Often when we think of computer tech people, we think of what’s portrayed on TV and in the movies. A nerdy guy in a boring job going from office to office trying to help hapless dolts figure out why their screen is stuck. But that’s not so in the case of this week’s Portrait. Paul Grossman is an IT guy with red headed swagger. Grossman has provided technical support and IT services for all faculty, staff and PhD students at The Wharton School for over a decade. The work has allowed him to get to know folks all over campus. In his current capacity as IT Senior Project Leader, his journey in tech takes him to exotic and far off places around the world. Grossman is also a staple in the LGBTQ community, having been a leader with several originations. Party people know him most recently as a force behind the popular Porkroll events and on stage with the Philadelphia Gay Men’s Chorus.
I understand that you are originally from Cincinnati. What’s something we should know about Cincinnati that we didn’t get from the Drew Carey show?
A favorite cuisine is something called Skyline Chili, which is a spaghetti based chili infused with cinnamon, which gives it a sweet flavor. It’s everywhere in Cincinnati. Actually we just call it chili but there are two major chains that sell it. My favorite is Skyline. You can have it as a 3-way, which is chili, spaghetti and cheese, a 4-way, which is with beans or onions and then a 5-way which is all of it together! I love it, but it’s definitely an acquired taste.
Something to keep in mind if I’m ever in the mood for a 3-way! Tell me about the family.
My parents divorced when I was one and they each remarried. My mother is now single again because her husband passed away a couple of years ago, so she now lives here in Philly. I have a step-sister from that marriage and step-siblings from my father’s marriage and I have one full brother. He’s older than me.
You must have to do a lot of traveling during the holidays.
Exactly, the hardest part is figuring out who to spend each holiday with and balancing it out. Someone is always going to feel left out.
Describe yourself as a kid?
I was a good student and I hung out with a lot of the “alternative” kids in high school. We got into some trouble, but we were pretty well behaved for the most part. I was in the choir, so my friends were the band and choir kids.
You were probably like me; I hung out with a lot of the theater kids and we got into what I liked to think of as “creative trouble.” It wasn’t necessarily bad, just possibly against the rules or status quo.
Exactly. That’s a good way to describe it.
Other than choir, what else were you into? Any sports?
No sports, not until much after high school. I was in the First Competition, which was a robotics competition. I did that in my sophomore and junior years of high school. We actually won one year, it was a great experience. They pair you up with a corporation and we were paired with Proctor & Gamble. We got to go to their headquarters and build a robot.
I took my nephew to one of those robot fight competitions when he was in grade school. It was exciting.
It wasn’t really a fight; it’s two robots in a match trying to pick up a ball and throw/swing it through a goal post. There was one ball and they would have to fight to get the ball and try to score.
That’s a nerd fight!
[Laughing] Okay, yeah.
So what was the very first computer you remember working on?
My father had an XXT, which was an old IBM-like clone. It worked on DOS and we had to load all the programs in. It was before Windows… I’m definitely old!
Was that in the days of AOL’s prime?
That was before AOL. It was before the internet. I was probably in elementary school when we got it. Later on we upgraded, I had prodigy, we had AOL, and all those things.
So you guys were ahead of the curve!
We were, definitely.
What did your parents do? Was your father in tech?
No, my father was a professor at Xavier University, so he had access to stuff like emails way back before most people. Universities were among the first to get and use email, so he was using it very early on. He was a professor of biology, so nothing to do with computers.
My mom was a psychologist and never computer savvy, so I didn’t get it from her. But she actually had a computer early on as well. She had one of the early Macs, like a MacSE
I hate to tell you this but it’s usually the preacher’s kids that are the wildest and the psychiatrists kids that are the craziest!
[Laughs] Well… okay, maybe. But I have to say, I was a pretty good kid. Never all that rebellious and for the most part, always got along well with my parents.
Okay, I’ll let you be the exception to the rule. So did you study computers in college?
Initially, my first major was architecture. I didn’t stay with it, I lasted one semester and realized that it probably wasn’t for me. I still love architecture. I gutted and refinished my whole house recently, but the process of submitting your ideas for everyone in class to scrutinize wasn’t for me. You come up with a project that you think is great and then the class tears it apart. Not fun. I moved on, and I’m glad I did. With computers there’s more of a definitive yes or no, right answer or wrong answer, it’s not subjective like art.
What’s the most exciting part of the computer world for you?
It’s always a puzzle, you’re always trying to solve something. For the longest time I was doing end user support, which I really enjoyed because I like working with people, but in the past year I moved up to project lead so I’m doing less end user support and more bigger picture projects and strategy.
So do you think that IT guys get an unfair rap in sitcoms and comics?
You know, I don’t actually. [Laughing] I think a lot of people that go into IT are introverted and tend to be people who are not necessarily people oriented. I’m a people person, my degree is in computer science with coding, but I never took a job in coding, there’s not enough contact with other people.
Speaking of contact with other people, when did you come out? How’s that for a segue?
Good one! I came out in high school when I was 17. A couple of things happened all at once that kind of pushed me out. I discovered chat rooms online and started talking to people. I also stumbled upon a gay movie. I was going to the movies with my friend and the only thing that was playing was a film called, “Beautiful Thing.” We had no idea what it was about, we just went in to see it, and it just happened to be this coming out story. Then they started a Gay Straight Alliance at my school that was really popular. I joined and there were about 70-80 people at every meeting, mostly straight allies, but it was an unusual thing to have, especially in Ohio. So those 3 things pushed me to discover who I was and start to tell some friends (who mostly ended up being gay too in the end). My parents ended up asking me, because they could tell something was up.
