Broadband: With Jessica Rosenworcel
32 minutes

The Coronavirus has impacted every town and city across the country. One of the hardest hit has been New York City, where Julie Samuels, the guest on this episode of Broadband Conversations, lives and works. Julie is the Executive Director of Tech:NYC and on this episode listeners will hear what she is seeing firsthand and how technology could assist in this crisis, as so much of in our lives, from work to healthcare to education, has migrated online.


MS. ROSENWORCEL: Welcome to Broadband Conversations. My name is Jessica Rosenworcel, and I'm a member of the Federal Communications Commission.

And this is the podcast where I get to talk to leading women from across the technology, innovation, and media industries. You get to hear what they're working on, what's on their minds, and what they think is the next big thing.

And my guest today is Julie Samuels, the Executive Director of Tech:NYC. She's had a long career throughout the tech world. She's run a nationwide nonprofit dedicated to entrepreneurship, she's litigated intellectual property cases, she's testified before Congress, and she's even spent time working at the National Center for Supercomputing Applications.

And we're going to talk about all that on this podcast. But let me set the stage a little bit, because Julie and I actually recorded a conversation early in March right before most of us were told to stay home as this virus had begun to spread to our communities.

And of course one of those hardest-hit communities is New York City, and that's where Julie lives and works. So once we figured out how to record remotely, I wanted to redo this conversation, because we're hearing so much about this pandemic and its devastating impact on New York.

And I thought it would be really, really important to hear from a woman on the ground working and seeing firsthand how her community is coping and how technology could maybe help in this crisis, especially as we're using so much more connectivity for telework, telehealth, tele-education, for really everything we're doing during this time.

So we're going to have a lot of ground to cover, but first I really want to thank Julie for rejoining me and for being here today. I hope you're staying well and I hope you're healthy.

MS. SAMUELS: Thank you so much for having me, I'm so glad we're going to get the chance to revisit this, because it is very much a new world since we last spoke.

MS. ROSENWORCEL: Right, okay, but let's roll back and let's start with your story. And tell us a little bit about how you got to where you are today.

MS. SAMUELS: Yes, so Tech:NYC, the organization I run, is also an organization which I founded about -- actually four years ago last week. And you know, Tech:NYC is an organization that represents about 800 tech companies and investors working on public policy issues, mostly at the state and local level here in New York.

But before I did this, as you said, I've been working in tech policy for a very long time and thinking -- I've spent my career really thinking about how technology impacts the way government works, the way society works, the way we all kind of interact with each other.

And as you mentioned, a lot of this started a very long time ago, I'm embarrassed to admit in the '90s, at the National Center for Supercomputing Applications, which for those of you who don't know, that's where Marc Andreessen invented Mosaic, which was the first graphical web browser, which became Netscape. Marc was there before my time, but not much.

But the reason I bring that up is careers are really funny things, and how you end up doing something can in so many ways be luck or happenstance. And in many ways that was my case. I was a print journalism major, I'm not sure that's still a thing anymore, at the University of Illinois.

And I thought I wanted to be an economics reporter. And if anyone knows me, they know that is kind of funny, borderline really funny. I don't -- economics, finance is not my strong suit at all.

And I had an amazing professor, and he said to me, there's this internship at NCSA writing about technology. Explaining technology is complicated, so is explaining economics. So why don't you see if you can get this internship and learn about explaining technology, and maybe it'll prepare you for being an economics reporter.

And I never really looked back. That, and like with other people, I had another amazing professor who taught a First Amendment course, but for undergrads, not law school level, because again, I was a journalism major.

And that class, I took it in 1998, which is you know, right at the time that some really important litigation was happening, ACLU litigation, and that really kind of turned me on to all these issues. So I was always thinking about how the internet would impact the news and kind of took off from there.

Anyway, I moved to Washington, DC, I worked for the National Journal. I moved to New York, worked for a nonprofit called Media Coalition. And then I went to law school. And then I practiced for a while, and then I went and I moved to San Francisco, where I went to work at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, which was the dream job.

It was a why-I-went-to-law-school job, it was amazing. I was an attorney there, and my title was the Mark Cuban Chair to Eliminate Stupid Patents. And I worked a lot on intellectual property issues, patent reform, copyright stuff. I have a barking dog in the background, part of working from home.

