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RealLIST Engineers 2021: These 17 technologists are building Philadelphia’s future

Who's building the best of Philly tech — including the products, companies and next-gen talent? Meet the devs, data scientists, meetup organizers and other innovators are making an impact on Philly tech.

( image via Canva)
In a world as ever-changing as the one 2021 has presented us, we recognize the need for influential technologists and the work they do in keeping us connected and moving forward every day.

Over the last year, we’ve seen projects related to COVID-19, healthcare technologies, innovations in city government, and tech companies that grow the local economies of our mid-Atlantic cities. It is, indeed, our job to stay tuned into this work here at But in honor of our third annual RealLIST Engineers, it’s time that you all get to recognize them, too.

We’re spotlighting those developers, data scientists, meetup organizers and other innovators who are building new things every day and sharing what they’ve learned with their local communities. In building this list, the search began with a public call for nominations. Then, we consulted technologists — big shoutout to Ben Garvey, Anthony Putignano and Kris Molendyke for their review of the noms — and looked back through our own coverage.

As with last year, 2021’s honorees are creating, maintaining and securing the software and infrastructure that’s being built here in Philadelphia each day. Some come from esteemed higher ed backgrounds, while others are self-taught, but they’re powering the local tech industry as a whole. Whether they keep a busy meetup group going, have a passion for expanding the talent pipeline or work internally to inspire innovation in new devs, this group holds some of the “real”-est engineering folks we know.

Let’s take a look at the third edition of RealLIST Engineers in Philly, in alphabetical order:

Ronessa Acquesta, senior decision engineer, Nextmv

Ronessa Acquesta. (Photo via LinkedIn)

Acquesta’s nominator told us that out of the startup’s rapidly growing tech team, she stands out as “thoughtful, articulate and extremely talented.” But Acquesta didn’t start her career in engineering — in fact, for more than a decade, she taught math at two New Jersey schools.

In 2017, she pivoted, earning a certificate in data science and visualization from Rutgers University, and went on to work as a teaching assistant at two tech bootcamps: one at University of Texas, and on at University of Pennsylvania. She worked for three years as a software engineer elsewhere before joining Nextmv in March of this year.

“The transition from teacher to software engineer is no simple feat, especially as a woman in tech,” her nominator wrote. “She made the transition and is now helping give back to others trying to do the same.”

Matt Bell, director of product development services, NextFab

Matt Bell. (Photo via LinkedIn)

At the start of the pandemic, Bell and his team at the makerspace network worked overtime to figure out which projects needed extra resources and which organizations across the city they could assist. He was integral to NextFab’s effort to digitally distribute instructions and templates for mask making, his nominator wrote us.

He’s also the backbone of Nextfab’s product development, helping a team of product designers and engineers turn their ideas into successful products.

Sara Broad, software engineer, Tendo

Sara Broad. (Photo via Linkedin)

Broad is fairly new to engineering, spending the first part of her professional career as a teacher in the Philadelphia School District. She graduated from a Penn bootcamp in coding and web development in 2018, and joined Tendo as a software engineer at the start of this year. There, she shapes its DEI Council committee, has become a go-to middleware expert — and though she’s never met her team IRL — works to build their company culture and team engagement, her nominator wrote.

“Sara punches above her number of years of experience,” they said. “She joined Tendo with just a couple years experience, ran with our onboarding and training processes extremely well, and within a few short months she started making contributions that outpaced her experience level.”

Michael Chenetz, technical leader, Cisco

Chenetz works as a technical leader for Cisco specializing in cloud technology. His nominator touted that he regularly presents on topics related to the industry and is creating and providing tutorials and resources to learn about cloud and cloud native topics such as Kubernetes and Service Mesh.

He’s the host of “Cloud Unfiltered” podcast and he works with the Cloud Native Computing Foundation, where he shares what he’s learned about cloud computing with other technologists.

