John Paul Farmer, Director of Technology & Civic Innovation for Microsoft New York
“I had this vision, ‘When you’re young you do things, you volunteer. It’s only when you’re done with your career, when you’ve achieved something, that you then step into government.’ And I realized that was totally wrong.”
Pronouns: He, Him
Meet John. John is an innovator, executive, and public servant who has worked across the sectors of technology, healthcare, finance, and sports entertainment. By his reckoning, he’s on his fifth career, having been both a shortstop in Major League Baseball and a utility player in the Obama Administration. For the past four years, he’s been the head of NYC-based Microsoft Cities, which seeks to leverage tech to solve our biggest societal problems. John founded The Innovation Project, a non-profit organization that provides advice and best practices related to government innovation worldwide, and is an Associate Adjunct at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs (Columbia | SIPA). You can follow John via Twitter.
What Does He Do?
“It’s important to understand that what we do on the team is we’re not sales or part of the philanthropic arm. Traditionally, when a company does well, it then does good. That is when it makes money and then sets it aside to write checks and support causes. This misses a lot of contributions that companies can make to communities — its networks, expertise, and skills. That’s what we’re trying to do.”
John’s portfolio at Microsoft is broad and deep. He leads the Microsoft Cities team, with a focus on the needs of urban communities. Just as he brought entrepreneurial thinking into government, John and his team leverage practice and partnerships to help cities solve their hardest problems. Several ongoing projects have been in concert with the civic tech community here in NYC.
John envisioned and built Tech Jobs Academy to address the skills gap. “We offered understanding of the skills gap, curriculum and played a hands-on role – fundamentally different approach much more focused on roots – systemic – as opposed to cutting a check for 5 people to go to a boot camp.”
With BetaNYC and Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer, his team built the revolutionary community board tool BoardStat using Microsoft’s own Power BI data visualization technology. His team continues to manage Civic Graph ecosystem map, which was conceived as an open-source contribution to the civic tech community. (If readers have any updates to the Graph, you can submit them via GitHub).
How Did He Get Into This Work?
“I would sit around the dinner table as my dad was working on projects as the City Planner of Pittsburgh and was trying to reinvigorate and revitalize the city. On weekends, he’d bring me to job sites and we’d walk around brownfields. I was taught to imagine what they’d look like one day. Being exposed to that early on, it set a frame of how I look at the world and my role in it.”
John was raised in blue-collar Pittsburgh during the 1980s, at a moment when the local steel industry had been decimated. Jobs had been lost and weren’t coming back. Despite this, his optimism — and a long-term perspective that his father’s work provided — instilled in him “a belief that a group of people can actually make something change and make it better than it was before.”
Prior to working in government, John had played Major League Baseball and then leveraged his understanding of sports entertainment in his work in financial services. A few days after the Affordable Care Act had passed, he was in DC for, so he thought, a networking meeting. He was actually meeting with the person in charge of hiring in the Obama Administration and was soon offered a job to help with the healthcare rollout. Not being an MD, he felt unqualified. He was told: “We need someone who understands markets and financial services and can bridge that gap between the health care reform team and the private sector.” John signed on, animated by the possibility to positively impact millions of people. As Senior Advisor for Healthcare Reform, he helped release the ‘Blue Button’ to empower the American people with their own health data. This led to him to conceptualize the Presidential Innovation Fellows program which brought outsiders to the government with urgently needed skill sets — such as web developers, data scientists, product managers, and entrepreneurs. They, in turn, reshaped government, enabling the practice of agile and lean startup methodologies and the later launch of both 18F and the U.S. Digital Service.
As his service at the White House drew to a close, John found a role at Microsoft that felt tailor-made. He joined the tech giant just two weeks into Satya Nadella’s appointment as CEO, as Microsoft’s Director of Technology & Civic Innovation team in New York City, quickly discovering that he was aligned with the tech giant’s new true north: “We want to be a platform of services to support every nonprofit, university and government. And for all the companies out there trying to provide something to people in the world.”
How Did He Come To Civic Hall?
Soon after joining Microsoft, John heard from Andrew Rasiej and Micah Sifry about their plans to create a “permanent PdF.” He quickly convinced Microsoft to support the undertaking and has been a member of Civic Hall since Day 1.
With the success of Tech Jobs Academy and ongoing work in the workforce development sector that continues to include New York, but has also expanded to Colorado and Indiana, John and his team are excited to grow their partnership with Civic Hall as we plan our Digital Skills Learning Center at Union Square.
What is He Reading/Watching/Listening To?
John recommends The End OF Powe by Moisés Naím, seeing the book as a foundational layer, and as a “statement on changes that have happened in the world. How tech is in a lot of ways responsible for democratizing power, making it more accessible.” That said, he offers that it’s neither one person nor one event which inspires him: “It’s the people. I’ve seen some of the young student activists who are speaking out on issues that matter to them. Or the people who became involved in the political process for the first time. Seeing people step up and take responsibility and a role to make the world they want that to be.”
What Is His Ask of Civic Hall?
With some 40% of those serving in government retiring in the next few years, John recognizes that we need to encourage participation in civic service. While he’s keen on the Civic Digital Fellowship, which offer internships to dozens of university students, he asks us to look at creating opportunities for mid-career folks as well: “We need to create pathways for people with 10, 15, 20, even 30 years of service in the public sector.”
In addition to workforce development, the Microsoft Cities team is focused on accessibility; sustainability and environment; and criminal justice reform. In the area of human rights work, they’ve recently announced a grant program in AI for Humanitarian Action.
“I’m at Civic Hall a couple of days a week, and would love to get together with folks who are working on these issues.”
With DataKind, Microsoft hosts “Machine Eatable” — discussions that spotlight data science for civic good — convening the final Friday of the month. Keep a look for upcoming events.