In 2008, I was finally old enough to participate in my first election. It was my freshman year in college, and Barack Obama got my vote. The message of hope and change deeply resonated with me, and I was inspired by how the campaign had leveraged the internet in novel and meaningful ways. After President Obama was sworn in, I decided to spend the summer working for the government, as an intern for one of my Senators.
I’m not sure what it’s like these days, but in 2009 it didn’t feel like Congress was at the forefront of the technological revolution that had delivered the iPhone a year earlier. While answering phone calls and opening mail that summer, the stuff internships are made of, I wasn’t exactly encouraged by how elected officials interacted with their constituents. When people would reach out with passionate perspectives and genuine calls for help, they were generally met with canned responses. The culprit wasn’t a lack of care, though; it was a lack of tools.
Envisioning a different system, I wrote a memo outlining how a simple internet app could improve how we engaged with the people we served. Unsurprisingly, the story ended there, but the experience motivated me to take my passion for creating novel technology products elsewhere.
Fast forward two years. I put my college studies on hold to create a technology startup, Branch. The software we built allowed people to host curated conversations on any topic of their choosing. For example, PBS Frontline invited the likes of James Fallows and David Maraniss to talk about the 2012 Presidential Election – a debate that was then published on the New York Times’ website. Our hunch was that if Branch could enable people to see different perspectives clash and collide it would lead to greater understanding. A concept inspired in part by my time on Capitol Hill. After growing the company to ten people and two products, the Branch team joined Facebook. There, I have been leading the development of new web and mobile products ever since.
Now, I’m moving on to something new while also returning to an old problem that means a lot to me. Today, I start in a new role at the White House serving as their first Director of Product. I’m as giddy, wide-eyed, and determined as ever. The White House has many digital products – from WhiteHouse.gov to the We the People Petition site. It’s a dream to be able to add to and improve this portfolio.
In order to do that, my plan is to lean on the product ideals that I learned during the last four years building Branch and working at Facebook. Wouldn’t it be great if your government had a conversation with you instead of just talking at you? The Obama Administration has already responded to 255 online petitions that had collectively gathered more than 11 million signatures. Imagine if talking to the government was as easy as talking to your friends on social networks? White House officials have started to regularly host Q&As on Twitter. These initiatives represent amazing progress, and there's so much more good work to be done. I’m excited to apply what I’ve learned in the technology industry to the ideals of our democracy. As a mentor of mine likes to say, “It’s gonna be great!”
Published September 1st, 2015