Exit Interview with America's Chief Technology Officer - Axios
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Exit Interview with America's Chief Technology Officer

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Megan Smith and Alex Macgillivray left Google and Twitter, respectively, in 2014 to help President Obama and the U.S. government better harness the power of data and technology. Smith as the nation's second chief technology officer, and Macgillivray as her deputy. The pair were charged with helping to bring a Silicon Valley mentality to D.C., focused on areas like collaboration (on tech topics and beyond), modernizing government and capacity-building in areas like tech hiring and computer science education expansion.

The relatively-new positions are expected to outlast both Smith and Macgillivray, although the incoming Trump Administration has yet to name any replacements for top jobs in the White House's Office of Science and Technology (where the CTO office resides).

They both spoke to Axios about their experiences, the future and why even anti-Trump techies should consider a role in D.C. Their answers are condensed for quicker reading.

On coming into government from the private sector:

Smith: "The CTO team was added by President Obama to bring the entrepreneur or disruptor way of thinking about things to government. Not instead of, but additional methods. The thing I was a little afraid of was that I wasn't a policy expert. What I found was that there is so much talent in government with people who know their stuff, but what was missing was a principal-level technologist in each of the rooms, outside of places like NASA and DARPA and the NIH.

Macgillivray: "I realized that all of the skills that are useful in the private sector are useful here. People who want a direct answer. People who have done the reading. Be kind, know your stuff. I also learned how amazing and important the different people with the title 'Chief of Staff' are. It's not something we have in Silicon Valley. It makes sense that Sheryl Sandberg was a chief of staff at Treasury before she went to Google."

On accomplishments:

Smith: "One big thing that's different than our time in Silicon Valley is that we weren't shipping product. Our job was to catalyze new capabilities that the government could have. For example, TechHire is now part of 70 communities, which means that short-course boot camps are now a real thing and people are graduating in places like Eastern Kentucky and Anchorage, Alaska. Companies are starving for people with these skills. We also had opportunities to work on things that weren't exactly in our lane, like how to improve internal and external communications in the White House, like by launching @POTUS."

Macgillivray: "For me it was our creation of a tech policy task force that really changed how the White House was able to do policy, plus working on open-source policy and kickstarting the AI strategy. And more simple things like making sure the White House had good access to the Internet."

WHAT?!?!

Macgillivray: "Well, it had access, but there was a firewall policy that restricted the type of sites you were going to see. It was important to get the White House access to the modern Internet."

On their place in history:

Smith: "With every administration, the world is moving. During the time of Lincoln, the Pony Express got disrupted by the telegraph. President Washington founded the Army Corps of Engineers before he was even in office. Kennedy had the Moonshot program. President Obama has done an extraordinary amount of work, including through us, around science and technology, including R&D. This is the beginning of digital, collaborative and data-driven government.

For example, we're part of an open government partnership that started with eight countries but is now over 70. I was recently in a palace in France with 300 digital tech folks from 70-plus countries uploading open-source and working collaboratively on this sector. This is just like 1996 or 1997, but not quite as visible."

On AI and automation:

Macgillivray: "The President has a great line where he talks about how Americans have never been afraid of the future, and that's a lot of what I think defines how we think about this."

Smith: "President Obama pushed hard that we have this conversation, because we all have to go through this change together. One thing we did was a series of town halls led by Ed Felton and Terah Lyons on AI and machine learning, through which something that emerged was what the World Bank refers to as digital dividends. In other words, make sure that you're not just doing high-tech data science on NASA and self-driving cars. But also on more intractable problems like ones faced by HUD and Labor, and being sure that they are modernizing their service delivery.

Another big piece of this is making sure that we improve the skills of all Americans, which is something the country did as it shifted from the agricultural age to the industrial age, and now must do as we shift to the age of creativity. The fastest way we've learned to work on this is to operate more like venture capitalists, who build cohorts by sharing best practices and networks. The same network we can use to help upgrade the Agriculture Department can be used to build maker spaces and can also apply to topics like learning and inclusion. The more we do next-generation high schools, the more people will be prepared to participate in the creative economy. The truth is that everybody has always been quite capable if they have access to learning new skills.

