How Marquis Cabrera avoided ‘being a knucklehead’ and became a champion of global government innovation

Marquis Cabrera at the 2018 Code for America Summit (Photo: Drew Bird)
Marquis Cabrera at the 2018 Code for America Summit (Photo: Drew Bird)

Marquis Cabrera and I first met last year at an Agile Government Leadership meetup in Sacramento, and I was struck by his breadth of knowledge of the government technology ecosystem and the innovation needed to holistically transform government.

Marquis is extremely insightful on many topics, a great thinker, conversationalist and intellectual that brings a sense of humor, humility, genuine purpose and passion much needed in government technology. His presence is a breath of fresh air.

Marquis shares his personal story and insights.

Let’s start with your personal story. What was your path to technology and civics?

Since I was 10 years-old, I have been coding and hacking. My adopted parents bought me a Dell computer, and I would write code in Notepad, and then ‘Click’ view as webpage.

My dad encouraged me to get engaged in extracurricular activities and to avoid being a knucklehead. As a student at Middletown High School in New York, I was an inaugural member of a four-year National Academy Foundation program: The Academy of Information Technology (AoIT). The program formation was a response by industry (i.e. former Citigroup Chief Executive & Chairman Sanford Weill) to the dot com bubble. The demanding AoIT curriculum included courses, such as history of the Internet, computer programming, web design, and multimedia production. We even learned how to disassemble and reassemble desktop computers. I learned about public data networks, graphical user interface (GUI) and Steve Case’s role in revolutionizing the Internet in his position with AOL. That is why I am honored to receive  a The Case Foundation’s Finding Fearless Award Winner and invited by Lenovo to speak about my AoIT experience at Lenovo’s largest U.S. Volunteer Day.

When fifteen years-old, I developed a computer program that produced guest and student passes with images that scanned in real-time to improve school district security for The Enlarged City School District of Middletown. Thereafter, I worked with our District Webmaster to manage our websites, and even became MHS’s Navy Junior Reserve Officer Training Corps’ first Information Software Officer. This sparked my interest in Civic Tech!

There’s a perception that IBM is ‘Big Blue’ and represents a legacy approach to how government technology vendors operate. What is your role there and what is IBM working on that counters that narrative?

My grandmother worked for IBM. My grandfather used to drive and deliver trucks with IBM mainframes. Even you would agree, we have come a long way from there, even though you still see those CVS and Safeway branded IBM point-of-sales (POS) hardware in stores.

The most obvious answer is, yes, IBM has a legacy of transforming every-single-industry. People act like that’s a bad thing, like oh, “… you helped to put a man on the moon and enabled the existence of credit cards. And, oh, between 2000-2017, you employed almost 350,000 people year-over-year, not including subsidiaries, and was also one of the 1st companies to hire a women executive and person of color in our business history. That’s so legacy,” but really … that’s so FRIGGING AWESOME! Throughout history, IBM has provided jobs and economic opportunities that lifted up global communities and removed some from the cycle of intergenerational poverty (see video about diverse group of IBMers who helped build Texas practice). This is amazing and should be something you, me, all of us, including global citizens, should be proud of and thankful for – who doesn’t want a low unemployment rate?

A few years ago at the World Economic Forum, I heard former HP CEO, Meg Whitman, say something to the effect that: “I tell my clients about how hard our digital transformation is, because we have learned the pitfalls ahead of them, we can better help them to navigate.” Our internal digital transformation has no doubt been hard, but every company (including startups!)  must creatively destruct itself in order for its customers to reap the most benefits from its core competencies, thereby providing maximum benefit to society.

Today, IBM is a cognitive insights and cloud platform company. We’re helping sports teams create better drafting applications, transforming global trade to make it more efficient, and enabling citizens to take back control of their digital identity. But we’re also a world leader in quantum computing and implementing Blockchains. At a recent IBM hosted Blockchain for Arkansas Conference, Governor Asa Hutchinson touted the use of blockchain and said the technology could help secure data used by state farmers as they send their food along the distribution chain. We also just landed a major deal to transform the whole-of-government in Australia, using technologies, like artificial intelligence, quantum, and blockchain. This is SO exciting because my job is to drive innovation into our global government accounts with speed, so I work across all industries (Social Services, Public Safety, Defense, Cybersecurity, Tax, Insurance, Customs, etc.). I have been bringing the best of IBM to our public sector clients to improve the world, which is no doubt hard but rewarding. It’s been an honor and a privilege to represent and work for and help to elevate IBM.

Marquis Cabrera at the 2018 Code for America Summit (Photo: Drew Bird)
Marquis Cabrera at the 2018 Code for America Summit (Photo: Drew Bird)

You recently spoke at the 2018 Code for America Summit with a inspiring call to action. Can you share what you touched on?

