Combining Understanding of Technology and Management to Better Serve End Users

Afua Bruce’s career has been driven by a passion for engineering and technology, an appreciation for sound management skills and an understanding of the power that comes from having knowledge of both.

Afua began her education as a computer engineering major at Purdue University. After almost four years as a software engineer at IBM immediately after college, she decided to pursue her second interest, business. In 2011, she graduated as a member of the Consortium class from the University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business and accepted a position working for the FBI — a job that took her to Washington, D.C., where she has remained ever since.

Now, she serves as director of engineering for the public interest technology program at the non-partisan think tank New America.

We recently spoke with Afua about the benefits and the unique perspective afforded by her MBA and how she believes an MBA can be used to improve citizens’ interactions with their government.

Was there something in your experience at IBM that sparked in you an interest in pursuing an MBA?

I graduated undergrad knowing that I wanted to go to business school one day. I thought I would work at a large technology-based business like IBM, start off technical, move up the ranks and eventually be an executive.

I minored in business at Purdue and started my job as a software engineer with the idea that in a few years I would go back, probably part time, to get an MBA. As luck would have it, I got immersed in coding and loved it. The software engineer life was great.

I worked on a project developing [an internal] project management software tool, so I worked with a lot of project managers and thought, “This is actually pretty interesting.” Then I had the opportunity to shadow some managers on a couple of experiences and found that interesting as well. I was at a point in my career at IBM where I was looking for a bit of a change — I was thinking, at the time — at IBM. I’d applied for an evening master of science in technology commercialization program at The University of Texas at Austin. But when I took the GMAT, I ended up doing really well, and a mentor suggested that instead of pursuing a science degree that I go back full time for an MBA. So that’s what I decided to do.

What made you want to pair technology and business?

I think they go hand in hand, but I’ve always been someone who has balanced many interests. My mind works best when making connections across different types of problems, issues and people. I love building things and creating entire systems. Engineering satisfies these interests; business gives [me] a new way to tackle these challenges.

After being a software engineer for a few years and having a variety of managers, I came to appreciate those who had strong management skills in addition to a strong understanding of technology. I came to believe that, especially in the tech world, strong managers allow engineers and other subject-matter experts to be subject-matter experts, as they — the managers — improve organizational systems, processes and finances.

The people who had enough knowledge to ask the tough questions of technical experts to shape a product and who had strong enough business skills to set strategy and support the launch of a product seemed to be most effective. I wanted to fill that role.

How did you come to work for the FBI?

I joined the FBI through the Special Advisor Program. The FBI hires a handful of newly minted MBAs from top-tier business schools every year into this program. They recruited at Michigan and reached out to me. [At first,] I said I wasn’t interested, but when they reached out again, I listened to all they had to say. I realized that I could use my technical skills and my business skills to do interesting, challenging work that I would not be able to do other places.

During your time with the FBI, you joined the White House as executive director of the National Science and Technology Council (NSTC). What did you do in this role?

One of the primary functions of the NSTC was to produce reports detailing assessments, reviews, strategies and policies for the federal science and technology enterprise — everything from cybersecurity to science, technology, engineering and math education to soil health. I convened science and technology experts, executives and budget experts from across government to collaborate and produce the reports. I often coordinated review and approval of these documents with presidential appointees from throughout the government.

The NSTC published nearly 50 documents and reports during my time at the White House. It is difficult to pick a favorite document, but some of the most interesting reports to me were the “Sustaining a Competitive Edge in Innovation Through a World-Class Federal Science and Technology Workforce,” “Preparing for the Future of Artificial Intelligence” and the “Social and Behavioral Sciences Team Annual Report.”

Do you think having an MBA gave you a unique perspective working for the government?

An MBA gives a unique perspective only when it is combined with an understanding of the immense amount of talent and expertise that other people in your organization bring. MBAs who join the government thinking they already know everything will not be successful. And even worse, they could actually disrupt, with negative consequences, processes and order.

I find that having an MBA in organizations like the FBI and the White House — even working with the state and local governments and nonprofits that I work with now — is only valuable when you combine it with a respect for the expertise that other people have in the world that you are joining.