Tech takeaway:

Smith: "I now have much more impatience with the lack of diversity in tech, whether that be geo, race or gender. This team is very diverse and is at the top of its game. We'll be much better served if tech and other government teams become more diverse, because all of the research shows that diverse teams make better decisions."

On fears the Trump Administration won't continue their work:

Macgillivray: "I remember when I used my first smartphone. I wasn't an early adopter and couldn't understand why people like the thing. But it's not like I went back to a flip-phone. I think the same is true when it comes to technology in government. We aren't going to go backwards, and technology is really nonpartisan."

Smith: "Practice makes permanent. It can be hard to integrate some of this stuff but, when we're able to get into a department and help upgrade their work, they're delighted."

Should techies join government, even if they opposed Trump?

Smith: "We wrote a post we refer to as Techies Engage, because we really believe it. It doesn't matter if it's at the state or federal or tribal level. America needs the tech community, and now more than ever."

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Conservative groups to launch push for Trump judicial nominees

J. Scott Applewhite / AP

A collection of conservative activist groups are launching a well-funded effort today designed to push back against perceived Democratic obstruction of President Trump's judicial nominees, Axios has learned.

What's planned: Judicial Crisis Network is spending $500,000 on a digital ad buy to back the campaign, along with a grassroots push — the agenda includes targeting town halls hosted by Democratic members of Congress — by Tea Party Patriots, Concerned Veterans for America, Susan B. Anthony List, and Concerned Women for America.

Why it matters: Installing conservative-minded judges in federal courts is a movement priority, especially with Republicans struggling to pass legislation through Congress.

Their perspective: From Mark Lucas, the CVA's executive director: "Securing Justice Gorsuch on the Supreme Court was a major victory for the rule of law, but the fight isn't over. We will mobilize as needed to make sure Congress does the right thing by confirming the qualified lower court judges President Trump has nominated. Our activists are paying close attention to which elected officials are obstructing the process."

At issue: The biggest point of contention for conservatives is that Democrats are allowing appointments to proceed by their default rules in the Senate, which sucks up valuable floor time by requiring 30 hours of debate for each nominee — even when Democrats ultimately plan to approve the nominee. Republicans did the same thing to Obama nominees in 2013, with Sen. John Cornyn even telling the NYT that the GOP "became pretty good at it."

Worth keeping an eye on: Republicans have experienced the brunt of grassroots backlash over health reform so far in 2017. It'll be interesting to see if the right can similarly harness local support, especially given growing discontent with Trump's tactics amongst the GOP mainstream.

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Snow possible at night on Mars, study shows

Until now, it's been thought that clouds on Mars don't move water in a way that allows snow to form but new mathematical models published in Nature Geoscience today suggest it is indeed possible for convection snowstorms to occur in the Martian atmosphere — at night.

Why it matters: Researching snow on Mars has been important to understanding water on the planet and the Martian climate. "There [are] a couple of holy grails in Mars science," Hanna Sizemore, an expert on ground ice on Mars at the Planetary Science Institute who wasn't involved in the research, told Axios. "One of them is life, biology, and one of them, which is linked to the first, is understanding the water cycle." The authors say their study shows snow precipitation may have "played a key role in forming tropical and mid-latitude glaciers on Mars."

Why it happens at night and not during the day: At night there's no sunlight shining on the clouds and the ice particles floating around, so they cool down. And when they cool down, they're denser and heavier, so they fall. During the day, they're a little stabler because "warm air is moving upward in convection, but the ice clouds are being warmed from above and no cooling can take place," Isaac Smith, who works with the U.S. SHARAD team, said. Since the clouds are neither cooling nor heating, the unstable layers that drive the snowstorms can't form.