Christina Chimi, engineering manager, Gopuff

Christina Chimi. (Photo via LinkedIn)

At one of the fastest-growing tech companies headquartered in the city, Chimi has been leading and scaling the engineering team at Gopuff for nearly three years now. She’s played many roles on the team, often jumping into complex systems and issues without worry and focusing her solutions on the customer as the company expands into new areas, as her nominator told us. Chimi is also often “the voice of pragmatic use cases and of an empathetic design process.”

She has also “consistently been a major voice pushing for a focus on diversity hiring as well as ensuring that all engineering staff have access to the training and resources needed to succeed,” they wrote.

Karla Fettich, senior data scientist, AmeriHealth Caritas

Karla Fettich. (Courtesy photo)

In addition to her full-time job, Fettich is “an energetic and dedicated volunteer in the Philadelphia data science community,” her nominator told us. She’s constantly volunteering with R-Ladies Philly on its organizing team, and with local Code for America brigade, Code for Philly.

But Fettich didn’t get to this career very traditionally, she told us in a recent interview. She said she “fell” into data from an academic background after realizing she enjoyed analyzing it. Meetups, and particularly R-Ladies, gave her the ability to add experience that she wasn’t getting in the academic world, especially when she didn’t know how to move out or pivot, she said. It created the type of opportunities she wished she had when she was starting her career.

Jason Frisvold, product engineering environments manager, InvestCloud

In addition to work on integrating blockchain and neural networks at InvestCloud, Frisvold lead BSides Delaware, a regional local information security tech conference.

His nominator gave him a shoutout for regularly mentoring other technologists about how to succeed in the industry, and for bringing a “huge technological and entrepreneurial background and expertise to the conference, to several local startups, and to everyone around him.” He also a co-host for the Iron Sysadmin” podcast.

Jessie Garcia, founder and CEO, Tozuda

Jessie Garcia. (Courtesy photo)

Garcia is in a rare group to grace this list as a company founder. But her persistence to grow Tozuda during the pandemic — despite the sports industry struggling — while leading her team through a stressful time and inspiring other first-generation Americans and women in tech landed her here. Her nominator wrote that she is one of the most reliable founders in the Philly startup community, and makes herself accessible for any technical or engineering question she may get. She’s also a recent founder-in-residence at Venture Cafe Philadelphia.

“Jessie also is able to explain to a layman (non-engineer) the technical/engineering issues at hand and how to work with engineers to solve the issues,” they wrote. “She is a natural problem solver.”

Daniel Hunter, senior frontend engineer, Crossbeam

Daniel Hunter. (Photo via LinkedIn)

At Crossbeam, Hunter works to maintain and improve best practices while leading a team of engineers. Hunter’s background as a former tech apprentice has driven his passion for creating job access, which led him to working with orgs Free Code Camp Philly and Coded by Kids, his nominator told us. He’s also working to establish an apprenticeship program within the company.

Hunter is also the founder of Post In Black, which raises awareness for the work of Black post-production professionals. His tech acumen has allowed him to empower the engineers he works with, per his nominator.

Christopher Kahn, director of unmanned aerial systems, American Water

Christopher Kahn. (Photo via Facebook)

Kahn’s tenure at American Water has led to safer and more secure infrastructure as he’s developed and deployed drones in innovative ways. His work is “leading the way nationally in ways to think about how to use drones to reduce costs and increase safety,” his nominator wrote.

Kahn was also the American Water employee to reach out to tech training nonprofit Hopeworks for a volunteering partnership, with the belief that young people in the program could perform high-level GIS and drone work. The org has since built an ongoing relationship with one of Camden’s largest employers.

Christopher MacLellan, professor, Drexel University

Christopher MacLellan. (Courtesy photo)

As an assistant professor of information science and computer science at Drexel, MacLellan’s technical savvy will influence the next generation of technologists. He was recently named head of a Drexel and National Science Foundation initiative aiming to expand the use of artificial intelligence in areas ranging from agriculture and food supply chains to adult and online learning.

His nominator called MacLellan a wonderful mentor and “one of the most gifted technical people I have ever worked with.”

