Exit Interview with America's Chief Technology Officer - Axios

Exit Interview with America's Chief Technology Officer

Omidyar Network via AP Images

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."


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."


Spicer tells reporter to stop shaking her head

During today's press briefing, Sean Spicer claimed that people would claim there was a Russia connection if Trump used Russian salad dressing, to which white house correspondant April Ryan began shaking her head. Spicer told her not to...

And Ryan tweeted in response:

Ryan then talked to CNN about the interaction:


Trump's public broadcasting cuts would hit rural Americans hardest

Todd Huffman via Flickr CC

Rural Americans would be most affected by Trump's proposal to pull funding from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB). That's because more than 65% of the CPB's federal funding goes to keeping rural PBS and NPR stations running.

The rural-urban divide in public broadcasting: "Rural stations don't have a donor base," according to CPB CEO Patricia de Stacy Harrison, and it already costs more to broadcast in rural areas, partly due to infrastructure upkeep.

Why it matters: Rural communities are the most at risk of losing public programming, and 62% of rural Americans voted for Trump. 70% of Americans oppose eliminating the CPB, according to a Quinnipiac poll.

Perspective: CPB gets about $500 million in federal funding annually. That's half of what Trump has requested this year to start the wall. Elmo should be safe, though, as Sesame Street has other funding sources.


Zombie Trumpcare not good signal to worried insurers

(Jose Luis Magana / AP)

House Republicans' decision to keep trying to repeal and replace Obamacare is not a good signal to insurers, who must decide soon whether or not to participate on exchanges in 2018. Whether or not Republicans are interested in stabilizing the marketplace will be key to their decision. Reopening repeal and replacement talks is not stabilizing, as it creates mass unpredictability about the future.

"If Republicans are clearly invested in your failure, as an insurer, you need to be concerned," said Rodney Whitlock, a former GOP Senate Finance Committee aide.

Our thought bubble (h/t Bob Herman): Insurers have just a couple months left before they file rates. And another game of patty cake in the House isn't going to make any insurer happy.


Uninsured rate dropped big time in seven out of 10 counties

Here's the map of the uninsured rates for counties throughout the United States for 2015, the second year when the Affordable Care Act was in full effect. The Census Bureau announced today that the uninsured rate dropped in 71.3 percent of the nation's counties between 2014 and 2015. Guessing we're going to hear about this in the next round of the repeal debate ...

Data: U.S. Census Bureau Small Area Health Insurance Estimates; Map: Lazaro Gamio / Axios


General: "fair chance" U.S. launched Mosul strike that killed 100s

Felipe Dana / AP

Lt. Gen. Stephen Townsend, the commander of the United States-led international coalition against ISIS, said today that there was "a fair chance" that the U.S. had launched an airstrike in Mosul on March 17 that may have killed hundreds of Iraqi citizens, adding it was an "unintentional accident," per Defense One's Kevin Baron.

  • Estimates for death toll in the airstrike range from 80 to 511 with the likely number somewhere between 130 and 230. The Washington Post branded it "potentially one of the worst U.S.-led civilian bombings in 25 years."
  • President Trump's loosening of the rules of engagement in the region was "not really related" to the civilian deaths, according to Townsend.

Uber's first diversity report shows it's just like other tech companies

AP File

Uber has released its first ever workforce diversity report, and the results are what you'd expect—heavily male and white, just like the rest of the tech industry. Uber had been slower than its peers to release such a report, for which CEO Travis Kalanick apologized on Tuesday.

Gender: Overall, 63.9% of Uber's employees worldwide are men, and 36.1% are women. Within technical roles, 15.4% are women, just as CEO Travis Kalanick stated a few weeks ago. The numbers get more even within non-technical and customer support jobs.

Race: In the U.S., 49.8% of Uber employees are white, 30.9% are Asian, 8.8% are black, and 5.6% are Latino. In technical roles, white and Asian employees each make up over 45%, while black employees are just at 1%—a far cry from the 9% or so of black computer science majors who graduate from college every year.

Leadership: Women make up 22.0% of Uber's leaders (directors and above) overall, but only 11.3% within technical groups. In the U.S. more than 75% of leaders are white, both overall and within technical groups—the latter having only white and Asian leaders.