"One of the reasons this wasn't understood earlier is because this is occurring at night. Our observational data is fairly limited to daytime observations," an expert on Mars' climate history , Nathaniel Putzig, said. "It's kind of hard to catch it in the act."

What's next: Nicholas Heavens from Hampton University suggested future research might try modeling different time periods on Mars to see if those different climate conditions persisted and could have resulted in snowfall to the surface to form glaciers. Ultimately, he notes the need for "more observations to firmly demonstrate that this is happening on Mars," not just a model.

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Putin appoints new ambassador to U.S.

Russian Deputy Defense Minister Anatoly Antonov at a briefing in the Defense Ministry in Moscow, Oct. 2016 (Ivan Sekretarev / AP)

President Vladimir Putin appointed his former deputy foreign minister, Anatoly Antonov, as Russia's new U.S. ambassador, replacing Sergey Kislyak, per AFP. Antonov has been serving as acting ambassador to the U.S. since Kislyak's return to Moscow in June.

Background: According to TASS, Russia's state-owned news agency, Antonov, 62, headed Russia's Foreign Ministry Security and Disarmament Department from 2004-2011, before serving as deputy defense minister from 2011-2016, during which Russia invaded Ukraine. Antonov was later appointed as Putin's deputy foreign minister in December 2016.

Why it matters: Kislyak, who served as Russia's U.S. ambassador for nearly 10 years, became a household name in recent months for his meetings with senior Trump aides during the campaign and transition. But Antonov, who according to AFP has a reputation as "a hardliner" and is seen as "a tough negotiator," will likely bring a new edge to Washington.

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Michael Bloomberg is the new Clinton

Christophe Ena / AP

Former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg plans to bring together more than 30 heads of state and 100 CEOs in New York on Sept. 20, in conjunction with the United Nations General Assembly, as part of a plan to move into the elite space once held by the Clinton Global Initiative Annual Meeting.

  • The thinking behind Bloomberg Philanthropies' Global Business Forum is that UNGA week in New York puts more powerful people in one spot than any other single event on earth.
  • Former President Bill Clinton, who has said he wants other organizations to join him in the CGI mission, will speak at Bloomberg Philanthropies' Global Business Forum in an unofficial handoff.
  • Axios will be an official media partner (along with Quartz), so we'll be able to bring you exclusive insights:

The lineup features an astonishing roster of world and corporate leaders: French President Emmanuel Macron, the new Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, Bill Gates, Alibaba's Jack Ma, Goldman Sachs' Lloyd Blankfein, BlackRock's Larry Fink, World Bank President Jim Yong Kim, IMF head Christine Lagarde, Carlyle's David Rubinstein and dozens more.

The mission: "to discuss opportunities for advancing trade and economic growth, and the related societal challenges – from climate change to workplace automation to terrorism."

Topics will include megatrends such as: "As technology advances and increasing automation change the nature of work, how will we create new jobs and economic opportunities for those who are displaced? … Can disruptive technologies eradicate disease, create new sources of clean energy, and eliminate poverty?"

The background: "The Forum was inspired by the Bloomberg U.S.-Africa Business Forum, which in 2014 and 2016 brought business leaders together with heads of state from every African nation, and the Clinton Global Initiative, which held its Annual Meeting during U.N. General Assembly week and established a new model to bring together global leaders from all sectors to create and implement tangible solutions to the world's most pressing challenges"

From an open letter by President Clinton explaining why he was concluding the CGI Annual Meeting: "'I hope the hard work and benefits of CGI's great staff and its members' creative cooperation will keep rippling out into the world. The commitment model has been adopted by other forums and I hope that more will do so, or that new organizations will arise to do this work."

