WashingtonExec interviewed Google executive Michele Weslander Quaid about how to move forward to address the STEM crisis. Michele talks about being a leader in her field that began with a childhood desire to become an astronaut, the importance of hands-on experiential learning to inspire students to pursue science, tech, engineering, and math, and the value of parents encouraging curiosity in children.
WashingtonExec: Please tell us about your background before Google.
Michele Weslander Quaid: People often ask me what inspired me to pursue science and engineering. As a child I was always fascinated with astronomy and wanted to travel into space. To work for NASA, I knew I needed to go the technical route in school, so that’s what drove my educational track, and I was inspired by my physics teacher in high school, so I started college as a physics major. After two years of study, I realized that applied science appealed more to me, so at the start of my junior year I added Electrical Engineering classes to get an Engineering Science major. Completing two technical degrees in four years was challenging, but I had great teachers who encouraged me. After graduating with a B.S. in Physics and Engineering Science (double major) with honors, I went on to earn an M.S. in Optics. While still in graduate school, I was excited to be recruited into America’s “other” space program, which allowed me to pursue my interests and also afforded me opportunities to have a positive impact here on Earth.
My first job was as an Image Scientist and Systems Engineer, initializing imaging systems, optimizing image processing, creating imagery-derived products and working with analysts. Then I became a Chief Engineer and branched out into IT, building distributed architectures, deploying web-based services for remote data access, establishing rapid prototyping environments, and delivering collaboration tools to facilitate information sharing and collaboration across global operations. This experience highlighted the fact the barriers we too often faced were cultural and policy related, not technological. After the tragic events of 9/11/2011, the government realized they needed innovative leaders to help them make necessary changes, so they recruited me. At the age of 32, I was sworn in as a Senior Executive (that’s military general/flag officer equivalent in civilian service) in the US Government, and given the charge to help the national security community transform the way it does business. Serving as a senior executive in various national security related posts, I had an amazing opportunity to make a positive impact on the country and the world. As you can imagine, leading change and fostering a culture of innovation in government was challenging because the government tends to be very bureaucratic and resistant to change, and isn’t innovative by nature. While it wasn’t easy, I worked with a great team and we made significant progress. There were times when people said what we were trying to do was impossible, but we did it. In my various roles, I served as a senior technical advisor (CTO role) for two different agency directors — the Directors of the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency and the National Reconnaissance Office — and also had the opportunity to serve as the first Deputy CIO for the Intelligence Community for the first Director of National Intelligence. That afforded me the opportunity to lead across the entire Intelligence Community — 17 different agencies and our customers — and work to remove the policy impediments and to implement technology that enabled us to better integrate, collaborate and operate as a community, provide better support to our customer base, and ultimately better security for our nation.
“That experience really highlighted the need for the government to adopt commercial technologies and harness the power of the open Internet and modern security practices, rather than defaulting to closed networks or classified systems.”
It’s important to understand the people you are serving and to see first hand their operational needs, and I took the opportunity to travel into theaters of combat (including Iraq and Afghanistan), in order to spend time “boots on the ground” with the operators, identify issues (both technical and non-technical) and then translate those needs back to the acquisition officers, engineers, analysts and policy makers, so that the broader enterprise could take action. In my last government assignment, I served on a Secretary of Defense task force supporting stability operations overseas. Whether working with the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), NATO or CENTCOM, they all said, “Information sharing and collaboration are the biggest needs, and we need to be able to do this with ‘non-traditional partners’ — local citizens, private volunteers, non-government organizations,” but they didn’t really have a good way of doing that. Their default was usually to tell these partners, “You have to use my closed government network and you have to use my government-developed tool,” but the reality was that a lot of people put their lives at risk to collaborate with us, and we couldn’t ask them to further jeopardize their safety by using openly government systems. That experience really highlighted the need for the government to adopt commercial technologies and harness the power of the open Internet and modern security practices, rather than defaulting to closed networks or classified systems. The government needs to use the Internet as a platform to share information and create a shared situational awareness with whatever the “coalition of the day” might be. Doing this effectively enables what I call, “unity of effort without unity of command.” Google’s state of the art globally distributed architecture with security and privacy controls, provides a great technology platform and collaboration services to do that and much more.
