      As for being “this negative when they do,” well, this “participation” comes with a straight-up description of the entire tech scene outside Comcast’s walls as a “wasteland.” That’s really not the kind of language I’d expect from an organization that wants to be a friendly giant; that’s divisive, dismissive, and does nothing to improve relations between Comcast and “everyone else.” Comcast has no goodwill to squander in this town, and this kind of arrogant, tone-deaf messaging does nothing to improve their image.

      I should note that I’ve heard good things on twitter about Sam Schwartz personally, but – unless I’ve missed something – at no point has he actually denied describing the Philly metro area’s tech community as a “wasteland.” That’s a pretty negative way to talk, and I think Philly tech scene is well within its rights to respond negatively to that kind of language.

  • http://miketannenbaum.com MikeTannenbaum

    Just curious, why call PSL “walled-off” ? Whose opinion is that and on what is it based? The network has an incredible community with plenty of visibility. What would make it less “walled-off?”

    • Zack Seward

      Hey, Mike. I edited the piece. Just “walled-off” in terms of the archives not being publicly accessible/linkable. You have to be a subscriber to access them. Thanks for the question.

      • http://miketannenbaum.com MikeTannenbaum

        We’re working on changing that :)

        Stay tuned.

  • traceywelson

    I would like to say that I believe Mr. Schwartz’s comment that I referenced was taken out of context. I still stand by my comment that there are many people who should know better, who do not know about our great development community, but Mr. Schwartz is not one of them.