Samir Luther MBA ’15 and Priya Garg ’15 recently spoke with Megan Smith ’86, SM ’88, this year’s commencement speaker, about her work at the White House, her time at MIT, and her view of how technology is changing the world. Luther and Garg are excited to share the interview ahead of commencement so that the MIT community has the opportunity to get to know Smith a bit better before the big day.
Smith is the Chief Technology Officer of the United States and an assistant to President Barack Obama. In the past, she has served as the vice president of Google[x], CEO of PlanetOut, and was the co-founder of the Malala Fund. She served as a member of the MIT Corporation from 1988 to 1993, and again from 2006 to 2014. Smith earned her BS in mechanical engineering from MIT in 1986 and her MS in mechanical engineering in 1988, completing her master’s thesis work in the MIT Media Lab.
Samir Luther is a finance, operations and analytics MBA student who is passionate about financial inclusion, mobile technology, expanding Internet access, and open data. Priya Garg is an undergraduate majoring in mechanical engineering with a focus in medical devices. She is interested in applying tools learned at MIT to create lasting innovation within the healthcare industry.
A full transcript of the interview is below. Readers can also watch an edited version of the interview, embedded here.
LUTHER: We are really excited to be able to share more about you with the graduating class of MIT undergrad and grad 2015!
SMITH: Thanks, it’s an honor to be here and I am so excited, what a force that this class is going to be.
LUTHER: We know it. One of the reasons we are so excited to speak with you is because you are breaking down barriers, not only as a woman in government, but as a woman in tech.
Most recently, you moved from Google[x] to this position of service for our nation and you have also shown your commitment to serving women around the world by creating the Malala Fund and PlanetOut in the 90s. Can you speak about the role that service has played in your life?
SMITH: Yeah and it's actually really relevant with MIT because in a lot of ways service is one of the things that you see is a theme that students are part of over and over and over again.
What's cool with MIT is that we have people who, for whatever reason, have come to love science and technology and are aware of how to use those tools in order to make great change in the world. Sometimes it's in a very pure science way through discovery of things — look at amazing Nobel Prize winners and others in science — but sometimes in a very applied area. I went to school with Amy Smith, who is on faculty now doing just extraordinary work with the teams around development engineering at MIT and bringing really great collaborations with people all over the world who might not have the design resources and time of MIT students. They bring the ingenuity together with ingenuity of colleagues from poorer places in the world to develop extraordinary solutions. I believe in service as a core part of technology and I love to use tech and science and innovation for particularly helping make the world a better place, helping reduce our impact on the planet, helping people collaborate better, helping bring a peaceful and more engaged society into being together.
LUTHER: Was service a part of your life when you were graduating from MIT?
SMITH: Yeah, I think so. Actually, I was just in Buffalo, New York. I was talking at my high school. I went to this really new intercity magnet school in Buffalo that was great and I was lucky because our teachers founded our school.
One of my favorite things was when one of the teachers applied for a grant, I think it was my sophomore year. The first 10 days of school were almost like a freshman seminar instead of regular class. Our physics teacher taught something called “City as an Ecosystem” and so we got to go to this huge water treatment plant, to the dump, riding our bikes through Buffalo and seeing all the different neighborhoods that have grown and the architecture changes in the city. It was a really great eye-opening way to be very embedded in the city we lived in, in a way that we had never really probably noticed at that level. Thinking about ecosystems and learning about it in such a tangible physical way about our city was so creative and so great. I was lucky to have those kinds of exposures.
We also were lucky because we had mandatory science fair. You got to learn how to do these things and that the stuff was fun and also the confidence that comes with it. Our swimming coach said practice makes permanent, and we got a lot of that.
So, understanding that science and math aren’t just about learning facts in class or boring, but really about discovery, and thinking about what stuff is made of — I was really lucky. Service and fun was all a part of it.
GARG: You mentioned that you were at MIT with Amy Smith. You got your undergrad and your master’s degrees here. You have since remained extremely active by serving on the board of MIT, as well as the advisory boards of the Media Lab, Draper, and the Technology Review. How has MIT evolved over the years, and in what ways has it stayed the same?
SMITH: That’s an interesting question. Also, I just encourage everybody to take the parts that are interesting to you and keep staying involved in them. It might be your living group, it might be the sport you play or theater or music or student government, the lab that you are in, the UROP that you had. All of those are pieces that you can stay connected to MIT with.
