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Minerva Tantoco ’86: 5 Questions for New York City’s Chief Technology Officer

Minerva Tantoco ’86 is New York City’s first-ever chief technology officer and an expert in information technology and artificial intelligence—she holds four patents. She is responsible for engaging with businesses and agencies throughout the city, facilitating technological innovations that improve the lives of citizens, and encouraging the growth of tech-related businesses. Here, Tantoco talks about her job, women in technology, and the future of IT.

You’ve been in your industry for a few decades, long before most people knew what the acronym IT meant. How did you get your start?

I’ve basically invented every job I’ve ever had, and that includes my major at Vassar, where I got the space to explore the topics that interested me. I was pre-med, but in the process of studying neuropsychology, I ended up using the mainframe computer. I was tapping away on the computer terminals in the basement of Rocky and realized that I wanted to study the brain through artificial intelligence and computer science. That was 1983 and the rest is history.

In your current position, you’re leading the charge to engage with tech communities throughout New York City. What are some of the ways you address that responsibility?

We strive to make New York City the most tech-friendly and innovative city in the world. I run the Mayor’s Office of Technology and Innovation as well as chair the New York City Technology Development Corporation. Together, we drive the citywide strategy, manage technology risk, and most importantly, support the mayor’s strategy through partnering with agencies and the private sector.

One great example of this is LinkNYC Wi-Fi hotspots, the franchise that will replace our old payphones with the largest, fastest, free public Wi-Fi network in the world—7,000 of them in all five boroughs. This was done as a collaborative effort across city agencies and with private companies. It was the first major project I worked on when I arrived in this new role, advising on the privacy policy.

The following year, I worked on a multi-agency effort with the Department of Education, my city agency partners, and a private foundation, CSNYC, to bring together Computer Science For All, an initiative offering computer science education for all NYC public school kids. Both projects speak to our commitment to diversity in technology and to closing the digital divide for all New Yorkers.

Mayor de Blasio says that you were the ideal choice because of your expertise and technology experience in the private sector, which we know includes AI and business savvy. Why did you feel it was important to develop both of those assets?

When I was with my first startup—which was founded while I was still a junior at Vassar—I was required to not only develop the technology, but to also actively participate in marketing and customer interaction. This startup approach has informed my team-based working style and taught me the value of understanding the business model of everything I do. In many ways, this experience of cofounding a startup, getting experience in every aspect of a technology company, and then being successful at it (we sold ManageWare to a large software company) basically inoculated me from many of the hurdles and bias I dealt with in later roles. Being able to see the bigger picture of whatever I was working on, either a very techie detail or a profitability analysis, really served me well later on.

Speaking of hurdles, IT is, for the most part, a male-dominated field. Have you found difficulties in working as a woman in the field?

It is a challenge for anyone working in a field where very few people look like you. Understanding how you are perceived and working with that is key. For example, people might make assumptions about your technical knowledge based on the fact that you are female. Being aware of that, I always took time to mention my credentials (such as my U.S. patents) and establish my credibility early on in the conversation, but in a humble way. That’s not just advice for women, but good practice in general. Persistence and networking by finding support and mentors is also critical. Volunteering for extra assignments was a great way for me to find mentors in the areas I wanted to gain more skills in.

Unfortunately, the number of female computer science majors has gone down from 35 percent to 10 percent since the 1980s, when I was at Vassar, while the number of IT jobs has gone up. This has to change if we’re going to fill those IT jobs and compete in the global digital economy. This is not just about equity; this is about economic security. It’s also about good business, since it’s been shown that women and diversity in companies translate to better performance.

What do you see as the next new wave of technology?

The future of cities is the future of the planet. One of the best things about my job—and about technology in general—is that after 30 years, I am realizing that there is still so much fascinating stuff to learn. As technology becomes ubiquitous, it is our responsibility to ensure that we use technology for the greatest public good. We need to humanize technology rather than just develop technology for technology’s sake. Technology in public spaces—the “Internet of Things” or, more broadly, “Smart City” tech—has to be about being a smart and equitable city. To that end, we can envision cities that are sustainable, responsive, safe, efficient, and improve the lives of all city dwellers. By developing smart streets, using technology to connect communities, improving civic engagement, and using technology to democratize and humanize society, we can envision and implement a great future for the world’s cities.

Posted by Office of Communications Monday, March 21, 2016