Interview: How Philly Tech Week Became an Institution

Christopher Wink on how Philly's celebration of technology has matured.

Christopher Wink isn’t yet on Philly Mag’s list of the city’s most powerful people (check out the newest issue!) but give it time. He’s a young man in a hurry, a co-founder of the Technically Philly website that has grown into a franchise covering the tech scenes in several East Coast cities. That venture gave birth to Philly Tech Week — the fourth edition of which starts today — and which is expected to draw 25,000 people to game-playing, hack-a-thons, seminars on starting up your own tech company, and much more. (And oh, yeah: People will be playing Tetris on the side of the Cira Centre.)

“It does inspire a sense of place,” he said. “It does create a community identity … It’s a vehicle to make a better community, not just a bigger party every year. Although parties are good.”

Wink talked this week about Philly’s place in the tech scene, how the town distinguishes itself, and how to encourage Philadelphia startups beyond the tech sector.

Philly Tech Week has only been around for a few years, but it feels like it’s grown considerably. And it feels like an established city institution at this point. So the chicken or egg question is: Is the city’s tech scene just that vibrant that it can support a huge event like this? Or has Tech Week helped create and promote that vibrancy?

I think there are a lot of strong roots that predate Philly Tech Week. We’re nationally looking at a Web 2.0 boom that’s happening in every city in the country. But Philadelphia — for all of the reasons that you write about the many ways Philadelphia’s succeeding — it’s happening in technology, too. All this big city infrastructure and creative energy that was not yet unleashed, and in the past 10 years as that brain-drain trend slowed, and urbanism came on, everything just lit fire. I think Philly Tech Week and a lot of other groups have helped pull things together, I think that’s what’s really happened. But definitely a lot of the pieces predate. It’s an old economic development argument where sometimes you have the right pieces, you just need to put them in the same room and give them a megaphone.

Tech Week features one-day events with tracks for startups, media marketing, and public service. There are also shorter events for hacking, student-oriented events, and a robotics expo. How much work goes into casting the net that wide?

It gets easier. I think those first couple years, we were so committed to being inclusive that we were knocking on doors. Now the fun part of that has become a tradition you see, like the Chamber of Commerce had their annual tech event. And then you have high school kids doing a robotics expo. So I think the tradition makes it easier in terms of getting more people to the table, instead the work becomes playing traffic cop, let’s not have too many similar events at the same time, let’s try to make sure we keep bringing in new people, new communities each year, that’s where the work has moved towards.

One thing about this year’s event is that organizers have gone out of their way to very publicly make it a woman-friendly event and declare that harassment will be unwelcome. Why do you do that and what do you think that means for how events will play out during the week?

I think our code of conduct is much less to resolve a problem and more acknowledge that Philadelphia genuinely is a community that’s among the leaders nationally about inclusivity. So that code of conduct came out of a conversation that looked at that national story — “Is the valley-dominated, early stage community, too bro-heavy?” I don’t think it’s about solving a problem in Philadelphia, because I think the vibrancy of our community generally — from income disparity, to background disparity, to location disparity, to gender balance, to any number of different ways you can try to make your community — represents the broader community

And there has been a national conversation over the last year, because there have been incidents at what we might call some nerd-oriented events over the last year. Does making that public declaration give you an advantage and give Philadelphia an advantage in attracting talent and in attracting people to the conversation?

Yeah, I sure hope, I sure think so. Here’s the thing I’m personally interested in: Technology, when it becomes less just a sector — because that word is so generic — well you’re not going to be a technology hub. And so the game ends up being much less about an arms race with some other city, but instead repainting the towns that were already attractive to universities and natural flow and so in that case you have to build a beautiful city. If you want to build a strong technology business in a city you love, that welcomes anyone and everyone who wants to join the table, Philadelphia is absolutely one of the best places in the country to do that.

Philadelphia isn’t necessarily famed for its entrepreneurial spirit, there are a lot of people who believe the city has way too many obstacles in the way. What can the tech sector teach the rest of us in other sectors about how to get started and thrive in Philadelphia?

I’m always very interested in how there will always be excuses for why you should not do something. We’re doing a ton of reporting now on [how even] though the investment numbers are still suburban-heavy in Philadelphia, all of the energy is in the cities, which is a huge change from the ’90s. And that it’s happening in the face of the perception of tax challenges. If you’re a pre-profit startup, it doesn’t really matter to you. But despite the perception of taxes, it happened here. So I think first thing for me in the lesson is that you can grow any community in a place where people want to live. And so when you make Philadelphia an increasingly nice place to live — like parks and amenities and the restaurant culture, the bar scene and the arts and the culture — that will make people want to come.

Even more importantly, I’m fascinated by how many entrepreneurs tell us that schools are as big a deciding factor — bigger even — than taxes. Because hey, I wanna work near where I live, I wanna drive my kids to school, and the perception — obviously there’s lots of examples — that there are great schools in Philadelphia, but overall the perception that the school district still chases away talent.

Philly Tech Week runs through April 12. Follow Christopher Wink on Twitter for updates throughout the week.