The (nearly) complete oral history of the first 10 years of Philly Tech Week - Technical.ly Philly

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Sep. 15, 2020 1:30 pm

The (nearly) complete oral history of the first 10 years of Philly Tech Week

Why does PTW matter? Ahead of the 10th annual Philly Tech Week presented by Comcast, watch a bunch of the city's tech, entrepreneurship and innovation leaders recount memories.
Philly Tech Week’s print magazines over these 10 years.

Philly Tech Week's print magazines over these 10 years.

(Technical.ly image)

It’s easy to forget that what is here now was not always here.

Likewise, when there is so much left to do, it’s understandable to be impatient with the progress so far. At their most useful, anniversaries are meant to bridge those two — not just self-congratulation, but self-assessment.

Next week marks the start of the pandemic-delayed, wholly reimagined, all-virtual 10th annual Philly Tech Week, a calendar of events celebrating technology, entrepreneurship and innovation that is organized by Technical.ly and since 2015 has hosted Comcast NBCUniversal as its title sponsor.

Our team spent more than a year planning for our 10th annual, once planned for the spring. That changed — and, like many of you, we summarily tossed out the playbook. All summer we hosted and partnered on a series of events. Now this will culminate with five days of more than two dozen events running Sept. 21 through 25. (Heads up: We’re planning to return May 7 through 15, 2021, for the 11th annual.)

Visit the #PTW20 calendar

In the face of 2020 — pandemic, recession and focus on racial equity — Technical.ly looked back at the last decade of Philly Tech Week. We spoke to dozens of those who have been involved as co-organizers and stakeholders. We gathered snippets of some of these memories captured by interviews with my colleague Vincent Better into our preview video.

Farther below, get a fuller debrief of how Philly Tech Week has mattered to the city at large, and what we think you might learn from the journey.

(P.S. Why “nearly” complete? We know there’s more to say, but only so much bandwidth to say it all. We’d love to see more community memories, though; tweet @phillytechweek to share your own look back at PTWs of years past.)

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2011 — Philly Tech Week is a grassroots movement with the people first.

From an initial post in June 2010 by my fellow original co-organizer Sean Blanda to our announcing that fall of our plans,  we were focused on representing as best we could the people involved in this community. That was true, too, from Technical.ly’s early reporting but something felt even more important about our goals for Philly Tech Week.

Community was the right framing. In 2010, the “Philly tech community” was a phrase that made sense to people from a wide-range of backgrounds, from those in an established IT sector, a nascent startup scene, business policy, mixed-media creatives, digital access advocates, researchers, technologists and academics.

“We all wondered what would happen if we all stood up at the same time, with one voice,” said Blanda. “We didn’t need permission.”

This was no inevitable coalition. It worked because the focus was not on the organizations but the people.

For the cover of a print magazine and calendar we published for that first Philly Tech Week, we brought together 20 people we thought represented that moment in Philadelphia technology. That included early software CEOs like Robert Cheetham, Wil Reynolds and Geoff DiMasi; investor Jane Hollingsworth; tech executive Tracey Welson-Rossman; creatives like Tayyib Smith and Alex Hillman and others.

Philly Tech Week 2011’s print magazine cover. (Technical.ly image)

The point wasn’t that that group was comprehensive. It wasn’t success. It was the beginning of a coalition, and it grew because the focus was on people. Though Technical.ly picks the dates and leads the promotion effort, we have never hosted the majority of events. This has remained as truly a grassroots and decentralized community effort for as long as any event like it. This has been where lots of people got their start in Philadelphia.

As influential investor Josh Kopelman, a longtime participant, put it: “Philly Tech Week has become a magnet for the community, helping to attract new people, serving as an on-ramp.”

2012 — It never ignores the biggest challenges.

Though considerable progress has been made on Philadelphia’s self-diagnosed “image problem,” this is still a stubbornly poor big city. This is a segregated city — with longstanding racial inequality and digital divide issues.

Dutifully, those issues and more have been confronted each and every Philly Tech Week of the last decade — something you might be hard-pressed to find at other events like it. Among the first activations for KEYSPOT, a city-led stakeholder effort that launched early city computer centers and other programs, were during Philly Tech Week.

As Brigitte Daniel, a longstanding digital access advocate and organizer, put it: “We started talking about it and touting it and messaging it, and we did it at Philly Tech Week.”

The week has featured computer literacy trainings, including one in Frankford, and a longstanding tech recycling program. In 2012, Technical.ly worked with What It Takes to host a forum on Black tech entrepreneurship.

