7. Technology and Design in OregonEpisode 7 - February 20, 2020
In this week's episode, Chris talks to the President and CEO of the Technology Association of Oregon (TAO), Skip Newberry. While Skip may not work in the DS community day-to-day, he has a unique view on design and development from working with so many Oregon tech companies.
The two talk about:
- Focusing on the use of design when helping to reach communities outside of the standard spectrum.
- The idea of how ubiquity matters, to reach the most people.
- Leveraging technology as much as possible to augment in-person connectivity.
- How Oregon tech companies are going through digital transformations and possibly utilizing design systems.
- Portland's Smart Cities Initiative
- Customer success in government rather than just customer service.
- And more.
Download episode transcript.
Skip NewberryPresident and CEO, Technology Association of Oregon
Skip is a frequent speaker on technology trends and topics, economic development, public-private partnerships and civic innovation. Before joining the TAO, Skip served as an economic development policy advisor to Portland Mayor Sam Adams, where he helped create Portland’s first comprehensive economic development strategy in 16 years, recognizing software as a key industry cluster. While at the City of Portland, Skip’s projects included the adoption of the nation’s first open source software procurement policy at the municipal level, an award-winning regional open data initiative and the development of resources to support entrepreneurship, like the Portland Seed Fund.Previously, Skip was a corporate and IP attorney and entrepreneur. Skip is Chairman Emeritus of the Board of Directors of TECNA, Technology Councils of North America, which is a global network of technology and entrepreneurship associations, and he serves on the community advisory board for Wells Fargo and several community-based organizations in the Portland area. Skip is also a 2012 recipient of the Portland Business Journal’s 40 Under 40 award. When he's not working on behalf of the region's tech industry, Skip enjoys exploring the Pacific Northwest with his family.
Chris Strahl: Hey and welcome to the Design Systems Podcast. We're all about the places where design and development overlap. Today I'm chatting with Skip Newberry. He's the executive director of the Technology Association of Oregon. Welcome, Skip, glad to have you here. This is going to be a little bit different than our prior podcasts in that a Skip is not deeply embedded in the design systems community, but I think he has a really kind of unique vantage point. Skip is the executive director of a mission-based organization. It's an association of technology organizations, government higher education here in the Portland area and across the state of Oregon. He gets to be exposed to a lot of what is happening in the public sector and what is happening in the community and how design really serves those people. Skip, why don't you to tell us a little bit about kind of your role and what you do and how that relates to design.
So I'm the president and CEO of the Technology Association of Oregon. We're a regional independent tech association. We're funded by the tech companies and tech departments that we work with. And we also sit at kind of the intersection of the tech industry, the public sector, academic and educational institutions. And we serve as that sort of connector bridge where the tech industry looks to us to provide avenues by which they can have an impact on the economy, on the local community and do so at a collective level. And a lot of what we do on a day to day basis helps companies to solve problems and also to seize opportunities. And a lot of times we're looking to figure out what are the trends, what are the common areas of interest? And then we design programs and solutions based on those trends.
Chris Strahl: So give us a little sense of the scope there. I mean I know you work with startups, you work with some of the biggest companies in Oregon, you work with government. Tell us a little bit about who your constituency really is and who makes up the people that come to these events.
We work with about 500 or so tech companies and tech departments and we really run the gamut in terms of size, stage of company, everything from one or two person startups to some of the largest tech companies in the world like Google, Amazon, Facebook, Microsoft, Intel, and just about everything in between and with tech departments, they're an increasingly larger percentage of our membership base. And so we do work with technical and innovation and design and product teams and IT departments at companies like Nike and Cambia Health Solutions and major manufacturers like Daimler, Greenbriar, Banfield Pet Hospital. And so in that sense we have a richness and variety that allows us to really bring together some of these folks in ways that allow us to help add value both to the larger companies who often want to be more innovative and to figure out how to design and build tech companies within a larger enterprise.
And similarly we can help the startups and smaller tech companies find people to co-innovate with and co-develop with in the local market. Kind of early reference customers or at least people who can provide feedback as they're looking to tackle a much bigger market opportunity.
