The White House’s Alpha Geeks

CTO Megan Smith and her deputy Alex Macgillivray are seizing the tech moment. Here’s their plan to raise America’s technology quotient.

Steven Levy


Until about a year ago, Megan Smith was the ultimate Silicon Valley insider. A brainy math kid out of Buffalo who earned an engineering degree at MIT, she hit California like a meteor, working for Apple, General Magic, and Google. Then Todd Park, the United State chief technical officer and advisor to the President, called, asking her to take his job. She said yes.

Around the same time another Silicon Valley lifer, Alex Macgillivray (known widely as AMac) got a similar call from Park. Macgillivray had been a top policy attorney at Google and general counsel of Twitter. Park was tapping him to become Smith’s deputy CTO, and he also agreed.

The duo, on the job almost a year now, have presided over the White House tech policy operation, situated within the Office of Science and Technology Policy, at a time when President Obama seems to finally be getting his geek on. It is probably no coincidence that in the aftermath of the debacle — and the subsequent triumphant rescue by a cadre of Silicon Valley veterans of Google and other companies — that the chief executive is speaking forcefully and frequently about utilizing the energy of our nation’s tech talent to make government more efficient. He has also been more present in speaking up for some of his long-held tech-friendly policy issues, like net neutrality.

Smith and Macgillivray are taking advantage of the gov-tech moment to involve the White House in a number of projects, including the Police Data Initiative (compiling information from cooperating local departments on things like who gets detained, and what happens with bodycams) and TechHire (to open up technical jobs to a diverse population). Smith has been at the President’s side at a number of events familiar to Californians but previously rare on Pennsylvania Avenue, like meetups, tech fairs and demo days.

Earlier this month, Smith and Macgillivray sat down with Backchannel in a conference room near their warren of desks in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building. The interview is edited for brevity and clarity.

Megan, you’ve been in this post almost a year after a long career in Silicon Valley. What’s it like?

MEGAN SMITH: It’s an amazing time. We were there at the beginning of the Internet and I remember what it felt like around ‘97-‘98. All these ideas that we had for a long time were finally starting to execute, [as opposed to] rolling the rock up the hill. And what’s happening [now] is very much the beginning of digital government. It’s also about governments actually having tech people in the principal seats.

I’ve followed the Obama White House tech initiative closely, and the high expectations from the tech world were not initially met. But in the last year or so — maybe since the turnaround — there’s been a lot of momentum, big hires and high-profile efforts. Why is the government tech renaissance underway now when it wasn’t in 2009?

ALEX MACGILLIVRAY: You needed to have some tilling of the land, to have some seeds planted. Part of it is that there are nice models outside [the US] — like Estonia and the UK. So we can look to some stuff that’s outside. You also have Mikey [Dickerson, head of the United States Digital Services], who has been here now for a while and knows stuff about how to get things done within government. When he first arrived it wasn’t like the skies parted and the angels sang. It was hard work. But now it’s getting easier and easier.

MS: The President was open to it. And then came the website. Here’s this great policy that gets through Congress. It’s a brilliant business model, it has all these pieces to it…and a website is going to mess it up? Even once they fixed it, the website still took seventy pages to click through [and complete enrollment]. If you had to go through seventy pages to buy something at Amazon, would you do it? In the next wave, the team fixed that. The President witnessed something that he hadn’t seen. He knew the techies, was familiar, had had them in the campaign, but really hadn’t seen how the sausage is made. So seeing people do daily stand ups, working the way that techies do, I think he’s like “Okay, we’re missing these people, let’s change this.”

I want to ask each of you, was it a tough decision to come here?

AM: A no-brainer. I think we both had a couple hours to make the decision.

MS: At first I got this email from Todd Park. At first I was, like, “What? Move to Washington?” But when he described the job, it was an amazing thing.

What was amazing about it?

MS: This ability to really serve the American people. I realize now there’s two things we techies should do — one is go where there are lots of us, like MIT or Silicon Valley or whatever, because you can move really fast and do extraordinary things. The other is, go where you’re rare. People here are incredibly entrepreneurial, they are incredibly mission driven, they are really talented. They’re really good at economics, they’re really good at speech writing, they are really amazing at legislation. They’re not as technical as us. There is literally a seat missing of the technical person at the table and we need to add that. And so we need to show up. Just like the lawyers have clerking on their resume, we need to rotate in and out of government, or it won’t be as good as it needs to be.

You say people in DC are entrepreneurial? I think of them as ambitious but not necessarily entrepreneurial, especially in the sense of risk taking.

