Winging It at The White House (though not the West Wing)

In April, I was invited to participate in the first ever Tech Meetup at the White House. Organized by and the U.S. Chief Technology Officer, Megan Smith. Tech Meetups have been around for about a decade. They are events where new technologies and new tech companies get to demo and network with a community of entrepreneurs, techies, service providers, and investors. They’ve evolved to also include education - speakers, lectures, courses and classes. I co-founded and co-organize the Philly New Technology Meetup along with several Bootstrappers Breakfasts. It was an honor and privilege for me to be part of the first Meetup at the White House.

You can imagine that I was excited about the opportunity. Maybe it would be like a State dinner with Obama greeting us and we’d share a meal on historic White House china. (LOL it wasn’t, more details later.) The coach in me then took control and I asked myself a bunch of questions. Why was I invited? Who else would be participating? What did I want to get out of it? What did the White House want from it? I didn’t have all of the information and I was feeling uncertain. Ideally, I’d want to spend the day working with my Tech Meetup peers, sharing and learning, and the Executive Branch would listen to us and find ways to help. However, the cynic in me remembered what JFK had said, “...ask what you can do for your country.” Oh. I had no idea how to be prepared for this event. I’m an entrepreneur, coach, technologist and community organizer. And while I think I am a nice guy, that level of civic and social impact hasn’t specifically been a focus of my work.

So - as an entrepreneur - I knew that I had to wing this one, trusting my talent and experience, trusting those who organized the event, and being ready for whatever it would be. I went with an open mind and a stuffed briefcase.

I arrived promptly at 8am, unsure of the security procedure. I was supposedly pre-registered, pre-screened, and I confirmed a couple of days in advance. The security line was long, about 50 people in front of me, and soon 50 people behind me. I started to feel a little less “special,” but this is the White House, so it is a somewhat unique privilege. I got to the security booth about 8:20 and - despite confirming my pre-registration - I wasn’t on the list. Would they have to release the hounds on me? Thankfully, I wasn’t alone with this problem, the event organizers were diligently on hand to resolve the issues, and I made a few new acquaintances while waiting 40 minutes to get cleared.

The first stop was the Eisenhower Executive Office Building. They call it the "White House" to its guests, but it’s really next door to that other iconic white building. More correctly, we were on the White House “campus.” An auditorium with about 120 people, a stage, live video streaming for the world to see, and two hours of prepared speeches. Oh :-( A coffee break without any coffee. Nice looking fruit platters without plates or utensils. The stage was set right from the beginning, literally. Welcome to the Executive branch of the Federal government. What I was feeling at that moment was that we'd be showing them our capabilities, and they'd share their agenda in order to engage our help. Important issues like job creation, serving the under-represented, women in tech, LGBT tech, tech in tribal areas - noble and important causes, though ones I (honestly) haven’t dedicated much time towards. I was a little caught off guard.

We went to a big room on the 4th floor for lunch. Box lunches and fruit (again no plates or utensils). I picked a random table and got to meet a few new people. One had been to 8 similar programs at the “White House” (office building) and told me this is the first where she was served lunch. Maybe we were special! At least I was comforted that someone is looking after our tax dollars.

By now, I'm realizing that we were not going to leave the Executive Office Building. The secret is out - being invited to the White House doesn’t always get you into that white house. I was in that room for the rest of the day.

The afternoon program was an “unconference,” an innovative approach for the White House to take. For those not familiar with such an event, participants suggest topics for conference sessions/discussions. Participants then lead those sessions after the group decides the agenda. We were an extraordinarily diverse organization - age, geography, experience, interests, passions - so I was curious as to how it was going to play out. We had two sessions that afternoon. The topics were as diverse as the participants. I used it as an opportunity to accomplish my original mission, to meet my peers running other Tech Meetups and share lessons learned and new ideas. One discussion was about how to scale a Meetup. I already forget the topic of the other (maybe it was about legal organization of Tech Meetups and finances). Since the session topics were off the cuff to begin with, we ended up talking about whatever that session’s participants had on their mind.

After the two unconference sessions, everyone at the program debriefed together. There was lots of optimism that we would all stay connected and work together. One of the participants collected our email addresses to be shared (since the government couldn’t because of privacy issues). What I really liked was the "What I Need" and "What I Have to Offer" boards that were active during the afternoon program. I wonder is who will take accountability to follow up?

Later, there was a super nice dinner thrown by at iStrategyLabs. I think that was a highlight of the day. I got to spend time sharing drinks and a meal with many of my peers. Our conversations could go deeper and we could figure out where the best synergies might be.

As someone who is a relationship builder, I quickly followed up to help some of those that I met that day. I was exposed to lots of different people and new ideas and would have been interested to explore what we could do together. Unfortunately, I am still waiting to hear back from them :-( Nor have I heard anything back from the group email list that had been collected. Dang. I’m not taking it personally, but am a little disappointed (though not surprised) that the one spark - our day at the White House - didn’t ignite a fire.

Putting my coach’s hat back on, what lessons can I share about how to get the most out of an opportunity where you don't have a lot of control?

1. Know your goals. The Meetup at the White House was a big deal. Did it accomplish its goals? It was broadcast and CNN later covered it - perhaps that was enough for the government. What about those at Did I accomplished my goals? It’s difficult to set expectations with having first established goals.

2. Prepare for everything that you do whenever you can. You get out what you put in. Try not to always “wing” it, but know who, what, and why. Ask questions and clarify understanding. Whether it’s a conference, a meeting, a presentation, or work that you’re doing, be sure to read, research, and do as much as you can in advance of starting. I remember that when I learned to cook, it didn't take long for me to remember to read the whole recipe first (you can imagine why) and then prepare my mise en place. When at work, it might help to think and act like a cook - you’ll get a better meal with less effort as a result.

3. Building trust establishes a foundation for a successful collaboration. Diversity and fluidity are essential for innovation.  That makes it more difficult to trust one another. Without trust, accomplishing goals together is less efficient and far more risky. Get trust first. Don’t kick off an event with 120 strangers in an auditorium. Build the strangers into a team first. Have clear leadership. With clear goals and enough preparation, it isn’t difficult to establish trust - and with that trust, you get the effort and the thinking that generates results.

I have no regrets about my participation with the Tech Meetup at the White House. It was an honor and a privilege to be invited and to participate. I would do it again (if they asked me after reading this :-) I plan to continue to try to build from the spark that this Meetup created, to not let those connections get too weak, and work towards building value from the investment that’s been made this far. (Though I just wish I knew what it was!)

(BTW, if you're wondering where Obama was that day, he was next door at a poetry event.)