July 2014

Making Coders: Accelerated IT Training

From New York City to Chicago to San Francisco, opportunities for accelerated tech training – such as coding bootcamps, massively-open online courses (MOOCs), and more – are introducing real-world software programming skills to students from diverse backgrounds and age groups. These programs enable participants to learn key aspects of computer science, specifically those skills that are in high demand from employers. In coding bootcamps, would-be-coders study throughout the day and often well into the night, with many bootcamps providing after-hours tutoring and support. The value proposition that bootcamps offer is a focus on precisely the skills that are in demand from employers and the ability to deliver those skills in a dramatically shorter time period – typically just nine to twelve weeks – compared to traditional multi-year college education options.

New York Tech Meetup recently convened the first Tech Talent Summit to bring civic leaders from across the New York community into the same room to discuss the goals, barriers, and paths forward in our shared quest to create economic opportunity for the broadest possible array of people. It’s an issue that Mayor Bill de Blasio cares deeply about, not to mention the countless non-profits which contribute to workforce development every day. Even the White House had a representative in attendance. Coding bootcamps, in particular, played a key role in the discussion.

Despite investments from the tech industry in efforts to teach children how to code, the present-day “pipeline problem” remains. Bootcamps offer an innovative approach to growing the supply of coders while opening opportunity to groups historically underrepresented in software development jobs. Hackbright, for instance, specifically focuses on teaching women to code, and many bootcamps offer scholarships on the basis of diversity. A promotional video from the Flatiron School captures its approach:  “There [are] thousands of ways to write a program and in each of those little differences [is] our individuality. Employers ask: ‘Where did you find such great developers?’ to which the answer is, ‘We didn’t find great developers. We found really great people and we just told them how to code.’”

Still, bootcamps are somewhat unknown and face real challenges. With many bootcamps founded just in the past few years, they are still proving their effectiveness and finding their place among an array of educational options – such as community colleges and universities. Human resources departments at potential employers might be unaccustomed to assessing skills in less-traditional ways, meaning that skilled graduates of coding bootcamps might not have access to all of the jobs they could successfully do. To gain broader acceptance, documenting short-term and long-term outcomes will be an important step in proving the effectiveness of bootcamps. Ultimately, best practices are likely to arise that will make the nascent industry stronger and more trustworthy than it is today.

Even now, bootcamps offer many the path to a better life. Some startups are actually more amenable to hiring from bootcamps than from traditional college-based computer science degree programs. However, the tuition price — an average of $9,900, according to Course Report — can be difficult to deliver for many students and sometimes impossible to make upfront, especially because the returns are unclear. And since bootcamps are not accredited educational institutions, it isn’t currently possible for participants to access low-interest-rate student loan programs to make the cost more affordable. Anecdotal evidence suggests that graduation rates and post-graduation job placement for well-run bootcamps can be quite high and a number of bootcamps boast average starting salaries well over $70,000  for alumni. But for prospective students, the high cost for an uncertain gain remains a challenge, and in many cases a roadblock. These are the very real challenges that require collaborative efforts from key stakeholders ranging from education systems to governments to non-profits to the tech industry itself.

Here at Microsoft, we recognize the importance of computational thinking, coding skills, and STEM education. That’s why we contribute through programs like TEALS and through our support of Code.org. And it is why we’re excited to partner with civic leaders here in New York and around the country to spread 21st century skills and opportunity. Because by spreading tech skills we can empower people to make an impact and to lead rewarding lives. Benjamin Franklin is often quoted as saying, “An investment in knowledge pays the best interest.” With all due respect to Ben, an investment in skills might pay even better.

Introducing Matt Stempeck: Microsoft New York’s New Director of Civic Technology

matt_stempeck

I’m thrilled to let you know that I’ve joined Microsoft as Director of Civic Technology here in New York City.

My career decisions have been driven by a desire to maximize my social impact. This overarching goal is why I’ve spent the better part of the past decade using technology to accelerate change in organizing, movement building, campaign finance reform, and journalism and digital media.

Recently, I’ve become convinced of the unrealized potential for technology companies themselves to make substantial contributions to social change. In addition to their resources (human, financial, data, and tech), these companies are building the products used by an ever-growing portion of the human species. These products are increasingly the conduits through which we connect, learn, and act. They could reduce barriers to information and courses of action that improve our civic lives.

As we think about how technology can improve citizens’ lives in cities, in particular, it has become quite clear that the opportunities and rewards of the technology economy must be shared more equitably across the power faults of race, gender, class, and access. A big chunk of our work will be focused on inclusion, looking to make improvements in both the existing community and the long-term pipeline. Related to that, we’re excited to support and expand STEM education and employment programs in New York.

