RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
There's a newcomer in the Obama administration by way of Silicon Valley. In September, Megan Smith became the country's chief technology officer. Before coming to D.C., she ran a high-profile division of Google. Now her challenge is to bring some of that technology-driven problem-solving to government. For our series the Changing Lives of Women, NPR's Elise Hu reports on what happens when Ms. Smith goes to Washington.
ELISE HU, BYLINE: Megan Smith is so new to these halls of the White House complex that she's wearing a temporary badge.
MEGAN SMITH: I just have to fill out all my security clearance forms. I'm almost done.
HU: She started just two months ago as the country's chief technology officer, a role created at the start of President Barack Obama's administration. The CTO's charge is to find ways to use technology to improve government, which can be pretty slow to change. But first Megan Smith had to make some changes.
HU: Is there something specific that seemed really different? Or did you run into...
SMITH: You mean like getting comfortable wearing a suit? Yes, I'm wearing a suit, and it's comfortable. It's from J.Crew.
HU: What would you be wearing if you were at Google X right now?
SMITH: Definitely my jeans.
HU: Smith actually doesn't like talking about external image much, as she wants to change what tech looks like from the inside. She's working to see more women in science and technology fields and to keep them there. We caught up with her as she hosted a documentary screening on preserving the oceans for Washington, D.C., area middle- and high-schoolers.
SMITH: You're going to see some film clips from a while ago, and you'll notice some really weird bias in them. For a lot of our history, we didn't think everybody - all the people on our planet were equal with each other. And over last couple hundred years we've been slowly figuring out that of course all people are equal.
HU: Getting to more equal numbers of women in tech has emerged as a national priority. Thirty years ago, more women graduated with computer science degrees than they do today. Every other industry once dominated by men - finance, law, medicine - has made progress toward parity. Tech seems to be going backwards.
SMITH: I almost call it death by a thousand cuts. There's always these little biases that hit people, and so every individual situation like, oh, this person doesn't have that VP job, or this person doesn't have because of this reason - that reason, but when you look at an aggregate, it's really a lot of unconscious bias.
HU: Smith, who is gay and a mother of two, says despite people's biases, she worked her way up to run Google X, the division that rolled out self-driving cars, and became U.S. CTO by doing what she calls bringing her passion. Her former boss, Google Chairman Eric Schmidt, remembers it well.
ERIC SCHMIDT: She has an energy and enthusiasm that is addictive.
HU: When you meet her, Smith's youthful energy shows.
SMITH: Hey, guys. You're on the radio.
HU: She bounces when she walks. Her eyes twinkle when she talks about old tech projects and her love of science, which dates back to the science fair.
SMITH: I went to an inner-city school in Buffalo, and we had no money. But the teachers were really motivated, and they required - they made science fair mandatory. And I think it was one of the key things for all the kids. Many kids went on to STEM related careers because as kids, we got to try it. And it got me to learn that it was fun; it mattered
HU: It mattered enough to Megan Smith to commit her life to this work. She went to MIT. She went on to help develop futuristic products at a Silicon Valley startup called General Magic. We found her 28-year-old self in an archived video from 1992, demonstrating what would become touch screens.
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SMITH: We're trying to make something that people love.
HU: Back then, she loved making prototypes and products. Two decades later, she's changed her focus from products to people.
SMITH: I think maybe I was doing specific projects and enabling them. Now I'm looking for the other people, maybe people like, you know, the kid I was.
HU: Which brings us back to the White House film screening and the girls Megan Smith is trying to encourage into STEM careers. Hannah Doctor-Loeb is a ninth-grader.
HANNAH: And it's definitely important to see women in power.
HU: Why is it important for you?
: Because you can see, like, you can do that, too.
HU: Megan Smith will have to call on all her powers to push government agencies to adopt more startup-like cultures. One federal agency still saves data on floppy disks. But fitting with her changing perspective, her priority is on people.
SMITH: We really want to create an environment where, in addition to the amazing policy groups who are here, that the technical teams feel comfortable, included and are in leadership positions here.
HU: She's a woman; she's gay; she's a scientist, making her a potential outsider on multiple levels. Instead, she's as inside as a tech leader can be, even bounding around the White House with ease, once those security credentials are all set. Elise Hu, NPR News, Washington.
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