Michael Matela, IT manager, City of Philadelphia’s Streets and OIT departments

Michael Matela. (Photo via LinkedIn)

Philly native Matela is known for fostering innovation in the Streets Department — work that touches the life of every resident, business and visitor, his nominator wrote. He’s collaborative with other departments and cities about their tech approach to municipal solutions, and engages the larger community through presentations at URISA and ESRI conferences.

Matela has also worked directly with students from local colleges as co-ops, students who are working on projects and thesis papers, or independent scholars simply seeking data and guidance — “ensuring future technologists are developed close to home.”

As for overcoming technical challenge: A few years ago, Matela was in charge of a project to modernize nearly 700 snow removal vehicles and an additional 200 contractor vehicles with the use of Verizon NetworkFleet GPS for City vehicles, and eventually the development of SSRS reporting that analyzed routes to determine completion and provide alerts when vehicle activity failed to meet expectations, his nominator told us.

Leemay Nassery, engineering manager, Dropbox

Leemay Nassery. (Photo via LinkedIn)

Nassery is no stranger to the community, authoring a handful of fun guest posts diving into both the good and not-so-good of working in tech. (We hear she’s working on a new project that will discuss how to overcome difficult tech leadership situations; look for more details soon.)

Nassery’s also held engineering management positions at Spotify and Comcast after stints at Mitsubishi Motors and World Food Programme.

Leon Noel, managing director, Resilient Coders

Leon Noel. (Photo via LinkedIn)

South Philadelphia native Noel saw the impact a career in tech had on his life and now leads the Resilient Coders bootcamp. As its managing director, he launched its free bootcamp in Philly in 2021, developing its curriculum and managing its experts-in-residence and technical volunteers.

Noel is also known for his lecturing work at Harvard Business School, MIT Sloan School of Business and General Assembly, and for working with major brands to help train their engineering teams and bring new technology to market, his nominator said. He was also a cofounder of SocialSci, a scientific surveying company used by academic institutions.

Patrick Spears, data engineer, Inspire

Patrick Spears. (Photo via LinkedIn)

Spears has become a leader within his team, his nominator told us, with his commitment to a strong set of engineering principles and his attention to technical design. “It often sets standards across our codebase that benefit the entire data team,” they said.

He comes to tech from a background in English literature, intending to be a professor, but after landing a data entry role and teaching himself VBA, SQL and eventually Python, he has grown in the data engineering field.

Spears recently led a technical project to help Inspire’s customer service platform shift to a new provider, making work easier for other teams. He also kickstarted a biweekly reading program for the data team to share articles introducing new processes or best practices.

Dawn Wages, research programmer, Wharton School

Dawn Wage. (Photo via LinkedIn)

In addition to being a full-stack software engineer, Wages’ talents run the gamut from community organizing to speaking and organizing Django Con, a two-day virtual conference “for the community by the community” about the Django web framework.

Wages also works with Django Girls, a nonprofit org offering free programming workshops to help women fall in love with programming careers. With her full-time job, she’s building projects for Penn’s business school. And on top of all of that — Wages is also a delightful Twitter follow.

Nico Westerdale, fractional CTO, self-employed

Nico Westerdale. (Courtesy photo)

Westerdale has spent time at some of Philly’s most established and quickly growing tech companies, recently founding his own “fractional CTO” business after a two-and-a-half year stint growing the engineering team at Gopuff. For more than two decades, he’s worked for tech companies spanning from dot-com era startups in New York City to leading projects at Comcast. He’s a regular presence at meetups, networking events and other presentation venues to help small companies accelerate their technology stack and grow.

“Nico has rapidly built his customer base, which is no small testament to his ability and excellent communication skills,” his nominator wrote to us. You can read more about Nico from this recent AMA he did with us this summer.

Companies: Tendo / Resilient Coders / Nextmv / Gopuff / Crossbeam / Inspire / City of Philadelphia / Drexel University / NextFab / University of Pennsylvania / Wharton School
Series: RealLIST Engineers / RealLIST

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