Deputy U.S. Chief Technology Officer Alex Macgillivray and U.S. Chief Technology Officer Megan Smith at the National Academy of Sciences on Nov. 14, 2104. (The Washington Post.)

It wasn't long ago that Megan Smith, the country's newly-appointed chief technology officer, and Alex Macgillivray, deputy U.S. CTO, were Silicon Valley stars known for pushing boundaries.

Smith helped lead Google for more than a decade, including Google X, the company's experimental wing. Macgillivray was a lawyer at Twitter and Google before that, with a record of resisting government requests for user information. Now they're working side-by-side in an Eisenhower Executive Office Building bullpen next to the White House tasked with equipping President Obama and his team with a deep understanding of how technology works. There are lots of pressing questions: Earlier this week Obama called on the Federal Communications Commission to aggressively regulate Internet service providers and prevent them from charging content companies such as Netflix for faster access to their customers.

In an interview at the National Academy of Sciences under an array of sunscape photos, Smith and Macgillivray talked about how, according to Smith, "government should be amazing," what it takes to bring Silicon Valley to Washington, and why no one should have been surprised about President Obama coming out hard on net neutrality.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.


U.S. Chief Technology Officer Megan Smith sees the debate on net neutrality. But, "for us, as engineers, it's very clear. We know how the Internet works."

More from Smith and Macgillivray on net neutrality »


What is it that the Chief Technology Officer of the United States does?

Smith: The mandate for the CTO's office is to unleash the power of technology, data, and innovation on behalf of the nation. The CTO's office is really trying to bring best practices, possibilities, pilots, and policy advising. It's really that other people are doing the work. You're coaching.

Is part of that being an adviser to the president?

Smith: To the president and his team. Whoever he's working with, you're available as a resource. For us, we decided that we have three areas of focus: continuing weighing in on best practices on tech policy, anything from net neutrality to the spectrum auction, patent reform, copyright, privacy, big data, all the topics of the day. Being part of that conversation.

The second area that we're focused on is that the government should be amazing -- for the American people and with the American people. We have a long history of being the instigators of open data.

And the third area is, how do you help all Americans participate in the innovation economy, not just people that happen to live in some of the tech hubs.

Macgillivray: If you go to a hockey game in Silicon Valley, the tech incubators and the major tech companies are the things being advertised. In some of these other places, that's just not true, and it's harder to figure out, is there an incubator in my town? Our basic belief is, yes, there is. People just don't know about them.


"His position has been that is very important, the whole way through," says Deputy U.S. CTO Alex Macgillivray of Obama's stance on net neutrality. "But every time, there's surprise, which is a little weird."

More from Smith and Macgillivray on net neutrality »


There's a mechanism you probably used to create change in your old lives: "Let's experiment with things, even if it doesn't quite work." Is it okay to fail when you're inside government?

Smith: It's much easier to fail when you're in the pilot, early stage, when it's less expensive and you're exploring than when you're way out the door and you've spent all this money. Industry is smart: structured to have skunkworks and pilot phases. We want government to do that, too.

Macgillivray: You're trying to take on big, audacious goals that will have a huge positive impact, and there are plenty of great big goals that you can't do with 100 percent probability of success.

One of those big, audacious things might be the president's recent stand on net neutrality.

Smith: It's an incredibly important thing to make sure we preserve net neutrality. Candidate Obama before he was president spent the time to understand that because of its huge impact on our economy, and to understand from these innovators what was important. He became early on a huge supporter of net neutrality, and he understood it.

Now, I think, he can see, the [Federal Communications Commission] is an independent agency, but they're about to weigh in, and there's been a huge groundswell of input from the public. As it got close, I think the president felt that it was pretty important as they were about to deliberate to weigh in.

Macgillivray: The coverage of it has been a little bit weird, in that every time President Obama has said the same thing. His position has been that it is very important, the whole way through. But every time, there's surprise, which is a little weird.

But he's never gone so far as to say before that he thinks that broadband should be reclassified as a Title II service under the Communications Act.

Macgillivray: The question is how to get it done. Yeah, he didn't get down in the weeds of the tactic you might take to do it. But there's not a whole lot of debate post-Verizon [the January court decision that struck down the FCC's existing open Internet rules] about how to do it. It's really a question of, "Do you still believe in the principles. Do you want them to be legally enforceable?" If so, then...that's what the president said. This is a president who has said this in the strongest possible terms since he was a candidate and has consistently repeated it.

And yet, when he then spells it out, the reaction was a little bit surprising to me.

Smith: I also thought it was interesting that the conversation becomes a political debate, because we're in D.C., so it becomes, okay, here's this one group that has this opinion and another group that has that opinion. But then there are all these engineers who have an architecture [of the Internet they work with], and it's like, "Are you supposed to argue with physics?"

The CEO of AT&T this week said that the company will "pause" the rollout of broadband fiber in 100 cities in the United States because of the ongoing net neutrality debate.

Macgillivray: I just came from business. And it's not every day that a business says that they're not going to do something that's good for their customers. That's a strong statement.

