Danielle Tomson - Geek Girl Rising
Danielle Tomson

Danielle Tomson

PhD Candidate, Media Technology

Columbia University Journalism School

I think when you are new to the workforce, you have to learn to readjust your expectations around learning and feedback, and demand it when you want it!

Years in Industry? 

3 years in prototyping, media, and civic technologies, now embarking on media tech research as a Ph.D. student at Columbia University.  Though, I’m a Millennial…. so maybe 25 years in technology!

Who or what inspired your career in tech? How so?

My primary motivation in life has been to help people live transformative lives. For me, technology and the arts have huge potentials for life transformation. At Yale, I was a political science major with something of the equivalent of a theater minor. Anyway, I got interested in how building systems in post-conflict zones might improve the lives of others. Once summer, I worked with an agency advising Kosovo’s constitutional court on various projects, one included structuring a case data management system to handle the tens of thousands of court cases. I saw so many projects in the post-conflict world that often were subject to graft and inefficiencies, but the potential of well-designed technology like this system seemed to have such a palpable impact on justice, just by making information more accessible and organized. It was then that I starting taking my political interests and skills for thinking in terms of structure and design, turning my gaze towards a career in technology, systems, and product design. I also learned a lot about media and identity in the Balkans. The fact I’m studying how media technologies shape identity now is no surprise in hindsight.

What’s been your best hack ever?

I’ve tried a lot of “hacks” and work-arounds to try to balance my life, but nothing like a good 8-hour sleep helps me think strategically about my day. So much of the young tech scene loves to talk about all-nighters and late nights to maximize the amount of work that gets done. Honestly, I’ve met very few people in this world who can maximize anything without respecting a sleep routine. I’m a fan of Arianna Huffington for pointing this out!

What has been your greatest career challenge and how have you handled it?

When I was still quite new in product management, I was put as the only product management lead on a product with a small team of developers. I was honored to have the responsibility. However, there is no manual for being a leader, much less a product manager, having only a year’s experience!  Despite doing the work and doing it well, I felt like I never was doing it “right” because I didn’t have another product manager to really validate my work. I got depressed and didn’t know how to tell the boss of my busy and small firm that I felt a little alone! I think when you are new to the workforce, you have to learn to readjust your expectations around learning and feedback, and demand it when you want it! Noticing my need in a start-up environment, I asked my principles if I could work in a pair for a few hours a week. This way, I learned more, and got that sense of validation and confirmation that I was moving in the right direction.  Learning to identify and ask for what I needed was a big leap for me professionally when I was only a year out of school!

What is your biggest career success to date?  

I don’t know about my biggest career success to date, but I do know about a recent one from a few weeks ago. I was angry about how the co-founders of the start-up Secret so blatantly mishandled the massive amounts of VC funding they got, which led me to feel so angry about the lack of women who get numbers like that for seemingly ridiculous start-ups (think Yo….) I told a team of women I know, “What if I made an app called ‘Betch’ that just allows you to betch with other betches…. now give me $20m please?” The room laughed, then stopped and said, “Wait. That is actually hilarious and brilliant.”

We fake launched “Betch” at a #civicwomen happy hour in New York. I basically delivered a pitch/stand-up comedy routine explaining how everyone is so sick and tired of sexism in Silicon Valley that we just need to betch about it. I introduced my prototyped app, “Betch,” the app that let’s you to betch with others and target your betching at companies or political figures. Part of this was real, and part was down to earth parody. My team of women built a website, brand, logo, and social media campaign in 48 hours. It was hilarious, and soon hacker groups have started to offer to build my app, press outlets have offered to spread the word, and a legal team asked if I would like a consultation. I’m super excited that my protest parody app is becoming real, and I’m combining my love of technology, teamwork, performance, comedy, and social justice to do it. Check out http://betch.city/ and follow us @betchnow.

Who are your role models? 

I really love women who tell stories about technology, like Laura Poitras. Her documentary Citizen Four blew my mind as it made  the severity of surveillance so apparent.  Recently, Amy Schumer has been my feminist hero. I do some stand-up myself (Amy, if you need a summer intern and are reading this…)  I feel she is super accessible to people, particularly men, who might never have felt an entry point into feminism. Her comedy is really transformative. I feel all of these women are somehow geek girls too, even if not explicitly in STEM/STEAM. More immediately, I’ve found inspiration in my significant other, who is an actor. I learn a lot about how human behave… it definitely helps my product development work.

If you could go back in time, what’s one tip you’d give your teenage self? 

“You can’t plan anything Danielle, so focusing on the present and your gut is best preparation for a future you love. The future comes fast anyway. It comes right after the present. Boom! There it is.” Considering I was a teen only 6 years ago, this is a big realization for me lately.

What do you do when you’re not kicking butt at work? 

I adore making short films. I hope to involve film and performance more in my career in tech… somehow! Some women buy purses, but I adore spontaneous adventure travel. I recently went on a trip to Israel and Greece on a whim to visit a friend working on a film out there. I went to Haiti on 4 days notice last October just because a friend living there told me she was free that weekend. We hiked, swam, and biked around everywhere. I also helped her build out her new website for her handbag company she runs out of Haiti. Airline miles are a blessing.

Flats, heels or kicks?  

Motorcycle boots. I’ve had the same pair for 5 years now. I feel powerful in them.

Best career advice book?  

I don’t know if I like many career advice books per se.  That said, books on psychology and personality studies have proven to be so helpful in learning about myself.  I’ve found books on Enneagram personality types to be really useful in learning about myself, my career, and my personal life, then creating strategies for self-improvement. I’m also a complete strategy and philosophy nerd so Marcus Aurelius’s meditations, and the Torah remind me to think big about life, not just my career, when thinking about my work and research.

Who are the women in tech that you most admire and why?

I tend to admire women who use tech to solve civic and social problems on a systemic scale. Sheryl Sandberg is incredible for so many reasons, particularly just starting the conversation about our domestic lives as women. I also am a huge fan of Anne-Marie Slaughter and her work trying to build New America to be as much of a tech “do-tank” as a political “think-tank.” I’m a fan of Beth Noveck’s work in Obama’s Open Government Initiative as Deputy Chief Technology Officer also is an inspiration to me.