Tim O’Reilly wants tech heroes to change government (interview)

Tim O'Reilly

Above: Tim O’Reilly

Image Credit: Dean Takahashi

VB: That seems like the hardest of all the things you’re doing.

O’Reilly: In some ways it is, but it’s among the most important. Government is a third of our economy. Jen gave a talk last night that I thought was great. She said, “We have these hard problems. We set aside enormous resources to tackle them. But then we spend it so badly.” You look at It’s a noble goal, totally bungled. And yet when they brought in a bunch of people with the right skills to fix it, with that leadership, the same contractors who bungled it were able to turn it around. They met their original goals. It’s one of the most important tech turnarounds in history, led by a bunch of people from the private sector who said, “I gotta go help.”

That’s a lot of what Code for America is about. We work at the local level, but the White House has copied a lot of its programs through the Presidential Innovation Fellows and things like the rescue. How do we get this talent that understands from the consumer side – how to build services that actually work for people? What are the processes by which you build that software? You get those people into government. That’s a lot of what Jen was working on over the last year in Washington. She’s back at Code for America.

It’s hard to underestimate how big the challenge is, because of business processes, because of the way that people in government feel constrained by regulations. There’s nobody who can just decide. Steve Jobs came back to Apple and said, “We’re going from 300 products to seven.” You don’t have anybody, even the president, with the authority to do that. It’s this enormous thicket of regulations about hiring, about procurement. These are laws. Congress has to write a new law to throw this stuff out.

That’s one reason why we decided to work at the city level. You can show what’s possible. You can start to get that change happening. A huge part of it is a culture of putting the citizen first. We did an application last year in San Francisco for the folks who run food stamps. It turned out there was this huge churn in the system. People would get these notices from the government saying they’d missed some requirement and they’re about to be dropped from the program. They either wouldn’t get the letter because it’s sent to the wrong place, or they would read these letters that are truly mind-numbing in their language. It’s completely unclear what you’re supposed to do, so people would do nothing and suddenly one day their CalFresh card doesn’t work.

The Code for America fellows went in and signed up for the program. They debugged the process. They came up with a new process where now you get a text message that says, “There’s a problem with your benefits. Call the office.” That’s it. It’s made a huge difference. But they had to get permission. It’s not a hard technical problem, but nobody was actually trying the service. They weren’t going through the process of signing up and realizing, “This is crazy! There are 50 screens in the signup process!” No consumer internet service could survive if it made you do that.

We’re trying to think about this whole idea of simplification, culture change, and how you do that by showing government what’s possible. But then a lot of the small startup teams get the government bug. A number of startups here come out of the space. Some of them are going to be very successful.

VB: The words I remember a lot from the Web 2.0 events were “disruption” and “platform struggle.” Some of those are still with us. Disruption of media and publishing seems to be happening.

O’Reilly: We’re doing quite well, I think. While there’s a lot of disruption in the market, ebooks on the whole have been good for publishing. People who fought it have gotten on board now. But I don’t think disruption has ever been one of my themes. It’s something that people talk a lot about in Silicon Valley. What I care about, ultimately, is making the world a better place. That’s why I’m attracted to government work. It’s about saying, “How do we put these talents we have to work making the world a better place?”

I’ve been focused, from a technology point of view, on the potential of the internet to harness collective intelligence and solve hard problems. It seems to me that there are very hard problems ahead of us. When you look at demographics and aging populations and the need for health care, there’s a pretty clear case that in some countries that’s going to require a complete re-ordering of our society. You look at income inequality and the possible disruption that comes from there. You look at climate change and all the issues there. You look at robots taking people’s jobs. I’ve been involved in a task force thinking about the future of the American economy. One of the things I’m thinking a lot about is, never mind where we’re going to get the jobs. Let’s think about what needs doing. There are lots of challenges ahead of us.

I feel like a lot of the focus in Silicon Valley is on trivia. I’m heartened that an increasing number of companies are working on what I call “stuff that matters.” That’s what makes great companies. They try to think about stuff that matters.

Tim O'Reilly of O'Reilly Media at Visionary Awards

Above: Tim O’Reilly of O’Reilly Media at Visionary Awards

Image Credit: Dean Takahashi

VB: Maker has become a very interesting movement. I wonder if you feel like it’s hitting a stride as far as going mainstream, or whether it’s a hobby still.

O’Reilly: If you look at every technology movement, it begins with DIY. The people who started the personal computer revolution were DIY. I used to show, in my talks, a slide of Steve Wozniak’s original Apple I, made in a wood shop. It was a maker project, effectively. You look at what happened, the arc of the computer industry, those things became consumer goods.

If you look at the early web, it was all maker, people doing cool stuff. But you also look at things like multitouch. It came into the popular conception with the iPhone, but the year before, there was Jeff Han at our emerging technologies conference with this big DIY rig he hooked up as a professor at NYU, doing this amazing stuff on stage. He started this company that he sold to CNN for these big tactile displays. Danny Hillis was doing different kinds of technology, multitouch map tables. It was maker stuff before it was consumer.

A lot of what’s happened in the maker movement in the last few years is going to turn into consumer. Then the makers will move on. It’ll be DIY bio. You may notice that O’Reilly started publishing a DIY bio journal, because think that’s one of those areas where hands-on DIY goes. But I also think that, as the rest of this stuff becomes more mainstream—First of all, there’s great investment opportunities. I met this morning with a guy who has a startup that’s tracking stress. He’s applying this for veterans, for example, with PTSD, to be able to help them track and manage their stress. This was originally a maker project. Now it looks like a consumer smart watch kind of thing. But the impulse of, “Hey, there’s this new technology that can solve a problem,” that’s terrific.

VB: So you think maker can be steered into making the world a better place.

O’Reilly: That’s right. Dale Dougherty, who runs Maker Media, is really interested in the potential for education. That’s another aspect of this, getting kids hands-on with technology. The maker movement is a fantastic way to do that.

VB: Technology in general, do you still love it? Do you get bored with it? Do you stay fascinated?

O’Reilly: I guess I would just say that in general, one of my weaknesses is that I love everything. There’s too much of everything to keep up with it all. I get bored with Silicon Valley technology a lot. I’ve always had much more of a draw to the people who are doing things for love than the people who are doing things for money. I say that despite being a venture capitalist and somebody who’s built a successful business.

VB: Beyond Silicon Valley, what about Microsoft, Apple, Sony, the competition that’s taking place among those guys?

O’Reilly: I generally find people who have a mission to be the most interesting. I don’t know what Apple’s mission is anymore. I think Google still has a mission. Amazon still has a mission. It’s not really that there’s an opposition between money and what excites me. The early Microsoft had a mission, a computer on every desktop. That was a pretty amazing vision. We all built on it. I tend to find that you find that mission more purely, though, in these new emergent movements – like the maker movement, like open source software, like the web before it was commercial – which is why I’m always drawn to those.

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“This company was created to provide interesting work for interesting people. We follow our dreams, our curiosity, and our sense of what’s important.” –Tim O’Reilly, Founder and CEO O’Reilly Media, Inc. spreads the kn... read more »

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Steven Heizmann
Steven Heizmann

1776 DC start-up incubator works on projects like this. I have 2 on this topic alone.