MS. ROSENWORCEL: Oh my God, that's life now. Make no apologies.

MS. SAMUELS: Anyway, you know, I left EFF to run Engine. But one thing I'd also point out there is I started doing more and more policy work when I was at EFF, and my background up until that point had really been in litigation. And I found out I really liked policy work. And I didn't have any training to do that work at the time, but it came much more naturally to me than being a litigator.

So that was, that was kind of how my career ended up where it was. And then I moved to New York. I love New York, and I started Tech:NYC.

MS. ROSENWORCEL: All right, well listen, you just mentioned it's four years, so happy birthday. That's a --

MS. SAMUELS: Yeah, thank you.

MS. ROSENWORCEL: Big milestone. So how about you share a little bit about what you do in your current role. Because, you know, when most people think of technology, they probably think of California and Silicon Valley, where you used to do some of your work. But in New York City, at least until recent days, we've been able to count like over 9,000 tech start-ups.

So it's a city that is also producing a lot of technology. And so tell me a little bit more about your organization and what it does.

MS. SAMUELS: Yeah, so I'll take this in two parts, and I'll talk specifically about what we do, but also why I'm so bullish on New York and the tech scene here. What we do is, you know, listen, at the end of the day, Tech:NYC is a trade association.

We have member companies, we engage with elected officials and other kind of government stakeholders, mostly at the city and state level, and we do that to ensure that New York City and New York State are working to grow tech companies here, to grow the tech ecosystem. But we also bring those tech companies and their leaders to bear to support New York City and New York State.

So two sides of the policy coin. You know, what will make our companies more productive here, and what can our companies do to support New York.

And we do that in a host of different ways. But you know, it's traditional policy and political work. It's really fun, really dynamic. As with most people who work in this space, it's constantly changing.

You know, when I think about kind of the development of internet sector more broadly, you know, you had for the past, you know, better part of two decades, you've had this explosive growth from the West Coast. And those companies are largely software companies. They're companies that essentially make the technology available to general users. You know, the application era of the internet.


MS. SAMUELS: How people like me even, you know, who works in technology actually access the internet. I don't think those companies could have ever gotten started on the East Coast. I think they would have probably been crushed by competition, by regulators, by government, you know, you name it.

But I think that these companies that started on the West Coast, you know, frankly I think a lot of people on the East Coast just weren't taking them seriously for a long time, didn't really know what was going on. They had silly names, didn't really seem real. I mean, I know that you remember this, Commissioner, this time.

MS. ROSENWORCEL: I do, I do. But you also mentioned your silly name when you worked at the Electronic Frontier Foundation.


MS. ROSENWORCEL: So you're among those who had titles like.

MS. SAMUELS: Amazing. I'm one of them, yes. The names are great, they're great. But you know, what I think happened, and of course is those companies all of sudden got so big they couldn't be ignored anymore. But you know, the next generation of big tech companies won't have that advantage of being able to stay under the radar long enough to get so big that you can't be ignored.

And so that means you need a different skill set to grow. You need to work with other stakeholders, you need to know how to interface with government earlier on in the process. You know how -- you need to know how to partner with potential competitors or existing industry.

And that is so New York. You know, a lot of East Coast cities, but so New York. You know, when you live here, really different right now in the time of COVID, but when you live here, you cannot be in a bubble. You can't be in a vacuum. There are people everywhere, people -- I feel sad to say some of these things, they were on public transit all the time in normal circumstances.

You know, when I moved here from San Francisco, one of the things that was most notable to me once my oldest son started going to school was when he got to preschool, at least his first year, my husband and I were the only parents who worked in tech in his class. And that would not have been the case in the Valley, and actually it's not the case anymore either.

But you know, you were just surrounded by people thinking differently about different types of problems all the time. And I think that's a crucial ingredient for the next generation of large tech companies.

And one last point about this, I think the next generation of large tech companies are going to exist in these tougher-to-innovate-in markets. And I think those markets are tougher to innovate in not because of the technological problems, but because of the regulatory regimes and the other entrenched and incumbent industries.

And I think that we'll increasingly see that growth happening where those industries are already located, where there's expertise. And that's here. So I feel even in the time of coronavirus, too, you know, I'm incredibly bullish on what's going to happen here in New York.

