NYC’s Chief 'Nerd In City Hall' Wants Internet Access And Equality For All

Last September, Mayor Bill de Blasio named Minerva Tantoco as the New York City's first ever Chief Technology Officer. Tantoco, a veteran of the financial technology industry, is a developer, multiple patent-holder, mother and proud New Yorker. 

 This week, we caught up for a chat about her work -- and since she's a CTO, we connected over Google Talk. (I'll save a Q&A on Github for future experiments.) The interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity. 

You're not quite a year into being NYC's first CTO. What progress have you made so far?

I had already been in tech for 30 years, and a CTO in the private sector for 17 years, and I was really excited about the opportunity to be NYCs first CTO, It was a recognition of the importance of technology to New York and New Yorkers and the importance of technology to New York City government. When Mayor de Blasio created the role of CTO, this was a bold step in advancing NYC as the most tech friendly and innovative city in the world.

We've already seen global recognition of NYC as the capital of innovation. In a recent CITIE report, New York was named the #1 innovative city from a policy perspective, in part due to the creation of the CTO role. 

You have an extensive background in financial tech, which is often quite metrics-driven. So was the Bloomberg administration, for that matter. How are you measuring and managing what you do?

In the private sector, success could be measured in revenue dollars and profit margins. In government, we can measure success in terms of outcomes, driving investment and delivery of government services where they'll have most impact.

For example, for Pre-K for All, we used a variety of techniques to find the four-year olds, find the Community-based Education Centers, matching technology. Finally, enrollment numbers is the measure of success. Some quick numbers: 20,000 kids in full day pre-k in 2013 , then 53,000 kids in 2014; now 70,000 seat for the coming school year.

The goal of all of this is connecting all New Yorkers to quality education that improves lives and provides opportunities. Technology is a means to the goal, it's not the end-goal.

How much are you involved with strategy and policy, versus implementation and getting "hands-on?"

As the CTO, I am responsible for the city-wide tech strategy, which has three parts: access, talent, and innovation. Free or affordable access to the Internet for all New Yorkers is an essential goal of this administration and is included in the OneNYC plan.

As CTO, I work with my partners in the administration (a team of badass tech women, BTW) to help turn these ideas into action and implementation. On a given day, I might review a tech policy, oversee a technical architecture design, and convene a group of public and private stakeholders on an emerging tech topic. It's a pretty cool job. ☺

It's ongoing work. I want to make sure to mention the Call for Innovations, led by my Office, which seeks proposals for solving this problem of providing city-wide internet access. 


How have you and the DeBlasio administration approached the issue of more inclusivity in tech?

I've been quoted as saying "Keep calm, and let the women run the technology." We have the most women leaders in any New York City administration, and the 'badass team' includes Deputy Mayor Glen, Counsel to the Mayor Maya Wiley, who leads the Broadband initiative, Jessica Singleton, Chief Digital Officer Anne Roest, DOITT, Kristen Titus, Tech Talent Pipeline, and me! I should mention Amen Ra Mashariki, Chief Analytics Officer. Here's an article, as background.

We are leading by example, but closing the gender and people of color divide in tech - tech equity - is an essential part of capitalizing on NYC's diversity as an advantage. Diverse firms do better. We can fill those tech jobs with a well-trained, diverse workforce that companies demand. The Tech Talent pipeline, programs at CUNY, and computer science education from elementary to graduate school, making that opportunity available to ALL New Yorkers — this is how we're approaching the tech divide.

Based upon your experiences to date, what advice would you give to other people in the tech industry considering public service? What are your biggest challenges and opportunities?

My biggest challenge is that I have no previous government experience. My biggest advantage is that I have no previous government experience. As a nerd in City Hall, I can ask the "dumb questions." 

I am fortunate to be part of a new administration that allows me to question the way things work, and is open to new ideas. Having worked in tech in the private sector for 30 years, this is by far the hardest and most rewarding job I have ever had. To the techies considering public service, I say "Do it!"

Governments are being transformed by technology and most importantly, you will never have a job with this level of impact on people. Most techies want to see the impact of what they do. I have the privilege of seeing this every single day.