Tackling tech challenges, from the White House to City Hall

New York City’s new chief technology officer, John Paul Farmer.
New York City’s new chief technology officer, John Paul Farmer.
Mayor’s Office of the Chief Technology Officer
New York City’s new chief technology officer, John Paul Farmer.

Tackling tech challenges, from the White House to City Hall

John Paul Farmer, New York City’s new chief technology officer, on his goals for the job.
June 24, 2019

After a long wait, New York City finally has a new chief technology officer. John Paul Farmer, a former Microsoft executive and White House technology adviser during the Obama administration, took over the role on June 3, more than a year after Alby Bocanegra began filling in for former CTO Miguel Gamiño.

Farmer’s move from Microsoft to city government is not unique, given the tech sector’s embrace of a revolving door between the public and private sectors. (Gamiño is now an executive at Mastercard.) But Farmer is ready to take his experience as both a public servant and an executive to serve Mayor Bill de Blasio’s goal of making New York City the fairest big city in America. With the continuing struggle for equitable access to work in the booming tech industry, Farmer has a tough job ahead of him.

City & State caught up with the new CTO to talk about his first few weeks on the job, the challenges facing the city and whether de Blasio or Obama makes a better boss. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

You’re a few weeks into the job, how is it going so far?

It’s been terrific. I had worked from my role in the private sector with the Mayor’s Office of the CTO in the past, and I was aware generally of the shape and the scope of the work that had been done here in prior years. But being here in person and getting to understand the detail and the granularity of the work and the impact that it has had on people’s lives has been really, really incredible.

What specific challenges do you want to tackle right out of the gate?

There are a number of challenges, but frankly when we look at challenges, we see opportunities. When we see that nearly 30% of all New Yorkers don’t have broadband in their home, that’s an opportunity to establish universal broadband. When we see that 50% of Americans use online tools when they’re looking for information from their government, well that’s an opportunity to build more user-centered digital services. We’re looking at what can be made better and figuring out what needs to be done within our government.

At Microsoft, your work with the de Blasio administration included creating the Tech Jobs Academy. What was the goal with that program?

We created Tech Jobs Academy because there was a gap. There were too many businesses that were looking to hire talented people who could help them move from on-premises server administration to the cloud. And at the same time, there were tons of New Yorkers who were bright and capable and had grit, but they didn’t have credentials that could get them in the door. They didn’t have experience, and in many cases didn’t have a bachelor’s degree. And so we created this boot camp to deliver a proven curriculum to an audience that typically wouldn’t have access without having to pay out of their own pocket or potentially even go into debt.

How does that experience working with city government – even though you were in the private sector at the time – work to your advantage in this new role?

I think the thing that’s going to help the most and help me get up to speed most quickly is the relationships that I’ve built, both within city government and within the New York City tech community. Understanding the offices that exist, the work they’re prioritizing and frankly just some of the people.

You have a shorthand with some of these people, I assume.

Yeah, exactly.

This isn’t your first time in a government job, as you were a senior adviser in the Obama White House. What are you taking from that experience to help you in this new role?

I’m hoping it will be helpful that I have public sector experience, having worked in the Obama administration both on health care reform, and on tech and innovation broadly. I certainly want to be very aware that New York City government is different. It’s a different level of government, and I’m excited about the opportunity to work at the local level because a lot of folks know that there is a decent bit of dysfunction at the federal level, especially right now. And cities are the laboratories of democracy; it’s where we can really improve the services that get delivered to people on a daily basis.

How would you describe your relationship with de Blasio?

I think I’ve got a great relationship with the mayor. Throughout the process of the conversations that we had before I was given the offer to come on board and throughout the process of me coming on board and since I’ve been on board, he’s been very supportive of the goals that we have, the way that we see ourselves supporting his vision and the work of the city overall. I have to say, he’s asked a lot of really good questions.

What kinds of questions has he asked?

I don’t really think I should be sharing the private conversations I’ve had with the mayor, but as we go forward I might have more to say about that.

Do you feel like you have the mayor’s ear and are able to advocate to make projects that your office is working on a priority?

I think we’re fortunate that we’ve got the support and the buy-in and the ability to discuss with a two-way channel of communication with City Hall, from the mayor on down. So that means the mayor, deputy mayors, the mayor’s chief of staff, we’ve got good relationships there. We’re in close communication in these first few weeks on the job. I’ve been able to connect with all of the above, many of them multiple times, so that we’re constantly iterating and improving our plans based on that feedback and based on what we’re learning from our conversations with the agencies themselves.

So who’s the better boss – Obama or de Blasio?

(Laughs.) I have to say I’m very fortunate in life to have had a number of incredible bosses, each of whom I have learned a lot from and I feel very fortunate that each of them has entrusted me with the opportunity to make an impact on behalf of the people.

You’re also collaborating with other city agencies on leveraging technology and innovation.

I think there’s an opportunity for innovation to take place within government agencies in a way that it typically hasn’t, in a way that you might associate more with a startup community. Now, let me be clear about that. This is not a “move fast and break things” environment. We understand the responsibility we have to the people of New York to be intentional and to ensure that we are protecting their rights as we go about building solutions.

How do you encourage other agencies to embrace technology solutions?

Megan Smith was the U.S. chief technology officer, and she often says, “Government is who shows up.” So I think one of the ways that we get agencies to embrace technology as a part of a solution is by encouraging more technologists to actually go serve a tour of duty, to go work inside government.

Samir Saini recently stepped down as head of the city Department of Information Technology and Telecommunications, an agency that is under some stress right now. How much does that impact your collaboration with DoITT?

The area where we have the most collaboration might be broadband, and work that has been taking place over the last handful of years, leveraging some of the capabilities of DoITT and capabilities of our team to do more together than either one of us could apart. We’ll continue to do that with new leadership.

Previous CTOs have only held this position for a few years at a time. Do you envision a longer tenure or do you think a short one is inherent to the nature of the role?

My intention is to be here for the foreseeable future. I just arrived and I’m excited to be here and doing this work. I see how we can make an impact in the coming years, exactly how long that’s going to be, I don’t know. Obviously, I serve at the pleasure of the mayor and there will be a new administration in a few years’ time, and we will cross that bridge when we come to it.

Before entering either the public or private sector, you had a pretty unique job, playing shortstop in the minor leagues. But now that you’re in New York, who do you root for: Yankees or Mets?

I grew up in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and my dad took me to a lot of baseball games when I was a kid. And there were a couple years in the early 1990s when the Pittsburgh Pirates lost in Game 7 in the playoffs to the Atlanta Braves, back-to-back years. And so the only team in professional sports that I hated was the Atlanta Braves. And then, when I finished my college baseball career and graduated from college, who did I get a job offer from but the Atlanta Braves. It took me about two seconds to get over that hatred that I’d had as a child and realize that the opportunity to play baseball is a great opportunity. Ever since then, I’ve really rooted for the people I know more than anything else. So I certainly still feel an allegiance for the team I pulled for as a child, but I really want to see the people that I know, whether they’re playing on the field, whether they’re managing a team, whether they’re working in the front office, I want to see them do well. I’ll give you a shorter answer on Yankees or Mets: Yes.

Annie McDonough
is a tech and policy reporter at City & State.
20190722