MS. ROSENWORCEL: That's a really neat statement of why you exist and why you think New York is a place now for technology to grow. But of course, we're in the middle of this really challenging historic moment, and the epicenter of this crisis, at least in early days, has been New York City.


MS. ROSENWORCEL: So can you talk a little bit about how the technology sector's been impacted by coronavirus.

MS. SAMUELS: Yeah, so the first thing I would say is that the technology sector has not been hit as hard as many other sectors. I think it's important that we kind of start from that baseline. You know, there are industries that are absolutely reeling right now, and technology generally speaking is not.

But you know, something we've seen that has long been a trend in tech of course is that the word tech is increasingly becoming meaningless, you know, and everything.

MS. ROSENWORCEL: It's everything.


MS. ROSENWORCEL: Everything.

MS. SAMUELS: Right, every company is a tech company, which sounds trite but is true. So we have companies in our network who are doing great right now, and we have companies in our network who are not at all doing great right now.

If you're a tech company in the travel space or in the retail space, this pandemic has not been good for your bottom line, you know. I say that kind of lightly, I don't mean it lightly at all. But you know, you've got companies who are building software that help education or connectivity, and they're doing great.

So it's hard to speak with a broad brush about what's happening. But there are some trends that are notable, and one of them is that it is, it has been much easier for tech companies to transition to working from home. Because you know, they, these companies were already used to using the tools necessary and they all had everything in the cloud already.

They were able to take their laptops home and pretty much seamlessly, not entirely, but pretty much get to work. That is not true in other industries. Obviously industries that require a presence, that's different. But even in some of the financial sectors, legal fields, you know, these businesses have had a much harder time transitioning to work from home.

MS. ROSENWORCEL: That's a good point.

MS. SAMUELS: So that's the first thing. And by the way, as we start thinking about going back to the office, which we're doing a lot of thinking about now, I think you'll see tech companies stay home longer because it's easy enough for them to do it.

And to the extent you to keep people away from other people, tech companies might be able to take one for the team there, if you will, and stay home a bit longer. So we've seen that. The other thing that we see all the time here, which is just so confidence-inspiring, is a real desire to help.

MS. ROSENWORCEL: Oh, yeah, let's definitely talk about, I mean.


MS. ROSENWORCEL: Do you have some examples?


MS. ROSENWORCEL: Because it's apparent that, you know, technology is helping us stay connected at home, but also the companies that you work with, are they coming up with idea to help combat this virus, make life easier for us to live during these times? I feel like there's so much opportunity there, and those are good things that deserve getting talked about.

MS. SAMUELS: Yeah, there's so much happening here that's amazing. I mean, there's stuff that is more on the front line. Actual needs by government or other kind of civic entities where they need help from tech companies and tech companies and technologists have stepped up.

A great example is New York State launched what they call the SWAT Team where they brought in teams of technologists, ideally from a single employer, to combat specific technical problems in the field that the state was dealing with related to the virus.

They launched the first day with -- and within, I'm going to get the number slightly off but I'll give the general, the general gist is right. Within about the first four to six weeks, they had over 6500 applications, which represented over 7200 individual engineers to help. The state hasn't even been able to respond to the interest from technologists who want to help. It's amazing.

MS. ROSENWORCEL: So I wanted -- can I just ask, are they, what are they -- are they taking like state systems and figuring out how to make them easier for people to engage with, or they're coming up with new (Simultaneous speaking.) circumstance --

MS. SAMUELS: Yep, you've seen some of that, I think there's some of both. Not all the projects are public so I'm kind of unable to answer, but some things are directly related to the virus, some things are related to the kind of ramifications of the virus, like for instance unemployment.

We've also seen this at the city level. There's a great example here. The Times did a big piece on this that I'd recommend folks take a look at where we had some companies here in the Navy Yard in Brooklyn at this amazing space called Newlab where they do all kinds of advanced manufacturing, high tech manufacturing. It's a very cool spot.

And they were essentially able to start building ventilators. And they were able to do that quickly and cheaply, and they brought in engineers who were able to help get these ventilators functioning. They were, as I understand, there are kind of different levels of ventilators, and these were entry level ventilators, I guess.