MS: I don’t know. I’ve found them to be that way. I think doing legislation is sort of entrepreneurial in a funny way. Sometimes even on the tech side there’s fabulous people. There was a tech group at the Social Security Administration who wanted to be in the cloud, so they just went and found computers that were not being used and made their own Hadoop base, and just started building. People just do things.

AM: There is no conflict here about motivation. You don’t have an ad server to run. You’ve got one goal and that’s what you’re working on.

Both of you worked for companies that sometimes had adversarial issues with the government, especially you, Alex. How do you get past that?

AM: I was surprised at how open people were to talking with me once I got inside. I’m a lawyer so I like arguing and trying to get to the best answer.

MS: I was on the board of MIT and so I saw the academy from that perspective. So in the Council of Economic Advisors, or National Security Council, or our CTO group, you’re having a conversation that’s almost like faculty trying to work a new curriculum for the students or something. You might agree or disagree, but it’s pretty collegial. It’s a different environment than corporate.

Megan, each of your two predecessors in the job had their agendas, the things they really wanted to accomplish in there. What are yours?

MS: I have three things I am really focused on. We wanted to make policy really high TQ [Tech Quotient], using the term like IQ and EQ. To make sure technical people are at the principal table all the way throughout, in everything from getting out of the way of America’s top innovators, to talking about encryption or net neutrality or patent reform.

When you say TQ people at the table, do you mean people who are actual technical people — the geeks?

MS: Yes.

Or are you talking about raising the TQ of the civilians?

AM: Yes, yes, yes, and oh yes. There are lots of really smart people here who know technology. Making sure that they get a seat at the table as opposed to a seat at the wall is a very important thing.

How do you do that?

MS: Just by delivering. If you come to the meeting and add value then they’re going to want you again.

Give an example where you’ve managed to change the composition of who is sitting around a table.

AM: The Police Data Initiative. It’s a totally entrepreneurial model — a bunch of people coming together because they see an opportunity to collaborate and deal with a particular issue.

MS: It sprang from putting the right people together. We convened that group and said, “Okay, what can we do as we move forward?” And because they were here, they went, I have an idea! and I have an idea! Just as it is in Silicon Valley, you always look for somebody who has a solution. The VCs don’t say, “Oh I think I’ll make Twitter today.” People walk in and the person has the idea. There is somebody on our planet who has a solution to almost every problem — if we could just find that. So in this particular case our colleagues knew of people who were doing creative things.

OK, what’s the second area?

MS: Digital government. Mikey and Haley [at the US Digital Services team] are really our key people there. I think of it as if we’re their board members or teammates — they’re [like a startup] in Series A, they’re hiring their team, they’re growing. They have twenty million dollars from Congress so they have a very specific set of about ten projects that they’re doing and it’s awesome.

OK, what’s the third area you’re working on?

MS: It’s something I felt was really important — and the President agreed. I nickname it Innovation Nation. How do you get more of the American people in on the kinds of experiences we [as techies] have? Whether it’s [engaging] youth and STEM in a joyful way, like science fairs and FIRST robotics and discovery. The President has done really well in increasing our high school graduation rates but we really have to fix this and engage our kids in the 21st Century economy.

So we’re doing a lot of things. Some of it is workforce [innovations], like TechHire. What’s great about the tech jobs is that they pay 50 percent more than the average American salary. We try to get people who might say, “Why would I consider that…” to consider it. Especially diverse folks, which is so critical. We just did a session in Silicon Valley on advancement and retention of women and people of color. And about how to do better work in the VC community, because only three percent of the money goes to women, less than one percent to people of color. What’s the plan?

What can you do? Is a bully pulpit your main weapon?

MS: Less bully, more convening. Being able to communicate the importance of it, but also convene people who have the solutions and get them talking in the same way.

Really? To get more women partners in VC firms, what can you do?

MS: You can do a lot of things. People funding startups have to go find women and people of color, to be open to their pitches, to check unconscious bias. We all have unconscious bias. So we’re looking at the science around unconscious bias and how you mitigate it.

AM: One of Megan’s many super powers is this ability to both know somebody who has done whatever it is you’re talking about, and then bring those folks together and get a conversation going that then outlives our involvement in it and is able to move things forward. Then there’s a hundred other things. The President can have people to the Oval Office. That’s a great thing. The President has the @Potus [Twitter] account, right? He can do all sorts of things just with that.

Has the President spoken to some of these companies specifically about this issue?

MS: It’s a regular topic in [his] Valley swings and LA swings — talking to people about the importance of getting more people in. Also we did the first ever Tech Meetup here at the White House, bringing the 50 top organizers of meetups from 40 states who were awesome and then people who were getting all kinds of inclusion work.