Go deeper:

  • Visit www.BloombergGBF.com for the latest program details and confirmed participants.
  • The event will be streamed live on Bloomberg.com.
  • Media can apply for media credentials here. Questions to press@BloombergGBF.com.
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China's Great Wall wants to buy Fiat Chrysler

Fiat Chrysler's Sergio Marchionne (Mark Lennihan / AP)

Great Wall Motor says it wants to buy all or part of Fiat Chrysler, another potential move by Chinese companies into American cars. The Chinese SUV-maker may bid specifically for its Jeep brand, Great Wall told Automotive News. The Italian-American company said it hasn't been approached yet, Reuters reported.

Until now, Chinese forays into the U.S. market have been in electric and autonomous vehicles.

  • In 2014, China's Wanxiang bought Fisker Automotive, an American electric sports car startup once discussed in the same breath with Tesla.
  • And two years earlier, Wanxiang bought A123, a bankrupt lithium-ion battery maker that had the largest IPO of 2009. Both companies had received much financial backing from the U.S. government before turning belly up.
  • Earlier this month, Chinese-owned Faraday Future leased a factory in Hanford, CA., to build electric cars.

Why it matters: China has already made explicit that it intends to win the fierce global race to dominate electric and self-driving cars. In Fiat Chrysler, Great Wall is showing interest in a company run by CEO Sergio Marchionne, an Italian dealmaker who has floated a partial or full sale of the company to help finance its way into the electric and autonomous car competition.

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Here’s how long Congress has to renew CHIP

Technically, Congress is supposed to reauthorize the Children's Health Insurance Program by the end of September, and it hasn't gotten very far on that. But here's why some top Republicans think they have a bit more time. This graphic is based on projections from the Medicaid and CHIP Payment and Access Commission (MACPAC), and it shows when states are expected to exhaust their federal CHIP funds.

Yes, but: As we've written, states have to go through a lot of preparations to shut down their programs before then if there's no sign that Congress is getting its act together. It's better for all of them if Congress can renew the program quickly, without a lot of unnecessary drama.

Data: MACPAC 2017 analysis; Cartogram: Andrew Witherspoon / Axios

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10 missing from USS John S. McCain after ship collision

Royal Malaysian Navy / AP

Per the Associated Press:

  • "The Navy says 10 sailors are missing and five were hurt in the collision [of the USS John S. McCain and the Liberian-flagged Alnic MC] in waters east of Singapore and the Strait of Malacca early Monday."
  • "Singapore sent tugboats and naval and coast guard vessels for the search and rescue effort... Osprey aircraft and Seahawk helicopters from the USS America were assisting in the search."
  • President Trump's response, per WH pool: "Thoughts & prayers are w/ our @USNavy sailors aboard the #USSJohnSMcCain..."

Why it matters: "The collision was the second involving a ship from the Navy's 7th Fleet in the Pacific in two months. Seven sailors died in June when the USS Fitzgerald and a container ship collided in waters off Japan."

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The Axios Way: How you do it

Lots of great feedback to our post on The Axios Way — some lessons learned starting two media companies. There were requests for us to expand it to cover tricks/techniques that apply to all organizations, not just media startups.

Why it matters: Thanks to the explosion of technology and social media in particular, every industry — and most jobs — are changing faster than ever. This requires a new set of strategies to thrive in this era of transparency, distraction and disruption.

Market manically. For all the whining about technology, you can reach more people, more frequently, with more precision than at any point in humanity.

  • How you do it: If your marketing plan has conventional media only or catch-all "social media" section, destroy it. You need a specific plan for every media ecosystem — Facebook, video, Twitter, TV, email, etc — and to understand it's a different, often radically different, one for each. Make no mistake, it's harder than ever to punch through the noise, so you need a level of brand marketing sophistication most lack.

Think of your brand as a political candidate. You need to be hyper-aware of how you're seen by your core constituencies (employees and customers) and by the broader public.

  • How you do it: Be vigilant for signs of erosion in your base; or failing to respond forcefully to negative attacks; or underutilizing technology to connect with your people in authentic, compelling ways. And don't forget that people love a good narrative. So write and sell one, internally and externally.

