Former Google VP and Obama’s U.S. CTO Megan Smith believes that greater diversity will make engineering teams stronger —
and that data can solve some of our toughest problems.
When Megan Smith was in public school in inner city Buffalo, N.Y., her teachers created a mandatory science fair. The teachers didn’t want the students to simply go through the motions when choosing a project — instead, they pushed students to choose something that they were really passionate about. The answer was obvious for Smith. The energy crisis was in full swing, and she’d heard that Jimmy Carter was having solar panels installed on the White House.
“I became interested in how we could use green energy to solve this problem that fossil fuels had gotten us into. So, I looked at solar, wind, geothermal, and hydrogen storage,” she said.
Smith followed this passion with a trip to Boulder, Colorado, where she participated in a tech project over the summer with a curriculum focused on solar energy and energy engineering. She worked with other kids from around the country and discovered mechanical, civil and other kinds of engineering. That experience convinced her to go to an engineering school. Smith attended MIT, where she majored in mechanical engineering and eventually worked at the institute’s renowned MIT Media Lab.
She learned the power of teamwork by getting involved in a solar car project that designed and raced vehicles 2,000 miles across Australia, but soon she changed directions.
“I ended up moving from green energy because as Reagan came into power, the Saudis dropped the price of oil — so there really wasn’t funding to move into green energy at scale,” she said. “I ended up moving more towards the internet, which is how I ended up in the Media Lab.”
From there, Smith’s career took some interesting turns. She went to Apple Japan and worked on some basic services like Apple link and AOL, as well as early multimedia, CD-ROMS and video. Then she met Bill Atkinson who was one of the co-creators of Macintosh, and he hired her for his startup called General Magic.
“We worked to build a smart phone company, way before smart phones existed,” she said.
General Magic worked on numerous ideas that were revolutionary for a phone at that point, such as touch screens, LCDs, and connectors. But Smith said that while the company was correct directionally, it had formed too early. But she noted that the people there, sometimes multiple companies later, were the ones who brought us the iPod, iPhone and Android.
“Most of the phones on the planet come from the heritage of that company,” she said. “I think that’s another important engineering perspective — you have to iterate before you’re successful, you’re always learning with each step.”
Smith worked on a lot of hardware as well as a lot of partnerships while at General Magic, so she was interacting with Sony, Motorola, Philips, Apple, as well as with telecom carriers like AT&T. This allowed her to learn the business side of things. She describes her time there as like going to business school, allowing her to apprentice, train, and master different aspects of the job.
Ultimately, that company (which is the subject of a brand new documentary film) didn’t succeed, and Smith went to work for Planet Out, founded by her friend Tom Riley, an early leader in queer media. Smith rose to become CEO of the organization and got it to a cash flow positive position before it merged with Gay.com.
She then took a bit of time off when her oldest son was born, and then went to Google for 11 years. When she arrived, Google had about 1,200 employees, but it grew to more than 50,000 during her tenure, in which she eventually served as VP of business development. She helped Google acquire companies that became products such as Google Earth, Maps and Spreadsheets — anything that was product-centric.
Tech for the people
Smith was tapped by President Obama to be his third Chief Technology Officer, a role she held from 2014 to 2017.
“President Obama saw a need early on, and asked, ‘Why do I have a surgeon general and a lawyer and an operator and a communicator, but I don’t have a technical person in the core team? I have them, of course, at NASA and NIH and Energy and in the lab, and those are amazing technical people. The government has an IT team that’s supporting everyone and building the systems, but why don’t I have a technical policy capacity builder, just like I have surgeon general or a lawyer?’ And that was a pretty new idea. It still really is, it’s really the beginning of digital, open data driven, collaborative government,” Smith said.
“We’ve had tech upgrades before — for example, President Lincoln got the Pony Express, and he had to move us to the telegraph. It’s not like upgrading capabilities is a new idea, but often it leads in certain agencies rather than across them — and I think President Obama could see this need for these Americans that he saw in the private sector who were missing. Not missing in government — but missing in the leadership team.”
The U.S. CTO role has now been put into law by Congress. It sits together with the President’s Science Advisor in the Office of Science and Technology Policy, Smith said. But it’s also an assistant to the President.
The CTO role is to help the President and his/her team harness the power of data innovation and technology on behalf of the American people. The President also has a Science Advisor, generally a scientist or someone with technical/STEM background who’s run labs or done research. According to Smith, the CTO’s more of an entrepreneurial disrupter techie.
“The idea is pulling in that entrepreneurial character that we see in Silicon Valley right now — to advance the capabilities of the government and the American people in these areas, and bring that know-how into the policy conversations,” she said.
One of the things Smith and her team focused on was open data. They opened more than 200,000 data sets. This isn’t private data, such as from the IRS, but general public data from the U.S. Geological Survey (helpful for mapping apps), weather data and NOAA data sets, HUD, the Census, and so forth. This helped create things like the College Scorecard, where young people who are choosing schools can look at how much each one costs, what’s the graduation rate, what kind of money do people make when they leave.
There’s a methodology that comes from Silicon Valley that Smith is very fond of. She calls it Scout and Scale.