WashingtonExec: Explain your goals and day to day role as Google’s Innovation Evangelist & Public Sector CTO.
Michele Weslander Quaid: My goal is to make a positive difference in the world, and Google is a great place to do that. As our co-founder and CEO says, “Focus on the user and all else will follow.” We have a team of incredibly talented people with a commitment to innovation and an uncompromising focus on what’s good for our users.
As Innovation Evangelist, I do a lot of outreach and user advocacy. Google provides technology that people use all over the world, and putting a human face on Google is so important. In my experience, people always welcome the opportunity to interact with someone from Google to learn more about our technologies and platform, and understand our culture and how we do innovation. These conversations with our users afford Google an opportunity to better understand the problems they have that we could solve, and discuss with them the future that we can collectively imagine. In addition, I’m also asked to speak from my personal experience as an executive leading change and innovation in both the private and public sectors. The audience and venues can range from business professionals at large conferences to students at schools. While a lot of preparation goes into every speaking event, it can be very rewarding. If something that I shared gives someone an insight or an inspiration it’s well worth it. When people say, “You gave me that spark, the encouragement and the insight, and I’m going to run with it,” that’s great feedback.
As CTO for the pubic sector, a big focus of mine is building trust and relationships with our partners and customers because that’s the foundation for being successful together. In my capacity as a trusted advisor and strategist both within Google and with our customer base, I regularly meet with senior leaders, listen to their objectives and the issues they face, brainstorm with them and determine how I can help. Utilizing my knowledge of Google’s technologies and the capabilities of our partners, I assist customers in building technology roadmaps and in making connections with the right partners to implement these technologies to enable their mission success. My main focus when working with the public sector is helping them figure out how they can transform the way they do business, and be more agile and adaptive in this ever changing world.
In my experience, the three biggest impediments to innovation are culture, policy, and technology. It’s the culture that is resistant to change, that prevents the creation of policies to allow the adoption of the technology that would enable the transformation of their business practices. Leaders are best advised to be leaders of the necessary cultural change first, and then the rest will follow. With the credibility of having been a government senior executive who has successfully led cultural change and established new rules by which organizations and entire communities play, I’m able to provide customers with insights, advice, strategy and relevant examples that they can model and apply to their organization.
My technical background enables me to be a quick study, and I’m able to dive deep in a technical conversation, but also translate complex concepts on the fly in a manner that a non-technical audience can understand. Being someone with a technical background, who also has communication and social skills, has proven to be a great asset. Quite often I’m in the mode of translating between the technical and the non-technical, or between Silicon Valley lingo and Government lingo, applying real world experiences for context, facilitating understanding on both sides. Google is an innovation leader with a famously great corporate culture, and being able to speak to those business practices in the context of public-sector mission sets, I’m able to help public-sector leaders identify how they may be able to apply some of those practices successfully in their environment.
WashingtonExec: Google encourages employees to explore their own creative tech interests. What specifically has Google inspired you to do?
Michele Weslander Quaid: A passion of mine is inspiring children to realize that they have the power to change the world — you’re never too young to change the world! One of my favorite ads of all time is “Here’s to the crazy ones” from Apple’s “Think Different” campaign, which I encourage people to watch on YouTube. “Here’s to the crazy ones… The ones who see things differently. They’re not fond of rules, and they have no respect for the status quo… They change things. They push the human race forward. While some see them as the crazy ones, we see genius. Because the people who are crazy enough to think they can change the world, are the ones who do.”