One of the things that’s great and actually is a big change is really the Internet has changed MIT. I think that I had a really interesting experience because I was a mechanical engineering student and so I did my undergrad and then I was in Media Lab as a grad student and we had email. It just seemed like the basic difference of using email together as a collaborative community in the 80s in the Media Lab versus the mechanical engineering students who didn’t really have that yet — I mean we sort of had it, but we didn’t use it in the same way. The classic Media Lab thing is, “Hey there’s an art opening downstairs, there’s food,” and all the grad students, you know, swarm. Or, “Hey, it’s 6 a.m., who’s still here, I think whatever restaurant’s about to open. Whoever pulled all-nighters, where are you sleeping in building?” and then trying to find people, you know, classic MIT behavior. We didn’t have that and so I think people were more isolated in their labs in those days where the communities now have been able to blossom. MIT has always had extraordinary community and collaboration, but I think email has created a much friendlier, happier, more integrated campus in some ways, which has been really good.
LUTHER: I think you would be happy to know, if you don’t already know, that free food Listserv has evolved rather extensively!
GARG: So do you think the progression of technology has actually contributed to a more cohesive community?
SMITH: Yes, I think that people were in more silos and so depending on which group you were in and what was going on, you had that culture. There of course have always been so many unique and fun cultures that are all across MIT, but they are more fluid. You can move fluidly between them a little bit more.
GARG: That’s crazy that the mechanical engineering programs didn’t have email or Internet. I don’t know how I would have gotten through the past four years without it.
SMITH: We sort of got it as we got to school, so it was really interesting to watch the difference in culture as it came. I remember going with two friends—this was later, when I was working for Apple Japan, I was in Tokyo — and I was coming to San Diego to go do some stuff with two MIT friends from the Media Lab. I realized as I got off the plane that I hadn’t spoken to them on the phone. And this is sort of ancient history, but I was like wow, all this organizing in email — the whole future is going to be exactly like this and of course it is, which is cool. There’s these moments when you realize how it’s going to change a lot.
GARG: So along that line of when you realized that you didn’t use the telephone during that trip and you thought, this is the future — what do you think is the future for MIT?
SMITH: Yeah, it's so exciting right now. I was in the board when we were working on discussions of edX. One of my favorite things: If you go into the Infinite Corridor and you are walking between Building 7 towards Building 10 and take a right on Building 3 and you go down that corridor, there is a little display from the libraries that has maybe the first dozen years of MIT. One time I was looking at it and I realized that in 1865 or ’64, around the first time we started teaching classes, you will notice that we taught for free in the evening.
So from day one this idea of Opencourseware and edX has been part of MIT. We didn’t have an Internet or a telecommunication system in the way we do today so that anyone could attend, but it was through something called the Lowell Institute, which was awesome. This idea of inclusive learning and being in service through communicating and sharing — whether it is that example or the days of the Physics Department with their skinny black ties, in the 50s or the 60s making all these films that high school students all over the United States and the world watch to see demos from MIT labs — just this service to learn and this love of learning is a big part of our culture, which is so great. I think this is the next wave of that, that’s the next iteration.
There’s a really famous lecture former President Paul Gray mentioned, that Edwin Land wrote, which is apparently the foundation of the UROP Program. He wrote in a very sexist voice, so if you happen to read it, take boy and just insert boy and girl. It will be more palatable to read today because it is really annoying to read in that way. But if you do that, it’s filled with this idea of coming to school and being in a much more hands-on experience, coming into the labs of all our amazing faculty and really having a da Vinci–like experience with them where you get to explore in the directions you want to go and you can take the classes as you need them.
There was a hackathon here for the future of school and people were playing with the idea of gaming school. They had this idea to build a “billion-dollar school,” and we were like, what’s a billion-dollar school? The idea was that children would work on “billion-dollar problems.” Meaning, maybe this year we will work on dirty water because it’s costing more than a billion dollars. If you worked on solving dirty water, you have to learn sociology and human behavior, learn some chemistry, some biology, you have to learn some mechanics and some dynamics and fluids, and it’s a really cool way to approach life.
That was what the UROP roots to. And then, of course, Professor MacVicar, who I had for a freshman physics recitation. She was awesome. MacVicar Fellows went on to then adapt that idea and really form what is UROP, which is such a critical part of the MIT education. Hopefully in some ways UROP becomes more of what we do, this hands-on thing. The classes or lectures become only the most extraordinary-performed lectures that we want to go see live, and the rest can happen in a more iterative classroom way.
I know the 3.091 team had done some interesting experiments. They were having people submit their homework and then it got pre-graded. If you wanted 24 more hours, you can have it. That was so great because then emphasis was on learning the thing, learning the subject. Who cares about the grade? Like, learn the thing.
So I am really excited about where MIT will go with iteration and a brilliant group of people working together thinking about it. Lots of fits and starts will happen, some things will work, some things won’t. Sometimes the faculty in a department is doing things in a particular way and people think of them as the fringe faculty who are doing some really weird, crazy thing, but if you look at it, it is the way it is going to be and pretty soon they will move to the center. All the ingredients are there, so a lot of the MITx work that different faculty members are playing around with I think will come to the center.