Brian James Kirk, another original organizer, encouraged Daniel Ueda, then a Central High School robotics instructor, to organize one of the first citywide high school robotics showcases. In 2012, the second annual brought more than 700 students, parents and instructors. That spirit of youth engagement has continued, including several major events held by Coded by Kids.

It remains a point of pride that when Comcast’s cable franchise agreement negotiations took place during Philly Tech Week, we both reported on them and events focused on the topic, too. I’ve always thought the balance between the cheer of a festival and the focus of serious work has come from a newsroom being at the event’s origins.

One of the longest tenured Philly Tech Week veterans is still Juliana Reyes, Technical.ly’s longtime beat reporter in Philly; she is now an accomplished labor reporter for The Philadelphia Inquirer. For her, Philly Tech Week was a kind of reporting tool, too, both in the stories and the relationships that came from it. Technical.ly reporters are very much expected to know this beat better than anyone on the planet, and Philly Tech Week is a buffet of the people, organizations and places doing this work.

“I got to see everyone I was writing about,” said Reyes. “I got to see all the people I was writing for, really.”

That’s more unusual for a reporter than you might think. But Philly Tech Week has always informed and been informed by our reporting on just such substantiative issues.

Clearly none of these initiatives have solved Philadelphia’s intractable problems, but it’s my view that this city’s tech and entrepreneurial set are far more civic-minded than they would be otherwise.

2013 — It inspires with creation and the arts.

To kick off the third annual Philly Tech Week, we took over the Art Museum steps to serve as a stage for Drexel University Dr. Frank Lee’s creation: turning a distant skyscraper into a live screen for hundreds to play Pong. A year later, when we brought thousands out for our “Arcade at the Oval” PTW14 kickoff, Guinness World Records certified Lee’s project as one. (The New York Times, NPR’s All Things Considered and dozens of other national media outlets joined us.)

It was surely the biggest, but it was never the only, example of technology mixing the arts and creativity during Philly Tech Week. It wasn’t even the first time we put art in the sky.

Local digital art was first broadcast on the PECO Crown Lights building during Philly Tech Week, thanks to the Breadboard art gallery at the University City Science Center. Messages have been atop the skyline most years since.

On the ground, robotics, gaming, art and music have been mixed. We continue to see activations from hackerspaces like Hive76 and makerspaces like NextFab, to individual artists and creative organizers like Georgia Guthrie, Sam Cusumano and Kid Hazo to design and game firms.

2014 — It brings people together in big and small ways.

For the first several years, the focus was to grow big events.

Big, outdoor, accessible kickoffs became a staple — tortured by bad weather but still welcoming thousands of Philadelphians to play with locally built technology. Our closing Signature Event has become the region’s largest ticketed networking event for entrepreneurs and a tech professional set, welcoming a 1,000 people each year. (This year it’s taking quite a different flavor, as a tech trivia night and a chance to announce the Technical.ly Awards.) Technical.ly later would grow staple conferences, and others gave depth to the week.

But we also wanted Philly Tech Week to be place where business got done, where connections happened that drove real change. Bigger budgets can always buy a celebrity or two, but a reputation for doing the work mattered more. Each year dozens of smaller, more focused subject-specific events take place, and Technical.ly always adds its own curated gatherings — and plenty of fun, too.

These range from roundtables on heady topics, business meetings for curated connections and a heavy focus on jobs — the companies that are hiring and the people who want to work there. There also has always been an active late-night component.

“I remember going to [one of the first closing events] and then I remember going to the after-party and then the after-after-party,” said Rick Nucci, the CEO of knowledge management growth company Guru. “The sense of community is real exciting, and Philly Tech Week is such a great example of that. They really intentionally work with the entire community.”

2015 — It helped create an identity.

Years in, Philadelphia magazine called Philly Tech Week an “institution,” heard-earned praise from a time when this community, and the myriad challenges and opportunities it represents, were seen as a rather quaint fringe group.

Instead, hundreds of other groups, events and connections splintered out from this crossroads. It was important to make sure to maintain standards — Philly Tech Week has long had a code of conduct and used it, rejecting events and speakers that seemed to break that code.

Philly Tech Week has proven a valuable platform on which these and other ideas can further proliferate. That’s meant the very understanding of what a “tech community” is continues to evolve. Philly Tech Week long used the description an “open calendar of events about technology, entrepreneurship and innovation,” with that latter word being a helpful catchall for a kind of professional who uses new tools for old problems.

