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People

Everybody wants a chief of staff, even when they don't know why

Tech Twitter has been abuzz over a Medium piece that questions whether the role actually works for Silicon Valley.

Leo McGarry

The West Wing's Leo McGarry (right) is the paradigm for so many chiefs of staff in tech. But that can be a problem.

Photo: Getty Images/Ron Jaffe/NBCU Photo Bank

Early in Amy Cheetham's career, she took a job as chief of staff to Zuora's head of North America and Asia Pacific sales. She spearheaded special projects, triaged priorities and became the executive's main sounding board. "It was really formative to my career," said Cheetham, who is now a VP at Costanoa Ventures, an early-stage VC firm. "I was truly on the same level as a fairly senior executive. It was so empowering."

But over the last day, Tech twitter has been abuzz over a Medium piece that questions whether the role actually works for Silicon Valley. Adam Kovacevich, the lead for Lime's North America & Asia Pacific government relations and public affairs team, argued in the piece that just because chiefs of staff work well in politics, that doesn't mean they can do the same for tech. He says that C-suite executives use them as crutches in weaker areas, make them glorified executive assistants and train the spotlight on the leader, not the company.

"As corporate chiefs of staff proliferate, they've become almost a status symbol for the ambitious executive — as potent a symbol of power as a corner office or an executive assistant," Kovacevich wrote.

The role first made waves a few years ago, when executives including Elon Musk, Peter Thiel and Mark Zuckerberg hired chiefs of staff, but it's now a fairly common practice at small startups, too. Kovacevich told me that he decided to write the piece because he was frustrated with the growing fad of tech executives, blinded by ambition, hiring a chief of staff without thinking through the role.

Many former chiefs of staff agreed with him. The role can be useful, they said, but not when the executives are looking for their own personal Leo McGarry or Leon Panetta.

"There are a lot of tech executives who are of the age and generation (I include myself in that) who grew up watching 'The West Wing.' Leo McGarry is still the archetype of what you think of as the chief of staff," said Dex Hunter-Torricke, former chief of staff to Brunswick Group's chairman and founder, Sir Alan Parker, and now the communications leader for the Facebook Oversight Board.

Mack McKelvey, a former chief of staff at Verisign and a big proponent of the job, believes the critics misunderstand the purpose of the role. The high-level player gets to quickly understand every aspect of a company and help fill important gaps, which she said helped launch her executive-level career. She cited Sheryl Sandberg, who served as chief of staff to then Secretary of the Treasury Lawrence Summers early in her career, as a key example of the power of the role.

But while it worked for McKelvey, there's often a big problem with the McGarry-style vision. "It's not a super-detailed blueprint on how to actually make that role work. So a lot of people think, 'Oh, I would love to have my own Leo,' but actually designing a role which gives space to somebody to actually deliver at that level, that's a totally different ballgame," Hunter-Torricke said.

Often, he added, the executives aren't willing to spend the time and hand over the power to create the chief of staff they think they envision. So, "they don't become an extra brain, they just become an extra pair of arms and legs, and that's when you end up with the most overpriced executive assistant ever. You have people who actually could be there to make leadership decisions, and instead they're picking up sandwiches."

In many companies, the chief of staff becomes a glorified appointment assistant, said Ana Milicevic, principal and co-founder of the management consulting company Sparrow Advisers. She worries that corporate chiefs of staff — especially women — will face questions down the line about whether their experiences were substantive enough.

Cheetham agreed this can be a problem for men and women alike. When she counsels other people considering the chief of staff role, she cautions against working for an executive who doesn't already have an executive assistant or similar administrative help. When she took the role at Zuora, she made it very clear that she would not do administrative work — and the job delivered, setting her on equal footing with the leader who hired her.

If leaders can give up on the political template for their chiefs of staff, there are ways to get around the fuzziness of the role. McKelvey has faith that startups could use the chief of staff role as a way to cultivate raw talent; many women, people of color and others from historically underrepresented groups in tech could use the role as a way to get onto the C-suite track.

In general, "I think it works. I think it's good that it exists. I think there's an asterisk after that," Cheetham said.

Politics

'Woke tech' and 'the new slave power': Conservatives gather for Vegas summit

An agenda for the event, hosted by the Claremont Institute, listed speakers including U.S. CTO Michael Kratsios and Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton.

The so-called "Digital Statecraft Summit" was organized by the Claremont Institute. The speakers include U.S. CTO Michael Kratsios and Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton, as well as a who's-who of far-right provocateurs.

Photo: David Vives/Unsplash

Conservative investors, political operatives, right-wing writers and Trump administration officials are quietly meeting in Las Vegas this weekend to discuss topics including China, "woke tech" and "the new slave power," according to four people who were invited to attend or speak at the event as well as a copy of the agenda obtained by Protocol.

The so-called "Digital Statecraft Summit" was organized by the Claremont Institute, a conservative think tank that says its mission is to "restore the principles of the American Founding to their rightful, preeminent authority in our national life." A list of speakers for the event includes a combination of past and current government officials as well as a who's who of far-right provocateurs. One speaker, conservative legal scholar John Eastman, rallied the president's supporters at a White House event before the Capitol Hill riot earlier this month. Some others have been associated with racist ideologies.

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Emily Birnbaum

Emily Birnbaum ( @birnbaum_e) is a tech policy reporter with Protocol. Her coverage focuses on the U.S. government's attempts to regulate one of the most powerful industries in the world, with a focus on antitrust, privacy and politics. Previously, she worked as a tech policy reporter with The Hill after spending several months as a breaking news reporter. She is a Bethesda, Maryland native and proud Kenyon College alumna.

