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Five minutes with: Anna Wolk

Five minutes with: Anna Wolk

Illustration by Sarah Kim / The Current

The Trade Desk’s lead director of marketplace quality shares insights from her life in tech.

Anna Wolk admits she was a computer geek growing up: She loved spending time “in the basement tinkering, and helping friends and family with their computer skills.” These days, Wolk is a director of marketplace quality at The Trade Desk, where she heads a global team to stop ad fraud and ensure a clean and transparent marketplace for buyers on the platform.

It wasn’t a foregone conclusion that Wolk would pursue a career in tech, despite her early aptitude for computers, math, and science. With the benefit of hindsight, Wolk now recognizes the subtle cultural pressures that steered her — at first — toward roles that women have traditionally held. She eventually figured it out, but now Wolk is keen to share her experience “as a queer person, as a woman” to help others who may not consider a life in tech or who perceive that it’s beyond their reach.

“I want to see more people in my community making money, and creating opportunities, and managing people, and mentoring people,” she tells The Current. “It makes a difference in the world to create that transfer of power.”

It wasn’t until she reached her 30s that Wolk decided to return to her tech roots, landing a job at MediaMath, where, as a support analyst, she came to appreciate the joys of programmatic advertising. Prior to this, she largely worked for nonprofit organizations such as Barnard College and GLAAD as a web administrator, plus as a counselor in homeless youth shelters in San Francisco, Portland, and New York. Some of those experiences proved key to her later success here at The Trade Desk. Anna Wolk spoke with The Current to share her experience and insights. This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.

Tell us a bit about marketplace quality and why it’s important.
Fraud is a small but persistent part of the ecosystem. The Trade Desk quietly does the best job of any of our peers at keeping it out, keeping it off the platform, away from our clients.

We were early adopters of transparency initiatives like ads.txt, sellers.json, and supplychain, which are designed to shine a light on inventory sourcing and authorization. These allow us to validate that an impression being sold is authorized by the publisher and that the company selling it is legitimate, and to understand the path of payment, given that many impressions are resold and not necessarily bought directly from the publisher.

We require complete supply chains for our inventory so that every step of the way, from the publisher to the end seller where we’re buying, it is documented. We’re working to standardize that approach throughout the industry and use those specs to make sure we understand who we’re buying inventory from on behalf of our clients.

How much fraud exists in the ecosystem?
Healthy inventory has less than 1 percent IVT, or invalid traffic. So, any healthy inventory is going to have a small percentage of nonhuman impressions. We scan all our impressions with HUMAN [a cybersecurity company, previously known as White Ops, that safeguards against bot attacks and fraud], which serves as our first layer of defense. There are different types of invalid traffic, and HUMAN has different algorithms for detection. While it blocks at the impression level, we monitor its blocks at the entity level and take additional enforcement action when we identify a problematic site, app, or seller. We also monitor for other types of inventory quality issues beyond just IVT.

The tech space has traditionally been a male domain, but that’s changing. Can you tell us about your experience as a woman in tech and the challenges you faced?
I’ve always been very involved in feminist and queer activism. I have a lot of awareness of my place in the world as a queer person, as a woman. And I think that in some sense, when I was young, I didn’t realize the ways that I was making life choices that guided me toward careers traditionally dominated by women, even though I came from a progressive family and I had a feminist mom encouraging me to pursue math and science. In hindsight, it’s interesting that I didn’t do that even though that’s always where my interest was as a kid. If I had had different mentors or role models in place early to guide me in this direction in my career, it might have happened sooner.

It’s really important that girls — and particularly teenage girls who are at their peak insecurity and then also pursuing their career choices — that they have opportunities. Internships and courses and teachers that are encouraging them to pursue math and science and tech.

What can be done to encourage women and minorities to pursue a career in tech?
There’s a lot of discussion right now in tech about empowering women. There’s less discussion about empowering queer people in tech. Some of those social pressures are a little bit more subtle and harder to talk about. We’re not talking about 50 percent of the population; we’re talking about maybe 10 percent of the population. So maybe there’s less incentive for organizations to advocate for queer people in tech. But I can say that my experience, and that of a lot of my friends and community, is that they want to do something that makes a difference in the world. They want to do something that helps people. And a lot of times people can end up in that nonprofit track and then, at a later point in life, realize they want more for themselves, and they want more opportunities, and not really know how to create them.

Figuring out how to make a difference in the world, make a difference in your community, and then also be able to pursue a career in something like tech where that impact is less immediately felt, can be difficult to reconcile.

How do you think about your life in tech now?
I did, to some extent, get lucky finding a field that nourished my curiosity and hunger for information. Obviously, all of us stay in programmatic because it’s really fast paced, it’s ever changing. There’s always something new to learn, and that’s what drew me in. And what’s kept me here is that the day-to-day work is fascinating.

If you’re pursuing something that you’re passionate about and interested in, and you’re doing a good job in demonstrating leadership and making a difference, then doors open for you automatically, if you’re at a good company.

That said, I’m very cautious of that mindset enforcing the idea that we live in a “meritocracy.” I have many levels of privilege as a cisgender, white, able-bodied person from a middle-class family. For many people, particularly those with more barriers to entry, it’s important that organizations put conscious and intentional energy into creating opportunities because aptitude and contribution often isn’t enough to open doors for everybody.

I was fascinated to read that you’d spent several years as a counselor in homeless youth shelters in San Francisco and New York. You’ve commented on how that experience has impacted your current role in marketplace quality. How so?
A lot of what we do on marketplace quality is about stakeholder management, crisis management, and de-escalation. We do have to constantly balance priorities, try to keep competing goals in mind to keep people happy. And we were doing the same thing in some sense with the youth when I was working in shelters and drop-in centers. I’m always surprised at how there’s still a link there, even though it’s such an unrelated field.