That's probably not the term the medical establishment uses, but you know, it was an amazing example of the private sector and the public sector coming together to build these things that of course the City wouldn't know how to do without the help from the engineers here in New York.

MS. ROSENWORCEL: That's so neat. Now, so you're talking about help from these companies during this crisis. But I also feel like it's worth looking to the other side, like when we come out from this moment, what do you think is going to change with the kind of technologies and companies you're seeing?

Like will there be new learning tools or new ways to connect remotely for healthcare or work. Because I feel like this crisis is accelerating what we already see in our economy.

MS. SAMUELS: Yes, I could not agree more.

MS. ROSENWORCEL: So what does it look like on the other side?

MS. SAMUELS: So I think you got to take the sectors one by one. I think with healthcare, telehealth is going to explode. And you know, that's something that should have happened a long time ago. Here in New York State, the Governor just renewed an order that he had issued since the virus that allowed doctors to practice across state lines.

You know, these -- what was standing in the way of telehealth becoming widely adopted before was not, again, the technology, but in many instances either the regulations, or something that you know about than anyone I know, the connectivity challenges.

MS. ROSENWORCEL: Sure, but the state licensing, the state-by-state licensing regimes are not meant for an era of telehealth.

MS. SAMUELS: That's right.

MS. ROSENWORCEL: And figuring out those licensing regimes in conjunction with reimbursements could actually make this really go far in the future.

MS. SAMUELS: And so I hope that we use this moment to -- like I said, we have these executive orders here. They're not indefinite, they're, as I understand, they're related to the state of emergency. But you know, once people get used to using telehealth, I think you will start to see that regulatory structure, you know, it's slower to catch up but it will get there.

I think on the education front, you'll see a lot of new interesting tools. But I also would say, I think in the education space, you are, and I think this is a good thing, seeing some of the limits of technology as well. And I think that's really important, and I think that those are important, meaningful conversations that I hope we have more of.

Because as anyone who is dealing with children who are trying to be homeschooled right now can see, you know, it's not a substitute for in-person learning. And so, and I don't think technology alone ever will be a substitute for in-person learning.

But there are a lot of big questions our society has. You know, if you've got a family with -- where all the adults work and the kids need help with their school, there's no one else around. Technology can't always fix that.

So I think that we'll have some really good, interesting, hard conversations. And I hear especially in the schooling piece is where connectivity is obviously --

MS. ROSENWORCEL: Absolutely, yeah. Well, New York City has more than a million students in public schools.

MS. SAMUELS: Biggest school system in the country.

MS. ROSENWORCEL: And right, it's the biggest school system in the country, and they're making an amazing effort to try to reach out and connect all those students. But as I always talk about with the homework gap, you have kids that don't have reliable internet access at home. And one of the challenges is figuring out how to get every child online.

And I hope we use this crisis to address that, because you don't have a fair shot at education today without having internet access at home. And I know that it's an issue not just with school-age kids, but with people who want jobs and want opportunities in technology in New York.

And I know you've done some work as an organization on that, and I think all of those lessons applied before this crisis, they're going to apply afterwards. So maybe you can talk a little bit about that.

MS. SAMUELS: Yeah, I think that is -- that is crucial. And we've spent a lot of time as an organization thinking about what workforce development looks like in the technology space, as well as thinking about what public education looks like in the broader technology space to prepare New Yorkers for these jobs.

Because you know what I was saying earlier about how I'm so bullish on New York, and remain bullish on New York despite everything that's going on, it's only going to work if New Yorkers, you know, the people who grow up in the New York and live in New York, can access the jobs that these companies are building. And that is unfortunately not an easy task.

Some of the things we have here that are working well, one is a program called CS4All, the number 4 A-L-L, obviously, it's an $80 million public-private partnership with the City to, over the course of a decade, bring computer science education into every New York City public school. We're about halfway through that ten years, and so far, you know, hit or exceeded all the metrics. It's really great.

And our numbers here, the numbers that show who takes the APCS exam, are amazing. I think I'm two cycles old with my figures, but we have something like 40% women taking the APCS exam.


MS. SAMUELS: Our minority numbers are still not where they should be, but they are significantly higher than any other state in the country, and it's because we're giving kids access to computer science education from a young age. And the ones who have interest and aptitude hopefully will follow it.