In summation:

  • Public procurement is like the ugly sweater problem, for governments buy tech on behalf of residents / end users. But we must always talk to end users, even if we must get creative, because it matters to the political and social advocates, taxpayers, and, most importantly, beneficiaries of service benefit delivery.
  • At IBM, we launched Call for Code, which is a $30M sponsorship of David Cause’s efforts to activate citizen-driven innovation. The first theme is centered around Natural Disasters, so I shared our work in building CaliConnects to get on the California Agile contract vehicle.
  • Yes, you can create change, but we must put people at the center of our change. It matters that we include the mother receiving SNAP in the re-design of the program. It matters that we push for change because the homeless person on  the street matters. As Big Sean said, “This [shitake mushrooms – gotta keep it PC – haha!] bigger than you, I am taking on a new path!” I just hope that new path leads to exponential collaborations!

You’ve lived and successfully survived the startup life. What’s your advice to civic technology founders?

Join your local Code for America Brigade Chapter: Code for America has been an integral part of my life, and I really, really, REALLY love the community!  As a civic tech startup founder, we launched RateMyFosterHome.com at Code for America’s Code Across, which was hosted at the MIT Media Lab. There, I met the CIO for the City of Boston and so many more government innovators, like Massachusetts Government Innovation Officer Tony Parham.  So – my participation at #CodeAcross really launched me into Civic Tech nationally and then globally.

Figure out your core competency: As a 25-year-old CEO of an award-winning venture, my peers always asked me to explain what was leading to my success, like I was something special. My siblings would tell you I am not special, I poop, bleed, get caught in my feelings some days, and do a lot of dimwitted things – basically normal AF.

Mentorship, in my opinion, is about helping someone figure out how to get the tools to achieve their dreams and to get more shots at finding their passion all the while providing perspective.  In working to mentor some entrepreneurs though, I have asked many a most critical question: How do you understand and hone your core competency while picking up new ones and recognizing your team’s core competencies?

My core competency is similar to that of Rogue, from the X-men, for she can absorb powers from her environment. But I don’t lose my power over time. Imagine in one moment being able to heal like Wolverine; blow fire and also ice from your two hands, simultaneously; move metal with your mind, like Magneto; and stop it from hailing, like Storm, all the while being able to go stealth mode. Point in case: The more skills you add to your arsenal, the more you can pull from to accomplish any mission, thereby creating an unstoppable combination of talent (Think: Steph Curry, Malcolm Gladwell — or one of my best friends who tripled majored in college and grad schools).

Use Google: When I worked for Wefunder, Mike Norman: “If you don’t know some ish, Google it and learn it. One of my first projects was producing a series of videos on famous investors, like Eric Paley, Fred Wilson, and Jeffrey Bussgang, but I like had no idea where to start. [Enter Google and Youtube and Reddit] But then I got better at it and created our About Us video when founding my social enterprise, Foster Skills. If you know how to search the internet using keywords and operators, you will always get the best learning references. I have benefited greatly from the democratization of information on the internet to better problem solve.

Life is an open book test, and it’s fun when you answer your own questions: People don’t understand why the internet was so powerful, it’s because it allowed students to “learn why much faster,” instead of just settling with their mom’s saying, “Y is a crooked letter!” The famous education advocate John Dewey balked at the education system because he believed kids must ask questions (a la why) to gain better understanding, but that wasn’t happening due to the classroom power dynamics. Now, Google has enabled those curious kids, who don’t want to raise their hands, to be able to learn at an exponential rate, for they must feed their curiosity to problem solve.  My personal philosophy is life is like an open book test, but you get to create the test, meaning you come up with good questions that you want to spend your life investigating; then be fearless about learning from the best, and get creative, if formal education is too expensive; but, most importantly, believe everything and everyone has utility, for then you’ll always be learning, you will never take any competition for granted because humility will be a cornerstone. In addition, increase your reference points, so you can think cross functionally; and always follow-up why with how, so that you can run simulations (i.e. in what scenario, would this be possible?) and make the across-everything-connections, and, ultimately, be consistently you’er than you. And to this end, remember winning is a process, which is why I love what Rosabeth Moss Kanter wrote, “Win, go back to work, win again.” Winning is a byproduct of learning and doing, but to avoid misery, you have to genuinely love the process (and pain!) of learning and doing, especially if you want to contribute beyond yourself.

And your advice to investors researching the civic and government technology environment?

Invest in Women: In India, I heard Canadian Prime Minister talk about why we must invest in women entrepreneurs. Moreover, I heard Hotstar, which is the like the Youtube / Netflix of India, CEO Ajit Mohan talk about using his platform as a potential education mechanism. He learned that men used his platform more than women, and said that must change, if communities and families are to rise. This is why I was excited SheaMoisture haircare and skincare products founder Richelieu Dennis announced a $100 million fund for women entrepreneurs of color, and Google has championed the NewMe Accelerator.