People

Inside tech’s efforts to invest in Black banks

Tech companies are facing escalating calls to go beyond deposits.

Yelp is the latest company to announce it will be depositing $10 million across three Black-owned banks, including Carver in New York.

Photo: Mark Kauzlarich/Getty Images

Aaron Mitchell, the director of HR for Netflix Animation Studio, had already been working for months on a proposal to address the racial wealth gap when the killing of George Floyd rocked the country in May. Suddenly, it seemed like every company was coming out of the woodwork with pledges to invest and diversify and do better.

On May 27, Mitchell sent an email to Netflix CEO Reed Hastings asking him what he thought of a plan to invest $100 million in Black banks, a unique strategy to funnel more capital back into Black communities struggling amid the COVID-19 pandemic. At that point, no other corporation had made a similar public commitment. Mitchell said the $100 million was an arbitrary amount of money with symbolic significance: It was the same amount that Netflix spent on "House of Cards," a flashpoint in the company's history.

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Emily Birnbaum

Emily Birnbaum ( @birnbaum_e) is a tech policy reporter with Protocol. Her coverage focuses on the U.S. government's attempts to regulate one of the most powerful industries in the world, with a focus on antitrust, privacy and politics. Previously, she worked as a tech policy reporter with The Hill after spending several months as a breaking news reporter. She is a Bethesda, Maryland native and proud Kenyon College alumna.

People

Atlanta is the future for Black leaders in tech

"It takes so long for successes to emerge, and now we have a lot of results to point to."

Jewel Burks Solomon left Google for Atlanta; now, she's back with Google, helping Black startups.

Photo: Google for Startups

For more than a decade, Atlanta's leaders have liked to call the region "the tech capital of the South." This year, the tech industry is starting to see it the same way. VCs and companies like Google and Microsoft have recently made serious commitments to invest in the region, publicly acknowledging that the country's "Black mecca" is also the place where the industry can begin to fulfill its promises to create a more diverse, inclusive and innovative future.

It started in 2008, an unlikely beginning for a city's success story. The financial crisis devastated Atlanta just like every metropolitan area, but the disaster also laid bare untapped potential: Atlanta had the busiest airport in America; more Black college graduates than anywhere else in the country; practically limitless cheap land; the headquarters of Coca-Cola, Home Depot, UPS and a big chunk of Fortune 500 companies; friendly corporate tax and union policies; and the largest numerical population gains of any American city over the previous seven years. And so, when the country's richest and brightest turned their eyes to tech during the recovery from 2008, Atlanta's did the same.

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Anna Kramer

Anna Kramer is a reporter at Protocol (@ anna_c_kramer), where she helps write and produce Source Code, Protocol's daily newsletter. Prior to joining the team, she covered tech and small business for the San Francisco Chronicle and privacy for Bloomberg Law. She is a recent graduate of Brown University, where she studied International Relations and Arabic and wrote her senior thesis about surveillance tools and technological development in the Middle East.

Politics

Ron Klain, Biden’s new chief of staff, gets tech

Tech leaders praised Klain's appointment, but they said they expect him to be a pragmatist, not a Pollyanna, about tech's potential.

Inside the tech world, Ron Klain is regarded as a keen-eyed startup investor who has bridged the often expansive gap between tech and politics.

Photo: Mark Wilson/Getty Images

President-elect Biden has already stacked his transition team with people who are deeply steeped in tech. Now, he's picked another one to be his right-hand man.

Ron Klain, who Biden announced as his chief of staff Wednesday, may be best-known for his role as the "Ebola czar" under President Obama and for his work as one of Vice President Al Gore's lawyers during the 2000 Florida presidential recount. But inside the tech world, Klain is regarded as a keen-eyed startup investor who has bridged the often expansive gap between tech and politics, advising dozens of tech companies both inside and outside of Democratic circles.

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Issie Lapowsky
Issie Lapowsky (@issielapowsky) is a senior reporter at Protocol, covering the intersection of technology, politics, and national affairs. Previously, she was a senior writer at Wired, where she covered the 2016 election and the Facebook beat in its aftermath. Prior to that, Issie worked as a staff writer for Inc. magazine, writing about small business and entrepreneurship. She has also worked as an on-air contributor for CBS News and taught a graduate-level course at New York University’s Center for Publishing on how tech giants have affected publishing. Email Issie.
Protocol | Enterprise

The man who brings the human touch to Google Cloud

A self-taught technologist with a storyteller's voice, Kelsey Hightower defied the enterprise tech sector's notorious diversity problems to become one of the industry's leading figures. Now he wants everyone's voice to be heard.

Kelsey Hightower, principal engineer at Google Cloud, seen in his natural habitat: talking cloud computing with attendees at KubeCon 2019.

Image: CNCF at KubeCon

Peter Idah had met Kelsey Hightower before. But this time, he brought his son.

It was March 2016, and the Kubernetes jamboree, KubeCon, was coming to Idah's hometown of London for the first time. Hightower, the de facto spokesperson for Kubernetes just as it was emerging as a force in enterprise tech, was speaking at the event.

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Tom Krazit

Tom Krazit ( @tomkrazit) is a senior reporter at Protocol, covering cloud computing and enterprise technology out of the Pacific Northwest. He has written and edited stories about the technology industry for almost two decades for publications such as IDG, CNET, paidContent, and GeekWire. He served as executive editor of Gigaom and Structure, and most recently produced a leading cloud computing newsletter called Mostly Cloudy.

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