In addition to that, we have a really robust, incredibly robust network of hundreds and hundreds of nonprofit, mostly nonprofit programs here in the city supporting New Yorkers both through high school and then, you know, once people are out of school and may be looking to make a career change or, you know, get into tech, we put out a report, a map that shows these programs all over the city.

It showed that, it was overall I think an optimistic picture that showed so much had been done. But it also showed that there's great disparity around the geography, you know, where these are. They need to be better kind of spread out across the boroughs. This is all at It's really great, we're really proud of that work.

I actually think one good thing that might come out of the virus is that one of the problems that we have here that I don't think is unique to New York, but it's that the tech sector, the companies and a lot of these workforce development programs have really been geographically limited in where they are, mostly in parts of Manhattan and parts of Brooklyn.

But once you start getting farther out in Brooklyn or into Queens and the Bronx, there just isn't as much opportunity. I think that will change, because I think for a long time, people are not going to want to take crowded subway trains. And I'm cautiously optimistic that this moment might mean you'll see more satellite offices in the boroughs, more people living closer to where they work.

So maybe we'll be spreading the work in a more equitable sense around New York. So I think that might be a kind of upside of some of this.

MS. ROSENWORCEL: That's such an interesting point, and it might not only be New York City, it might be nationally too as we recalibrate that kind of balance between work and home and where do you go to an office. But it's amazing to see what you put in place in New York be able to assist with diversifying that pipeline for talent. And I like that you're hopeful about it.

MS. SAMUELS: Yeah, I feel -- and you know, I think the thing that's really come out during a lot of the conversations I've been having, both with government and with our companies during this crisis, is that there is a real culture, as you know, in technology of optimism, of problem-solving, of the desire to fix things.

You know, listen, sometimes that extreme desire to, quote, fix things has I think gotten in the way. But right now it's amazing. And when I talk to my companies and, you know, we call and we say hey, listen, the Governor's Office called, the Mayor's Office called, they want to know what you need to come out of this on the other side, the first thing they always say is we just want to help.

And in fact, one of our challenges has been figuring out where the resources are to make that help really productive and effective. Because we've been kind of in an emergency state in New York, so it's been putting out fires.

But things feel so much better now. Our leadership had done a really great job, and you know, our citizens have done a really great job of social distancing and our curve is flattening, as they say. So I'm optimistic that now will be a time for big, strategic thinking from both the Mayor and the Governor have launched a bunch of task forces and kind of big thinkers to think about what this all looks like going forward.

And I think in many ways New York is the model here. It's both the model for what happens when the numbers, when the COVID numbers are really bad, and how to get out of that, and also I think we'll be the model for recovery.

MS. ROSENWORCEL: Hear, hear. I agree with everything you just said. I also agree with the optimism, because I think we're all going to have to develop a level of hopefulness about the future to figure out what we can learn from this experience and how we can build better. And I love that your organization is doing that in New York, and I love that you're hopeful about its recovery because that feels good right now.

MS. SAMUELS: Yeah --


MS. SAMUELS: I honestly don't know how else to be.

MS. ROSENWORCEL: No, it's the right way to be, unequivocally it's the right way to be. I think that's how you get things done. And I think in this crisis we need more people who are going to be optimistic about what we can build in the future because that's how we're going to get through the time.

MS. SAMUELS: And I should say we're going to work with you, like we need to use this moment to get Americans online, you know --

MS. ROSENWORCEL: Everyone connected --

MS. SAMUELS: Yes, it's crazy.

MS. ROSENWORCEL: Everyone digitally skilled. Because if you want some semblance of modern life right now, it's going to take that up.


MS. ROSENWORCEL: You know, if we went into this crisis thinking oh, an internet connection was nice to have, it's needed --


MS. ROSENWORCEL: Right now and (Unintelligible.) for every household and we've got to start developing national policy to treat it that way. And local and state policy as you --

MS. SAMUELS: I could not agree more. And you know, one other thing I'd say about that, even broaden that in some ways beyond connectivity. And when you think about what's been happening with tech and surely in the kind of political landscape too, I think part of what happened here is the technologists who built the tools we all use did such a good job that we all came to take them for granted.