“Before I walked into Philly Tech Week 2016, I was used to places where conversations about the intersection of workforce, innovation, technology and inclusion were kind of stifled,” said Uva Coles, a diversity strategist who recently launched her own firm. “At [Philly Tech Week], they were lifted. … For me that felt right. It felt like home.”

Philly Tech Week helped expand what this work means.

2016 — It has influenced legislative priorities.

If you gather enough people in any representative democracy, you’re bound to intersect with elected officials. Philly Tech Week has aimed to remain bipartisan but we haven’t shied away from policy that reflects this community.

In 2011, hearing frustration with a lack of progress on open data and other transparency issues, Technical.ly helped convene private sector leaders, chiefly Azavea CEO Robert Cheetham, to launch what became OpenDataPhilly.org during the first Philly Tech Week. A year later during PTW, then Mayor Michael Nutter signed an open data executive order that helped modernize the city’s approaches.

In 2015, Technical.ly sought pledges from mayoral candidates in a tech-infused questionnaire, and during Philly Tech Week, we hosted a Mayoral Tech Forum. Nearly 400 people crowded the Free Library’s downstairs auditorium.

I remember candidate Hardy Williams asking the audience, incredulously, how many of them lived in the city and expected to vote. To my eyes, I think he fully expected this to be a suburban group unrelated to his election. Instead the vast majority of hands went up.

In contrast, then-candidate Jim Kenney, who was amassing a far-flung coalition of the city’s surging subcommunities, came prepared and active on the issues.  In years since we’ve continued a tradition of a mayoral tech town hall.

This sector and its various components are no longer seen as a fringe issue.

2017 — It has formed new traditions of impact.

Like any compelling platform, Philly Tech Week has spurred other efforts. An early Switch Philly event presaged the rise of the startup pitch events. The launch of OpenDataPhilly.org and early hackathons were anchors in the development of the city’s civic technology civic tech community.

Events and initiatives started during Philly Tech Week by Brigitte Daniel and Tracey Welson-Rossman went on to be their own institutions (including the Women in Tech Summit). Another prominent example is the HUE Tech Summit by Jumoke Dada. (Yup, it’s gone virtual this year, too.)

She’s grown an entire community for female technologists and entrepreneurs of color.

Crucially, Dada’s audience is not only Philadelphians. The same goes for tech companies that have hosted user conferences during Philly Tech Week, like Guru’s Empower conference, and conferences Technical.ly has grown. Since PTW events are hosted by many organizations, our historical numbers are somewhat uneven, but we know hundreds of people come from outside the region for Philly Tech Week each year.

The thing about Philly Tech Week is, as Guru CEO Nucci put it to me once: “It’s not even only about Philly, or just tech, and, well, it’s not even only a week.”

2018 — It has never lost its sense of place.

One of the most joyous additions to Philly Tech Week in recent years has been the explosion of music and late-night parties led by REC Philly, the membership community of artists and creators.

Music was always welcome during the week, from the chiptunes music scene in the earliest years to the anchor events like the Future of Music summit hosted in 2013 by Tayyib Smith with Questlove and WXPN’s Bruce Warren. Truly these were the earliest influences — Smith in particular has largely influenced PTW’s tethering to this city’s long cultural history.

But the core work and extended network of REC, which also spearheads the Amplify Philly initiative, has meant it brought more local artists to bear during Philly Tech Week than any other group. REC Philly after-parties during Philly Tech Week have becomes their own tradition — especially the hundreds who tend to pack somewhere mysterious after the final night of the week.

The presence of local musicians and artists runs deep through the week. (A multi-site PTW20 Old City art crawl was one of many plans canceled this year in the face of the pandemic.)

Elsewhere Philly Tech Week has aimed to toe the line between deeply and reverently honoring Philadelphia and the people who are here, while also giving platform and promise to those who should come here to learn too. Remember: Innovation Been Here.

2019 — It has set new challenges.

In 2018, it became clear that the first mission of Philly Tech Week, to essentially form a community that still felt very disparate, had been met. It was time for something new. So we introduced a mission statement, one that we felt met the moment and could last.

Technology isn’t mobile apps and laptops and websites. Technology is the name we give to new tools and processes. There will always be new generations of technology, and we need people to harness them for good. The 10th annual was meant to be, and still can be, an important turning point for a new stage.

2020 — It continues to adapt and learn.

This year hasn’t been what anyone planned for. It’s been the most challenging of my decade working on Philly Tech Week. Many of the plans we had for the 10th annual have had to be set aside for another time.

That perhaps is the most important reason Philly Tech Week matters: We aimed to be an answer for what our community needed at the time. Now, there is new work to be done.

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