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Hail To The Geek!

If our government can iterate at the speed of Silicon Valley, President Obama’s tech foray could be one of the lasting pieces of his legacy.

Hail To The Geek!
Obama’s Mod Squad From left: Todd Park, Haley Van Dyck, Mikey Dickerson, and Hillary Hartley [Photo: Daniel Shea]

“I love Todd Park,” President Barack Obama told me. “What we’re doing in large part is thanks to him…and folks like Mikey. It’s been remarkable.”

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We had just sat down to talk about a new tech startup embedded in the federal government, and the president was wasting no time getting to the point. Which made sense, given that his time in the White House is rapidly ticking away. If he wants this startup to be “transformative,” as he put it, he’s got less than two years to make it happen.

Park, Obama’s second CTO and now an adviser—prior to that he was a successful health-tech entrepreneur—initially talked about this stealth startup with me last March, when he stopped by the Fast Company Grill at SXSW in Austin. He brought along Mikey Dickerson, head of something called the U.S. Digital Service, and Megan Smith, Obama’s current CTO, both of whom are former Googlers. We sat together for an hour as they tried to explain their sprawling, diffuse initiative which didn’t even have a name.

Fast Company hasn’t written much about the government, mostly because it hasn’t often been the engine of change in recent years, certainly not the way Silicon Valley has been. But after writer Jon Gertner interviewed dozens of digital insurgents in D.C., and after we both sat down with the president—the CEO of this venture—it became clear that a high-risk, ambitious, audacious effort was under way. Could a cadre of techies “yank government, upgrade it,” as the president put it to us, and in the process upgrade the reputation of government itself? As Gertner reports in “Obama and His Geeks,” seeds of positive change are already sprouting.

This startup within the White House would not exist if President Obama had hewed strictly to how history has defined the institution he inhabits. Similarly, Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz has never been restrained by conventional wisdom about what a company can accomplish in the world, using his pulpit to tackle such issues as health care, jobs, and, most controversially, race. Starbucks endured a barrage of criticism for its Race Together initiative earlier this year, and yet Schultz, who instigated the campaign, is unbowed. In “Wake-Up Call,” senior writer Austin Carr joins the CEO as he speaks with employees and the public about race in America and explores what role a company should play in society. The coup de grace: Despite all the negative press and social media, Race Together has strengthened Starbucks’s credibility with key constituents, most notably its employees. “You can’t attract and retain great people if your sole purpose is to make money,” Schultz tells Carr.

Both of these efforts are marked by defiance against the status quo. It is a theme echoed by the unlikely ascendance of T-Mobile under CEO John Legere (“Who the @!#$ Is This Guy?”), who has used emotion and expletives to animate employees, customers, and investors; and Shake Shack CEO Randy Garutti (“America Shacks Up”), who walked away from an enviable job atop the fine-dining business to turn a lone New York kiosk into a fast-food revolution.

Defiance often carries negative connotations in our culture, but when paired with empathy and vision, it can also be an essential ingredient to transformative success. Obama’s tech foray may be criticized as too little, too late, given his campaign promises. But if our government can iterate at the speed of Silicon Valley, it could prove among the most lasting pieces of the president’s legacy.

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About the author

Robert Safian is the editor and managing director of The Flux Group. From 2007 through 2017, Safian oversaw Fast Company’s print, digital and live-events content, as well as its brand management and business operations.

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