As a student at MIT, Megan Smith was part of the team that designed, built, and raced a solar car across the Australian outback. Since then, she has worked at Google as vice president of Google X and of new business development, and as CEO of PlanetOut. Smith also brought her vast technical know-how to the White House, serving as CTO in the Obama administration from 2014 to 2017.
Today, Smith is founder and CEO of Shift7, an organization that delivers tech-centered collaboration and team-building approaches to address global challenges. An ardent believer in the necessity of cross-pollination between the humanities and technology, Smith continues to build and nurture teams grounded in both.
This interview has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.
Increment: Over the course of your career, you’ve been a part of and managed a number of teams. What was the common thread about team-building that ran through all of them?
Megan Smith: [At MIT] I took an acoustics class from Professor Bose, the inventor of Bose speakers. He was always talking about how important it was to find your passion. I continue [to follow] some of that advice. The number-one thing is finding talented people who are passionate about that particular work, because they’ll bring a lot more energy and focus to it. And then you want to take people with different skills and put them together.
At Google I led new business development. A lot of the people on my team, if they had been at a startup, they would’ve been [a combination] of the business founder and the technical founder, if that makes sense. They were really entrepreneurial, self-starters, creative visionaries [who combined] action and orientation. [Our work wasn’t about] “here’s where we’re going forever.” It was, “How do we start?” For new business development, [I found] people who could see the signal in the noise.
We were really able to collaborate well. We often would find one or two engineers who were doing something really interesting, and you’d just get your team to start hanging out with them. [That way,] you could start figuring out partnerships. For example, [with] Book Search, we had to cold-call the publishers. In the case of Google for Domains and Gmail, we had to find a university partner to want to experiment with using Gmail and their domain name. So somebody deeply collaborative was key.
In tech, there’s a lot of founder hero worship. The founders are key [to team success]. You need their insights, ideas, and inspiration, and you need smart generalists around them. And together, that’s how you create these companies. You find top talent and get people in the right places, where they can really bring their passion and their skills forward.
When I was in the White House as U.S. chief technology officer, I was really lucky to have Alexander Macgillivray come in [as deputy USCTO] at the same time. He had been general counsel at Twitter—a coder lawyer— just genius, a wonderful colleague. There was a lot of ground to cover in that role, so having a colleague who you’re doing operational collaboration with was really good.
The USCTO team needed to be [made up of] deep subject-matter experts, which is different from [Google’s] new business development team, which needed to be [made up of] really smart generalists who were open-minded, agile, and action-oriented. [They] had to know the landscape, [where] deep subject-matter experts could discern priorities [with] limited time. An example there was Laura Weidman Powers. She had cofounded Code2040 and is an expert on diversity in teams. So getting Laura to come in [to the White House] and work on diversity in the tech sector was great; she was the perfect person for that.
Did these differences—between specialists and generalists—reflect your experiences in public and private sectors?
It’s not [about] public versus private. It’s [about] different kinds of teams for different kinds of roles. For example, you would need a subject-matter expert on a product team as the engineering or product manager, whereas dealmakers can be more generalized. So, for example, when we did Google’s Book Search, some of the people who worked on that had deep background in that area.
Given that, how would you compare your experiences in the private and public sectors? What’s different about the approach to team-building? Or is there any difference?
They’re very similar. The tech sector is highly up to speed [because it’s] actually run by engineers. Other sectors, which are typically not run by engineers, [such as the] public sector, government, nonprofits, think tanks, philanthropies, and many businesses, the big challenge [for them] today is to integrate technology well.
What a lot of people don’t know is that the best way to do that is to integrate technology people into your leadership team. Imagine it as a language: If you want to [use] French or Welsh or Flemish or Arabic, you need someone who speaks that language on your team. And if they do, then you have that capability across your group.
From a leadership perspective it’s very important to integrate that. President Obama was really extraordinary at building teams and going and seeking out talent. We brought over 500 Americans into government—[people] who had built Amazon and Facebook and Google and Twitter and Dropbox. As an example, we brought on DJ Patil as the first U.S. chief data scientist, and that allowed [his team] to build up data science across the government. Of course we already had data science in NASA, the Department of Energy, the National Institutes of Health, and other places, but we didn’t have it across the leadership teams of all the agencies.
Leaders who are not in the tech sector need to stop thinking of tech as the help that they go get later, or [as] people [they] tell what to do. Think of [technologists] as colleagues that you need in your team, just like you’d have a communicator, a policy-maker, a management leader, a surgeon general—all these different kinds of people—in government. You need data scientists and other kinds of technical people in your team directly. What we tried to do when I was in government was rotate people from the tech sector who had the latest skills and knowledge in and out of the government.
That’s something that Shift7 is working to continue, which is to bring tech-forward methods into many of the sectors where tech and innovation people are too rare.
That’s a good segue to Shift7.