Over communicate. In our short-attention-span world, full of cluttered and distracted minds, every leader and manager needs to explain what they're doing and why they're doing it every week, if not every day.

  • How you do it: It's not enough to save it for the staff retreat. Find a simple, clear way to explain what each person is doing, how they'll be measured, and how it fits into your company's larger purpose. And do it often. If not, you will end up with a bunch of distracted, underperforming malcontents.

Speak like a human. What the hell is the difference between "mission" and "values"? Who the hell really cares? What all employees — millennials in particular — want to know is what you're doing and why you're doing it. So just say it that way. (We're in the process of doing just this, and it's been very clarifying).

  • How you do it: Social media thankfully forces authenticity and writing like you would speak in normal settings. Your "what" and "why" should be in this casual language. If you sound like a corporate robot, reboot.

Force-multiply. It's not just that hiring someone better than you makes you better. It encourages that person to do the same. Soon, you have a talent factory. But many leaders/managers are too insecure to hire others who might outshine them. So they hire middling talent, trained to do the same. Soon you have the hot mess of mediocrity with no easy fix.

  • How you do it: You get this right at the very top by obsessing about finding killer executive talent secure enough to hire/empower stars. This is contagious. As for the flip side, get rid of leaders who don't get it.

The tech wolf is at your door. Your job, your company and your industry face imminent threat from new technologies or robots. This threat will worsen.

  • How you do it: Knowing this alone should instantly sharpen your mind and shorten your planning cycles. You don't have the luxury of five-year plans or one-year budgets. Yes, set a North Star. But constantly adapt to keep pace with technologies and swift changes in your marketplace. Tame the tech wolves eyeballing your lunch — before they eat it.

Heed red flags. Bad values are cancer, and it spreads. We look for killer talent with humility, and never compromise on either half.

  • How you do it: Resist the urge to overlook signs that someone won't fit with your culture, even if they're awesome at what they do. In the past, we occasionally averted our gaze from people with bad values but great gifts — and regretted it every single time. The same will likely happen to you, too.
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Trump heading to the border

Ted S. Warren / AP

President Trump heads to Arizona Tuesday for a visit to the border and a campaign-style rally in Phoenix. Police are braced for mass protests in the wake of Charlottesville, and the Phoenix Mayor, Democrat Greg Stanton, made a startling request that the president stay away from his city because his appearance, and expected pardon of Sheriff Joe Arpaio, would "enflame emotions and further divide our nation."

Why this matters: Trump has an opportunity on Tuesday to show his base that he's still as committed as ever, after the firing of Steve Bannon, to the big, symbolic, promise of his presidency — to build a mammoth wall along the border with Mexico.

  • But, but... I can't get a straight answer from administration sources on whether Trump will make a full-throated demand that Congress fund the wall in the government funding bill due at the end of September.
  • Between the lines: Some Trump administration officials are nervous about making concrete funding demands, in Arizona, that will be almost impossible to get Congress to agree to. Some senior White House officials have told conservative allies the wall fight should be postponed until later in the year, after a three-month, kick the can down the road, government funding bill gets signed in September. Either way, the wall fight could ultimately shut down the government.
  • Trump is also likely to promote the administration's success in driving down illegal entries, according to an administration source. Officials view Arizona as a case study of why border fencing works.