Now, and I know we've had an opportunity to work together for some time now and it's been great to be able to have Basalt be a part of this community. And we've gotten a lot from it, from hiring to, we've actually produced some content for some events for you guys and getting to just connect with the broader tech community. One of the things that's always impressed me about this association is just the scale of it all, right? And so when you get this sort of purview across this broad and incredibly diverse group of organizations looking at digital technology, looking at design, looking at the role of these things how do these organizations like yours look at the scale of design?
And what I mean by that is, you see so many different organizations that are trying to leverage design, leverage digital to make the next big thing or grow their team or grow their department. What are some of the stuff that you see there?
So whether it's organizational design, whether it's process design, whether it's product design. One common thread among all of that, that I've seen over the past eight years here at the association is scale. Whether it's systems that scale, processes that scale, products that scale. That's what the vast majority of our members are really focused on when you boil many of their problems and challenges down to the essence. And so companies want to invest in those types of things that are going to be with them for some time. They want to get value in a way that the systems are set up in a way that it grows with the company, it grows with the product and the market opportunity that's associated with it.
And it grows with the team as the organization is expanding. And so those are some things that I think are common elements that we've seen across the work that we've done.
Chris Strahl: Gotcha. So when you're looking at these organizations, why do they care about scale? Is this about designing things better? Is this about designing things faster? Is it about leveraging and opportunity for growth? Is it all of the above? Why are they so concerned about scale?
Skip Newberry: It's usually a mix. So some companies have incentives through their investors and the people who are essentially putting the money behind the opportunity to scale as quickly as possible. To capture as much of the market and the opportunity is as possible and beat out all the competitors. And so scale in that case also has an element of speed and they want to do so in a way that allows them to be an early mover.
There's also, I think a desire on the part of some companies to have scale as a way to achieve some resiliency as an organization. So if you're able to get some heft, if you will, you have the ability to weather some storms, some volatility. And with scale also comes in a lot of cases, opportunities to diversify portfolios, whether it's with products or teams or revenue models. And so companies are often looking at how do they become stable and how do they also capture enough growth to satisfy, whether it's investors, board members, their own founders, sort of personal desire to get bigger. And I think that even if you look at some smaller companies, they're still focused on scale and it might be a variation on those themes. But those are some of the things that we've seen as a common factors.
Chris Strahl: So other than just those organizations that are looking at it from a profit motive, what about the mission based organizations, nonprofits, government that are looking to serve communities that are oftentimes not the focus of traditionally their design?
Skip Newberry: So before I was at the association, I worked at the City of Portland and a lot of the work I did focused around economic development. And so in those cases we were trying to figure out how to provide access to resources and services provided by the public sector to as many of the small businesses, businesses in general in the Portland area as we could. And often times it boiled down to accessibility and how could we through our existing infrastructure, reach more people? And then where we had gaps, what were novel ways that we could actually connect with more businesses or other folks who were involved in economic development outcomes. It's the same thing with associations in the nonprofit realm. Many of them are trying to serve a constituency which is similar to government in that regard. They have a population they're trying to help or support.
They're working in some cases with businesses if they're a trade association or a chamber of commerce. And really it's about how can they have an impact across as many companies as possible. And so their scale is also about, in a sense, figuring out how to design solutions that can be delivered efficiently, given limited resources. Because frankly a lot of nonprofits are resource constrained and a lot of same ways that government is increasingly resource constrained. In both cases, success is often measured both in the public sector and nonprofit by how efficient programs can be delivered to as many people or companies or wherever the end user is as possible.
And that's something that I think those two sectors pay closer attention to in some cases than the for profit sector.
Chris Strahl: Gotcha. And so when you think about the way that these designs are changing and the concerns that these organizations have around efficiency, around scalability, one of the things that has been really interesting and we've been doing a little bit of work with the City of Portland ourselves, has been this focus on using design to help reach these communities that are outside of that standard spectrum.
And so you know for them it's all about like let's create a site that uses modern browser features, but for example you can use on a limited access internet connection on a slow computer in a library that can reach people that maybe don't have a home computer. You can use it on a feature phone that is pretty limited in terms of web browsing capability. The idea of making these like really elegant, beautiful experiences but also making them work well kind of for everyone.
Skip Newberry: So when thinking about accessibility and design, one thing that we tried to do when I was at the City of Portland was we were always thinking about what are the ways that we can sort of reach as many people as possible with any new service that we would offer. In a lot of cases it wasn't just what's the latest technology that we can utilize. It's what's the most ubiquitous technology that's already out there.
