From Silicon Valley To White House, New U.S. Tech Chief Makes Change | KERA News

From Silicon Valley To White House, New U.S. Tech Chief Makes Change

Nov 4, 2014
Originally published on November 7, 2014 12:13 pm

This fall, we've been exploring the Changing Lives of Women, and Megan Smith is one woman who's gone through a number of changes in recent months. She just moved from a top job at Google in Silicon Valley, where she was vice president of Google X, to the White House, where's she's now the country's chief technology officer. She's so new to the halls of the White House complex that she still was wearing a temporary badge.

"I just have to fill out all my security clearance forms. I'm almost done," she says.

Smith started only two months ago as U.S. chief technology officer, a role created at the start of President Obama's administration. The CTO's charge is to find ways to unleash technology to improve federal government, an entity that is notoriously slow to change.

But just by coming to work in Washington, Smith already is making one change: her look. At Google, she would be wearing jeans. In the White House, it's a little more buttoned up.

"Yes, I'm wearing a suit. It's comfortable. It's from J.Crew," she says.

Smith doesn't actually like talking about external image much, as she has been focused on changing tech from the inside — pushing to get more women into science and technology fields and to keep them there. We caught up with the mother of two as she kicked off a documentary screening for middle- and high-schoolers from the Washington, D.C., region.

"It will be interesting for you guys to see the media talk about the women scientists versus the men scientists, how they hyper-focused on what they looked [like], what they wore," Smith said to a roomful of about 70 school kids. "All this sort of gender bias — I want you guys to notice that and observe that, because it's an important thing."

The topic of women in tech is on many minds lately. Every other industry that was once dominated by men — finance, law, medicine — has come closer to parity. Tech, meanwhile, seems to be going backwards: There were more women graduating with computer science degrees in in 1984 than in 2014.

"I almost call it death by a thousand cuts," Smith says. "There are always these little biases that hit people. Every individual situation — oh, this person doesn't have a VP job, or this person doesn't have this for this or that reason, but when you look at an aggregate, it's really a lot of unconscious bias."

Smith, a lesbian who was CEO of Planet Out, says she got past people's biases and brought her passion in climbing to lead Google X, the division of Google that rolled out self-driving cars, and becoming U.S. CTO. Her former boss, Google Chairman Eric Schmidt, remembers her well.

"She has an energy, and an enthusiasm, that is addictive," Schmidt says.

When you meet her, Smith's youthful energy shows. She bounces when she walks. Her eyes twinkle when she talks about old tech projects and her love of science, which dates back to her childhood.

"I went to an inner-city school in Buffalo. We had no money, but the teachers were really motivated. They made science fair mandatory. And I think that was one of the key things for all the kids. Many kids went on the STEM related careers because as kids we got to try it. It got me to learn that it was fun, it mattered," she says.

She took that thinking with her to MIT, and went on to help develop futuristic products at a place called General Magic. We found her 28-year-old, early '90s self in an archive video, demonstrating a prototype for what would become touchscreens.

"We're trying to make somethin' that people love," she said, back then.

Back then, she loved making prototypes and products. Two decades later, she's changed her focus from products to people.

"I think maybe I was doing specific projects and enabling them, and now I'm looking for other people," she says. "You know, people who are like the kid I was."

Which brings us back to the White House film screening, and the girls Smith is trying to encourage into STEM careers.

"It's definitely important to see women in power," says Hannah Docter-Loeb, a ninth-grader. "Because you can see like, you can do that too."

Smith is a gay woman scientist, which could make her a potential outsider on a few levels. Instead, she's as inside as a tech leader can be, even bounding around the White House with ease, once those security credentials are all set.

She will have to call on all her powers to turn government agencies into more tech startup-type cultures. One agency still saves data on floppy disks.

Fitting with her changing perspective, her focus here to will be on people.

"One thing I hope, five years from now, is more tech colleagues of mine, like the elite elite teams, are flowing in and out of government. We want to create an environment where, in addition to amazing policy groups ... tech teams feel comfortable, included, and are in leadership positions here," Smith says.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

There's a newcomer in the Obama administration by way of Silicon Valley. In September, Megan Smith became the country's chief technology officer. Before coming to D.C., she ran a high-profile division of Google. Now her challenge is to bring some of that technology-driven problem-solving to government. For our series the Changing Lives of Women, NPR's Elise Hu reports on what happens when Ms. Smith goes to Washington.

