The Digital Desi

Sreenath Sreenivasan has just been appointed chief digital officer of New York City by Mayor Bill de Blasio. Tunku Varadarajan interviewed him – over WhatsApp – on what the job entails.

Sreenath Sreenivasan in Times Square. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Sreenath Sreenivasan in Times Square. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Sreenath ‘Sree’ Sreenivasan, the former chief digital officer (CDO) of, first, Columbia University and, next, New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, has just been appointed the CDO of New York City by Mayor Bill de Blasio. Tunku Varadarajan, a research fellow in journalism at Stanford’s Hoover Institution, interviewed Sree recently – by WhatsApp. Owing to differences in their respective time-zones – Sree is travelling in India and Tunku is in New York – the interview was conducted over two days.

Here is the transcript of their WhatsApp thread.

Tunku Varadarajan: Sree, delighted we can do your first ever WhatsApp interview! I’d suggested doing this by email, but you responded that this was “way cooler.” Why?

Sree Sreenivasan: See, now you make me sound like the dork I really am! ?

In addition to being nominally cooler, there are some practical considerations.

WhatsApp isn’t just mobile-first, it’s mobile-only, and that’s the way I’m trying to work these days. Since I left The Met on June 30, I barely touched my laptop. I used it a mere 18 minutes the first couple of weeks of my new life (I ran a stopwatch). I try to do everything on my phone, including short bursts of writing (haven’t needed to write long form yet).

I ended up having to use my laptop extensively only when I started the vetting process for the City, which requires a lot of detailed documentation and accessing corporate services.

Now, it’s back to mobile-only, as much as possible.

Why my obsession with mobile? That’s where our audience and our consumers live, work and play. We need to think and access technology the way they do. Major sites are finding that 70-90% of their traffic is coming via mobile, but they continue to create content only via desktop and laptop. The more we create content in the way consumers consume it, the more we will learn. This doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be writing longer pieces on laptops (the way you do), just that we should think more mobile-ly than we are now.

Another advantage is that WhatsApp notifications will alert me when you write to me, which may mean faster response time.

Here’s one major drawback of this kind of interview: No chance to edit/fact-check what I write once I hit SEND!

Tunku: Now I see why you are going to be New York city’s first Chief Digital Officer! But tell me, how the devil am I going to get this Whatsapp thread into my laptop??

Sree: Took me a moment, but figured it out.

Click on a single message and choose FORWARD from pop-up menu.

Select the various messages you wish to forward.

Then select the share menu item on the lower left of the app.

Select email/Gmail and forward the whole thing to your email – or your editor’s.

Tunku: Thank you…This interview is turning into a workshop! But let me get back on track. You were the first Chief Digital Officer at Columbia…New York’s best university (with all respect to NYU). Then CDO at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, America’s finest museum. And now of New York City, the greatest city in the world. That’s quite an ascent in the space of three years or so. How is this latest challenge different from the others? You’ve gone from dealing with students and pesky professors, to curators and aesthetes, to handling a famously demanding public…a very demanding citizenry

Sree: Thanks for the kind words about my previous employers! It’s been an immense privilege to work at Columbia and The Met.

Now I’m getting to put to work all I’ve learned working inside four major NYC industries: education, media, nonprofits and arts & culture.

Having worked in two institutions with some amount of politics and bureaucracy should be good prep to work in the world of actual politics and public service and for becoming a bureaucrat myself.

I have a lot to learn – a lot – and will spend the next two months going to school on municipal governance, City agencies, etc. And memorizing the NYC Digital Playbook: http://playbook.cityofnewyork.us

I know I now have 300,000 colleagues and 8.5 million bosses, in addition to my two bosses in City Hall. Mayor de Blasio and deputy mayor, Alicia Glen. Wish me luck!

Tunku: In a sense, you approach the world of bureaucracy…if we can call it that…with an inherent advantage. Your father was a distinguished Indian civil servant. What would you say you’ve learnt from him that would help you in your new job?

Sree: I know one of the reasons my parents and aunts and uncles are thrilled about the job is that I am finally the civil servant most of them wanted to be! (Which Indian parent says, “I want my kid to grow up to be a journalist,” anyway?)

It may not be the prestigious Indian Administrative Service, Indian Police Service or Indian Foreign Service, but it will have to do.

As for what I’ve learned from a lifetime of watching civil servants from the inside and out is that at their best, they are helping their fellow citizens live their best possible lives and there is no higher calling. Plus, I learned from watching my dad that diplomacy isn’t just what’s practiced by foreign ministers. Diplomacy is using your skills of persuasion to win over people to your side and it’s something I’ll need to do a lot of as we think about innovation in NYC.

BTW, considering this is a WhatsApp chat, I feel like we should be using a lot more emojis. Here are some random ones: ???????????✏?

Tunku: I’m Emoji-challenged…I’m not even sure if the word is upper case or lower…Tell me, playing if your own experience and success…What is it with Indians and things digital, things tech? Is there a special affinity, a special ability??

Tunku: Sorry, typo…playing off…

Sree: Just copy and paste the same question and edit the typo and repost. I’ll delete the one with the typo. 🙂

Sree: I’ll answer question after you do the above.

Tunku: I’m Emoji-challenged…I’m not even sure if the word is upper case or lower…Tell me, playing off your own experience and success…What is it with Indians and all things digital, all things tech? Is there a special affinity, a special ability??

Sree: Actually, that?is one of my fave emojis, so well played.