Chris Strahl: Mm-hmm (affirmative). That's a great way of thinking about it is this idea of how ubiquity matters, right? That's a consideration in design for a public sector organization that is really looking hard at trying to understand how to reach the most people. It's less about how do I take advantage of this really cool new feature in the digital space? It's how do I take advantage of the features that are present for the people I'm trying to reach.
Skip Newberry: Mm-hmm (affirmative). And that's where creativity and design come in where you can leverage some, in some cases existing technology, existing infrastructure, but do so in a way that makes it more engaging or more accessible to more people.
Chris Strahl: So how do you do this with your constituency, because I know TAO has hundreds of members, big and small, very diverse. What do you use in terms of digital technology and design to reach them?
Skip Newberry: One thing that's been intriguing for me and that attracted me to this role in the first place was this idea of the technology is kind of disrupting the old model of trade associations and chambers of commerce and member-based organizations. And it's making it easier for people to connect with one another. And that's a big success metric that we rely on in terms of are we adding value. And so for us we try to leverage technology in as many ways as we can to augment some of the in-person connectivity that we provide. So one example would be this solution that we call Mobilize, which is an online community engagement tool that we've been using to manage our online communities. It's a way for us to daylight the subject matter expertise that resides within our membership and allow them to populate these online channels with their content in a way that allows us to essentially broaden the umbrella, if you will, and include more people in the conversation. It makes it easier for people who are, for example, working remote but part of a major tech company and can't get into downtown for an event.
Skip Newberry: And also it helps people that might have a need to be at the office or working on something project based at a particular period of time but can still engage in a substantive conversation with our members kind of across time and space.
Chris Strahl: So you can have these options to broaden the chances to communicate no matter where you are.
Skip Newberry: Yep. Another way we've been using online solutions is instead of trying to create a new social media network or whatever, we've essentially been going to where people already are and, and I think that's a good metric that's worked well for us. Instead of trying to reinvent the wheel, kind of go to where people already are and engage them there. So we found that like in our Eugene office, Facebook is kind of the tool of choice and culturally it's different in different environments. So in Portland's and in Bend, it's more of a reliance on LinkedIn and Twitter.
Chris Strahl: Yeah, it's funny, right? I think about my own use of social tools and how I communicate and connect with the rest of the business world here. And in thinking about it, I do use LinkedIn a fair amount. I think that the frustration I have with it is it's become so spammy.
But having that sort of private community of people that I actually like care that is, is somewhat curated for me. Right? Self curation only goes so far. I think I've had like five or six jobs in the past two decades. And so among that there's a whole like world that has changed. It is very difficult for me to manage myself inside of my own network. And so having that access to a community that is somewhat curated around an interest is actually really appealing. And I think that combination of go to where people are and then also provide them with an avenue that doesn't exist for others is a really great combination of understanding how to reach and communicate with the right group. So I mean this is a podcast about design systems. So I do want to get your hot take on what you've heard from the community. Have you heard rumblings of design systems and I want to hear from you, what do you think they are?
Skip Newberry: Yes, I have heard of the term used and in some cases it's been in the context of companies that are trying to go through digital transformations of some sort. And are looking at how do they make more efficient their existing content and sort of web marketing strategies. And so we've had some members that have operated in and around the space with different solutions or tools over the years. And frankly some of these tech enabled companies we've worked with are often going through digital transformations. And that's usually the thing that prompts them to get involved with us is they're like, "We want to know more about who are the companies doing what in that space."
Chris Strahl: Gotcha. Well it's very validating to our messaging. Thanks. It's always great when you can hear from somebody that has 500 people as a membership, hear that it is about digital transformation. We very much agree. Design systems are typically looking at a transformation from the old way of thinking about how you build digital products into a new, more modern, more scalable framework. So that's awesome.
As always, this podcast is brought to you by Basalt, a full service digital agency. Basalt is committed to building a better web and specializes in creating design systems. Learn more at Basalt.io.
So one of the other things that you're working on that we've talked a little bit about is this idea of smart cities and the Smart Cities Initiative that Portland has become rather involved in. Why don't you tell me a little bit more about that? I know that's a important project for you guys.
