When former Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer launched USAFacts, a nonpartisan clearinghouse of government data, the site was a great fit for numbers-minded folks like himself who are happy diving deep into databases, sifting for statistical gems.
Unfortunately, Ballmer was in the minority of the audience.
“He was frustrated that not enough people were using it,” Poppy MacDonald said of the platform.
So in August 2018, more than a year after USAFacts got its start, MacDonald became president of the Bellevue, Wash.-based data initiative. Her main goal is expanding the nonprofit’s reach.
MacDonald has plenty of experience to draw on. Before this role, she was president of Politico USA, a news media company based in Virginia that’s focused on U.S. policy and politics. Her resume includes leading the National Journal and working as lead partner with the analytics and polling company Gallup. MacDonald started her career working in communications for two U.S. lawmakers.
MacDonald’s skills in journalism, polling and politics allow her to be the storytelling, context-providing yin to Ballmer’s data-intensive yang.
She’s trying to grow USAFacts’ audience by promoting data with a clear link to people’s lives and by making the information accessible and easy to visualize. Her team pulls data from more than 70 government agencies and entities, and part of its role is pushing for data transparency. GeekWire previously teamed up with USAFacts and Ballmer to produce the “Numbers Geek” podcast.
USAFacts shares timely data — recent releases have featured teacher strikes and California wildfires — and information about perennial concerns such as social security funding and details on where U.S. immigrants come from. Because the organization is nonpartisan, McDonald said they stick to data about past events rather than potentially biased forecasting of future outcomes. Users are expected to make their own conclusions about the issues.
“That informed debate is what we want,” she said. “We just want people to start with the same set of facts.”
MacDonald realizes they could grab more attention by taking a stance on the data, teasing the information with provocative headlines. But that would undermine their unbiased status, even if it boosted user numbers.
“Clickbait headlines are not the way we’re going to do it,” she said.
And what’s it like working alongside the famously high-energy, hard-charging former tech CEO? Has Ballmer mellowed post Microsoft?
Ballmer “brings so much passion,” MacDonald said. “His enthusiasm is contagious, so he really uses it in a positive way.”
He’s striking the right amount of engagement, she said. “He gives great input and feedback and enthusiasm. But he is very open to my ideas and wants me to lead the team.”
Besides offering an interesting career move, the role at USAFacts checked an important geographic box for MacDonald, who is originally from Salem, Ore. and was eager to return to the region.
It’s been a transition shifting from the intensity of Washington, D.C., where work demanded so much time, to the mellower pace of the mossy Northwest. MacDonald recalled that during her first week at USAFacts she was home by 6:30 p.m., which struck her family as shockingly early.
“My kids are like, ‘Did you get fired? Do you still have a job?’” MacDonald said. She reassured them that all was well. We’re all enjoying that everybody works hard out here, she said, but that people are able to prioritize life outside of work.
We caught up with MacDonald for this Working Geek, a regular GeekWire feature. Continue reading for her answers to our questionnaire.
Current location: Bellevue
Computer types: Microsoft Surface Pro
Mobile devices: iPhone 8 Plus, iPad
Favorite apps, cloud services and software tools: WhatsApp (keeps me connected to groups of friends and professionals), Apple Screen Time Parent Controls (thankfully my teenager is still dutifully asking me to extend screen time, so I don’t think he has figured out the workarounds), NPR One (to keep up on the news and discover some fantastic programs), Instagram
Describe your workspace. Why does it work for you? A small office with a view of Mount Rainier to the left and Meydenbauer Bay to the right, which provide a beautiful, expansive setting to think in big ways about how we get facts into the hands of the American public. An old school white board sits on one wall and a virtual white board on the other wall (a Microsoft Surface Hub) which allows for dueling brainstorming and doodling sessions with talented members of the USAFacts team!
Your best advice for managing everyday work and life? You just can’t be every place you want to be or could provide value; you have to trust and empower people to represent you, whether that is a colleague running a meeting or my husband leading the cheering section at my daughter’s cross country meet. Once you decide where you need to be, don’t have any regrets and trust your larger team — your colleagues and your spouse — to take the lead and run with it.
Your preferred social network? How do you use it for business/work? Young Presidents Organization (YPO). I joined initially in Washington, D.C., and then transferred to the Seattle chapter; it has been such a helpful way to get quickly connected with people and local resources in the Pacific Northwest. I am part of a Forum of eight chapter members who meet monthly to discuss and engage on our top personal, family and professional issues; although I’m the only person in the Forum running a not-for-profit, there are many professional similarities and learning opportunities when it comes to engaging and harnessing talent to drive positive results for your organization.
Current number of unanswered emails in your inbox? Unread or unanswered? There are 574 items in my inbox. There are less than a handful awaiting my reply…that I know about!
Number of appointments/meetings on your calendar this week? 14
How do you run meetings? I always prefer to create and send an agenda at least 24 hours in advance; that way thought has been put in by me (and hopefully by the person/people I’m meeting with) in advance about the most critical issues and valuable way to use the time. I typically start a meeting with a quick personal touch base and then dive right into the agenda.
Everyday work uniform? Struggling to break away from the dresses and heels that were my D.C. uniform. Steve Ballmer is chairman of the Los Angeles Clippers, I’m fortunate to work somewhere that counts Clippers’ branded attire as professional and business appropriate any day of the year! Getting more comfortable with casual is my 2019 motto.
How do you make time for family? We eat dinner together a majority of evenings and completely unplug and engage in conversation, usually about current events (still feel that draw to what is happening in our nation’s capital). On Sunday nights, our tradition is to try a new restaurant (and often a new type of cuisine) in Seattle; we love that there is usually never a line or crowd on Sunday nights and it is something we look forward to at the end of the weekend.
The weekends are all about family, and we spend time with our dog at the two parks within walking distance from our house: Luther Burbank Park and the Lid (also known as Aubrey Davis Park). We also do one new or special activity together. Last weekend my daughter and I volunteered with Birthday Dreams and my son and I cooked, served meals and cleaned up at Hope Place, both through Seattle Union Gospel Mission.
Best stress reliever? How do you unplug? I jump on the elliptical and catch up on the latest episode of some series I’m watching. I just finished the first season of “The Politician” and am now watching “Dead to Me.”
What are you listening to? I start most mornings with New York Times’ “The Daily” as I drive into work. For pure pleasure, I love the podcasts “This is Love” and “Criminal” hosted by Phoebe Judge. And I can’t wait for the third season of “Where Should We Begin?” with Esther Perel.
Daily reads? Favorite sites and newsletters? Daily reads include Fortune’s The Broadsheet, The New York Times’ DealBook, The Washington Post’s Daily 202, and Carolyn Hax’s advice column, and Politico Playbook.
Book on your nightstand (or e-reader)? “How to Talk So Kids Will Listen & Listen So Kids Will Talk” by Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish (My therapy for life with a teenager, although he calls me out when he notices I’m employing tactics from the book or when I’m not listening very well…so it might not be working.)
Night owl or early riser? Night owl. I prefer to exercise in the evening and make an effort to get to bed by 11 and asleep by midnight, and I definitely wait to get up until the last possible minute.
Where do you get your best ideas? Listening to podcasts or reading long-form journalism articles that have nothing to do with what I do, but somehow inspire an idea in my head about how I could apply it to the goals for USAFacts.
Whose work style would you want to learn more about or emulate? Steve Ballmer. He can walk into a meeting and quickly assess the real issue, challenge or opportunity; he cuts through the noise and gets right at the heart of an issue.