Barack Obama

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Identity management company Okta does not mess around when it comes to keynote speakers. At Oktane 2018, CEO Todd McKinnon welcomed former President Barack Obama onto the stage and the room positively erupted. Eleanor Dallaway reports on the highlights...

What Identity Means in Washington DC

“We live in a culture today where everybody feels the crush of information and the collision of worlds, and it’s disruptive in a way that previous generations just didn’t experience for most of human history.

The great thing about the United States is that we have had a head start over the rest of the world in trying to figure out technology, social media and the new economy. By definition, we are a people that came from everywhere else and had to figure out how to join together, not based on a common race, a religious faith, or even initially a language, but based on a creed and essential principles.

The big challenge we have today is how we maintain that sense of common purpose and how we join together as opposed to splinter and divide.”

Technology: Be All and End All or Part of the Problem?

“The public sector has an extraordinary talent and does a lot of hard things really well that the private sector can’t or won’t do. The one area where there is this huge gap, however, is technology. The difference between the kinds of service responsiveness and nimbleness in government IT services, for example, versus what you see in the private sector, is vast. It’s partly to do with procurement. The way government rules have evolved around how you buy stuff is not well-equipped for things like software, and as a consequence, you get these huge systems, wildly expensive, [that often] don’t work, and we were trying to redesign them in a whole bunch of ways. We need to make data sets that we can aggregate and that researchers from all over the place can work with. The political system is not as responsive as it could be to unleash the opportunities with technology, but also in creating the regulatory structures in areas where technology is moving so quickly.”

President Obama on stage with Okta CEO Todd McKinnon in Las Vegas
President Obama on stage with Okta CEO Todd McKinnon in Las Vegas

The Great Data Exchange

“There is the issue of data collection, how data is used, what happens to personal data, how it gets commercialized? Creating a framework that’s agreed upon, transparent and that people understand is a challenge that we should welcome and do in a structured, systematic way, as opposed to in a spasmodic way.

When there’s a data breach, people are outraged, they feel as if they don’t know that their data is being collected or used in a particular way and then scramble to catch up to the headwinds. What I’ve been driving for in this review is to be proactive and say to law-makers ahead of time, here are the questions we have to grapple with, and here’s our business model that we think makes sense. Here are the tools we have to protect the data and information, but we recognize that we are under some obligation to make sure that the consumers and the ordinary people understand what it is that they’re giving up and what they’re getting in return.”

Technology and the Tax System

“We under-invest in the IRS. Nobody likes the IRS, it’s always a good whipping boy, and so as a consequence, we discovered that the basic IT systems in place are held together by string and bubblegum.

You could make the interaction with the IRS much more efficient, transparent and user-friendly, but that requires some funding. It is in the interest of all of us for there to be a good conversation between the tech community and the people in Washington to create a structure of ongoing deliberation and exchange.

Technology is an area where we had one of our biggest recruitment problems, because frankly, companies like Okta pay better than the US government. It may be that we struggle to retain an outstanding computer scientist or coder or engineer for 20 years because of some of the pay disparities that exist.”

Obviously when you start thinking about the possibilities of hacking into election results, it’s deeply problematic. I will say that my bias is to make voting easier, not harder

Electronic Election Voting

“Three-quarters of this room knows more about the technical elements of online security and the dangers of identity theft in commerce than me. Obviously when you start thinking about the possibilities of hacking into election results, it’s deeply problematic. I will say that my bias is to make voting easier, not harder. We are the only developed country on earth that deliberately makes it hard to vote! I am always biased towards opening up the process to make it easier for citizens to participate and have their voices heard.

I think eventually, if we can secure the voting process, and if frankly there’s a paper record that is generated alongside the online voting, then it’s something that should be considered and tested and almost inevitably will come. It is important for people to understand that the reason we don’t vote is not simply because of the lack of technology, it’s that laws are structured to make it hard for people to vote.”

Convincing People to Innovate

“Change is hard. The starting point for me is always to spend time talking to the people that you want to change, or whose lives are going to be disrupted, so that you actually appreciate who they are, what they care about and what their values are. If they feel heard then potentially they can be partners, and together you can initiate the change.

Initiating change requires hearing enough voices and enough perspectives, particularly among the chief stakeholders, so that even when there are disruptions, you can anticipate some of those disruptions and address them.

Every leader has strengths and weaknesses, and one of the strengths I have is a good BS detector. No-one in my White House ever got in trouble for screwing up, as long as there wasn’t a malicious intent behind it. There wasn’t, which is why I didn’t have any scandals! Which seems like it shouldn’t be something you’d brag about, but if you look at the history of the modern presidency…”

The Best and Worst Advice

“The worst advice I got probably slowed us down and hurt some of our effectiveness early on. It was that once you are President, there are certain ways you should behave and certain ways you should do things. You walk into the Oval Office and you think, ‘I need to wear a tie now, and I have to look serious’. I think that we corrected that towards the end of the first term.

The best advice I got was to maintain humanity. Michelle and I, partly because we wanted to make sure our girls didn’t get weird because of a weird environment, thought it very important to make sure that we did not lose ourselves in this process. We wanted to stay intact in terms of our values and what we believed in, how we treated people, the expectations we placed on ourselves, how we ran our household and how we ran our staff and the expectation of kindness and honesty. We came out intact.”

The difference between the kinds of service responsiveness and nimbleness in government IT services, for example, versus what you see in the private sector, is vast

No Longer Being the President

“You know, it’s pretty good. I don’t miss the trappings of the Presidency. We walked into our own house, and I had to figure out how the coffee maker works, and fight Michelle for closet space, [a fight] which I lost. I didn’t have people saluting or all kinds of trumpets going off, and it didn’t bother me one bit. I didn’t think, ‘oh man, I wish I still had those trumpets.’

I get much more sleep now than I used to. It’s a grueling job. You have barely five hours’ sleep a night for eight years. Now I have time to rest and read, all that stuff. Everything moves in slow motion outside the White House.”

Closing Remarks

“Right now, there are competing narratives globally. How do we deal with globalization or technology, whether it’s displacement or inequality, or migration? How do we deal with the big churn that’s taking place? There are two ways to respond to this. One is the default position for most of human history – to feel threatened. We go tribal, we go ethnic, we hold in, we push off. There’s a constant event, and alongside that, there’s typically power and a zero sum gain, dominance and hierarchies and all that other stuff.

Then there’s another narrative which is more fragile. It’s newer, and it’s the notion that we can think and reason and connect. We can set up institutions based on global law, a sense of principles and dignity in work for every individual. This narrative is based on a respect for freedom of speech and religion, and a whole host of values.”

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