Have you been advising on how to improve government security, especially with that huge hack of government information in the background?

AM: There have been so many huge high profile security incidents, the latest being the Hacking Team. The problem isn’t just government. Everybody needs to be better supported, to be able to make better security choices. The question is not just how we make government better, or how do we bring the best security people into government, but also a question of how we make policy at the federal level that would better support strong security online. That’s a tough nut.

Do you find yourself hamstrung by the congressional gridlock?

MS: No.

AM: The three branches of government operate as checks on each other. Even within the building you have different equities. So you think, “Okay what are the things that I can do that will make an impact and then how do I go do them?” So sometimes for this President that has been very effective executive orders, sometimes it has been letters to the FCC. These are not all bound up in what might be happening on a given day in Congress. There’s lots and lots of stuff we can do.

MS: It’s a mix of collaborating with [Congress, and also] executing as the Executive Branch. Just run the country. Here’s an example. At Pine Ridge, in South Dakota — I just was there — the average life expectancy there is forty-eight years old. Thirty percent of the people graduate from high school. Seventy percent unemployment. Just not good. So we went, and there’s lots of things that we could be doing there as team CTO. For example, there’s less than ten percent Internet connectivity there. So if you actually add some TQ, you could go have a meeting with the Telco carrier for Pine Ridge and find out that they actually have fiber. But the schools are structured in a way that they’re not talking to this other person or the health service is not talking to those folks. But we can fix this stuff. Just taking a connectivity engineer, which we had someone volunteer to go with us, was like night and day on understanding how to debug this problem. Some of the greatest American problems can be solved if we work together.

Alex, let’s talk about encryption policy. Some in the government are arguing for some form of key escrow. What are your recommendations?

AM: The President has said that we’re in the middle of a policy process on it. So I’m not going to be talking about that. In terms of ensuring law enforcement access to information, that’s a really tough problem in an age where encryption is prevalent.

Working for Google and Twitter I assume you’ve worked through these issues and come to a conclusion. Now that you’re part of the government, are you rethinking those conclusions?

AM: You get hired [in a government job like this] for your career — both for your background and for what you might bring to the table. But you do also get a lot of interesting new information. You hear new arguments. One of the fun things about it is, how much of the things that you thought were true before, are true? Also, to the extent that you still think the thing you thought at the beginning, how do you bring all of the other equities at the table around to your way of thinking? Or, how do you become comfortable with their way of thinking being the right thing?

During the crypto wars of the ’90s the government would often boil down their argument to, “If you knew what we know you would change your mind.” Now that you’re part of government, do you know what they know?

MS: Yes. We get to know. A goal is to get all of the different points of view on the table and have a broad conversation. And it’s not just leaders in the room but who from the American people can we reach, and get their perspective. It was awesome during net neutrality to have four million people weigh in to the FCC. What’s key to us is to make sure that the best of the technical perspectives are in the mix, and that they’re not left out.

Speaking of net neutrality, last November, the President made a very strong statement, directed to the FCC in favor of it. He had spoken in favor of net neutrality before —

MS: Yeah, as a candidate.

But that statement marked more active support. Did you have a role in that?

MS: The President was always pretty supportive from his candidate days, and understood it and took time to understand the issue. We were part of that. The key for us was to make sure again that our knowledge of the technology was part of the conversation, together with economic teammates and legislative teammates.

But starting in November, it seemed he was more emphatic about it. Was there something specific in your technical explanations of how it would work that provided an important part of the puzzle to the President?

AM: He’s a well-briefed, smart guy. There’s no one person who’s going to turn things around, other than him. The way I think about it, we could’ve not shown up for three months, I think it would’ve been the same result.

MS: I think we added a lot of architecture perspective just from the technical side of how the Internet works.

What do each of you miss most about working in Silicon Valley?

AM: I’m kind of hungry at the moment, so Taqueria Cancun on Valencia.

MS: There are brilliant colleagues there but I really appreciate this team because it’s the most diverse team I’ve ever worked on. So now when I go to the tech world it’s really shocking. It’s almost like you’re a frog in boiling water; you don’t really realize how un-diverse it is until you’re in a normal diverse American innovative community like the President’s team. And then you go back and you’re like, wow. You feel, “Man, this industry is so awesome and yet we’re missing all of this talent.” But we’re bringing that here.

Photographs by Stephen Voss for Backchannel

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Steven Levy

Writing for Wired, Used to edit Backchannel here. Just wrote Facebook: The Inside Story.