We’re lucky to be working in New York City, one of the bastions of civic tech. I’ve been collaborating with the civic tech community here for years, be it through conversations at Personal Democracy Forum (the pinnacle conference in the space), working with news outlets and media startups while getting my Master’s at the MIT Media Lab’s Center for Civic Media, or interviewing for my thesis the many technologists and organizers who innovated in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, employed technology to power an unprecedented participatory aid response and in doing so, redefined the resilient community.

What I didn’t know before applying to this job is that Microsoft has assembled a Civic team of great talent, based right here in New York. I’m excited to work closely with John Paul Farmer, co-founder of the Presidential Innovation Fellows program. In addition, the team boasts three amazing Civic Tech Fellows: Jenny Shore from Harvard, and Ken Chan and Fatima Khalid, both from NYU.

A key moment for me in making the decision to join this team was attending Microsoft Executive Vice President and General Counsel Brad Smith’s eloquent, impassioned speech at Personal Democracy Forum, where he unequivocally established Microsoft’s support for net neutrality as well as citizens’ privacy rights in the face of NSA overreach. As you may have seen in the news lately, big changes are afoot at Microsoft, and I’m thrilled to join these efforts.

Please get in touch if you’re in New York and want to think through these challenges together. I’m @mstem on Twitter and matt.stempeck@microsoft.com.

Introducing Matt Stempeck: Microsoft New York’s New Director of Civic Technology

matt_stempeck

I’m thrilled to let you know that I’ve joined Microsoft as Director of Civic Technology here in New York City.

My career decisions have been driven by a desire to maximize my social impact. This overarching goal is why I’ve spent the better part of the past decade using technology to accelerate change in organizing, movement building, campaign finance reform, and journalism and digital media.

Recently, I’ve become convinced of the unrealized potential for technology companies themselves to make substantial contributions to social change. In addition to their resources (human, financial, data, and tech), these companies are building the products used by an ever-growing portion of the human species. These products are increasingly the conduits through which we connect, learn, and act. They could reduce barriers to information and courses of action that improve our civic lives.

As we think about how technology can improve citizens’ lives in cities, in particular, it has become quite clear that the opportunities and rewards of the technology economy must be shared more equitably across the power faults of race, gender, class, and access. A big chunk of our work will be focused on inclusion, looking to make improvements in both the existing community and the long-term pipeline. Related to that, we’re excited to support and expand STEM education and employment programs in New York.

We’re lucky to be working in New York City, one of the bastions of civic tech. I’ve been collaborating with the civic tech community here for years, be it through conversations at Personal Democracy Forum (the pinnacle conference in the space), working with news outlets and media startups while getting my Master’s at the MIT Media Lab’s Center for Civic Media, or interviewing for my thesis the many technologists and organizers who innovated in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, employed technology to power an unprecedented participatory aid response and in doing so, redefined the resilient community.

What I didn’t know before applying to this job is that Microsoft has assembled a Civic team of great talent, based right here in New York. I’m excited to work closely with John Paul Farmer, co-founder of the Presidential Innovation Fellows program. In addition, the team boasts three amazing Civic Tech Fellows: Jenny Shore from Harvard, and Ken Chan and Fatima Khalid, both from NYU.

A key moment for me in making the decision to join this team was attending Microsoft Executive Vice President and General Counsel Brad Smith’s eloquent, impassioned speech at Personal Democracy Forum, where he unequivocally established Microsoft’s support for net neutrality as well as citizens’ privacy rights in the face of NSA overreach. As you may have seen in the news lately, big changes are afoot at Microsoft, and I’m thrilled to join these efforts.

Please get in touch if you’re in New York and want to think through these challenges together. I’m @mstem on Twitter and matt.stempeck@microsoft.com.

BigApps and Open Data

BigApps team at the BigApps Block Party on July 19 at Brooklyn's Industry City

This past Saturday, I had the pleasure of participating in the BigApps Block Party at Industry City in Brooklyn.  This marks the fifth version of this annual initiative from the New York City Economic Development Corporation.  More than 100 projects were presented by teams of civic hackers and then evaluated by panels of judges and the public at large.  Participants competed for the chance to advance to the final stage of BigApps, which offers over $100,000 to go around in prize money.

Microsoft is supporting BigApps and other initiatives like it because we understand that some of our community’s most-needed solutions will be created by ad-hoc teams of regular people leveraging technology in new and innovative ways to change lives for the better.  That’s the power of technology.  That’s what gets us up every morning.

