How an ex-Googler is bringing Silicon Valley thinking to California’s capital

"It's at least as blistering as anything I've ever experienced at Google," said California's new CTIO, Rick Klau.

How an ex-Googler is bringing Silicon Valley thinking to California’s capital

"It's absolutely not my job to Googlify the state of California," says California CTIO Rick Klau.

Photo: Rick Klau

When Rick Klau joined the California government, he expected a culture shock after 13 years at Google. Instead, what he found was that someone had stepped on the accelerator.

"I think the shock is the pace at which we execute; it's at least as blistering as anything I've ever experienced at Google," Klau told Protocol.

Klau had joined Google in 2007 through its acquisition of FeedBurner and spent some of his early time as a product manager on tools like Blogger, Google+ and YouTube. He moved over to Google Ventures (now GV) in 2011 as a partner and became well-known after one of his workshops on how Google sets goals went viral. But in October 2020, he left GV to explore new paths, having found some of his most fulfilling work in philanthropy.

After a stint volunteering to help with the vaccine rollout, Klau realized that there were plenty of other problems he could be helping solve, too. In February, Gov. Gavin Newsom tapped Klau as California's chief technology innovation officer, overseeing the Office of Enterprise Technology, or OET. It feels kind of like a traditional tech company, he said, in that there are product teams, engineering, DevOps, web design and development across the office. His team is in charge of building and shipping products, from websites to apps and services, for departments across the state and has helped tackle some of the biggest problems from vaccine distribution to the wildfires of previous years.

"When I think about the work that I used to do in venture capital and before that in product management, you look for those green-field opportunities where you couldn't imagine what the ceiling was or where it was. And this just looked really familiar. So, I didn't hesitate," Klau said.

While few in tech have made the move from Silicon Valley to Sacramento, Klau is looking to bring in more experienced technologists to his team, including a chief product officer for the state of California and Klau's No. 2, a deputy of technology innovation.

He talked to Protocol about what the transition has been like, why the government can't be like Clubhouse and what surprised him the most about making the switch.

The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.

A lot of people in the tech community like to complain about the government. It feels like there's a lot of armchair quarterbacking going on, but few people actually make the leap from being part of the tech sector to working for the state. I'm curious why you made that leap and what some of your first impressions have been now that you're on the government side.

Well, I think the seed for me making this move was planted a number of years ago in large part inspired by friends of mine and others who I looked up to who had already made the transition. Folks like Katie Stanton, who left Google to go work in the White House; Matt Cutts, who left Google and went to run U.S. Digital Service for a number of years; and Todd Park, who was a very successful health care entrepreneur and was the CTO under President Obama. Several years ago, I had a conversation about potentially following in those footsteps to go to D.C., but the timing wasn't right. I had two sons in high school at the time, and moving them across the country didn't seem like it was the right answer. But it got me thinking about how I might apply things that I had done at startups, then at Google in a variety of roles, and understood that there was in fact a fairly obvious application of many of those skills in ways that I hadn't previously understood.

This was a long, slow burn that was now almost seven years ago that I had had that set of conversations. And then [came] the invitation by Amy Tong [California's chief information officer] back in January to join as a volunteer. The vaccine rollout was starting. There were a number of challenges around the data that supported the decisions that were getting made, the reports that were being made up to the CDC, and she just asked if I had some free time, she would love some help. That gave me the opportunity to witness up close not just the scale of the challenges that they face, but who the people are that are doing the work day to day. And I very quickly figured out that if there was a chance to be part of this team, I would run at it.

In the pandemic we've seen several people help volunteer their efforts with the state. I'm thinking about Josh Felser and Bill Trenchard, who were working on some tech projects connecting startups to the government. Why join as a job full-time and become a government employee, given you had spent so many years at Google?

Early last year, pre-COVID, I started having a serious conversation with my wife about realizing that I was getting more reward and fulfillment from some of the philanthropic work we were doing than I was from the day job, and I was starting to think like, what would it look like if I started to shift how my cycles were being spent? I love the work I did, but in leaving the Google campus, I realized that I was in a position to be less focused on the comp package and be more focused on where's the need the greatest, where is the potential for the greatest impact. When I started the conversation with Amy, volunteering like Josh and others that you mentioned, there were no ulterior motives. It was: This is literally the most important thing facing the state of California. And if I have the privilege to add any value, and hopefully make it a little bit better, I'd be foolish to say no.

Within a week — literally, I don't think it was more than seven to 10 days — what was immediately apparent to me was that while there was a near-term, present challenge, I was starting to get to see how many other things this office, OET, works on across the state. They were part of the team that helped the state respond to the fires last year and the year before. I realized there are going to be other scenarios like this. And in me, I think Amy saw someone who can think about how to build a team, how to focus on her priorities, what are the most important things we can be working on, what will success look like. It was unbounded opportunity. When I think about the work that I used to do in venture capital and before that in product management, you look for those green-field opportunities where you couldn't imagine what the ceiling was or where it was. And this just looked really familiar. So, I didn't hesitate.

One of the jokes on Twitter was that if Amazon was in charge of the vaccine rollout, everyone would have a shot the next day. It's a funny thought, but there is some accuracy that people kind of say, "Look, these tech companies could have done a faster rollout and been more efficient." So what do you think about how technology companies can be helping the government versus somebody like you from the tech sector coming into the government and building it yourself?