What's your role in these debates? Are people coming to you and saying, "Explain to us the architecture of the Internet?"

Smith: Our job is to advise on best practice. There is a bringing in of an extraordinary set of academics, bringing in people from the cable industry, from the tech start-ups -- tons and tons of people, in addition to the public commenting, and reading all that. And also, just having conversations with people who are super experts, and being technical people we could facilitate some of that and aggregate some of that.

Should people attribute the timing of Obama's statement to your arrival in the White House?

Smith: The timing that matters is that they're [the FCC] about to decide. It's really important to be on it.

Macgillivray: Again, this was not something that he just recently decided to believe.

Smith, laughing: [It was] somewhere back in 2007.

It's interesting that me that it was seen as that clear-cut [inside the White House].

Smith: For us, as engineers, it's very clear. We know how the Internet works. We know the incredible economics and opportunities that have resulted from it. He's [the president has] seen that.

What motivated you to give up your lives in California to do this work?

Macgillivray: A little known fact is that Megan's and my kids both went to the same small school in San Francisco. We both called the principal. School had already really started. And we were like, "Uh, there are going to be a couple kids missing from class."

Smith, laughing: "There's a whole bunch of people leaving for Washington."

Smith: The opportunity to work in government at this time is an incredible opportunity. It's an honor to be asked, and it's a service opportunity. You can impact hundreds of millions of people. Working with our colleagues at USAID, it's potentially billions of people.

To me, there's so much talent in the world that's locked out for the wrong reasons, whether it's innovators at the highest end where we need to change the regulation systems, or whether it's the talented people who work here who the bureaucracy's holding back, or the amazing American people. I like to solve problems with tech. This is a dream job.

Macgillivray: What drives me is having positive impact. And to me it was pretty clear that there was an opportunity here in the last couple years of the presidency to have a tremendous positive impact. That's just awesome. Also, I like D.C. It's an adventure for the family.

How do you bring Silicon Valley into the work of government?

Smith: It's interesting, if you look at any of the teams here, they're diverse: there's economists, and writers... It's actually really fun, because I don't have to be an expert in economics. We know our stuff, and it's not easy -- there's a high volume of work -- but it's straightforward: You bring your best skills. I think that there hasn't been as many technical people at the table. That's just been a missing piece.

In different times in our government, they've been there. If you look at the founders, a lot of them were engineers and politicians and... Look at [Ben] Franklin. [George] Washington was a surveyor. He stood up the Army Corps of Engineers before the founding of the country. These guys were multidimensional people. It ebbs and flows. But the interesting thing is that it's at times of war and crisis that the engineers are very much at the table.

Vannevar Bush, the first science adviser, came [to D.C.] after World War II to do the Manhattan Project. It was basically the beginning of [the Office of Science and Technology Policy, where the CTO team is housed]. He actually invented something called a memex, which was one of the first ideas of an Internet. It was a mechanical sort of thing, but it could retrieve anything. It was basically a World Wide Web, but mechanical.

What besides neutrality is in your policy portfolio?

Macgillivray: Some of it is just giving advice on the policy of the things that are happening. Some of that's pretty reactive.

And then on the proactive side, we're still defining that a little bit. But one of the things we're taking a hard look at is how do the new things happening in technology impact how we regulate. So that's everything from that it's easier and easier to launch a company -- two people in a garage can reach 100 million people -- what that means as regulators to figure out what all those people are doing all over the county and to ensure we protect the American people, and what it means to be two people in a garage and all of the sudden have a regulator concerned with the stuff that you're doing. It's really making sure that the United States continues to be the best place in the world for science and technology innovation.

Smith: And it's creating environments for conversations -- with innovators if they're doing something that the regulators are uncomfortable with, there can be some 'sandboxing,' which is sort of a Silicon Valley word for a play space to explore possibilities. Where people can be comfortable, and you still care as government for privacy and other issues.

Alex, when you were appointed, some people said, "This is the guy who stood up to government. Now he's going into government, and he's not going to have a lot of friends, especially in the intelligence community." 

Macgillivray, laughing: You know, my old company sued us. [In October, Twitter sued the United States over the disclosure of national security letters.]

Within government, it's amazing to me how open people are to us. This is in large part thanks to the two CTO's offices that proceeded us. When they think of the CTO, they think of people who come in and bring fresh ideas, new eyes on a problem, and are willing to do the work and get something done. I definitely haven't had anybody, you know, be mean to me. [Laughs.]

My experience with people in government even on the outside was of a whole bunch of good, very smart people all trying to do the right thing. That's been my experience on the inside, too. I didn't expect people to be holding a grudge, and that's definitely not something that's happened.

Smith: We're really trying to build cohorts [of technologists in government.] We've added the term T.Q. E.Q. is emotional quotient. T.Q. is people who have technical skills. If teams have those members, they're not just admiring a problem, they can help architect a solution.

How is President Obama's T.Q.?

Smith: The president has fabulous T.Q. He loves technology. He's not trained as a formal engineer, but he's really interested in this stuff.