Joanne Cheng Exit Interview: "I wasn't satisfied with the direction the city was heading" - Technical.ly Philly

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Jul. 19, 2011 11:00 am

Joanne Cheng Exit Interview: “I wasn’t satisfied with the direction the city was heading”

She was at the city's largest tech firm and unsure what could be her second challenging dev role.

This is Exit Interview, an occasional interview series with someone who has left Philadelphia, perhaps for another country or region or even just out of city limits and often taking talent, business and jobs with them. If you or someone you know left Philly for whatever reason, we want to hear from you. Contact us.

Big corporate technology companies have long been fertile ground for new waves of innovation.

Stars from Microsoft, IBM, Google and the like can take what they have learned to a place of greater flexibility and agility for startups and ventures that push bounds. In Philadelphia, the promise of a workforce developed by telecommunications giant Comcast is often hoped to be our answer for cultivating future technology leaders.

But, of course, it won’t always happen that way.

After two years, Joanne Cheng is leaving her role as Comcast software engineer for Boulder, Col. to become a Ruby/Javascript developer for a small performance monitoring company called Absolute Performance, Inc.

In her spare time, Cheng, 25, was something of a civic hacker, working on the OPA Data Liberator project from the Philly Tech Week BCNI Hackathon and the Philly SNAP healthy food text messaging tool developed at Random Hacks of Kindness.

The central New Jersey native got her Comcast gig right after graduating from Rutgers University with a music degree — yes, she’s a classically trained trumpeter.  A Graduate Hospital resident and bicyclist, below, Cheng talks to Technically Philly about perceptions, retention and what she’s working on now.

What are the primary reasons you left Philadelphia?

I’m not an aspiring founder, an academic genius or a programming “rock star,” I’m just someone who’s trying her hardest to improve her skills and push her career as far as it can go.

However, I had trouble finding jobs in Philadelphia that were a good match, and I didn’t hear back from most of the companies here. Eventually, I started looking elsewhere. Surprisingly I had interviews with the handful of jobs that I applied to in other cities, but only one interview in Philadelphia.

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Joanne Cheng at the Philly Tech Week BCNI Hackathon

Was there a specific event or moment that you realized you had to/wanted to leave?

A few months ago, I went to San Francisco for a hack day and found myself in an office for a weekend with 150 other hackers working on projects. The concentration of intelligence and enthusiasm was so exciting.

It was surreal to ask the person next to me about a Javascript sound API I was toying with and then hear, “The guy who wrote it is sitting back there.” I think that event, combined with my bad luck in Philadelphia, made me realize me that I wasn’t going to find what I was looking for here.

Was there anything that could have been done differently to keep you?

I have a lot of mixed feelings about Philadelphia.

If I had found a great position with a similar work environment in Philadelphia, then I may have stayed. I have a lot of reasons to love living here — my neighborhood Graduate Hospital, concerts, restaurants, the Reading Terminal Market, public art, bike trails, Fairmount park, the list goes on.

I was never bored in this city and was always finding new gems. At the same time, I was fed up with things like unpredictable SEPTA bus service, the constant presence of street trash, the threat of closing libraries, new casinos, and the daily reports of severe crime in familiar neighborhoods.

While I think I may have had a fulfilling career here, I wasn’t satisfied with the direction the city was heading.

Also, it’s tough to compete with mountains so close to the office and a huge network of well maintained bike trails  — sorry, Center City, Spruce and Pine street aren’t enough.

“For most of the young adults I met who are in school or starting their careers, Philadelphia is just a nice place to start.”

Do you think you would return to Philadelphia under appropriate circumstances?

My family lives in the area, so I’m required to come back for the holidays. [laughs] But in all seriousness, I would love to see how the city develops in the next couple years. If a good opportunity arises, then yes.

When someone you meet from outside the region asks about Philadelphia and its tech community, what do you tell them?

It’s full of down-to-earth and welcoming people. It’s really easy to get involved, no matter what your skill set.

The community is fueled by a small group of dedicated and humble individuals. And I love the push for open data and community service in this city’s tech community.

Programming was something I wanted to do on-the-side. I was a music major in college who took a few computer science courses and campus IT jobs on the side, with the idea that it would provide a good “day job,” since my chances for full time employment as a classical musician were slim.

I enjoyed the work as time went on, but because of my unusual situation, a few negative classroom and work experiences, and my general shyness, I was committed to the idea of doing things myself.

However, once I finally started going to hack days in Philadelphia and working with other friendly, intelligent individuals, I became much more motivated and positive about being a developer. In a bigger city, I may have been much more intimidated.

What is the perception you most often find of Philadelphia?

People say, “it’s dangerous, dirty.”

I also find that most people I meet here either grew up in the area or moved here out of obligation. I hear mostly positive things from people who live here, but for most of the young adults I met who are in school or starting their careers, Philadelphia is just a nice place to start.

What’s the latest you’re up to that we can plug or look forward toward?

I’m using my time between jobs to work on rewriting some of my music toys for iPad.

Watch a demo below.

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Christopher Wink

Christopher Wink is a Cofounder, Chief Executive Officer and Publisher of Technical.ly, the local technology news network. In that capacity, he is a co-organizer of Philly Tech Week, Baltimore Innovation Week, Delaware Innovation Week and other events that bring smart people together. Previously, Wink worked for a homeless advocacy nonprofit and was a freelance reporter for a variety of publications. He writes regularly about news innovation and best business practices on his personal blog here and curates a personal monthly newsletter of ideas and links here. The bicycle commuter loves cities, urban politics and squabbling about neighborhood boundaries.

  • I’ve had the same experience – immediate interviews in other cities, almost nothing in Philly (and having worked in Silicon Valley and NYC, the slow pace of job change here is still something I am not used to).

    I also have no desire to found a company or anything similar – I’d just like to keep building on my skills and advancing, but there’s a definite ceiling – I feel I’ve maxed out what I can do here, as every job I’ve ever had in Philly has been several steps below what I did elsewhere – there’s simply not a big mover to provide those higher-level jobs beyond the startup world here, and startups aren’t usually realistic options for anyone with a family.

    That’s not to say I don’t like Philly, because I do – we have great beer and soccer, which are fine things – but the tech scene is still in its infancy (and the public transit really needs to improve as well). Sigh.

  • You will be missed! Best of luck in the new gig and stay in touch.

  • Hey Technically Philly: Why not do an interview with people who have decided to stay in the philly area and are successful? Is it easier to find those who leave vs. staying? Is it because nagativity is engaging? We are not Silicon Valley…never will be. That doesn’t mean there aren’t opportunities here. If you are a promoter of the city let’s learn why people leave, make the place better.. not bemoan a fate.

  • Enjoyed the musicgrid iPad demo – couldn’t find it in the app store. Anyone know where I can find that?

  • “I was fed up with things like unpredictable SEPTA bus service, the constant presence of street trash, the threat of closing libraries, new casinos, and the daily reports of severe crime in familiar neighborhoods.”
    Then maybe you should have encouraged your former employer to contribute its fair share, instead of strong-arming the city into giving it massive tax abatements. The systematic underfunding of public services isn’t some force of nature (like: “Philly’s just too humid for me”), it’s a political problem. Comcast is central to the problem. I encourage the Technically Philly editors to take some interest in these problems if you hope to have anything insightful to say about this city.

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