“The venture capitalists don’t make these companies, they find amazing entrepreneurs and they support them through all kinds of ecosystem methods and practices,” she said. “What if we could do that around solving any kind of problem? Who already figured out what to do? Who has something working or promising, typically regionally, that others don’t know about? How would you scale that?”
As an example, Smith’s team created TechHire, a program for adults trying to get into tech jobs.
“At the time there were 600,000 jobs open in tech, and companies were starving for employees. We could see St. Louis and other cities were doing these short course boot camps. In a couple months, with intense training, people could become what’s called ‘no collar tech.’ So they’d learn to code and then could apprentice their way into these companies and then suddenly they don’t have to move from San Antonio or St. Louis or Albuquerque or wherever they are.”
“What’s interesting now is 23,000 Americans will graduate from boot camps in coding, and at the time it was maybe a thousand or so, but we could see this emerging. We could see in Louisville that the mayor there had done Code Louisville with teens there. In Delaware, the employers’ part of the ecosystem was pleading for people. And so they were jamming community colleges. President Obama was going to Boise, Idaho and we found 15 tech Meetups. But no one in Boise knows that’s happening, so in a way we were taking some of the community organizing principles that you would use for a potluck church picnic or something, but as it applied to economic policy and capacity building.”
Smith feels that government needs to keep thinking technology and data.
“This pattern of looking to tech is emerging massively at commercial enterprises like Walmart. It hadn’t been emerging as much in government except in the deeply technical ones, like a DOE. Think about the Department of Transportation. When Secretary Fox came into that job, there was no conversation in his confirmation hearings about technology at scale. And yet by the time he finished, he had worked on all the rules for UAVs, for self-driving cars, for next gen air traffic. His had become a technical agency. Before that, it was much more civil engineering, mechanical engineering, energy engineering — now, it’s that plus digital.
Into the engineering fold
Smith has long been passionate about bringing more diversity into the engineering and tech worlds, from women to people of color to the LGBTQ community. And she has some specific advice for young women or other minorities considering a career in engineering.
“Engineering’s a fabulous background, just like liberal arts,” she said. “And you want to take lots of different classes. If you’re in the liberal arts, take an engineering class, take a data science class, take some other things. If you’re in the engineering side take some liberal arts classes. And social science classes and other things,” she said. “You can have a huge impact on the world. It’s creative job, it’s a teamwork job. You can be on amazing teams and do this work. There is a lot of discrimination because there’s a lot of stereotypes. There’s history that’s missing so you don’t really learn that everybody’s been awesome the whole time.”
Smith said that there is a lot of culture that can be debilitating to certain people.
“Stand on the side of the pool when astronauts are about to do some kind of underwater testing. When a guy steps up, people say, ‘Wonder what he’s going to do today?’ When a woman or man of color steps up there’s more of a, ‘Hmm, wonder if he can do it?’ You’re fighting internalized and externalized stereotyping constantly.”
“It’s so interesting, because the true history of astronauts is that a lot of people thought women should be the first astronauts because they were smaller. And there was the Lovelace Project that showed that they actually performed equally or better on certain tests. But it was, I think Johnson, who said, ‘No, we’re going to do test pilots.’ And since test pilots were discriminatory, then only men could do it. That’s what happened to us. As opposed to the Soviets, who had a man and a woman right away.”
“We have a lot of work to do to pull out of that, and I think that one of the key things that you can do is know that you’re not alone in the challenges that are there and find community. Find women and men who are supportive of you. And work with them.”
“You know, there are companies in Silicon Valley where some of the diversity folks there will forewarn people, ‘Don’t come to this company because it isn’t awake yet. And it’s discriminatory.’ A lot of the Silicon Valley companies have a culture of intellectual combat in how they interact with each other. It’s just unnecessary to behave this way. But because of that, young people being mentored in that can write goofy memos like that kid from Google. [A young male software engineer was fired in 2017 after writing a memo in that relied on gender stereotypes] That’s what he saw, and he didn’t know the context, and so he just wrote this superficial perspective. Even though it’s a culture that’s creating that problem, not anything based on science.”
Smith said that the only companies and organizations that make progress are ones that realize diversity should be shortlisted in terms of priorities. For many companies, it’s a shareholder value and they put it in their top 20. But that’s just too low, she insisted.
“It needs to be in the top three,” she said. “We saw companies like Intel and Slack and others who moved it to the shortlist, and all of a sudden started to make great progress. Lou Gerstner, when he was turning IBM around, said to his management team, ‘We’re not a diverse team, but we don’t have to be ignorant. And so I want all of you to spend time with these employee research groups and we’re going to add it to the agenda. And every week this will be something we touch on.”
Communication as a skill for engineers
Smith, who is now the CEO of shift7, a recent startup in the tech collaboration space, said she feels that it’s really important for engineers to work on their communication skills, just like everybody else.
“Anybody who is a good communicator has usually worked on those skills, and practiced speeches and gotten feedback, learned to write. You know, make an argument, put yourself out there. It’s really important in any profession, engineering or otherwise, you have to be able to sell your idea,” she said.
“One of the people who I got to work with, Eric Schmidt (former Google chairman), did a huge amount of work around learning, speaking, and communicating, and bothered to pay attention to that, just like you would be current on the latest technology. I think it’s an important thing for engineers. We also have to shift the culture to support people in communicating better. If you’re not as strong at communicating, get a teammate. Work together.”