Historically, America has been a world leader when it comes to taking risks and pioneering new things. Today, America has a crisis when it comes to STEM expertise, and attracting and retaining people in those career fields is of critical importance. There are people that encouraged and inspired me along the way, and the best way that I can repay them is by paying it forward and inspiring others. So, I’ve never turned down an opportunity to speak to students or get involved in some way in promoting STEM education.
Google supports me engaging in STEM outreach, and participating in programs at the local schools. For example, we hosted a group of GEMS (“Girls Excelling in Math and Science”) students at the Google office in Reston, VA, and did a fun hands-on geospatial training module with the students. Some of my colleagues and I talked about our schooling and how we came to be at Google and what we are doing in our careers. The same teachers that did the GEMS program, requested my assistance in developing the next generation program, which is called 21st Century Girls. One Saturday, we ran a program revolving around how girls can make a positive impact on their world and how they can apply their STEM skills to do so. In the module I led, we taught the students how to use Google Earth as a platform for shared situational awareness in the context of humanitarian assistance and disaster response. Once the students worked through that scenario, they went exploring in Google Earth, and they did not want to leave to go to the next class because they were having so much fun.
In addition, I serve on the Mid Atlantic Girls Collaboration Initiative (MAGiC) Champions Board, and am on the Board of Trustees for the National Flight Academy (NFA). The inspiration for the National Flight Academy came from former pilots and military officers who realize that we have a STEM crisis in America and they thought if students were in a real-world environment where they could apply their STEM skills to solve a problem, that might inspire them to pursue STEM careers. They took a building and made the entire inside of it a replica of an aircraft carrier called Ambition, and created an immersive program for students where they can be a part of a squadron on this aircraft carrier. In addition to flight training, the students learn how to apply what they have learned about science, technology, engineering and math to real world scenarios. They work with technologies such as Google Earth for situational awareness and to make calculations regarding flight plans for a rescue mission. Collaborating closely with one of the teachers from the local school system, I was able to coordinate Google sponsoring a squadron of students from across the school district who were very deserving, but who may not have had the opportunity to do something like this without a scholarship. They went on board the Ambition for a week and their feedback was awesome. The students said their horizons were broadened, they were challenged and inspired, and they returned to school last Fall with a better focus on what they want to do in the future. Their teachers noticed the difference as well, and this first NFA “graduating” class has generated great excitement about the program across the school district.
WashingtonExec: Expound on your views of STEM education.
Michele Weslander Quaid: There are exceptional teachers who have done wonders to educate and inspire. However, the core curriculum taught in schools is predominantly book learning, vice experiential learning. It is memorization and recitation, which can be boring and seem like a pointless exercise to students. There is such an intense focus on standardized tests, but those tests should not be the sole measure of a person and their potential for success. In addition, there seems to be a growing concern across the country regarding the “common core” curriculum that is being proposed, not only in regards to STEM, but also with regard to reading and writing. The study of STEM encourages curiosity and inquisitiveness, and teaches analytical thinking and decision making skills. Similarly, the classic study of the humanities not only educates students about world history, but also inspires creative thinking and creative writing. Some people have said we should focus on STEAM (Science Technology Engineering Arts and Math) because arts are part of creativity and innovation. While standardized tests have their place, they can’t measure certain skills, abilities and attributes that will help people be successful in life – skills like critical thinking and decision making, and attributes like persistence and determination, and the ability to envision how things could be and not be limited by how they are today. Our education system should be focused on graduating productive, self-governing citizens, who have the ability to face problems, analyze alternatives, and make good decisions. Part of this is inspiring kids to ask questions and focus their time and energy in being curious about the world around them, and apply what they’ve learned to everyday problems to come up with practical solutions to make the world a better place. Analytical and critical thinking skills are really important, as is persistence and determination to keep working on an experiment or a problem until you get it right. The experiential learning is what gets people excited. That’s when it “clicks” and the student realizes, “Wow, I can do this!” Being able to give students a hands-on experience with technology application can really be a game changer.
