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From the Printing Press to Online Marketplaces

Michelle Tandler’s career in tech has roots in 17th-century innovation.

By Lauren Rebecca Thacker

Michelle Tandler, C’08, couldn’t have predicted that a history course covering the ideas of Isaac Newton and René Descartes would draw her into the world of technology. Yet reflecting on her studies and career, she can trace a direct line from the scientific and philosophical developments of the 17th century to the commitment to innovation that drives her. A history major who specialized in intellectual history, Tandler now works as Category Manager at Thumbtack, an online marketplace designed to help consumers find local professionals.

As a student, I learned about technology as a driver of large-scale societal change. Working in technology today allows me to be part of changes to come.

Q: Why intellectual history?

I came to Penn in my junior year and knew the history department was very strong, so I took a couple of courses. I started with 17th- Century Intellectual History and Classical Liberal Thought, both with Alan Charles Kors [Henry Charles Lea Professor Emeritus of History]. After that I was hooked, so I declared history as my major.

I never would have anticipated specializing in intellectual history, but it’s shaped so much of how I think now. At Penn, I became fascinated with how communication and the written word can transform society. I think about those classes with Professor Kors and how the development of the printing press gave everyday people access to books and other printed texts. Learning about how technology can spur growth, progress, and innovation has had a tremendous impact on me.

Q: What was your path from history major to tech manager?

I took a winding path to get here. As a student, I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do but I knew I wanted to be surrounded by smart people and be intellectually challenged. I ended up going into consulting. It was fast-paced and stimulating, but I knew it wasn’t going to be my long-term career.

I found myself spending my free time reading about tech, innovation, and startups. I was so interested in diving into that world that I moved back to my hometown of San Francisco and lived with my parents while I interviewed for roles.

I actually interviewed with Thumbtack during that time, but they were in the middle of raising their Series A funding and I didn’t want to join while that process was ongoing.

My first startup job was a learning experience. It was a lot of creative thinking and problem solving. From there, I took some detours—business school, a venture capital firm— that led me to where I am now. Ten years out of Penn, all my experiences have led me to a place that feels like a great fit for my skills and interests. I’m excited to see where I can go from here.

Q: How does your position at Thumbtack relate to the passion you found as a College student?

My undergraduate self would be thrilled about what I’m doing now. We’re creating new ways for small business owners to find new customers and make a living. Technology makes this possible, just like the printing press changed how ideas circulated and ships and trains disrupted how goods and services are delivered

People from all backgrounds use Thumbtack—caterers, accountants, cleaners. One of the most inspiring parts of my work is hearing stories about professionals who left unfulfilling jobs to pursue their dreams. They can use our technology to find customers in a way they couldn’t before. It creates possibilities for people to become independent and grow their businesses, which is really meaningful to me. It’s consistent with the ideas about change I found so compelling as a student and that remain important to me.