A few questions, was the friend who joined you at the movie straight, and what was his reaction, and did you originally join the GSA as an ally or as a gay boy?
It was a she, and she turned out to be a lesbian! Though she wasn’t out at the time either, we actually went to prom together. And yeah, when I joined the GSA it was as an ally! It took me a little bit of time to get the courage to tell anyone, even though I knew.
I know that you’ve been involved in gay culture for a while now. What are some of the things you’ve done and why is it important to you?
I’ve been involved in a lot of marches and protests over the years, especially during the Trump years. I was actually interviewed for an HBO documentary when I was protesting outside of the convention center at election time. I didn’t even know I was in it until some friends called me this year to say they saw me! I try to lend my voice whenever I can. Last week was International Transgender Day of Visibility, and we were outside of City Hall for that. You have to step up for what you believe.
You and I met years ago when we were both involved in Our Night Out. That wasn’t necessarily an activist event, though in a way, those types of social engagements are because they give people another outlet to meet and find community.
Exactly, and things like that can also provide a platform for other nonprofits. So yes, I was involved with them a while back, I’ve also been with the Philadelphia Gay Men’s Chorus for over 20 years, I also do “Out in Point Breeze” with two other people. It’s a bi-monthly party, kind of like Our Night Out but for Point Breeze.
And then there’s Porkroll, who came up with that name?!?
I did! It’s something local, and fun. The premise was conceived because people complained that there wasn’t anything new to do in the gay scene and that there weren’t places that felt welcoming to all, so I thought, instead of complaining, let’s do something. I’d been to events in other cities that had a good queer vibe to them where everyone felt welcome, kind of an anti-circuit party, and that’s what we go for. Everyone is welcome, no matter your age, body type, race, etc; everyone has a place with us. It’s about creating a sense of belonging and some great house music. And it works. We have a very diverse clientele at the events. I specifically don’t use any people in the advertising. I don’t want to pick one type of person for a flier and have other people left out, and I can’t have everybody, so we go neutral.
I like it. Okay, let’s do some rapid fire questions. Who’s your biggest cheerleader?
My mom. Definitely.
And are you partnered?
Yes, his name is Randy and we’ve been together for 6 years. He works in insurance for Nationwide.
Ever have a piggy bank when you were a kid and did you ever break into it?
I did have a piggy bank. It was glass, I think there was a stopper on the bottom so I didn’t have to break it.
What TV shows do you watch reruns of?
Hmmm, probably “Star Trek: Next Generation.”
Best sports moment?
I mostly lift in the gym, I’ve never been into any kind of competitive sports. I bike too, but that’s about it.
Last movie you saw in a theater.
Wow, I haven’t been in a theater since before the pandemic. I think it may have been one of the “Star Wars” movies.
What type of journalist would you be? Opinion, investigative, food critic?
Opinion, I’d be a political op-ed writer. I’m big on following politics.
What food could you never be a taste tester for?
Tomatoes. I’m not a fan. Though I do like tomato sauce, salsa, ketchup, anything made with tomatoes, just not the tomato itself.
Ha! I like tomatoes, but don’t like tomato soup. You’re a Gemini, do you get people reacting with an “Ohhhh” when you tell them? And what traits do you have?
[Laughing] Yes, they do! I don’t know about traits. Is being outgoing a trait? They say we’re supposed to have multiple personalities but I don’t know.
I guess world traveler could be a trait as well. I understand you do quite a bit of globe hopping.
I love to travel and I’m lucky that with my job I get to go all over. I just got back from Singapore two weeks ago. I’m still in tech, but dealing with Wharton external affairs, they do alumni engagement events all over the world and I handle the IT portion of the events.
That’s a cool job. What was your favorite travel experience?
I love getting to see historical areas of different cities and trying the foods, it’s great. I guess a good one would be the most recent. I went to Singapore for 10 days for work and then went to Bangkok on my own. I found it way more interesting. Singapore was very sterile, very urban, I could have been in the US, but Bangkok was really different.
The food was amazing, the history, it’s hard to describe, it was a real culture shock. It’s sooo different from here. It was really cool, there’s a different energy to the city. There are food vendors everywhere on the streets, and it’s kind of gritty, but then you have gleaming high rises all around. It kind of reminded me of “Blade Runner”, if you ever saw that movie. It had that feel of chaos at the street level with luxurious high rises reaching up to the sky.
So you have two organization events coming up…
Yes, the Gay Men’s Chorus is doing the Music of Elton John at the Suzanne Roberts Theatre. They’ll be doing favorites like “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road,” “Candle in the Wind” and “Crocodile Rock.” I won’t be singing in this concert but it should be great. I’ll be back with them in the fall. And Porkroll is having our Spring Fling this month on April 22 at Broad Hall. Each month we have a different theme. This one is: come wear your bright colors and enjoy spring. We have two DJ’s from XOXA which is a collective of DJ’s from Brooklyn. They’re doing an anniversary tour and stopping in Philly, so they’ll be spinning on the main dance floor and I’ll be DJing with my co-producer Tim in the front room.
Dag! So many layers to you Paul. You spin too?
I just started last summer. I’ve always wanted to do it, so now that I have this party, I bought a system and taught myself!