WashingtonExec: A recent APS study showed that students went into STEM careers at a higher rate when their parents became more involved with STEM academic decisions and overall STEM interest. In your role as a STEM leader, what advice would you give to parents to inspire their children to develop interests in science, tech, engineering or math and encourage them to take STEM courses?
Michele Weslander Quaid: It starts with parents encouraging curiosity in children – when they see something or they are using certain things, ask them how they think it works or how they would make that. Children today are reaping the benefits of the great science and engineering minds that came before them. They use these amazing electronic devices, but do they wonder how they were made or do they just take them for granted? A concern is that too many people take our wealth and prosperity for granted, and don’t realize that it’s our technical base that has made some of the biggest breakthroughs that mankind enjoys today, and people all around the world have benefited from our innovation and expertise. If we don’t continually replenish that technical base, we may no longer enjoy these benefits, and we certainly won’t remain a leader in this area. So we must inspire kids to use their imagination, create and build things early on. That’s why I take every opportunity I can to talk to both parents and students about the value of STEM education, for even if someone doesn’t choose that career path in the end, the skills they learn through STEM studies like the analytical thinking and decision making will help them later in life. Parents should always be encouraging children to be inquisitive, and give them hands-on opportunities to apply the skills they’ve learned. There are so many fascinating technical career opportunities that many people are not aware of, and if parents in those fields reach out to students and share what they have done in their various careers, it is a great way to get those students interested in STEM education and excited about the opportunities that await them.
“On the innovation side, the world is changing. Do you want to be a part of that change, shaping and molding it? The answer should be yes, and I want to be someone who is encouraging others — around the world — to explore and follow their passion. You have to find something you’re passionate about, in order to have the perseverance to see it through.”
WashingtonExec: In your professional career you’ve broken barriers by focusing on collaboration among agencies and individuals. How can that successful collaboration model work in addressing STEM issues?
Michele Weslander Quaid: Creating an environment where people can share their knowledge, ideas, and what has been successful, so that others can build on it, is really key. A great example of this is Khan Academy. A man, who happens to have three STEM-related degrees from MIT, created video tutorials for family members, and when he shared them on YouTube they went viral. Now Khan Academy is a non-profit education website with the stated mission to provide a free world-class education for anyone anywhere. Teachers tell me that they have students watch the videos and discuss them in the classroom, so the Khan Academy complements and has become a part of their curriculum. In addition, the “Did You Know: Shift Happens” presentation that was made by some educators in the US was a wake-up call regarding the state of our STEM education and technology adoption, and when they posted it on the Internet it went viral.
Historically, America has been a country of innovators and risk takers and creators of transformative technologies. While we may have led this technological revolution, if we don’t address the STEM education crisis, we will fall behind. In order to maintain our role as a global technology leader, we must have passion and conviction, and inspire the next generation to pursue STEM education and careers. We need to reach students before high school, because if you wait until high school, you’ve put them at a disadvantage as they may not be in the right science and math track. People working in STEM fields should participate in career days at local schools and talk about their jobs, so that students can get ideas of what they can do with the things they are learning.
On the innovation side, the world is changing. Do you want to be a part of that change, shaping and molding it? The answer should be yes, and I want to be someone who is encouraging others — around the world — to explore and follow their passion. You have to find something you’re passionate about, in order to have the perseverance to see it through. At Google, our passion is using technology to enhance people’s lives — whether it’s the great services we offer with search, geo and apps, or developing cutting edge Internet transport and compute power with great security, or taking on the world’s hard problems that others haven’t dared to touch. One of the challenges the leadership gives us is, “Dare to be audacious, and have a healthy disregard for the impossible,” and people from across the company have collaborated to develop things like self-driving cars, Google Glass wearable computing, and Google Ocean, which is an underwater Street View. Outside of Google, there are people who have taken on hard challenges, dared to change the world and have been great inspirations. Do you want to accept the world that you’ve been given, or have a part in changing it for the better? What’s your passion? Find others who share that passion, and together you can do great things. As Margaret Mead said, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”