Code for America on the TED stage

This week I did something I never thought I would do: I gave a talk at TED. I’ve given several TEDx talks now, but TED in Long Beach has been the stage of such world-changing talks as Sir Ken Robinson’s indictment of traditional education and Jill Bolte Taylor’s insights from her stroke, and I took it pretty seriously.

The prep was pretty intense. I started with a draft of the talk that I thought was pretty good, but three and four drafts later it was still, clearly, not good enough. Nine and ten drafts later, it still wasn’t there, and my ability to stay with it was wearing terribly thin. At one point I threw a spoon in frustration, but I’d be disingenuous if I implied that was the only sign of sort of falling apart. There were nights I couldn’t sleep thinking about standing there getting ready to go on stage and not being confident in what I was going to say. There were days I cursed the lovely June Cohen for asking me to do this. There was stress about what to wear, and enormous changes at the last minute.

There were also, thankfully, an enormous number of people who had my back. Christina Harbridge taught me to speak in my own voice and to trust myself, and without her I would have gone terribly astray. She and many others, including Tim O’Reilly, Abhi Nemani, Jack Madans, Lane Becker, Thor Mueller, June Cohen, David Feldman, and Gina Barnett heard drafts of the talk and provided valuable input. Abhi did my slides. June suggested that if I was going to wear black, I should also wear some “statement jewelry,” and not having anything good of my own, I sent a call to help to my girlfriends, who texted me pictures of big chunky necklaces and bracelets that might look good on stage. (I was adorned with a different fabulous necklace each day of the event, courtesy of Maxi Lilley and Anne Tway.) And as the hour of my talk approached, I received emails and texts from dozens and dozens of friends, supporters, donors, family, colleagues and ex-colleagues, wishing me good luck, most notably from the staff back at the office, who sent so much love and support I got all choked up. I strongly suspect they held an actual prayer session for me, masquerading as a staff meeting.

The talk just before mine was a romp through meta-layers of crowdsourcing; Lior Zoref crowdsourced his whole talk as an homage to crowdsourcing. He was also hysterically funny and brought an actual ox on stage, which, honestly, just isn’t fair, and provided me another “damn you, June Cohen” moment for making me follow him. But while I mentioned crowdsourcing only once, my talk was almost as crowdsourced as his. It’s not just all the feedback, support, and fashion help. Nigel Jacob and Chris Osgood in Boston’s Office of New Urban Mechanics let me lift their possum story practically verbatim from a presentation they did in New York, and provided the awesome Adopt-a-Hydrant posters. Scott Silverman (via Ryan Resella) provided the other possum story and they and all the other fellows, of course, provided the inspiration for the entire talk. The shadow of Tim O’Reilly’s famous brain can be seen clearly in the logic of the talk, and his heart in the values I tried to express. And the reason I got to stand on that stage in the first place is the amazing Lesa Mitchell, who I’m pretty sure was pitching me to the powers that be for quite some time. I am one lucky woman.

Speaking at TED is an amazing experience. The team appears to have practically unlimited resources, but it’s lovely to see how they use those resources to create a really superb experience for their speakers and attendees. The team takes great care to make sure the speakers understand their surroundings, are comfortable with the stage and backstage environments, and aren’t taken by surprise. (Ironically, I was one of the very few victims of “stage surprise,” walking out for my big moment and finding my slides forwarded to a random point in the middle of the deck, but mistakes do happen.) But overall the team displays an uncanny ability to anticipate needs and meet them before they’re even asked. After my talk, just as it was occurring to me that I’d love to see the video before it goes up online, I received an email from the TED team saying I could pick up a DVD of my (unedited) talk before I left. They don’t get everything right (see Diana Lind’s critique of their attempt to honor the idea of City 2.0). But having worked in the conference business for many years, speaking at TED was enlightening and something I wish I could have had the educational benefits of long ago.

Little things matter. The TED teams’ attention to detail reminded me of a moment from our CfA Institute this January, when the 2012 fellows were talking about their motivations and perspectives on government. Tamara Shopsin shared with the team a moment when she looked at government differently. She was in City Hall in New York, where hundreds of couples go to get married, and noticed a mirror around the corner from office of marriage licenses. Someone had thought to make it easy for brides and grooms to check how they looked just before they went before the justice of the peace. It was a tiny detail, but it said something to Tamara about how the humanness of this institution. Compare how the TED team focuses on experience to your average interaction with government, and there’s still a huge contrast. But the desire to serve the public is there, and we need to bring it out and support it.

Narrowing the gap between the best experiences we have as consumers and the experiences we have as citizens is part of the work we do at Code for America. To do that, we’re going to have to get people to believe government can be better. Chris Anderson of Wired told me afterwards that when I started my talk, he thought “oh no, she’s going to talk about government. Ugh.” But by the end, he’d changed his mind. I’m grateful to June and the rest of the team at TED for giving me the chance to change a few minds, to do something I was scared to do, and for providing an unparalleled experience, something to which we should all aspire.

And, no, the video isn’t up yet, but I’m sure Abhi will blog it when it is. :-)

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