Invest in Charismatic “Medici” Learners and Doers: Code for America’s CEO Jen Pahlka recently said: “May the kids save us.” My advice to investors is to find and invest in generation Z and unicorn millennials who are cross-industry life-long learners and have guts, meaning they have both failed and won at something, have held service jobs (waitress, librarian, aid), and can pattern their learnings. Harvard Law JD Candidate Wendy Chu and Harvard PhD Candidate Nick Deporzio are prime examples. In my opinion, these are the people who will transform entire industries. Think: Jeff Bezos!

Marquis Cabrera at the 2018 Code for America Summit (Photo: Drew Bird)
Marquis Cabrera at the 2018 Code for America Summit (Photo: Drew Bird)

And your advice to the civic and government technology community at large?

Often times, we forget how hard change is for the people behind the systems, processes, and technology. This is not because our public sector teams aren’t innovative, but it is’ because they have to play in restricted sandbox. Policy-making is a slow process. Digital transformation in the global public sector is hard. For example, how do you enable Dubai to go from paperless to blockchain? How do you enable a whole-of-government approach in Security? How do you enable North Carolina Department of Technology to host blockchain apps at scale for their agencies? How do you help Africa modernize their ports and prevent? How do you track and trace Invasive Species? How do you use tech to advance #MadeInAduDhabi?

We must ask: Are we truly solving ecosystem — not just end-user — problems, and is our solution working and / or causing pain elsewhere?

The global government tech industry is a multi-billion dollar market, so there’s room for all sorts of stakeholders to provide public benefit using tech around the world, including incumbent vendors. For example, we now have govtech companies, Aid:Tech and Voatz in our Global Entrepreneur Programs. It is my opinion that vendors should figure out ways to leverage our contract vehicles to support new govtech entrepreneurs. To this end, I only want to help (social) entrepreneurs grow their business, which is why I have worked with over a 100 startup founders! Also, I submitted a public comment on CCWIS act, for I believed government technology should be more modern and flexible and inclusive. Moreover, I commented on the US HHS Idea Lab Playbook, for they solicited advice from vendors, even though they have put a stake in the ground to create a more competitive marketplace. If we establish co-opetitions that advance the civic tech mission, you will begin to see yourself in others civic tech ecosystem player (and non-traditional-ecosystem players) missions, thereby gain access to additional resources to advance your mission and the the ecosystem. [Note: I wrote about Coopetition in a Harvard Business Review piece, so go read, if you want to learn more.] And, to this end, I love, love, LOVE civic tech, but my great friend Thea Sebastian recently reminded me: Technology cannot solve everything!

Who inspires you, both inside and out of civic technology?

Within civic tech, I am most inspired by the minds and experience of Ekistic Ventures’ Brett Goldstein, Salesforce’s Casey Coleman, Code for America’s Jen Pahlka, Denmark’s Casper Klynge, Abu Dhabi’s Dr. Rauda Saeed Al Saadi, and Canadian Digital Services CEO Aaron Snow are some of the most interesting movers and shakers in the civic tech space. And, I am excited to see what former U.S. Chief Data Scientist DJ Patil does next, for he’s been a great inspiration, especially having moderated my panel at the White House on AI in Child Welfare and advanced data-driven justice solutions. But, as a boricua, I am most excited by what Puerto Rico Global is doing with civic tech to help the island (Note: See my article about them in the Harvard Journal of Hispanic Policy).

Outside of civic technology and work, so many people. I love true polymaths! Buckminster Fuller and Eli Lily showed the world that through tragedy can come incredible cross-industry inventions, so use your tragedies to inform your life’s greatest works. Martin Luther King Jr. is a reminder that community is the most powerful weapon in the world. And Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr., not Jr. the Supreme Court Justice, is one my most favorite people in history. He is a reminder to always follow your heart and to champion diversity, even when hard.President Lincoln’s novel, Wisdom of Wit, is a reminder that we are all human.

To this end, my parents and siblings are a reminder to stay humble and human! We always forget that people are people. We all have struggles and victories that vary in orders of magnitude, but we share the same humanity – no matter skin color, race, belief, etc. The late Michael Roche, who is my high school’s best friend’s dad, annually invited me to his home for Seven Fishes and dance with at the Elks Lodge, and made me realize achievement and toughness in our community was an expectation, no matter your skin color, race, or religiosity. If you’re in need of a good book on diversity, President Lincoln’s novel, Wisdom of Wit, is a reminder that we are all human!

How can others connect with you?

Related

To see Marquis’s Interviews of Denmark Tech Ambassador, Oxford and MIT Futurist, CEO of Oman Tech Fund, and many others, see Hacking Government column CIO.com

About Luke Fretwell

Luke Fretwell is the founder of GovFresh and co-founder/CEO of ProudCity. Connect with him on Twitter and LinkedIn or email at luke@govfresh.com.

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