You’re joining organizations where people have built subject-matter expertise in particular issue areas, so your job is to figure out how you can simplify or improve the efficiency of their lives [using the knowledge you gained from your MBA].

How did you come into your current position at New America?

I really enjoyed my time at the FBI but felt that I wanted a different experience. Having been an FBI employee for about six and a half years, I was ready for something new.

My career trajectory included some engineering aspects, some government and nonprofit aspects and, because of my time at the White House, some policy aspects. I was looking for a job that would combine all of my interests into one position, and the public interest technology program at New America is designed to do that. Public interest technology considers how technology and policy can be better developed together for nonprofits and government. It’s a good mix of all my skills.

What type of work do you do there?

Our work falls into two main categories. One is tech-informed policy development, and the other is policy-informed tech development. On the policy development side, for example, traditionally, policy is made by policymakers who sit in rooms, write a report, make a policy, then move on. We are changing the way policy is made by applying some of the best techniques from the tech world — including the scientific method, design thinking, agile methodology and iteration — and using them in the policymaking process.

We also consider who is at the policymaking table. Having technologists at the table is important so that when you’re creating a policy, you have people who are already thinking about how it is going to be implemented: What types of considerations do we need to take into account for privacy? How can we design policy that takes into account the needs of our end users, the people who are actually touched by these policies? How do we build these humans into the system and design around that?

On the flip side, engineers are great -— I’m an engineer — but sometimes, we’re so focused on the technology that we forget about some of the ethical, policy or social implications of technology, especially in an era when regulation and legislation haven’t kept pace with technology development. When you are designing technology, you are essentially designing policies that affect people’s lives. So, how can we better inform that tech development process so that technology takes into account ethics, policy and equity frameworks?

You’ve mentioned that you believe it’s possible to use an MBA to improve how residents receive services from and interact with their government and nonprofits. How have you demonstrated this in your career?

This is the mission of the public-interest technology project I now manage. In Rhode Island, for example, we have worked with their foster care system. Using a combination of technical and non-technical tools, we helped the state clear its backlog of families who had said they would like to be foster families but were stuck at some point in the licensing process.

We supported Rhode Island as they planned and hosted a weekend event designed to get families through the licensing process; this weekend ended up creating a community of future families who might now be more likely to foster longer. So that is an example of people who would like to take in foster care [children] being able to better interact with that system as well as an example of kids who are in foster care being able to be placed in safe homes.

In Los Angeles County, we have a project going on right now with the city’s Youth Diversion Development (YDD) division. This relatively new division is intended to fund and coordinate a network of community-based alternatives to arrest. It will allow law enforcement officers to refer kids to YDD-funded providers rather than arresting them. Our team helped the division think through answers to questions such as “How do you think about data?” and “How do you collect data that is needed and do it in a way that is respectful and not overly intrusive or a violation of people’s rights?”

This involved coming up with some data principles to talk to the different constituencies — the law enforcement community-based organizations, community advocates — and find out what expectations are and what was actually needed.

Those are two examples of how we’re making sure people can get services better from their government. We feel really strongly that we can’t just sit in an office, in a think tank in D.C., and think about things and write some papers, and magically the world will change. We feel strongly that we can take action and really work alongside partners to transform how services are delivered.

How have your capabilities in both technology and business complemented each other throughout your professional life? 

For me, one of the biggest things is really understanding how systems work, how we can tie anything to a bottom line. Because I have a basic understanding of technology and have worked with software engineers, scientists and technologists, I can speak their language and understand their needs. I can also speak the language of management and executives, understand their needs and figure out how we can re-organize people, systems and processes to really let managers be managers, executives be executives and engineers and technologists be engineers and technologists.

That’s really where the value of understanding both sides comes from. The hard work is getting these two groups that don’t always speak the same language to understand and respect each other and to give each other enough room to be experts in their own space. That is what I’ve spent a lot of my career doing.

Do you have any advice for prospective or current students interested in making a difference in the technology field?

 My suggestion is always to follow your passion. There are so many things in this world that could be improved, things that are done in a way that is accepted today, but with the right innovation, could look completely different tomorrow. So whatever you’re passionate about, start there. Look for who’s doing work in that space, join in the work and figure out how you can make a difference given your skill set.