I think the first thing that was immediately apparent to me when I got pulled in on the vaccine effort was that we, the state of California, did not own the entire set of systems and infrastructure on which all of the decisions depended. It's a very loosely coupled set of systems, in some cases that were not purpose built for their use today, but that they were repurposed in a time of need.

Unlike the Amazon example where you own the warehouses, you own the user-facing website, you own the delivery trucks, you own the pricing model and everything else in between — this is not that. We are in a state of 58 counties, all of whom are making their own decisions as close to the situation as possible. It's the state's job to try and coordinate as best as it can. And then we were responsible for getting data up to the Feds who were also trying to manage a loosely-coupled, very complex system.

I think the biggest lesson I'll share on a related note: We saw Clubhouse announce support for Android this week. When you're a tech company, you can make a decision that I'm only going to focus on a slice of my potential market to minimize distraction and to say, "Look, I'm only going to be iOS only until I hit some milestone." We don't get to make those choices. We meet the 39.5 million Californians where they are. We don't get to tell them that they have to comply with our demands. We've got to be responsive to where they want to meet us today. So, that means we've got to get creative on systems that we build or dependencies that we accept.

To answer the second part of your question: What can I do by bringing some Silicon Valley thinking, for lack of a better term? What I have seen in a number of cases is we're very consensus-driven in how we build and ship. That's not just my office, I think that's across all of the conversations I've had so far. One of the jobs I'm hiring for is the chief product officer, and that's an explicit acknowledgement by me that product ownership and having a point of view of what are we building and what aren't we building, maturing that sense of what it means to be responsible for not just building it, but owning it, I think is critical, and that's one of the areas where I'm spending as much of my time as I can.

Are we going to see a Googlization or Googlifying of government from you? Is your role to shift the government's thinking into the Googleverse?

It's absolutely not my job to Googlify the state of California. I think it is my job to understand how tech teams work and how they can work at scale, how we can choose what to work on, and how to do it in service of understanding that there are 39.5 million Californians. We don't get to pick and choose which of them we work for. We serve all.

There's a lesson I'd learned early in my time as a product manager at Google leading Blogger. More than half of the traffic to Blogger at the time came from outside the United States, and two-thirds of it was in a language other than English. I was not my target user. It was my job to understand what my target users needed and then ensure that the product was responsive to that. So, that's one of the lessons that I still hold close. If I can bring a heightened sense of what that means to fully appreciate who and where all Californians are, then I'll have done my job.

What's the biggest culture shock to you so far?

I was expecting every day to be culture shock. I was ready for that. I think the shock is the pace at which we execute — it's at least as blistering as anything I've ever experienced at Google. There was a time a couple of weeks in, and I got a text from Amy asking me a specific data question. So I quickly ran it down and answered her by text, and saw my answer in a tweet from the governor four minutes later. I was blown away at the compression of how quickly information was finding its outlet, and how immediate the team's ability was to take the question and turn it into an answer, and get it out into the public.

The speed has been extraordinary. As I've talked with folks who have expressed interest in the jobs we're hiring for, they've been asking what to expect, and I told them that if anything, this will feel like they're hitting an accelerator from what they've come from. I lived fast-growth startups prior to coming to Google, I lived some bets, company initiatives at Google, and then at Google Ventures got to see companies grow to go public. This feels like any one of those busiest days is a typical day here.

Well, now I'm just worried Google's moving too slow.

[Laughs] I think they're doing all right. Sundar's got it figured out.

You're a guy known for OKRs, so what are your personal OKRs for your time in this role?

I have held off on putting OKRs on the whiteboard until I fill these two roles [deputy and chief product officer].

On personal OKRs, one of the things I thought I got wrong in the video that became a big deal was that, particularly for teams that are starting to use OKRs, individual OKRs end up being a level of detail too far. If you can get organizational OKRs and then departmental or team OKRs, you've got all you need to push a team to its capacity. I let my team know that once the deputy role and the CPO role are filled, it will be the larger leadership's team's job to define for the second half a year — how are we going to get alignment and increase both the capacity and the velocity of the work that we do.

When I think about my OKRs my first quarter of my job, which is almost done, it was let's make sure I understood how the how the machinery of my office works, who does what, how are they determining the success of their projects and figure out where the biggest levers for impact are within that machinery.

I want to hear your ambitious goals, though — those green-field pastures, pie in the sky, Google-thinking level goals.

I think the ambitious view for OET is that we are building and shipping the technology that improves the lives of every single Californian. We're not there yet. I couldn't tell you what percentage of the 39.5 million Californians we've benefited — it's substantial. But the ambitious goal is that we make every single one of them better in their relationship to the state of California and their ability to live and enjoy what California has to offer.

That's interesting because so many of your peers in venture capital are leaving California, and they feel like the state hasn't worked for them. Maybe it's the tax law or they're going to Miami, but a lot of people in the community you come from feel like the state has not benefited them and has not worked for them.

I've seen claims about departures, and I've seen some anecdotes of certainly some folks who have left. I think the data would suggest that California is doing very well in terms of continuing to be a center of innovation where the future is being built. I think that will continue to be the case. My commitment on day one, the oath that I swore, was not just to the constitution but to the state of California and its residents. So that is who I focus on: the folks who are here, the folks who are staying here and hopefully make California a place that people are not just choosing to stay, but people choose to come to because this is where the government is the best able to serve its residents. I think that's an ambitious and achievable goal.

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