At its heart, BigApps is a call-to-action focused on the wide and growing range of open data available to the public.  Building upon last year’s much-praised open data policy for New York City, BigApps is a chance for inventors, entrepreneurs, designers, hackers, engineers, and the larger New York City community to come together over a period of several months to make meaningful tools that help people work, play, learn, and live better.

Some of the great ideas under development include apps called Plexx (which allows people who lack college degrees to find and apply to jobs), Reported (which enables easy mobile reporting of people’s taxi complaints), and Easy Food Stamps (which allows citizens to engage more easily with governmental forms in connection with the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program).  But the winner of the people’s choice vote may have been the biggest star of the day: Heat Seek NYC.  An Internet of Things approach to solving the problem of landlords not meeting their legal obligations to provide heat during cold winter days and nights, Heat Seek NYC aims to empower tenants with small, low-cost temperature sensors that can be networked together to report real-time evidence.

Talented developers and designers across New York are working on new and exciting tools all the time.  BigApps brings them together with the missions, motives, resources, and public attention to help see their projects through for maximum impact.  It is also a chance to connect the public more directly to the civic tech world.  For families, the Block Party was a chance to show their children STEM professionals making a difference in the world.  For our Technology and Civic Innovation team, it was an opportunity to support people driving public-benefit tech solutions and to exchange ideas with the eclectic New York civic tech scene – from government officials to professional coders to community activists to non-profit executives to entrepreneurs.

Seeing the projects and the enthusiasm from the teams who presented made us proud to be part of such a great community.  Saturday was a reminder that together we can build a 21st century New York, in which improved access to information about everything from food stamps to jobs to educational opportunities makes so much more possible. We look forward to the culmination of this year’s BigApps initiative with an exciting awards ceremony on September 16th!

Three Civic Innovation Spaces to Watch

viaColumbia-Microsoft

Zach Smith and Bre Pettis with the Cupcake CNC machine, one of many open-source inventions created at NYC Resistor. Source: http://bit.ly/1mH44BY

Increasingly, innovation in New York – and around the world – is being dispersed among what Pete Engiardo has called “living, breathing communities.” Keep an eye out for the next big ideas to come from these community spaces:

1) Maker Space: About 200 of these shared working spaces have already cropped up around the country, including in longtime maker hotbeds such as Brooklyn. Artisans, hackers, inventors, and entrepreneurs are enabled not only to make new things but also to think and interact in new ways. In the spirit of making here at Microsoft, last year we opened our own maker space, The Garage, at our worldwide headquarters. The Garage provides the space, tools, and freedom for Microsoft hardware hackers to innovate. Outside our walls, we’re excited about the potential of longtime maker spaces such as NYU’s ITP, as well as newer ones such as the NYC Economic Development Corporation-supported Staten Island MakerSpace and the Columbia University Maker Space.

2) Hackathon: In a single moment of creativity, collaboration, and wide-ranging perspective, a solution can be born. The hackathon has risen out of this belief and is quickly becoming more than an activity or a competition; it represents a 21st century approach to problem-solving that is increasingly embraced by government, the private sector, non-profits, and society at large. Moreover, these conveners are realizing the potential impact of tying hackathons together with broad “North Stars” – guiding principles and audacious goals – for enhanced impact.

3) Classroom: While the present of civic innovation can be found at hackathons and in maker spaces, its future is being shaped in classrooms. It is essential that we equip the entirety of a diverse student body – both male and female – with the resources and supportive environment necessary for them to develop science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) skills. From littleBits to GoldieBlox to the Xbox Kinect, we can’t wait to help a new generation of ideas hatch.

While each of these spaces is unique, they all have in common a spirit of collaboration among diverse individuals and across seemingly disparate sectors of society that increasingly represent a microcosm of the cities in which they are located. With the help of innovation safe harbors, ideas for a better future can be generated by every one of us. Combined with the technological tools necessary, we can empower every student and every adult with the ability to reach their full potential at hackathons, in maker spaces, in classrooms, and beyond.

Thoughts on (the Internet of) Things

“You don’t know what I need, and what’s interesting is I don’t know.”
Justice Stephen Breyer

The Internet of Things holds enormous promise.  I recently had the opportunity to moderate a panel hosted by the Institute for Education in Washington, DC, featuring Aneesh Chopra, the first-ever Chief Technology Officer of the United States, as well as Dr. Joe Polastre, Dr. Sokwoo Rhee, and Geoff Mulligan, each of whom recently completed tours of duty as Presidential Innovation Fellows with the White House.* It was particularly meaningful to hold the conversation amidst an audience that included Ambassadors from around the world, leading journalists, and a variety of DC thought-leaders eager to engage with this increasingly important topic.