Skip Newberry: Really for us it's about looking at ways the technology can help to transform government in a digital sense and create kind of that digital layer that allows government to deliver services more effectively, more efficiently and create greater engagement with constituents. Some of the work we've done has been focused on mobility solutions, which are frankly about how people get from point A to point B or how goods get shipped. But in terms of how people are moving from point A to point B, what's really interesting about that is it's a great way to connect with them during that process. Because every day someone is moving about space.
Chris Strahl: That includes everything from ride share services like Uber and Lyft as well as the extremely controversial scooter program. What else does it look at when you think about things like mobility or access?
Skip Newberry: Yeah, so mobility really is fundamental to thinking about a lot of different policy outcomes, how people get to and from work, how people get to and from educational opportunities, how people pick up their kids or family members safely. So it's got public safety outcomes, environmental outcomes with air quality and active forms of transit, health and wellness. It really is a backbone for a lot of other Smart City policy areas and project outcomes. And so for us, focusing on mobility at the outset was pretty important strategically. The other thing that we've been looking at with Smart Cities is how do governments transform themselves culturally to be more proactive rather than reactive in how they engage with residents. From that standpoint, it's like how do you get government to think about customer success more so than just customer service?
Chris Strahl: So how do you get government to think about that?
Skip Newberry: So I've been thinking a lot about this. What we've been looking at is the fact that most people interact with government at the local level when something goes wrong, right? They want a pothole filled, they want graffiti removed, they need to pay a traffic fine, or they've got a complaint of some sort or they're looking to build out tenant improvements and they need a permit, right? All those things are transactional. When I think of customer success, I think of something that is proactive, right? So it's government reaching out to someone and saying, "Okay, we've got data, or we know a little bit about your interests. Here's some valuable services and or information that we have that we think will improve your day to day life." Right? You like dogs, here's a dog walking a group that gets together as part of your neighborhood association every Saturday. As opposed to the more common ways that people engage with government, which is, hey something bad happened, I need graffiti removed or a pothole filled, or I need to pay a parking fine. It's very transactional and generally not a positive experience.
Chris Strahl: Yeah, there's not exactly like a large pothole watching society. Though I could definitely see that happening.
Skip Newberry: Yeah. So you think of like how a lot of tech companies we work with, especially those that are SaaS based or software as a service platform as a service, really looking to engage their customers in a way that's more repeated in relationship-based and government I think should really be looking at much the same thing. How do they engage constituents in a way that gets them more involved and aware of what the government offers and what it could offer. And that's where we've been coming in and doing some design sprints and other types of activities where we're helping to create these sandboxes, if you will, for the public sector to experiment and co-developed solutions with the community.
Chris Strahl: Yeah, and you can think about how that could expand really easily across public utilities, across the neighborhood, associations across Oregon and Portland, all of these different groups that have this typically transactional relationship with the people that they serve. And trying to think about ways that you could be more engaging with that community to really show the value of the service you provide.
Skip Newberry: Exactly.
Chris Strahl: Yeah. I really can't wait for Pacific Power to contact me and tell me like, "Hey, we'll do home monitoring and analytics of all your appliances for free and give you like a cool little dashboard or something. That would be really neat."
Skip Newberry: I mean that'd be quite a differentiator.
Chris Strahl: Yeah, for sure. It's really awesome to take on this idea of new ways of looking at service for government, for their constituency, for utilities, for all these other organizations that want to have a more proactive approach to working with citizens and the people they serve. Do you have some really awesome examples of where this is working and how even maybe our community is leading this effort?
Skip Newberry: Yeah. I think there is a big opportunity for some combination of local, maybe even state governments in the U.S. To do something along the lines of what's already been done in places like Estonia or the city of Tel Aviv in Israel.
Chris Strahl: Tell us more about that. I think that's really interesting.
Skip Newberry: Yeah. Tel Aviv they launched a program about six or seven years ago called DigiTel , which is both a database that the city has curated with 60% of the region's residents voluntarily opting in.
Chris Strahl: Wow, you can't even get that many people to vote.
Skip Newberry: No, no, it's nuts. I mean you think of like the value of a database like that and it's incredible from a marketing tool standpoint. So they have the ability to segment across a variety of different interests and subject matter areas that are relevant not only to residents but also to small businesses and people that want to market to them.
