In 2009, President Barack Obama created the position of chief technology officer (CTO), whose brief is to apply technology to help the government achieve its goals more efficiently. Since then three people have served as CTO, with former Google vice president Megan Smith being the third. She was appointed in 2014 — the first woman, and the first lesbian, to hold the office.
Growing up in northern New York State, Smith went to a progressive high school where, she says, "They just gave us a lot of space and we invented things." The school also had a draft system for the math team, and the science fair was mandatory — exposing kids to what we now call STEM fields early on. Smith went to MIT and has been a star in the industry ever since, with stints at Apple, General Magic, and Planet Out before she joined Google in 2003. She's worked on technologies ranging from smartphones to solar cars to bike locks.
When I arrived at the White House in June to interview her for Lenny, the place was buzzing with energy. A new, streamlined health-care website for veterans had just launched, as well as the Data Driven Justice Initiative, an innovative approach to keeping people from cycling through the criminal-justice system. The staff wasn't only excited about their own work — President Obama had recently designated Stonewall Inn as a national monument, the country's first LGBT National Park site, and the Pentagon had ended its ban on transgender service members. Instead of the cynicism and endless bureaucracy I associated with government, I saw optimistic, driven people committed to making change in our country.
Smith, who is clearly focused on the future, also appreciates the historical context of her job. She showed me a desk that once stood in the Oval Office — one with a conspicuous hole on top drilled by Nixon for his infamous tape recorder. Inside the top drawer, many vice presidents had written their names. The White House is more like a junior high than I ever imagined.
We sat down to talk in an ornate, gilded room that was once the Secretary of War's office.
Gillian Jacobs: Tell me what data-driven justice means.
Megan Smith: The idea there is, how can you use available data to understand more about the cycle of incarceration? The two challenges being worked on now are how to divert minor offenders with mental-health issues out of the system, and how to change the way pretrial incarceration works so that low-risk offenders aren't sitting in jail just because they can't afford bail. A lot of it is taking the information that is there and bringing new ways of doing things into it. We also have the Police Data Initiative, which is helping departments be more transparent to build trust, and to use data internally to increase accountability and reduce inappropriate uses of force. So it uses publicly released data sets on all different kinds of topics, like officer-involved shootings, use of force, etcetera.
Dallas and Los Angeles were already doing lots of work in this area and engaging their communities. We were able to bring together other jurisdictions and get them to start considering this because they could see real-world examples that existed. I think we have over 50 cities now in the Police Data Initiative.
One of the things that's interesting is watching best practice start around the country. In Seattle, the librarians, who are already well-versed in the data contained in books and on the web, they're really coming to understand how we can help people become literate in open data and do things with that. Weather is a classic data set that is used beautifully for forecasting and other things. GPS came out of all of the space-program work. So how can you take data sets from the government, like the Bureau of Labor Statistics, for example? People should be able to take these data sets and build on top of it, like Wikipedia. In this case it is police data.
When somebody is about to decide whether or not to put someone in jail, how can we look around for tools and data that are not biased? That information could inform a decision that would help us keep low-risk offenders who are highly likely to come back for their hearing from sitting in jail waiting. Instead they can go back home and not lose their job and not lose their family. That's what data-driven justice is.
GJ: So a lot of it is surfacing what's already there and then acting on what's become visible. It sounds similar to the Women Techmakers Initiative you launched when you were at Google. Could you talk about that?
MS: I realized that if there are sixteen million programmers in the world, and 10 percent of them are women, that means there's close to two million women programmers. Even though the percentage is small, that's a large absolute number. Where are they? Why don't we see them? The Techmakers Initiative works on a global scale to support and empower women in the industry. And they are having meet-ups and gatherings around the world. Even just going to a conference where there are 12,000 women in computer science will blow your mind.
GJ: And you want to make women from the past more visible as well. I first met you because of your drive to restore women to the history of technology.
