On Another Planet: A meditation on being a tech outsider and woman on ‘Planet of the Apps’

I never meant to end up in tech. I had an English degree but no plan. My friend Ken was moving to LA and leaving his position at the front desk of betaworks, a NYC startup studio. He passed the job on to me. At the time, I was making hand-painted wooden objects.

An Instagram I posted while working at The Great Lakes Goods, making hand-painted wooden objects, before Poncho.

It turned out that Poncho, the weather service for millennials, was housed at betaworks and they were looking for writers. I could write, plus I loved pop culture. I was perfectly suited for crafting the short form, funny weather forecasts. So, after a couple months at the front desk, I was hired.

Tech wasn’t in my plans but I had always dreamt of being on reality TV. I grew up watching The Real World and always imagined myself being cast as “the weird girl.” When word got out that Apple was accepting audition tapes for Planet of the Apps, Poncho put together their team. It would be Kuan, the founder of the app, and me. I willingly submitted myself.

Me and Kuan in our audition tape for ‘Planet of the Apps’

A month later, with a horrifying amount of makeup on face, I’m riding down the pitch escalator on the set of Planet of the Apps. I’m simultaneously excited and uncomfortable, not because I’m pitching to celebrities (surreal) but because the style guidelines of the show (see: cleanly shaven legs and underarms) run totally counter to my version of femininity. It turns out Hollywood is very different than Brooklyn.

Even as we’re pitching, my mind begins to wander. I sense that I’m on the show to symbolize something more than myself: the female and gender non-conforming young people of Poncho and its unique blend of creative and tech types. But, if so, why am I also being asked to present this sanitized version of myself? Ugh, this safe version of femininity is such hypocritical tech industry B.S.

The pitch went as well as it could have. If I had my pick of mentor, it’d be Gwyneth. And she picked us! I’ve modeled myself after characters she’s played, especially Margot Tenenbaum and Sylvia Plath. GP is a feminist icon. While filming the show, I watched her and tried to match how she performed on camera. She was graceful, funny, and smart at every turn.

Gwyneth as Margot Tenenbaum, the height of cool.

Despite what you may hear from the constant and casually misogynistic media coverage of Gwyneth, she’s an incredibly talented business person. (I can’t even believe I have to explain this.) So often, she’s not treated as such but mocked on a personal level for her business decisions. No male celebrity would get this treatment.

In the end, the process of Planet of the Apps did what it purported to do and I ended up a hardened woman in tech. Its real world import surprised me. As the show went on, I rose in the ranks, I managed projects, I contributed with more decisive feedback. Back in the betaworks office, John Borthwick, the CEO of betaworks, talked to me for the first time. Thankfully, with GP by my side (at least in my head), I maintained a sense of self and avoided the trap of becoming “one of the guys.”

Now the show’s over and I’m one of the people at the helm of Poncho. With the highly publicized takedowns of Travis Kalanik, Dave McClure, Justin Caldbeck, et al. it’s easy to feel like things are getting better in the industry. Maybe and maybe not. Still, this is no time for complacency. We need more women (like Gwyneth) in power who do things their way and don’t care about catering to express or implied sexist expectations. But it’s about more than women, it’s about being dedicated to making space in the tech industry for underserved and underrepresented communities. I’m ready to get to work.

If you haven’t already, watch our episode here now! pcho.cat/myepisode

And read about Kuan’s experience on POTA here: https://medium.com/@huangkuan/what-its-really-like-to-be-a-contestant-on-apple-s-new-show-planet-of-the-apps-ee54a853b534