And so as the trusted middleman broker that does not sell people's data to third parties. The government is able to go to say theater owners and say, "You've got unsold seats. We know you want to sell them. We can give you revenue you wouldn't have recognized otherwise. But in return we're going to sell these at a 50% discount to members of our community who have expressed an interest in theater but are socioeconomically not able to attend at the normal market rate." So the government gets to check the box of an equity outcome and the theater owners get to receive revenue that they wouldn't have otherwise. And so the government in Tel Aviv is consistently doing a bunch of this broker type activity that is in service to these public policy outcomes.
Chris Strahl: Wow. And you think about the way that that is happening inside of the US right now, right? Where everything is so advertising driven and so personalization driven here that you could think about trying to make something like that happen in a Facebook group or something like that. And I think that that would definitely be possible and probably a better channel than just like Facebook advertising, right? So if there's ways of connecting with those people that are in a disadvantaged situation, that also then provides for a local business, that seems like a really clear win-win.
Skip Newberry: Yep. And this gets at something that's maybe a little bit counterintuitive to what we talked about earlier, which is, you kind of meet people where they are or go to people where they already are. But in the case of Tel Aviv, they created a database before they got into the technology and the application layer and they said that's the value is the database which we can segment all day long and bring in new applications as needed as technology evolves.
And so what they did was they created their own. And their platform has terms where they don't sell data and so they positioned themselves as that sort of powerful sort of neutral data broker if you will. And in many cases there are a lot of other private sector companies that have tried to do that in a variety of industries and continue to do that. That's a very valid business model these days.
Chris Strahl: Right. So I can opt into something like that and not worry about my personal data being sold to a political campaign.
Interesting. That's really cool.
What about Estonia?
Yeah, so Estonia they established an e-residency program and they targeted specifically startups and so it had more of an economic development outcome. They wanted to attract startups to set up some sort of relationship with the country of Estonia and they're dealing with a population decrease, a brain drain.
And so they wanted to create an affinity program through a series of incentives that they could offer to startups to essentially establish a connection to Estonia. So since ostensibly as these startups are located in other areas, if they have a relationship to Estonia and received some benefit, they're going to be more inclined to set up a satellite office or even relocate the headquarters there, establish a bank account. So there's all of these benefits that accrue to the economy of Estonia by virtue of these incentives that Estonia is offering to startups globally through it's e-residency program. The CTO Estonia actually described it in such a way that I think was compelling. He said, "We're adopting an approach that really treats government as a platform."
So talk to me a little bit more about government as a platform. I think that's kind of an interesting concept, right? You know, first of all, the idea of having a CTO of a government, I mean that's still a fairly new thing, right? I mean we've only had that in the US for ten years or something like that. How do you think about then government as a platform with an operational mindset similar to a SAS platform or something like that?
So this gets at some of the themes we've talked about around access and innovation and government, much like large enterprises isn't necessarily the speediest of innovators. And so when you think about staying abreast of the latest tech trends, government could essentially offer infrastructure and some incentives like what Tel Aviv was doing through access to a database from a marketing standpoint that would incentivize startups and other more nimble, agile tech companies to develop applications at a different layer that sits on top of that platform.
And so to get access to the platform, the government can say, "Here are the terms that you need to abide by." Here's where the data goes. It's ours and you get some data, but only at this aggregate level. And here's what we're going to do in terms of pricing and how we offer some of these services and bundle them and provide them to residents. And so you can imagine this sort of marketplace that's built on a trusted network provided by government.
And by network I mean a platform.
And so you think about, that's how government leapfrogs designed. Where it's been traditionally a bit of a laggard in the design area. I don't think that there's that much in government that is truly famous in the digital space design-wise. But thinking about how you go about leapfrogging that is you look at these private companies to actually build your experiences based upon a data platform or based upon a service that is being offered.
Mm-hmm (affirmative). And so like data.gov was an early example of government offering a piece of valuable digital infrastructure. And then a lot of local governments and state governments saw that and they were like, "Hey, this is where things are going. We need to create application and design contests around this to incentivize our local community to develop solutions using this public open data." And some were more successful than others and I think ten years after data.gov it's kind of mixed results. But I think where you can get into some great results is where you've got government helping to provide an understanding of the market and its needs and the data at a certain level to companies that can then develop the innovative applications on top of it.