MS: Yes. It's really important to understand who's been doing all this work all the time, because it really helps you inform confidence in current teams and future teams. We hope to bring more of our history colleagues, like the United States archivist, into the computer-science world and get more of these stories told. People like Grace Hopper, Ada Lovelace, Katherine Johnson. Susan Kare, who designed the graphical user interface, the Chicago font, and all the graphics on the first Mac that influenced Windows that influenced the next Mac that influenced all of our cell phones. Her work is in the Whitney. She's one of the most profound digital artists of our time. The White House has a site called the Untold History of Women in STEM that has a lot of these stories, read aloud by women working in tech today. I read the story of Grace Hopper.
GJ: We talk a lot about getting women into STEM, but what about keeping them? As a woman who has risen to the top in the tech field, what would you say to someone who is the only woman of color, the only woman, or the only person of color on a team and is feeling discouraged? What advice would you give to them to stay in the field?
MS: It's a very leaky pipeline. People do drop out. We've been doing work around advancement, we've been doing work around hiring, we've been doing work around the entrepreneurial ecosystem. There are venture capitalists who will fund a woman and then try to sleep with her. That's happened with friends of mine. How do we change our culture? It's proven that if you have at least three women on your board, you just have better financial performance. So why isn't that happening?
One part is for the team or company's leadership to set a much higher priority on diversity and inclusion. Have some goals and push people to go find the people who are there. For example, in some of the developer conferences we worked on when I was in the private sector, we were able to move the attendance from 8 percent women to over 20 percent just by mindfully inviting people who maybe thought they didn't belong there but were totally qualified and should be there.
We're seeing pockets of improvement in things that work. It's a huge area where we need to get more done. Unconscious-bias training is very early stage, and there is a long way to go. We don't know how to mitigate bias, but we're starting to at least see it and become conscious of it.
GJ: I've heard from people in the private sector who say, "I want to hire more women, people of color, but there aren't enough computer-science grads."
MS: Part of it is that they're not searching as well as they could. The US digital service is gender-balanced, and they have 40 percent people of color in management. They decided that they needed their service to really represent the United States, and they were very thoughtful in going about that. They went to Miami, and Atlanta, Chicago, Austin, Boston, Pittsburgh, St. Louis — everywhere — to recruit. They pulled people from all around the country, knowing that gender and racially diverse teams make better products especially reflective of who they are for.
GJ: I've heard you say before that women will apply for a job if they have seven out of the ten requirements and men will do it if they only have three. How can we solve for that?
MS: We have to adapt our society to that truth. Like the digital service did, seek out the people you might be overlooking., seek out the people you might be overlooking. Distribute your search to reach out to all the talent out there. Gloria Steinem always talks about how we don't need women to adapt to the men's world, we need the world to adapt to women and men.
GJ: You mentioned the leaky pipeline in the industry, but there is also one in education. When you write code it's a lot of failure. You fail until it works. But what do you do with kids, or grown-ups for that matter, who want to give up when they encounter their first failure?
MS: First of all, people need to be aware that it's going to happen. You are much less likely to give up if you know that. It's hard because nobody says, "Oh, yeah, writing. Couldn't do that writing thing, reading thing," but it's OK to say, "Yeah, math, not my thing." People talk about math and science being intimidating or boring. Why do we talk that way when we need so much more capability out of the American people and they can do it?
GJ: Do you miss being an engineer?
MS: In some ways, I think I still engineer. It's just solving problems in a broader set with a broader set of tools. Sometimes it's fun to go in and tinker on stuff, but I like working on these problems with colleagues in these particular ways that leverage technology and support talent to do their thing.
GJ: Have you thought about your post–White House life?
MS: No, I haven't. It's the fourth quarter, and the president says great things happen in the fourth quarter. So we're just focused.
This interview has been condensed and edited.
Gillian Jacobs is an actor (Netflix original series Love) and director (the documentary The Queen of Code on fivethirtyeight.com).
An earlier version of this interview referred to the US civil service, when it should have referred to the US digital service. We regret the error.