Bill de Blasio’s tech to-do list, according to experts


New York City’s tech industry has grown steadily in recent years, becoming a vital cog to the economy, and digital insiders are hoping Mayor-elect Bill de Blasio keeps the trend going as he takes office in January.

De Blasio’s tech talking points have been mostly vague, though he has consistently said he wants to keep New York an industry leader. To do that, his expressed plans for Silicon Alley include proposals to increase STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) education, to fight for workforce diversity, and to advocate for immigration reform that would retain and attract talent. Still, compared to his predecessor, it is somewhat of a light load.

Mayor Michael Bloomberg has left a richlegacy in technology: Through his policies, initiatives and endless vocal support, Bloomberg helped turn tech into New York’s second-largest industry and a national hotspot second only to Silicon Valley. (He also happened to found a little tech company called Bloomberg L.P.in 1981.)

However, many industry leaders are optimistic de Blasio can keep New York at the top of the tech world.

“De Blasio has probably been the most vocal elected leader around tech policies that go directly to the core of New York’s [tech] community’s most important needs,” said Andrew Rasiej, chairman of New York Tech Meetup, which organizes regular gatherings of tech professionals.

Many agreed but with the caveat that de Blasio is mostly unproven in the area and should lay out more detailed plans in the upcoming months.

“To be honest he hasn’t been specific enough” to analyze his proposals, said Jake Schwartz, CEO and co-founder of General Assembly, a tech educational institute. He’s made “really encouraging general statements, but what we’re gonna be looking for is when the rubber hits the road with policy decisions and how he chooses to staff the Economic Development Corporation” and his office, Schwartz said. (De Blasio’s office didn’t respond to multiple requests for comment.)

amNewYork spoke with Silicon Alley leaders and insiders about how de Blasio can continue New York’s progress in the area, and these are the ideas we heard most:

Be a cheerleader: Mayor Bloomberg was vocal about the city’s tech industry, which some experts said was a major contributor to raising its profile.

“Probably the biggest thing Bloomberg did for tech in New York was talking about it,” said Erik Grimmelmann, executive director and vice-chairman of the New York Technology Council, a tech advocacy group. “Tech is very strong in New York, the best it’s ever been, and the world didn’t know that. Bloomberg got out there and told the world.”

Improve broadband and wireless connectivity throughout the city: This was the most common problem among the experts we spoke with, and in some ways it is an analogy for the city’s relationship to the industry.

“It’s the most major issue because from it drives so many things,” Rasiej said. “For tech businesses, broadband is a huge issue, but it’s also huge because the education system needs to be reinvigorated and wiring schools is not enough. We have to wire the kids, and broadband costs” are out of reach for many New York families, Rasiej said, adding that the city’s telcos have yet to deliver on promises to install wiring.

Schwartz agreed.

“The No. 1 thing on minds is increasing broadband access and speed in the city,” he said. “It’s a real problem right now,” he said, adding that he has colleagues starting businesses in the city who are unable to get broadband for “months” after moving into their spaces.

Improve STEM education: De Blasio has already set forth a plan to improve STEM education, including a two-year program at CUNY and a scholarship encouraging post-graduation work in the city.

“New York a shortage of tech talent,” Grimmelmann said. “There are fewer people with the skills than there are jobs. ? We need better STEM education in elementary and secondary schools. We need more people trained at the university level.”

Stay business-friendly: “The technology community benefited tremendously from the Bloomberg administration’s focus on innovation and enabling companies to grow” in the city, said Arnab Gupta, CEO of local startup Opera Solutions. “As a result, there are now many active initiatives that we are hoping will continue,” such as the role of chief digital officer and public-private partnerships with local startups.

Rasiej added there are changes to the tax code that de Blasio should implement to help smaller companies grow, such as the investment tax credit.

Advocate for immigration reform: Though this is largely out of de Blasio’s hands, experts said he should strive to be an outspoken leader for reform because it’s an issue that has a major impact on the technology industry’s workforce.

“In the short-run, immigration reform will help so we can keep some of the tech talent we educate [here] after they graduate and attract entrepreneurs from around the world,” Grimmelmann said. “Many of them would love to come here to start companies but we’re making it hard on them,” he said.

De Blasio has already laid out plans to advocate for “common sense immigration reform” to retain international students who graduate from New York universities.

Expand to the outer boroughs: Silicon Alley is almost synonymous with a handful of areas in Manhattan — Union Square and SoHo, in particular — but Schwartz said there are major moves being made in the outer boroughs that de Blasio should champion.

“There’s a lot of opportunities for including the outer boroughs in the tech boom,” Schwartz said. “There’s of lot of interesting stuff around biotech happening in Harlem ? to understand what are the roles New York can play in those kinds of industries that are not our typical strength.”

Increase workforce diversity: A tech problem not unique to New York, the industry is often slammed for not reaching out enough to minorities and women to join the workforce, and experts said de Blasio should try to make inroads to remedying that problem.

“New York has reputation ? that this is a friendlier place for women, for example,” Grimmelmann said. “Just by saying that out loud and highlighting those successes, that ? will encourage people to want to come to a friendly place to start their businesses.”