Yeah, it makes me want to think about what if design systems or design and experience was a service that was offered by that platform and that's really relevant to us. And thinking about the podcast, the idea of having a state of Oregon design system similar to what they've done at the federal level with like WSDS and everything like that. That might be an interesting service to exist within that platform.
Exactly. Kind of a digital design service, if you will, that can help work with state and local government here in Oregon would be a very sort of novel, valuable service that I think a lot of tech companies can get behind. And you can almost imagine like entrepreneurs in residence or sort of tours of duty by tech professionals serving terms as you will, working on behalf of the digital and design service.
That's awesome. Thinking about our local community because I mean I can't believe I'm saying this, I've been here 15 years. What are some ways that Portland and us Oregonians are kind of leading the charge here?
Skip Newberry: Yeah, I think that we have a very civically engaged community. Everyone's an armchair, urban planner. You go to a coffee shop and chances are there's some sort of conversation going on there.
There's a lot of armchair everything here.
Yes, that can be true.
Portland is full of opinions.
Yes. And so that is an opportunity to be leveraged. And so with the right types of programs and sort of networks and ways for people to engage with government, you can move mountains. And so suddenly government doesn't become resource deficient. It's more of a situation of abundance. There's a lot of really fantastic, really talented people and companies here and to the extent that the local government, state government can essentially mobilize them with a vision and some resources, ya know, some platforms and some understanding what the community needs. I think just about anything as possible.
Awesome. That's a really a hopeful future. I love that idea. What are the things that you see that, building on that theme of hopefulness and excitement about this abundance where we have these platforms that are servicing this constituency, what has you excited about that future?
That's a great question. To me, there's a few different things that are cause for optimism. One is there's a lot of continued economic growth in Oregon and people are moving here with ideas and companies and a sense of responsibility for making this place great, not ruining it. And to me that makes sense because some of what we talked about earlier was the world is moving towards a place where people want more sort of grounding in relationships, in the less transactional environment. Oregon is a very relationship based place because it's small enough still and people are here for the most part for the long haul.
They want to put down roots. And whether it's they want to get involved civically, whether it's they want to start a family here. There's a number of different reasons why people are here. Some just want to be able to create something really cool and not be judged right out of the gate. And that's happening and does happen here all the time in a variety of sectors. And so to be a part of that is really cool and I think that brand, that vision is something that people are increasingly more aware of around the US and even internationally. So that's a cause for optimism. Another is in terms of economic data, we've got some great growth metrics in terms of new companies being formed here. It's still pretty capital efficient. We have some great larger scale companies now.
Companies getting some bigger scale and we have a couple of unicorns in tech within the region, which is exciting.
It's been super exciting lately to see just the scene kind of explode here with this optimism and enthusiasm about this growing burgeoning tech community. Especially around some of the real big successes that we've had over the past ten years.
Yep, exactly. And I think as well that here in the Northwest there is some more collaboration going on across areas, specifically Washington, Oregon and British Columbia. There's a shared sort of cultural affinity. It's been called Cascadia.
Exactly. And they're looking for areas of common collaboration, right? So transportation solutions being one of them, climate outcomes being another. And could this region be positioned as sort of an incubator or living laboratory? In some cases we're more resilient against climate change, given some natural resources that are here. But on the other there's been a greater sense and sensitivity to the importance of the environment. And so how does that become a part of our identity? And how does that drive innovation and technology and some of these other areas that we've talked about? I think there's something interesting there.
Oh, for sure. I mean, as an avid fisherman and skier, I have a hugely vested interest in trying to use my skills in digital and technology to try to preserve those activities that I love and it's a big part of the reason why I live here. Well, awesome. Skip, thanks so much for taking the time to chat with us. Great to be a part of a hopeful future with you, and thanks so much for having us as TAO members. It's been really awesome to watch this association grow and become an impactful force for this community.
Thank you. It's been great working with you and really enjoyed our conversation today.
That's all for today. We'd love to hear from you with questions, ideas for new episodes, beer recommendations or comments. You can find us on Twitter at @theDSpod. Cheers and thanks for listening to the Design Systems Podcast.