Why Philly is the city Amazon should pick, and why they won't - Technical.ly Philly

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Oct. 10, 2017 12:04 pm

Why Philly is the city Amazon should pick, and why they won’t

Software developer Chris Beiter is from PA but works in Seattle. Here he offers his unique perspective on what Philly still needs to do to lure Bezos and Co. to the City of Brotherly Love.

Part of Amazon's Seattle campus.

(Photo courtesy of Jordan Stead/Amazon)

This is a guest post by Chris Beiter, a senior software engineer at DocuSign.

I grew up in Central Pennsylvania, and Philly was always “The City” to me. I was an Eagles and Phillies fan, and going to a concert at the Spectrum or the Mann was the epitome of cool. But when technology began to explode in the mid-’90s and I wanted to get my foot in the door, Seattle was the perfect choice. And hey, I always had a soft spot for those Seahawks, who, like the Eagles, never seemed to be able to win the big one.

Fast forward a couple decades — including 17 years at Microsoft, Super Bowl rings for the Seahawks and a brief stint in San Francisco to work at tech startup (DocuSign) — and I found myself drawn back to Pennsylvania to be closer to family.

Philly was my first choice on the East Coast for a lot of reasons. Yes, I interviewed at a couple hot-sounding jobs in NYC, but I honestly do not enjoy the attitude, pace and cost of living there. Boston seemed great on paper, but I ruled it out because of its distance from Central PA. D.C.? Lived there for a few years already and was not a fan of the transitory nature to that town, or the whole taxation without representation thing.

So I decided on a tech job in the City of Brotherly love. I found an apartment and had two offers, but my current employer DocuSign countered with a remote-work role that allowed me to hold onto my unvested stock and Bay Area salary. So that’s what I did, for 18 months I worked from my home in South Philly and traveled back to Seattle to see my team every few weeks.

After the family stuff shook itself out, I found my lease in Philly expiring and my house in Seattle needing a lot of work after being rented for three years. This set off some soul searching, and I ended up moving back to Seattle to take care of my personal business and continue my career where there were many more tech opportunities. Still, I kept my eye on the tech job market in Philly, attended job fairs, etc., but nothing local ever came close to the position I already had in Seattle.

Why am I telling you all of this?

To explain what I think might be a somewhat unique perspective on Amazon’s headquarters search from someone who has recently lived in Seattle, Philly and San Francisco.

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It has led me to a couple conclusions:

  1. Philadelphia is the city that Amazon should choose for its second headquarters.
  2. Amazon won’t choose Philly because Philadelphia, Pennsylvania and other authorities in the Delaware Valley don’t have the political willpower to put together an offer that could lure Amazon.

Let’s start with the good.

Philadelphia has so much going for it.

I’m probably preaching to the choir if you live there already. Although many Philadelphians may put on that tough exterior about their hometown jawn, reality is never as bad as we portray it. In fact, quite the opposite.

The best billboard.

A classic.

Philadelphia is amazingly well positioned on the East Coast with easy access to both NYC and D.C.

Real estate prices are not totally insane.

Cost of living is still somewhat reasonable.

The food, oh yes the food. I don’t need to tell you how good it can be — even if it’s not always the best for you.

Culture and arts? World class! Every act that tours the East Coast will make a stop in PHL, and even if they don’t, hop on a train for 90 minutes and see them at the Garden in NYC.

Traveling shows? Broadway performers doing side gigs in Philly? Happens all the time.

Need I remind you there is only one UNESCO World Heritage Site in the United States, and that is Philadelphia? No, I don’t.

Add to that a fully-realized, (usually) working transit system and easy proximity to the beaches in New Jersey and the mountains in the Poconos. I know, I know, they may not be the Cascades or Sierras, but it’s still just a few hours away to some beautiful rolling hills and the Appalachian Trail. Plus, affording that beach house in Jersey or a cabin in the Poconos is still within reach for many middle-class families.

But wait, there’s more!

Philly is a real community. People grow up and stay. They build lives here. Seattle and San Francisco can still be a bit of a revolving door (or meat grinder), especially with the crazy cost of living that even most tech workers cannot afford anymore.

Maybe my perspective is just too biased: “Italian/Irish/German guy feels at home in Philly” is not exactly a newsworthy headline. But after a few months of being there, the phrase I used when people asked me how I liked living in Philly was this: “Philly is the city I never knew I always wanted to live in.”

The endless murals dotting the neighborhoods, ethnic festivals that cover cultures from one side of the planet to the other and the most dedicated if somewhat pessimistic sports fans around. Philly’s got it going on.

