5. Megan Smith: Writing History with Code, Creativity and Collaboration
Picture a solar-powered dollhouse.
No, it’s not something you’ll find in Popular Science or your favorite futurist magazine. No, Mattel hasn’t built or released Architect Barbie’s eco-friendly, solar panel-clad dream house prototype. Indeed, Megan Smith, Obama Administration U.S. Chief Technology Officer (CTO), built her own dollhouse with the help of her dad during the Carter Administration. Smith was inspired by President Jimmy Carter installing solar panels on the White House in 1979 and decided to do it herself, before the age of Pinterest step-by-step instructions and how-to videos on YouTube. In fact, she went on to become a pioneer in the internet age not too long after, making way for the Pinterests and YouTubes of the world.
While building solar-powered doll homes isn’t exactly a skill that all kids grow up with (yet), Smith’s hope is that, one day, society will teach tech skills (like those required to build what she did) like we teach reading. Known for the motto “practice makes permanent”, as she told host Nina Easton on the “Smart Women, Smart Power” podcast, we shouldn’t view tech as a skill some have and some do not; everyone has the ability to learn and, more importantly, to use those skills for impact. The first step is demolishing the barriers to engaging. One of those is ensuring that people are interested. The other is ensuring that we create inclusive spaces for those who do want to engage.
In regard to the first barrier, on Easton’s podcast, Smith posed a question that underlies her work: “How do we take the stuff that we’ve made intimidating or super boring and flip it?"
That question is answered by a number of initiatives Megan oversaw while with the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP), including one particular White House science fair. When President Barack Obama asked a group of first graders, who created a page-turning robot, how they came up with their idea, Smith recounts they charmingly said, “We had a brainstorming!"
“How do we have the kind of experience where they’re feeling like super heroes?” Smith asked. In many ways, she’s cracked the code and answered that question. The answer? A similar answer to the question of how we tackle the second barrier of lack of inclusive spaces.
The first female Chief Technology Officer in U.S. history points to four key steps people need to go through to develop an affinity for the technical field. Smith says that people need to:
1) try it,
2) be encouraged,
3) know what it’s for and
4) see role models that look like them.
As Smith often says in her conversations with the tech community, “the internet is just us, connected”. Decades after it’s creation, as organizations like Facebook and SecondMuse consider issues of access and internet freedom, it’s people like Megan Smith who are pushing us to take advantage of the access we do have and use it — and the tech at our finger tips — for major impact. She does this by supporting events like National Day of Civic Hacking, a nationwide event bringing "developers, government employees, designers, journalists, data scientists, non-profit employees, UX designers” and others together to improve their communities for the better.
At two Washington, DC celebrations of the nationwide event which encourages everyday citizens to #HackForChange, Smith, and her OSTP colleague Kristen Honey, were hands-on with citizens like you and I, learning about their projects and getting deep in the trenches of civic tech. As Smith reminded the groups, under President Obama, 200,000 government data sets were unleashed for public use, including for events just like this. This is in fulfillment of something Smith calls “venture catalyzation”, empowering citizens to be the change they wish to see in the world.
Beyond all else, one thing I learned through witnessing her work is that Megan Smith is hands-on. Everywhere I looked in 2016, she was at an event, initiating conversations with citizens, catalyzing civic impact and touting the power of creative confidence and collaboration. While sometimes the leader of the free world seems so far away, because of Smith and those like her, that gap was closed, yielding huge returns.
Smith is a standout among STEM innovators changing the world. I can only hope that others follow in this pioneer's footsteps to propel society forward using the tools at our disposal, as she has done so gracefully.