First Time in Government

“The President of the United States is going to call you in three hours to offer you the job, so I need to know in two whether you will say yes because we do not surprise the President.” That’s what Todd Park, U.S. Chief Technology Officer (CTO), said to me in August of 2014 as our family was about to head back to San Francisco for the new school year.
Todd Park, Assistant to the President and Chief Technology Officer
shows President Obama information on a tablet April 15, 2013.
Official White House Photo by Pete Souz
In those two hours, I tried to figure out if I could really make a significant positive impact in the job the President would offer me as Deputy U.S. CTO. And, if so, whether that was worth moving our family.  The ability to make a positive impact is generally my north star when trying to make job decisions, but time and again, when I am looking back on whether taking a job was the right decision, the quality of the team I got to work with is always most important. Now that I’ve had some time to reflect on my time in government, and the entire Obama team has moved on from team CTO, I know that this time was no different. While I am extremely grateful for the impact of the work I was privileged to do, I am most happy about my time in government because of the the people I got to do it with.

The Eisenhower Executive Office Building, home of the
U.S. CTO, pictured c 1907, then the State, War & Navy Building
Gall, George, Washington: The Capital of the Nation (1907).
Digitized by The Internet Archive from the Library of Congress

The impact of government work was amazing. Our purpose was clear: help make life better for and with the American people. Under President Obama, Team CTO had significant impact working together along with many others in our home at the Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP), elsewhere in the White House, and across the Federal Government. We supported the work done by previous CTO teams to bring tech capacity to government in the form of the Presidential Innovation Fellows, 18F, U.S. Digital Service, and revamped Office of Digital Strategy. We brought more data science and data scientists into government through the creation of the U.S. Chief Data Scientist team and role, and creating a data science cabinet. We expanded data collaborations for solutions in justice, jobs, housing, education, and more, while continuing to get more government data out to the public. The Open Government Partnership (OGP) continued to thrive and grow and we shepherded the U.S. Open Government National Action Plans while teaming up with the National Security Council and State Department to help lead the U.S. OGP. With support from the Chief of Staff, we created a new tool for tech policy making called the Tech Policy Task Force -- which added “TQ” to many policy tables, formulated a federal source code policy, moved the government forward on artificial intelligence and uncrewed aerial vehicles, accelerated open educational resources, highlighted the opportunities and challenges of big data and algorithmic decision making, and worked with the Departments of Education, Transportation, Commerce, State, Homeland Security, Justice, and others to help regulations get out of the way of innovation while protecting people’s rights and lives. We pushed for greater recognition of all American talent, including women and underrepresented minorities in STEM; catalyzing for improvements in the portrayal of STEM people in media; expanding inclusive opportunity in computer science education; ensuring outreach for jobs in innovative industries in hiring programs, such as TechHire; increasing Internet connectivity in the U.S. and around the world; championing innovative local community solutions; pushing through more diversity and inclusion in the Federal government workforce; and expanding best practices in organizations and companies in diversity, equity, and inclusion, including an implementation action grid, the Tech Inclusion Pledge, and expanded inclusive venture funding.  And, lots more. Even reading the list brings a tired smile to my face.

President Obama writes his first line of code and celebrates
with the middle school student who helped teach him, Dec. 8 2014.
Official White House Photo by Pete Souza
So, while there was no shortage of impact, I still would say that it was the people that were the most important reason why I was so glad that I had the opportunity to work government. The diversity of people in the White House and at agencies was a huge difference from Silicon Valley. That diversity was expressed in terms of the traditional lines of socio-economic, ethnicity, race, color, religion, age, disability status, gender identity, sexual orientation, and far more balanced gender representation, but also in terms of point of view, educational, geographic origin, and career background. Sometimes, I was among others like me but more frequently I was unusual along a number of dimensions such as my lack of long federal service, my lack of military service, my tech background, etc. I came away extremely impressed with the level of experience, intellect, and passion that the Obama White House was able to attract. There were people who you later discovered were Rhodes Scholars, or Supreme Court clerks, or had beaten a Scrabble world champion over the weekend. I had expected both the diversity and excellence, but it is one thing to expect something and quite another to live it for two-plus years.

President Obama talks with U.S. CTO Megan Smith, and
OSTP Director Dr. John Holdren, Oct. 8, 2014.
Official White House Photo by Pete Souza
Team CTO under U.S. CTO Megan Smith was also outstanding. I had the privilege of working with a number of people that I have admired and wanted to work for for years. I also got to meet and work with a bunch of folks that I might never have otherwise met. Over my time there, the U.S. CTO team while I was there included at different times: Puneet Ahira, Seth Andrew, Rob Bacchus, Jake Brewer, Marvin Carr, Jimmy Catania, Colleen Chien, Evan Cooke, R. David Edelman, Ed Felten, Anjali Fernandes, Brian Forde, Brianna Fugate, Dipayan Ghosh, Vivian Graubard, Renee Gregory, Dan Hammer, Natalie Evans Harris, Read Holman, Kristen Honey, Mina Hsiang, Kelly Jin, Terah Lyons, Matthew McAllister, Dawn Mielke, Lynn Overmann, Ryan Panchadsaram, DJ Patil, Tom Power, Laura Weidman Powers, Jason Schultz, Nick Sinai, Lauren Smith, Ashkan Soltani, Suhas Subramanyam, Emily Tavoulareas, Maya Uppaluru, Aden Van Noppen, Nancy Weiss, Claudia Williams, Charles Worthington, Cori Zarek, and, of course, the wonderful Megan Smith herself.

Some of the wonderful folks that made up team CTO,
Jan. 14, 2017.

That combination of a top-notch team amid a diverse broader group of excellent folks from top to bottom at OSTP, the broader White House and across the Government, made going into work both a joy and a challenging learning experience every day. I felt like I grew a ton, learned a lot about how the U.S. government functions, and picked up some really interesting management and leadership lessons from the people I got to work with. I came home mentally worn out but almost always smiling. I also made a bunch of new friends.

President Obama talks with Girl Scout White House Science
Fair participants who had designed a Lego page turner to help
people read books who may not otherwise be able, Mar. 23 2015.
Official White House Photo by Pete Souza

Now that I have been out of work for a few months, I am thankful for the opportunity to make a positive impact but I am certain that I made the right choice that August because of the amazing people I got to work with. I am still fired up that I had the privilege to serve with each and every one of them, and ready to go and work with them again!

President Obama, listens during a technology 
strategy discussion, Oct. 8, 2014.

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