While many Indians have deserved their success in Silicon Valley and elsewhere because of their engineering prowess, there are some of us – especially me – who benefit from the presumption that we know a lot about technology just because we’re Indian. I like to say I’m not an engineer, but I play one on TV. ?

Tunku: But IRL you’re a CDO. And I’m relieved that fewer people think that stands for Collateralized Debt Obligation today than did in 2009! So tell me, what does a CDO actually do, especially the CDO of a massive and head-spinningly diverse metropolis?

Sree: My kind of CDO is a newish role in business and nonprofits. And no two roles are alike, even in the same industry. My CDO mentor, Perry Hewitt (@perryhewitt on Twitter – follow her!) was at Harvard when I was at Columbia, and we had divergent responsibilities and portfolios.

The main thing a CDO does is help a CEO and the institution with the heavy work of digital transformation – making the organization more relevant to customers, employees and other stakeholders. In the City’s case, it’s transformation of services for residents and well as transformation of how employees are trained and how they work.

No matter what age your org, or what its field, some amount of transformation is going to be required. I’d argue the reason Yahoo is in the sorry state it’s in today is because the most innovative digital company in 1995 was in need of transformation that it didn’t undergo fully. My friend NYT correspondent Vindu Goel (@VinduGoel) had a wonderfully evocative line in what was, essentially his autopsy of Yahoo: “The Internet is an unforgiving place for yesterday’s great ideas.”

So a CDO has to help a CEO find today and tomorrow’s great ideas. That’s why I like to say my job is Chief Listening Officer.

As for what my work for the City will entail, @BilldeBlasio gave me marching orders by tweeting three goals: “Welcome, @sree, as NYC’s new CDO! And onward to becoming the most tech-friendly, transparent, digitally equitable city in the world.”

Can’t be clearer than that. Now comes the hard part. The good news City Hall has already built a strong tech team and so many remarkable things are already happening. And I have the full support and encouragement of @DMAliciaGlen, who I work directly for.

Sreenath Sreenivasan. Credit: Deidre Schoo/www.sree.net

Sreenath Sreenivasan. Credit: Deidre Schoo/www.sree.net

Tunku: Chief Listening Officer…I like that. You have a gift for the catchy phrase! So who will you be listening to, apart from Bosses Bill and Alicia? And how will you do your listening?

Sree: Sorry I’ve been offline, Tunku, the consequence of being home with my parents (and doing six TV interviews today, including one Facebook Live).

I want and need to listen to New Yorkers in all five boroughs, as well as those who work and play in NYC. I will also be listening for new ideas from around the world. From entrepreneurs who come to size us up for their future home to those who decide that NYC isn’t for them.

I won’t just rely on tech to do this listening. I plan to hold events in each borough and be available in a variety of ways. Why wait? If any of your readers has an idea: sree@sree.net.

Tunku: So would you call your field “digital civics”? Or governance? Or civic entrepreneurship?

Sree: How about all of the above. I’ve gotten a lot of questions here in Kerala about how services can be improved and they have a strong parallel to NYC.

Tunku: You preempted my next question…How much of what you’ll do should be done in India? Do Delhi and Mumbai and Bangalore have CDOs?

Sree: Several journos asked me about this today. I don’t know the answer, about global CDOs – but will ask around.

In the meantime, today an interviewer said that age is a factor in the digital divide. We talked about it at length. And I just saw this tweet from the fab folks at @PewInternet: 86% of Americans ages 18-29 own a smartphone, compared to 30% of those 65 & older pewrsr.ch/1Mjb9R2

Tackling all kind of aspects of the digital divide is critical: economic, racial, age, geographic, even attitudinal. And it would be the same in India, only more pronounced.

Tunku: So what do you see as your biggest challenge…something that might keep you up at night? (I know you’re unflappable, so treat that question as rhetorical!).”

Sree: Au contraire! Very flappable person here.

All day I’ve been thinking about the Mayor’s welcome tweet, so let’s go back to it for a moment.

>>>. Welcome, @sree, as NYC’s new CDO! And onward to becoming the most tech-friendly, transparent, digitally equitable city in the world. <<<

It’s so clear, simple and elegant. But it’s one of the hardest job descriptions I can think of. I’ll stay up at night worrying about making all this a reality. We are already en route, but there’s work to the done.

Of the three goals, it’s the third one, on digital equitability, that will be the toughest and the most heartbreaking to fall short on.

Tunku: Ok, my last question…After a decent innings as CDO of NYC, what next for Sree? Politics? Would you ever run for office? God knows we need tech-literate legislators…right?

Sree: Ha! I’m very honored to have this role now and am looking forward to going all in to do the best that I can for the city I love. I never look that far ahead!

Thanks for this unusual interview opportunity.

I encourage your readers to connect with me on Twitter (@sree); Facebook (/sreenet); Instagram (@sreenet) and Snapchat (sreedotnet – though I’ve no snaps to my name yet. I hear it’s what all the cool kids are using!) And join my “Sree’s Advanced Social” group on FB: FB.com/groups/sreeadvanced

And if anyone in Mumbai, Delhi, Bangalore or Chennai is interested, those are the remaining stops on my social media speaking tour through Aug 13: http://SreeTwitterTour.com

Sree: (I’ll send you the transcript now). Will be in mutual emails you’ll have to cut-n-paste. Can only forward 10 msgs at a time.

Tunku: Ok. Great. Enjoyed this. Thanks