When I finished in the White House, I had the opportunity to go back straight into the tech sector. I decided not to do that. Not because I don’t love the tech sector—I’m an engineer. But there are lots and lots of people who are doing extraordinary work there.
I found that many people in other sectors, who are just brilliant and doing great work, [were] using kind of rusty or older tech approaches. The challenges in poverty and justice, climate and other environments, inclusion, diversity, media—all of those areas—are really, really tough.
I sometimes [say] we need to play the whole orchestra on the hardest problems. In the tech sector, they’re busy with the strings and percussion, and over in the nonprofit, philanthropy, and big-government sector, we’re busy with the brass and woodwinds. And I’m like, well, why wouldn’t you have some strings over here? And brass over there? We could use whatever creative methods would help the most.
If you go to the tech sector, engineers are in charge. Communications and policy and the others are there, but sometimes not always as deeply integrated in the top leadership. When you go to government, communications and policy and operations people are leading; often techies and data scientists are not even in the room. So how could we change that?
If you type the actual company name, Shift7, [the result is] an ampersand. So we work in collaboration. We team up with different organizations across the ecosystem to bring these different tech-forward methods.
An example would be [concepts like] scout and scale, something we see all day long in the tech sector. It’s the way venture capital works. The VCs don’t make the companies—they find extraordinary talent, talented founders and teams, and they support them with the innovation ecosystem. Can we find innovators who are under-supported and not well-known [but] who are just as talented? Can we bring the same approach [as venture capital] for people doing extraordinary things [outside of tech]?
We do that in a bunch of ways. One of them is the United Nations Solutions Summit, [where] we ask who in the world is already working to solve the UN’s sustainable development goals. This year over 1,400 people from 141 countries applied either to share their ideas or to be on the selection committee. And then we choose a gender-balanced, geographically balanced, topic-balanced set of extraordinary solution-makers, who will take the stage at the UN and give a four-minute lightning talk [on their work], and then be accelerated in an ecosystem of partners [including the Skoll Foundation and SDG Philanthropy Platform]. We’ve had over 50 innovators from different countries across five years, and we’ll welcome 10 more this year.
How do you level the playing field? How do the people who truly need support bubble up to the surface?
Because [the UN Solutions Summit] is open and participatory, you’re dealing with [a] principle called collective genius. We’re getting lots of different inputs, and we’re able to assist this extraordinary stuff that is really off the radar, to choose candidates all over the world, and to [see this] bouquet of extraordinary work that’s happening.
Do you see this work as team-building, if on a whole different level?
It’s solution-making through inclusion. Instead of using classic channels, where we get a certain kind of entrepreneur over and over again, it’s a way to surface an extraordinary amount of nearly invisible innovation talent working in many different ways on lots of different topics.
We approached the MIT Solve team because some of the folks from Standing Rock had come to MIT and wanted to work together. We created something called the Indigenous Communities Fellowship. It began with Standing Rock and Pine Ridge in the Lakota community in the Dakotas. And then this past year it expanded to include Navajo and Hopi [communities].
Now there are 13 innovators [supported through this program] that are primarily based on reservations, which are some of the poorest [areas] in the United States. Typically they would not get connected to the kind of innovation networks in Silicon Valley or Austin or Boston or Shanghai, and this is a way to get them connected. This ecosystem can accelerate their work on agriculture, energy, housing, anti-trafficking, and extractive industry problems. Not everything’s going to work, but a lot of stuff will work if you give it a chance and you coach well and you connect people.
We also did something called the Tech Jobs Tour in partnership with Leanne Pittsford, who founded Lesbians Who Tech. We teamed up with her and went to 25 cities across the U.S., like Cheyenne, Wyoming; Birmingham, Alabama; Cleveland; and Memphis. Techies are there but they’re less visible than in places like Seattle.
They have FedEx and AutoZone in Memphis, but they also have 45,000 young people out of school and out of work. Who’s bridging that [gap]? We found a guy named Meka Egwuekwe with Code Crew [doing] that [work]. There are innovators everywhere. They just are not getting the same amount of storytelling attention from media or support or funding from the ecosystem network.
One thing you were talking about, or that kept coming up, was the ecosystem.
How have your ecosystems—the tech ecosystem, the public sector ecosystem—evolved over your career?
Each industry has its ecosystem, right? And they have different methods. One of the key things we’re trying to do is to get the public sector to [include] tech as a component of its ecosystem, just like we want the tech sector to have more humanities and ethics included as a component of its work.
Cross-pollinating is very important. That relates to teamwork because the more inclusive your team is, the better you are at listening to each other. [As CTO, Laura Weidman Powers and I] created an [initiative] called Raising the Floor, a pragmatic guide to having much broader diversity and inclusion in your team. We wanted to share methods [for doing this work] because so many people often are like, “What should we do about inclusion?”
Tech—all this work—is a team sport. If you structure your teams [right], you help people realize what they’re trying to do. Listen to each other: You can really achieve a lot if you broaden the team.