What else we're watching:

  • Trump will likely be joined by Acting Secretary of Homeland Security Elaine Duke, for the official portion of the trip. But which Republican officials will show up to support the president?
  • Will Trump use his speech to attack his enemies in the Republican Senate, Arizona senators Jeff Flake and John McCain?
  • Will Trump pardon Arpaio, as he teased to Fox News? I'm told the relevant paperwork is prepared for Trump to pardon the former sheriff, who was found guilty for defying a judge's order to stop racially profiling Latinos during patrols. But officials won't tell me — and perhaps they haven't decided — whether Trump will announce the pardon on his Arizona swing.
  • Will Trump endorse Kelli Ward as a primary opponent to Sen. Flake? Trump signaled last week that he may be preparing to endorse Ward, but I'm told some of Trump's allies have counseled him to hold off on the endorsement because they think she's a weak candidate.
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Trump to announce Afghanistan plan Monday in TV address

Pablo Martinez Monsivais / AP

President Trump will address the nation on his Afghanistan war strategy tomorrow at 9 p.m. from Fort Myer in Arlington, VA. It's one of the most consequential decisions of his presidency, and it comes after Trump met with his national security team on Friday at Camp David .

  • Defense Secretary James Mattis said on Sunday, per Reuters: "I am very comfortable that the strategic process was sufficiently rigorous and did not go in with a pre-set position."
  • The stakes: Should Trump order a withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan, advisers believe he'd all but ensure the Taliban completes its takeover of the country. Al-Qaeda and ISIS would be allowed to flourish, and you'd have a terrorist launching pad similar to, or potentially worse than, before 9/11.

Trump's decision hasn't leaked; but I can illuminate some of the private conversations leading up to it, from senior administration sources and former officials close to the Pentagon:

Trump's top national security advisers all agree the only way they'll win their missions in Afghanistan is to modestly increase troop levels, keep training the Afghan military, and keep a strong CIA and special forces presence to run aggressive counter-terrorism operations.

Two missions:

  1. "Operation Resolute Support": While the Trump administration is explicitly repudiating both the idea and the phrase "nation building," ORS is a train, advise and assist mission to help the Afghan army fight the Taliban, an official tells me. It's meant to help keep the government from collapsing while reversing Taliban gains.
  2. Counter-terrorism mission — primarily to eradicate Al-Qaeda, ISIS-K and other terrorist groups from Afghanistan.

Inside Mattis' thinking: The Defense Secretary has been using this line in meetings: "Mr. President, we haven't fought a 16-year war so much as we have fought a one-year war, 16 times."

  • What Mattis means by that: Trump has already given Mattis the authority to increase troop levels in Afghanistan, but the Defense Secretary has refused to exercise that authority, believing that doing so without an agreed-upon strategy would be continuing the failures of previous administrations. Trump officials condemn the Obama administration for falling into a habit of asking each winter "what do we need to do this year to prevent total collapse?"

Trump's team presented him with other scenarios — which everyone on the team agreed would lead to disaster. They included a gradual withdrawal of U.S. forces from Afghanistan (a continuation of what Obama was doing), and counter-terrorism-only options.

  • What Steve Bannon wanted: Mattis and co. never took the idea seriously, but Bannon and Blackwater founder Erik Prince had been pushing for Trump to gradually withdraw the U.S. military from Afghanistan and replace it with private paramilitary forces to hunt terrorists.
  • I'm told the Bannon strategy has never been part of the NSC paperwork, though the former chief strategist circumvented the official process and took his arguments directly to the president.

Trump's instincts: The president has been blunt, telling his team that while he thinks the war in Afghanistan has been a disaster, and the U.S. is losing, he thinks total withdrawal would be bad.

  • Trump saw what happened when Obama withdrew from Iraq and believes that doing so precipitously in Afghanistan would allow the Taliban to take over, and Al-Qaeda would be resurgent. You'd have bad guys in Afghanistan in league with bad guys in Pakistan who want to overthrow the country.
  • Trump has told his advisers he's been shown the maps of Afghanistan, with the red on the map signifying the Taliban's presence in the country. He says that advisers show him the map in 2014 and there's a little bit of red. Look at the 2017 map and half the country's red, therefore "we're losing."
  • The generals' response to Trump: You're right. But we're losing because the strategy has been terrible. We can turn this around.

Bottom line: Trump has been reluctantly open to the generals' opinion and I'm told he doesn't want to be the president who loses the country to the terrorists.