And you know, I think this moment reminds us all just how -- at least it reminds me how amazing it is for those of us who have access to connectivity and have access to the machines you need to get online, this would look like a much different crisis if we didn't have that.

MS. ROSENWORCEL: Oh, my gosh, absolutely.

MS. SAMUELS: Can you imagine?



MS. ROSENWORCEL: You know, it's so funny that you mention that, because I always close out these conversations by asking something that's super-relevant to that point, and one of those questions is what's the first thing you remember doing on the internet, or online?

MS. SAMUELS: Yeah, I, you know, I actually thought about this the last time we had conversation, can you imagine, I'm not sure I remember. But I remember when we got our first AOL account, and I remember so well, you know, being in high school and where the computer was in my parents' house and being on, you know, AIM, being on Instant Messenger with my friends.

And as my older friends went to college, it was such a, it was just so amazing to be able to connect like that. And one other little anecdote about that is I remember the first person who called to tell me about something called Alta Vista, where I could search the internet that wasn't just AOL.


MS. SAMUELS: I remember it was like as if someone turned on a switch in my brain, and I was like oh, there's a lot of stuff out there.

MS. ROSENWORCEL: Absolutely, absolutely. Okay, so we're online now doing this, but I'm going to say roll back a little bit further and say what's the last thing you did on the internet before we gathered here?

MS. SAMUELS: Well, I mean, now we do everything on the internet.

MS. ROSENWORCEL: Everything.

MS. SAMUELS: I do everything on the internet. I mean, this morning, we're recording this late morning, I've already had one Zoom meeting. I've already responded to or read a lot more emails than I, you know, could probably count. But I think, you know, to, the thing about that question in this moment is that it's everything, right.

MS. ROSENWORCEL: That is the most honest answer there is, so --

MS. SAMUELS: I look forward to a time when it's a little bit less of my life is on the internet. As someone who really loves being online, I think we all look forward to.

MS. ROSENWORCEL: I know, it's almost better posted right now, like what's the last thing you did that didn't involve the internet today.


MS. ROSENWORCEL: That's the world we live in right now and I'm just --

(Simultaneous speaking.).

MS. ROSENWORCEL: Yeah, I know. Okay, so now think about the world a few years hence. What do you want the future of digital life to look like?

MS. SAMUELS: Well, I think increasingly the distinction between digital and analog will become blurred. It already is. I mean, I think since, you know, since the iPhone, that distinction is increasingly blurred. For instance, when you just asked that last question, I was kind of running through my morning in my brain.

When I was out walking my dog this morning I was listening to an audio book that I had downloaded, got online. I had downloaded it so technically I wasn't online, but you know, I don't even know how to answer that question. So I hope that --

MS. ROSENWORCEL: Right, because they're fusing, right?


MS. ROSENWORCEL: The idea that there's this isolated digital world and analog world, and this crisis is actually speeding up that transition.

MS. SAMUELS: Yes, it's really interesting, right. I mean, there are -- yeah, it's really interesting. I think that -- but to answer your question, the thing I am hopeful that comes out of this and as we get to the, truly get to the other side of it and as we think about the digital world is I hope that, as I said earlier with regard to education, is I hope we can use the technology the best ways for the things it really can unleash.

But I hope we also can realize where there are limitations and as a society find those moments to be together as humans. Because if this crisis has highlighted anything for me, and I think everyone else, it's that there's a real need for IRL, if you will.

MS. ROSENWORCEL: Absolutely. All right, so before we go, where can folks follow you and keep up to date with that you're doing?

MS. SAMUELS: Thank you, thank you for asking. Tech:NYC is at We're also on Twitter at TechNYC, I'm juliepsamuels on Twitter. You can find me on all the usual platforms. I'm pretty much always Julie P. Samuels. And on Instagram it's mostly dog content, though. Probably want to stay away.

MS. ROSENWORCEL: I don't know, maybe that's what you want to see. Maybe that's what these times call for.


MS. ROSENWORCEL: All right, thank you, Julie, this wraps up --

MS. SAMUELS: Thank you so much, thanks.

MS. ROSENWORCEL: And this wraps up another episode of Broadband Conversations. Thank you, Julie, for being here. Thanks to everyone for listening.