U.S. Chief Technology Officer Megan Smith took to the stage last week at CES 2016 to highlight and encourage participation in a variety of technology initiatives being pursued by the White House. She had help from a couple of prominent Seattle techies: City of Seattle CTO Michael Mattmiller and CTO of the Department of Veterans Affairs Marina Martin.
“Science, technology and innovation is a big priority for President Obama,” said Tom Kalil, Deputy Director for Technology & Innovation at the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy. “He’s been doing things like working with Congress to make the research and development tax credit permanent, to make it easier for companies to raise capital and go public, to eliminate the capital gains tax on long-term investments in small businesses. He’s directed his agencies to work with the FCC to make an additional 500 MHz of spectrum available for new wireless services.”
“There are a series of initiatives that the President is involved in that really are going to require what the President calls ‘an all hands on deck approach.’ Not just the federal government, but companies, skilled volunteers, philanthropists and foundations, non-profit organizations,” said Kalil.
Michael Mattmiller, CTO of the City of Seattle, shared some examples of how Seattle is using technology to improve the city’s infrastructure, including energy monitoring in downtown buildings, deploying rain gauge sensors across the city to mitigate public utility risks during weather events and providing open data to the community to help solve transportation problems.
“Seattle is growing by 120,000 people over the next 20 years. That’s an 18% growth in our population,” said Mattmiller. “And yet at the same time, the number of city employees per capita is going to remain flat or decrease. We know that our current practices are not going to scale to meet the expectations of our increasingly high-tech public.”
Mattmiller cited success of a new smart building initiative downtown. “We’ve committed to become a carbon-neutral city by the year 2050. Our downtown businesses and building owners are some of our highest energy users. Our Office of Sustainability partnered with building owners and partnered with other companies to benchmark how buildings are using electricity, water and transportation. They put sensors in these buildings. They measure how HVAC systems perform, how lighting system perform, and now 45% of the buildings in our downtown core participate in this program.
“We also worked with Accenture and Microsoft to take the data being collected and run it through Azure machine learning and get actionable insights into how these buildings can optimize their systems,” said Mattmiller. “As a result, we’ve reduced energy for participating buildings by 20%.”
Marina Martin, the CTO of the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs shared her experience of transitioning from her tech work in Seattle to a tour of duty in the federal government.
“I’m the last person I ever thought would serve in the federal government,” said Martin. “Four years ago I was minding my own business, and I was very happy in Seattle. I had my own company. I was a Rails and a Java dev. I was doing my own thing, and then I saw a talk, not unlike this one, at TechCrunch Disrupt, where Todd Park, who is Megan’s predecessor, talked about the Presidential Innovation Fellows Program. For the first time ever I heard a way that I, as an entrepreneur and a technologist, could work in my federal government.”
“When I joined government, most of my friends told me not to go. You’re going to spend six months banging your head against the wall, they’re not going to get it, don’t go,” said Martin. “I was kind of worried about that, but that has not been my experience at all. I have found amazing passionate people that want to do the right thing.”
Autodesk CEO Carl Bass talked about his company’s participation in the maker movement and the importance of hands-on learning, highlighting the company’s efforts to put its design software in the hands of students, teachers, schools and startups for free.
“Too much of our learning these days is book learning. What I really like about the maker movement is that it has this essence of just-in-time learning,” said Bass. “I think we’re leaving many people behind because we start the learning process all about the book, and it’s all about getting the grades. It’s all about learn, learn, learn and eventually you will do.”
“I think it is so much more important, and what the essence of the maker movement is for me, is that you learn as you do. You are inspired to learn more because in the doing you are challenged to do things you haven’t done before.”
Telegraph Academy is a coding bootcamp in the Bay Area helping people of color to get tech training and jobs. Cofounder Albrey Brown addressed the challenges and his organization’s participation in TechHire.
“TechHire’s goal is to expand opportunities in the innovation economy to as many people as possible. At this rate, by 2020 we are going to have over 1 million open jobs in our innovation economy,” said Brown. “Bootcamps like mine allow people and companies to fill those seats and take advantage of the opportunities that are out there. TechHire allows us to do that at a more accelerated rate by allowing us to partner and collaborate with all of the other organizations who want to do this as well.”
Tracy Chou, a software engineer at Pinterest, has taken it upon herself to help the tech industry track diversity statistics for women and minorities, hosting a spreadsheet of the data on GitHub.
“The tech industry is severely under utilizing the talent that exists in our economy with the systemic exclusion of women and minorities,” said Chou. “The only recommendations that I would give to all companies are 1) Introduce structure and track metrics to understand what’s happening. 2) Set goals and create accountability for those goals as Intel did at CES last year or as Pinterest has done as well.”
Chou highlighted diversity experiments at her current employer. “At Pinterest, for example, we’re experimenting with a few new programs to expand the pool of talent and to ensure that there are pathways to success for everyone. One is an apprenticeship program that gives people from non-traditional tech backgrounds up to a year of hands-on mentorship and training before converting them to full-time engineering roles.”