As every company becomes a technology company, tech becomes ever more central in New York, the global economy’s heart. Local streets swarm with programmers and startup employees. Accelerators and co-working spaces are on block after block. So we applaud the emergence of a new organization to give more shape and influence to the tech industry here. Tech:NYC was founded in 2016. Its co-chairs are Tim Armstrong, CEO of AOL, and Fred Wilson, managing partner at Union Square Ventures. Techonomy spoke with Wilson and Tech:NYC Executive Director Julie Samuels about the organization and tech in New York. The interview took place last fall. In the interim, the group has further matured, and won considerable notice and applause for its speedy effort to assemble local and national tech luminaries for a letter of protest following President Trump’s immigration order in late January. Within two weeks the letter had more than 2,000 signatures. (Note: Executive Director Samuels will talk about tech in New York at the Techonomy NYC conference May 17, 2017.)
Techonomy: Why Tech:NYC?
Julie Samuels: The tech industry is becoming a bigger part of New York’s economic pie and many of the city’s cornerstone tech companies are maturing. It’s an effort to organize the industry’s companies, leaders, investors, etc., to help benefit not only our industry, but the city we all love. To say it more simply: we’re growing up and it’s time to act like it.
Fred Wilson: The New York tech community has always been engaged with the city and the world but it has largely been a few leaders of the community who have done this work and we feel like we need much broader engagement and representation.
What kind of programs do you expect? What is success?
FW: Success is getting every “tech company” large and small to be a member and to participate actively. Our programs range from “Meet the Senator” events, to networking for the community, to participation in policy-oriented groups working on a distinct issue (for example drone policy in New York).
JS: A big part of our job is to support and champion New York City as the best place to build and grow a tech company, which it turn will help attract the kind of talent we need to support our robust and growing ecosystem.
Is New York sufficiently appreciated as a center for tech?
FW: We’ve come a long way on this one in the past twenty years but we can still do more. There are still young talented people with the technology skills we need who feel like they have to go to the West Coast to pursue a career in tech. Until that ends, our job is not done.
JS: We’re getting there! But a lot of work to do still. Needless to say, New Yorkers aren’t really going to settle for being second best.
Is the comparison with SV useful or valid?
FW: The better approach is not to compete for tech leadership with Silicon Valley, but to focus on innovation more broadly and explain that New York is the global leader in broad-based innovation and that tech is a key driver of that.
JS: It’s not a zero-sum game. That said, I have no doubt that New York is primed to be the leader in the next generation of tech innovation, especially when you think about where that innovation is most likely to take place: integrated in other industries. For example, think about blockchain technology and the financial sector, or drones and the future of logistics and infrastructure. That’s all going to happen here.
How are we doing in attracting engineers and programmers?
FW: We have focused too much on attracting tech talent to move to New York (which we are doing a fantastic job on) and not enough on developing our homegrown talent. We have been focusing a lot more on it in the last five years. Efforts like CS4All in our K-12 system and Cornell Tech in higher ed are two well-known examples. But there are literally hundreds of efforts, large and small.
JS: The city recently partnered with City University of New York to create 85 new entrepreneur visas in a forward-thinking and exciting program, IN2NYC.
Tech:NYC emphasizes civic engagement. What could be different in our city and country if more tech people focused on government?
FW: We need more experienced and skilled people there. Maybe this is an on ramp for that.
JS: We can also do a better job of cutting through bureaucracy to improve the way government serves its citizens. Technologists and entrepreneurs are the most optimistic group of people I’ve ever met. They get to work to fix problems.
What policies does New York need to “assure its pre-eminence in the global innovation economy,” as your website puts it?
FW: We need the people in the City and State governments to understand the issues that impact our sector better than they do now. And we need to work with them to enact laws and regulations that are well thought through. We need them to understand how important the tech sector is and will be, and then work with us to attract more companies, talent, and business here.
What makes New York different for tech-oriented companies? At Techonomy we think people here get suffused in a unique and very healthy New York big-picture perspective about the planet, diversity, and difference of all sorts.
FW: New York is the proverbial melting pot. It is where people of all mindsets come to work and live together. These “collisions” result in the sparks that light up innovation. But the innovation that happens in New York is not limited to tech. It is in theater, energy, health, transportation, and even government. Tech is a big piece but not the dominant piece. That makes New York tech different and special.
JS: This is also the best place to figure out the tough policy questions – we all live, commute, work, and play on top of each other. So we need to co-exist across industry, class, ethnic divide–you name it. It’s what I love most about New York and it’s why I’m so excited to do this work here.
Much more about Tech:NYC can be found, of course, at its website.