U.S. CTO: Get Out of Your Comfort Zone, Embrace Diversity

U.S. CTO: Get Out of Your Comfort Zone, Embrace Diversity

One of the more interesting things at this year’s Fortune Brainstorm Tech conference was a call for technology people to get more involved in government.

U.S. Chief Technology Officer Megan Smith encouraged the audience to get involved in technical and policy conversations on topics ranging from patents to encryption, but also policies that aren’t directly connected to technology. She pointed to a discussion she had about poverty on tribal lands, which resulted in tapping into fiber connections to deliver high-speed Internet.

Smith’s CTO role is part of the Office of Science and Technology Policy, which has the goal of trying to “harness the power of data, innovation, and technology on behalf of the people.”

Her goal was getting leaders who are fluent in digital technology as principals involved in making policy decisions and in purchasing. She noted that with Healthcare.gov, the “website was going to tank the policy,” but getting good technical people involved helped it.

As CTO, Smith said she was focused on three big areas. The first is technology policy—including things like unmanned aerial vehicles, spectrum use, net neutrality, encryption, and patent reform —and making sure that “TQ” (the technology version of IQ) is represented at the table. She noted that the administration doesn’t control legislation, so this is focused mostly on executive orders, rule-making, and implementation. The second area is digital government, where she said there was a bi-partisan agreement on making great products, using open source, and bringing in talent to the government.

The third area is what she called “innovation nation,” meaning getting a more diverse group of people involved in technology. She noted that there are 5 million open jobs, including half a million in tech, and asked why people are not training for such jobs. She talked about success in certain pockets in the country, such as programs for youth and the Techhire three-month bootcamp workforce development program, which is now in 21 cities, a number she hopes to double in the year.

Interviewed by Kelly Corrigan, Smith talked about the need for better education in technology, though she said that was harder because it was a more federated system. She said seven major school districts are committed to middle school and high school computer science education. Holding up a Raspberry Pi, she talked about how students in the second grade in other countries were learning to program on it.

She was animated on the importance of “inclusivity” in technology, saying only 3 percent of VC money is going to women, with even less going to people of color. She said racial diversity and gender balance create better performance and improved shareholder value. She also talked about unconscious bias, and noted that after having worked in the relatively diverse area of White House policy, she was shocked when she walked into CES at how little diversity she saw. “We need the rest of the talent of our country,” she said.

She ended with a discussion of how people can get involved. Some of the biggest tech companies now have leave policies that let their employees work for the US Digital Service for three months, and talked about how these “Obi-Wans” can influence the groups they work for even if they are only there for a short time.

She also mentioned projects such as Code For America, and said it was important for technology people to just show up and get involved in the cities where they live.

The day’s sessions ended with a discussion with Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel and WME-IMG Co-CEO Ari Emanuel, two brothers who had a funny and often insightful onversation with interviewer Adam Lashinsky.

Ari Emanuel talked about WME’s acquisition of IMG, and how it was creating one platform that includes talent representation and events it owns and operates.

Rahm Emanuel talked about helping the “disconnected youth” of Chicago and the country, kids who he said are economically, culturally, morally, and physically alienated and disconnected from society. He noted that Chicago has youth who have never seen the Chicago lakefront or ridden in an elevator. “If you send young boys to jail to become men, you’ve got a problem,” he said.

Rahm said he ran for mayor to help improve education. When he became mayor four years ago, the high school graduation rate was only 57 percent, while today’s sophomores are on track for an 84 percent graduation rate. He said Chicago has the country’s second largest community college system, and now if you get a B average in high school, community college is free. In that period, he said, Chicago went from having the shortest school day and school year in the county, to adding an hour and 15 minutes a day and two weeks to the school calendar, giving kids the equivalent of 2 ½ more years in the classroom between K-12. It also added universal pre-K and the community college program, effectively changing the focus from K-12 to pre-K to community college.

He also talked about funding new after-school and summer jobs programs via tickets from speed cameras near schools and parks, saying that federal government and the state government “have walked away from our kids.”

Ari’s comment on this was “he’s not afraid to take on a challenge.”

Asked about the city’s finances, Rahm said it has done a lot to reduce the structural deficit in the government, but said the big problem is pensions. While he believes in pensions and defined benefit plans, he said a solution would require revenue (taxes) and pension reform because taxpayers can’t pay for all of it.

The brothers were asked about spending ad money on a campaign or for launching a movie. Ari said that TV is still the greatest outlet, because it has the biggest reach, although he said it would be important to look at all the media and design a message for that.

Rahm ended by saying that he believes everybody should do public service somewhere in your life, because you owe it to another generation to give something back. “We’re fortunate to live in this country,” he said, noting that his grandfather came to Chicago in 1912 not speaking English.


1 Comment
  • michaelhallTM
    Posted at 10:43h, 31 July

    U.S. CTO: Get Out of Your Comfort Zone, Embrace Diversity: One of the more interesting things at this year’s… http://t.co/4oMEPJjoQn