The Internet of Things (IoT) may go by many names, but at its core the concept refers to embedded sensors in the built environment that are networked together to share information directly from machine-to-machine.  Ultimately, impact comes not from the ubiquity of data, but through its combination with connected computing power that can transform those data building blocks into action.  As Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella has said, “The era of ambient intelligence has begun, and we are delivering a platform that allows companies of any size to create a data culture and ensure insights reach every individual in every organization.”

Yes, IoT can make feedback loops faster, create smarter infrastructure and cities, automate tedious processes to save time and money.  But what is so incredibly exciting about this growing suite of innovations is the impact on people’s lives.  Mulligan put the concept into perspective, noting that while the internet’s original function has been to allow people to talk with each other, now it is allowing machines and devices to communicate.  Just as the internet laid the groundwork for an information revolution, so can a sensor-connected network of technologies have a similar impact – one that will save lives, democratize access to goods, and fuel economic growth.

But that revolution won’t occur on its own.  It requires entrepreneurs and companies to incorporate an IoT strategy in their business models and operations.  Importantly, it also requires government.  At the core of the discussion was the question of how, exactly, government should play a role.  Discussion centered not just on funding, but also on government’s potential role as convener.  Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer voiced concern that governmental hands in cultivating innovation might undermine a competitive market system, saying, “You don’t know what I need, and what’s interesting is I don’t know.  And everybody in the government has different needs…”  Furthermore, he pointed out that the “tunnel vision” of large institutions might precondition them to be inherently anti-innovation.

Chopra responded by distinguishing between a top-down control structure and an open innovation approach.  One example of a government taking an open innovation approach could be found in Chopra’s experience convening chief information officers of large energy companies to “get consensus on the standard” around providing users with energy consumption data.  The result is called “Green Button” and it is now helping over 100 million Americans gain digital access to their energy usage information as well as the 21st century tools that can help them save money and reduce energy consumption.  Additional examples of the open innovation approach to government can be found in Chopra’s new book, Innovative State.

As a society, we are faced with increased complexity and greater distribution of capability, meaning that society’s biggest issues can best be addressed through collaborative cross-sector approaches.  When considering IoT policies, we should keep in mind the potential that this framework of government as facilitator offers to empower individuals, entrepreneurs, and businesses to solve problems more effectively.  At the same time, we must help create an environment in which every organization – including governments – can adopt IoT strategies to drive efficiency in their own operations.  Microsoft has been front and center in helping people and businesses incorporate strategies which leverage the Internet of Things.  Our Technology & Civic Innovation team looks forward to partnering actively to further develop smarter and more responsive 21st century communities.

*Full disclosure: As co-founder of the Presidential Innovation Fellows, I am very much a fan of the program and its people.

Hacking the Brownfields

I recently gave a talk atTEDxMarketStreet in San Francisco. It was an exciting opportunity to share the stage with and hear from Tim O’Reilly and others I respect. The theme of the event was civic innovation, and I chose to talk about brownfields. In city planning, a “brownfield” refers to a site that is contaminated but otherwise would have potential. Growing up in 1980s Pittsburgh, in a family of city planners, I had a front row seat to the revitalization of an American city. One of the crowning achievements of that effort was the transformation of a 42-acre contaminated industrial site known as Herr’s Island, which – despite many hurdles and countless naysayers – was successfully converted into a thriving mixed-use community.

Years later, while working in the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, it became clear to me that the term “brownfield” could easily apply more broadly. The same principles I had witnessed as a child are reflected in the challenges we face as a government, as a community, and as a society – from Healthcare.gov to post-Hurricane Sandy New York and New Jersey. Brownfields are all around us – in the streets of Staten Island, in the hallways of a hospital in Newark, and in classrooms in the Bronx. But brownfields won’t fix themselves and they won’t be fixed by the same approaches that allowed deterioration in the first place. The thing about these brownfields is that they affect all of us. And transforming each into something beautiful and meaningful requires working together and offering diverse perspectives to produce innovative solutions. That’s what Microsoft has been doing through STEM education initiatives from TEALS to Code.org to ConnectED. It’s what the Technology & Civic Innovation team will be adding to in the near future. It’s the work that I’m excited to do every day.

So as I spoke to the audience at TEDxMarketStreet, my suggestion was simple: let’s hack the brownfields. Because while success requires equal parts vision and grit, more than anything else, it requires us.