New hires: Looking at all of Uber's new hires over the last 12 months, 41.2% of them are women, and 7.6% and 12.3% of them are Latino and black, respectively. That means that the company is on pace for some improvement, if it can continue this hiring trend in the wake of all that is going on.

International flavor: Uber also included data about its U.S.-based employees with visas, showing that 15% of them have a work visa and they come from 71 countries.

Bottom line: All in all, Uber's numbers are quite comparable to the rest of the industry. And just like most other large tech companies, it has set up various internal groups for underrepresented employees, and has pledged to invest in programs to bring minorities into tech.


CarGurus hires IPO bankers

CarGurus, an online auto shopping and research platform, has quietly picked Goldman Sachs and Allen & Co. to lead its upcoming IPO, Axios has learned. The Cambridge, Mass.-based company has not yet publicly filed offering documents, nor did it return requests for comment.

Why it matters: CarGurus reportedly experienced higher web traffic last year than either AutoTrader or Cars.com, despite a much lower public profile. It serves 20,000 U.S. dealerships, and plans to expand its international offerings beyond existing Canada and U.K. markets.

Heredity: CarGurus founder and CEO Langley Steinert previously co-founded TripAdvisor ― an online travel portal currently valued at more than $6 billion. It has not disclosed any institutional VC backers.


Exxon to Trump: don’t bail on Paris

Koji Sasahara / AP

ExxonMobil is urging the White House to remain in the Paris climate change accord:

"We believe that the United States is well positioned to compete within the framework of the Paris agreement, with abundant low-carbon resources such as natural gas, and innovative private industries, including the oil, gas and petrochemical sectors."

Why it matters: Exxon's March 22 letter arrives as the White House is grappling with whether to abandon the 2015 climate pact. It notes that the U.S. gas boom has helped drive down the country's carbon emissions, adding that remaining in Paris can help the U.S. promote market access for gas under other nations' climate policies, among other reasons for staying in.

Our thought bubble: The support for the Paris deal from the likes of Exxon and ConocoPhillips highlights a divide between some powerful energy companies and conservative activists who want Trump to make good on his campaign pledge to abandon the deal.

The letter is from Peter Trelenberg, Exxon's environmental policy and planning manager, to David Banks, a top WH aide on international energy policy. It was first reported by the Financial Times.


The new Trumpcare strategy: keep talking

J. Scott Applewhite / AP

House Republican leaders revealed their plan this morning for bringing Obamacare repeal back to life: Keep talking about it until they get more votes. "We all share these goals, and we're just going to have to figure out how to get it done," House Speaker Paul Ryan told reporters after a meeting with the GOP conference. He said that "some of those who were in the no camp expressed a willingness to keep talking." House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy said he came out of the meeting with "more confidence than ever that we will get it done."

Between the lines: Their comments confirmed that this is mostly an exercise in showing their supporters that they're not giving up — and maybe giving conservative or moderate holdouts some time to reconsider their position. Ryan said he would still want to use the budget reconciliation bill as the vehicle, but wouldn't commit to a timeline, "because we want to get it right."

The Senate shrugs: "If they get 216 votes, that's great, we'll take it up over here," Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn told Caitlin Owens.


Trump admin reportedly tried to block Sally Yates from testifying on Russia

J. David Ake / AP

The White House reportedly attempted to block former acting Attorney General Sally Yates, who was fired early on in the Trump administration, from testifying about ties between Trump campaign officials and Russia, the Washington Post reports.

Recently obtained letters reveal that the Department of Justice told Yates earlier this month that the administration was invoking its "presidential communication privilege" to prevent her from testifying before the House Intelligence Committee. The move came after Yates' attorney sent a letter stating that she was willing to testify, and would avoid discussing classified information that could compromise investigations. The letter was shared with the Intel Committee. The next day committee chairman Devin Nunes canceled the hearing altogether.

Earlier this year, reports surfaced that Yates had warned the White House that former National Security Advisor Michael Flynn could be subject to Russian blackmail due to his false accounts of his contact with the Russian ambassador.

Sean Spicer has called the report "entirely false": "The White House has taken no action to prevent Sally Yates from testifying and the Department of Justice specifically told her that it would not stop her and to suggest otherwise is completely irresponsible."