ELISE HU, BYLINE: Megan Smith is so new to these halls of the White House complex that she's wearing a temporary badge.

MEGAN SMITH: I just have to fill out all my security clearance forms. I'm almost done.

HU: She started just two months ago as the country's chief technology officer, a role created at the start of President Barack Obama's administration. The CTO's charge is to find ways to use technology to improve government, which can be pretty slow to change. But first Megan Smith had to make some changes.

HU: Is there something specific that seemed really different? Or did you run into...

SMITH: You mean like getting comfortable wearing a suit? Yes, I'm wearing a suit, and it's comfortable. It's from J.Crew.

HU: What would you be wearing if you were at Google X right now?

SMITH: Definitely my jeans.

HU: Smith actually doesn't like talking about external image much, as she wants to change what tech looks like from the inside. She's working to see more women in science and technology fields and to keep them there. We caught up with her as she hosted a documentary screening on preserving the oceans for Washington, D.C., area middle- and high-schoolers.

SMITH: You're going to see some film clips from a while ago, and you'll notice some really weird bias in them. For a lot of our history, we didn't think everybody - all the people on our planet were equal with each other. And over last couple hundred years we've been slowly figuring out that of course all people are equal.

HU: Getting to more equal numbers of women in tech has emerged as a national priority. Thirty years ago, more women graduated with computer science degrees than they do today. Every other industry once dominated by men - finance, law, medicine - has made progress toward parity. Tech seems to be going backwards.

SMITH: I almost call it death by a thousand cuts. There's always these little biases that hit people, and so every individual situation like, oh, this person doesn't have that VP job, or this person doesn't have because of this reason - that reason, but when you look at an aggregate, it's really a lot of unconscious bias.

HU: Smith, who is gay and a mother of two, says despite people's biases, she worked her way up to run Google X, the division that rolled out self-driving cars, and became U.S. CTO by doing what she calls bringing her passion. Her former boss, Google Chairman Eric Schmidt, remembers it well.

ERIC SCHMIDT: She has an energy and enthusiasm that is addictive.

HU: When you meet her, Smith's youthful energy shows.

SMITH: Hey, guys. You're on the radio.

HU: She bounces when she walks. Her eyes twinkle when she talks about old tech projects and her love of science, which dates back to the science fair.

SMITH: I went to an inner-city school in Buffalo, and we had no money. But the teachers were really motivated, and they required - they made science fair mandatory. And I think it was one of the key things for all the kids. Many kids went on to STEM related careers because as kids, we got to try it. And it got me to learn that it was fun; it mattered

HU: It mattered enough to Megan Smith to commit her life to this work. She went to MIT. She went on to help develop futuristic products at a Silicon Valley startup called General Magic. We found her 28-year-old self in an archived video from 1992, demonstrating what would become touch screens.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

SMITH: We're trying to make something that people love.

HU: Back then, she loved making prototypes and products. Two decades later, she's changed her focus from products to people.

SMITH: I think maybe I was doing specific projects and enabling them. Now I'm looking for the other people, maybe people like, you know, the kid I was.

HU: Which brings us back to the White House film screening and the girls Megan Smith is trying to encourage into STEM careers. Hannah Doctor-Loeb is a ninth-grader.

HANNAH: And it's definitely important to see women in power.

HU: Why is it important for you?

: Because you can see, like, you can do that, too.

HU: Megan Smith will have to call on all her powers to push government agencies to adopt more startup-like cultures. One federal agency still saves data on floppy disks. But fitting with her changing perspective, her priority is on people.

SMITH: We really want to create an environment where, in addition to the amazing policy groups who are here, that the technical teams feel comfortable, included and are in leadership positions here.

HU: She's a woman; she's gay; she's a scientist, making her a potential outsider on multiple levels. Instead, she's as inside as a tech leader can be, even bounding around the White House with ease, once those security credentials are all set. Elise Hu, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.