I am also excited about more students being able to come and go. You can work remotely, do projects in other parts of the world or other parts of the country and have more people be able to come on campus and create even more flow. I love where the Media Lab is going and I love what other labs are doing. It’s a nexus place: the more connections the better, the more interactions the better. The more we interface, the more talent gets unlocked.
LUTHER: Given that you are in a tremendous platform to tackle some huge problems whether it was at Google[x] or whether on the board of MIT or at the White House, what is still keeping you up at night? What are you worried are the things that your children are going to have to face?
SMITH: There is a pretty intense list of those things, whether it is climate change or critical inclusion things, unfairness and poverty. Amazing work that people are doing at MIT and other places around the world around biological threats, Ebola issues, medicine.
I am an optimist, so I really like to work towards solutions of things. What I am trying to do is unlock talent and help people with whatever it is they are incredibly passionate about doing; help enable them to do that and get people more access to resources, including each other.
A really good example: We just had a tech meet-up here at the White House of all the tech meet-up organizers. One of the things that’s interesting is there are many people who will listen to this who will know about and probably have been to things like TEDx or hackathons. A lot of people have never had that experience and yet they are incredibly talented, powerful people who could be playing in that way too. So how can we upgrade everyone? The CEO of Amex says constancy of value is in constancy of reinvention. So how do you scrub everyone into this new way of working and collaborating and making sure people have these resources so that they could?
I love the President's “My Brother's Keeper” initiative that he did. It really speaks to me personally because it’s not okay that one in three African-American boys in the United States are going into the criminal justice system at some point. What are we doing to make sure that those incredible colleagues of ours on the planet are getting included into this, and are getting to go to tech meet-ups and hackathons and all of that? And figure out what they want to do — what videos and stories and movies and apps and incredible laws or whatever do they want to make to put their impact down the road that we can include them in?
And in some ways, you know, doing PlanetOut, which is the gay community online, how do we include community, and work through discrimination? How are we working with young women around the globe, and young men and children, who face extreme issues? Malala [Yousafzai] and her father and family are amazing people to work with. How do I unlock the talent of Malala and her father and her family and those around her to do their thing? What will they bring in the world? By the way, her favorite subject is physics, nice little MIT tie in there.
GARG: Keeping on personal theme, but switching gears a little bit, what do the first 60 minutes of your day look like when you wake up? Do you have daily or weekly routines that you credit success to?
SMITH: It sort of changes, the first 60 minutes. We have two boys, so I am doing lots of stuff getting them up and going for school, checking email, getting coffee, running around sort of free-for-all, and then getting over here to the White House, which is just an amazing honor to be able to work here and work with this team.
A lot of people talk about some kind of work-life balance. I don’t think there is any balance, I think there’s a lot of juggling of things. People do it, and you can do it, too. For example, people just went through this whole MIT experience where there's no way you could do all the things that are assigned to you, you just have to sort of juggle it and do your best. You include some awesome social time with friends and some downtime and some athletic time and some taking care of yourself, being healthy and eating. You figure out how to get that done.
One of the key things is recognizing that being a part of the collaborative teams is incredibly important because no one person can do all the things. It is together, through working together really creatively that that happens. I was lucky, when I was in Media Lab Woodie Flowers was one of my advisors and so was Alan Kay. Alan had been one of the leaders early on. At that time, he was an imagineer at Disney and he had been at Xerox PARC early on. In fact, there is a drawing he made from the 70s of these kids sitting under a tree with basically holding tablet iPads. He was so visionary.
He always said he tried to focus on what were the things that he was good at and what was he not good at, and not get worried about the things that he was not good at—just find teammates who love doing that and then just get together and go. One time I got to have a conversation with Richard Branson and he sort of said the same thing. I think that’s pretty good advice.
LUTHER: In the midst of all that juggling, what’s your favorite way of nerding out right now? Are you playing around with Arduinos or Google Glass?
SMITH: Hey, I actually have like a Raspberry Pi [pulls out RasPi]. I’m actually taking these around because I try to get people to realize that here’s your phone [holds up phone], and there’s a little board inside here. It is just like Steve Jobs had. This is Homebrew Computer Club for now. The UK has given these to all kids. So I take them out around to kind of demonstrate like, things are made of something!
My main focus is again more around people these days, and just getting people moving. I’m having an amazing time working with the teams here. The government is filled with so much talent and so how do we use this scale to unlock that talent and get things moving on behalf of the American people and the world?
LUTHER: I think we are definitely over time, but we want to thank you so much for spending some time with us and sharing your story with the other MIT graduate class of 2015.
SMITH: It’s an honor that I have been asked to speak and I am really looking forward to meeting everyone and to that incredible day in June.
GARG: We can't wait to see you on June 5th!