Obama CTO Megan Smith lobbies for no-barrier tech recruitment to benefit all

Profile picture for user jtwentyman By Jessica Twentyman July 29, 2018
Summary:
The tech industry must invite ‘more people to the table’ if some of the world’s most pressing problems are to be solved, says Obama’s former CTO.

CTO Megan Smith
Megan Smith

Technology talent is hiding in plain sight - but most companies and governments do a poor job of scouting and scaling it. At a time when so many tech jobs go unfilled and societal problems that IT could solve remain untackled, there should be no barriers to participation.

That’s the message from Megan Smith, who in 2014 was named the third US Chief Technology Officer by President Barack Obama. She served in that role until the end of the Obama Administration in early 2017 and is now CEO of Shift7, a company involved in promoting participation in technology and tech education, with a view to tapping into what Smith refers to as:

...the collective genius of community.

She argues:

Technology is for anything you can apply it to. We've got a bunch of problems in the world, but we've got a lot of talent, too, in this room and around the planet. There are people who might apply technology to an agenda that they set themselves, rather than the agenda that's previously been set by others about what and who tech is for.

Infectious enthusiasm

Smith’s resume is as impressive as her enthusiasm is infectious. A former Google vice president, a current board member at MIT and a co-founder of the Malala Fund, which aims to get girls around the world into education, she’s now also applying her undoubted capabilities as an evangelist on the Tech Jobs Tour, of which Shift7 is a core partner. Tech Jobs Tour’s Twitter profile spells out the initiative’s mission. It’s all about:

Hustling to create a workforce that reflects the diversity of America.

That’s music to Smith’s ears. Last year, Tech Jobs Tour visited 25 US cities, exposing attendees to mentoring, networking and job opportunities. Smith spoke at many of these events. Their aim is to build connections between tech employers on one hand and diverse, non-traditional applicants on the other.

Many of these applicants, Smith explained, have graduated not from traditional 4-year computer science degrees, but from shorter, IT-focused vocational courses, often conducted online, and from coding bootcamps. They don’t always get a look-in during hiring processes, so this resource needs bringing to employers’ attention in order to fill 500,000 open tech job vacancies in the US, a figure that’s predicted to rise to over 1 million by 2020. And high proportions of those who attend Tech Job Tours are from just those groups that the IT industry so desperately needs to attract. They’re female, LGBTQ, people of color. Says Smith:

Around 23,000 people will graduate from short courses and coding bootcamps this year, and around 46,000, maybe 50,000, from colleges. We need to take all of those people into our tech sector, all of them.

Tackling exclusion - for the benefit of all

It’s a powerful idea - one that aims not just to tackle the IT industry’s diversity problem (which is good for the companies involved) but also address the exclusion faced by many communities. It’s also about increasing economic opportunity for all Americans. As Tech Jobs Fair’s website points out, the US median wage is $29K per year - but the average tech salary is more like $83K per year.

That said, an important element to what Megan Smith preaches at Tech Jobs Fair and elsewhere is that inclusivity is not just vital for the future. It has also played a vital role in its past. She cites as examples Grace Hopper, inventor of the first compiler to convert human language into machine language; African-American NASA research mathematician Katherine G Johnson; and Ada Lovelace, the first computer programmer, born way back in 1812.

There’s a whole ‘missing history’ out there, according to Smith, that just hasn’t been part of the tech-industry narrative - but she’s making it her personal mission to redress the balance.

All around the world, people are feeling nervous about the future, they’re feeling unincluded in the future. We're not using our resources across our governments and our communities to include everyone and make everyone part of the future. We need to figure out where are the populations we could pull in to a different experience? We need to bring more people to the table and inspire them with creative confidence. Only then can we solve some of our biggest problems.