Employees at a tech giant like Amazon would have the entire eastern seaboard at their disposal, great educational opportunities in their back yard and a progressive city to be anchored in. Certainly from an Amazon employee perspective, it’s hard to argue that Amazon could pick a better city that Philadelphia.

Beyond the employee-satisfaction metrics, Philly has a lot to make it attractive to Amazon’s bottom line, too.

It starts with available real estate near the city core and transit. There are many options for Amazon execs choose from, and they wouldn’t be the first major company to be headquartered here, with fellow tech giant Comcast NBCUniversal expanding its footprint as well. A Comcast-Amazon partnership could be exactly the type of synergy that Amazon is looking for.

Philly is also very close to a large pool of well-educated candidates. It’s within about a 45-minute drive of two Ivy League schools, plus dozens and dozens of nationally ranked state and private schools. When you include the entire Delaware Valley from Wilmington to Trenton, the region is incredibly rich with educated folks, many of whom have to leave the area if they want to work for a big tech company.

The work Penn and Drexel are doing in West Philly with their tech centers is exactly the kind of incubator that needs to be in place to foster a tech startup environment. But thus far, the fire has not lit in Philadelphia, and many tech companies choose King of Prussia, Radnor or Conshy instead of being in the city (wage taxes, anyone?).

While the fire may not have fully caught yet, there are certainly lots of sparks and smoke, and some lucky company will seize this opportunity before it ignites.

Will it be Amazon? Sadly, I think the answer is no.

Why do many information/tech workers want to move to California, Washington or Massachusetts? It’s not because they all love the New England Patriots or the 49ers, that’s for sure.

All three of those states, and the cities within them, are leaders on civil and human rights. Massachusetts was famously the first state to legalize same-sex marriage. They all also offer statewide protections in housing and employment for LGBTQ communities, something Pennsylvania glaringly does not.

Take just one look at a map of the states that offer these protections and PA, once called the Keystone State, is instead living in the stone ages, being the only state from Maine to Maryland that does not have statewide employment and housing protections for LGBTQ folks. Will Governor Tom Wolf be able to twist the arms of Republicans to finally let the nondiscrimination bill out of committee in Harrisburg, and get the up or down vote that most agree would pass? Can he do it before making a bid for Amazon HQ2? Highly unlikely.

How about medicinal or recreational marijuana? Yes, yes and yes for all three states (plus Colorado), but a big fat no from Pennsylvania until very recently, when a limited medical marijuana bill was made law but is not yet in effect. In Seattle and Denver, medicinal has been around for years and recreational recently happened. California is right behind. Marijuana is another missed opportunity for Pennsylvania and our agriculture industry that could have had a first-to-market advantage on the East Coast. Highly-mobile, highly-skilled workforces want to be where they have forward-thinking recreational opportunities, whether that be swimming in the ocean or indulging in marijuana-infused chocolate.

Basic education has also had major funding issues throughout the Commonwealth, especially in Southeastern PA where funding formulas were slanted against them. That’s being addressed, finally, but “school choice” is drawing funds away from traditional public schools and creating a crisis for those who can’t afford the luxury of choice.

Worst of all — and probably the nail in the coffin of Philly’s bid — is the lack of cooperation between Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Delaware to put together a holistic bid for Amazon in Philadelphia. Instead, all three will go it alone, almost guaranteeing that none of them will even make it to a second round in the Amazon headquarters sweepstakes.

If Philadelphia is serious about landing this major employer of the future, we have got to cut the red tape and make some serious gestures now that reinforce the strengths of the region. But instead, we are set to put together separate offers that highlight the fractious nature of the tri-state region, relegating Philly once again to being promising-but-not-quite-ready for Amazon Prime time.

Center City at night.

Center City at night.

I had the somewhat-surprising honor of meeting Governor Wolf at Temple University last spring during Philly Tech Week 2017 when he dropped in on an AngularJS training.  It was a photo-op, but being a former software guy, the governor asked some insightful questions. I tried to hide behind my laptop, but Wolf put me on the spot and started asking me about the Philly tech industry. I mentioned I recently relocated from Silicon Valley, and he was very excited to know why. I said “family,” and he said he hoped there was more. As you can tell from this column, yes, there is a lot more. But I was not fast enough on my feet to pitch all of this to him at the time.

So here you go, Governor Wolf, a much longer explanation of why Philly could be a great tech hub on the East Coast.

My advice: If I were you, I would be knocking down the doors in Harrisburg to demand modernization of our state laws and government, and not taking no for an answer. Enough with the obstructionists. And I would be working the phone lines to Wilmington/Dover/Trenton/Camden to come up with a holistic bid from the Delaware Valley region.

Philly could be the new home Amazon never knew it always wanted, but unless the region works together and modernizes some of its laws that are holding it back, the city doesn’t stand a chance.

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