S1E8 Amanda Renteria: CEO of Code for America
In this episode, Marc and Amanda Renteria, CEO of Code for America, discuss how important it is to attract and recruit diverse talent and how it ensures a wide range of perspectives are accounted for when tackling complex challenges like cybercrime.
You’ll also learn about:
- Amanda’s life in the public sector working with two U.S. Senators, and her experience working on Hillary Clinton’s campaign in 2016.
- Code for America’s mission and how the organization has grown over the past two and half years under Amanda’s leadership.
- How cybercriminals often target underrepresented and vulnerable populations.
Marc Van Zadelhoff: Welcome to “Cyber CEOs Decoded,” where we speak with CEOs, from established security giants to up-and-coming disruptors, getting the inside track on what makes a cybersecurity company tick. I’m your host, Marc van Zadelhoff, the CEO of Devo, and today we have a very special episode to close out an intense first season of “Cyber CEOs Decoded.” And my guest is Amanda Renteria. She is the CEO of Code for America.
Marc Van Zadelhoff: While not exactly a cyber CEO, although I think she can fake one of if needed, I thought Amanda, today, could shed light on a couple of topics – first of all, her journey – but then a couple of topics we, as cyber CEOs, are striving to deal with and are dealing with, which is, one, how do you attract a diverse and underrepresented group of talent into your company? And two is how do you protect everyone from cyberattacks, not just those who have the dough to spend on that protection? And also, Amanda is a super interesting person to get to know, so I think you’ll all agree on that by the end of this podcast. So we’re going to cover her path to becoming a CEO, her leadership style and the growth that Code for America’s experienced since she took over and how the underrepresented and vulnerable groups that they serve are at high risk for attacks and scams and what we can learn from Code for America for recruiting diverse talent and why that’s critical to ensuring a wide range of perspectives are accounted for when you’re tackling tough issues. Amanda, welcome to the show.
Amanda Renteria: Thanks for having me. This is fantastic. I mean, it’s not the same as being on a basketball court, but, you know, like, it’s been a while. So this is pretty good.
Marc Van Zadelhoff: It’s been a while since you and I played hoops together. And for those following at home, that was when I was living in D.C., and you were living in D.C. And Amanda is an awesome point guard, and I am just the big guy, right? And I have to ask you something about that ’cause I remember one time in that church that we played on Friday mornings at, like, 5:45 in the morning, you passed me the ball. I took a hook shot and missed. And you said to me, don’t take hook shots. They’re a waste of time. Now, I’ve always wanted to ask, is that a general policy, or is that just an indictment of my hook shot?
Amanda Renteria: (Laughter) It’s not a general policy, but it’s a little bit of, throughout my life, coaching, like, 9-year-old boys, and all they want to do is, like, hook shots, right? And it always bounces out. And so it was a little bit of an instinct of my – of coaching back in the past but also now with my kids when I was coaching when they were younger. For some reason, it always reminds me of people who, like, are hanging around the basketball court trying to do hook shots. And unless it goes in 90% of the time, it’s, like, an instinct to say, what are you doing?
Marc Van Zadelhoff: You could have squared up, taken a proper shot and gotten those two points. Yeah.
Amanda Renteria: Right. Yeah. And I’m jealous. I’m not that tall. I’m not that close. And if I was that close and tall, I wouldn’t try a risky shot.
Marc Van Zadelhoff: It was always awesome to play basketball with you. We played in a very mixed group, and I always loved when a new person showed up and underestimated what you did. You’d either hit a three over them or drive past them, and that was a joy. And I was always happy when you were on my team when that happened.
Marc Van Zadelhoff: All right. So let’s get into this. I mean, I’m going to try and do a little bit of your early career, and then I want you to take us on the path here because you have just a fascinating career, and you guys can’t see Amanda, but you can look her up. Amanda is the first Mexican American woman from a small town to be accepted to Stanford University, where you did – you were on the basketball team there, earned a BA in economics and political science with honors. After undergrad, you spent four years in the private sector in Los Angeles as an investment analyst. So you honed your skills there. You went to a small school near me called Harvard Business School, and you focused on public nonprofit management. And then after graduation, you had the most fascinating career in the public sector. When I met you, you were working for – I believe, for Senator Feinstein, when I met you. Am I…
Amanda Renteria: When you first met me, yeah, might have been for Senator Feinstein.
Marc Van Zadelhoff: But you also worked for the city of San Jose as special consultant, had a lot of experiences. So walk us through – you know, you got out of HBS, Harvard Business School. Today, you’re at Code for America, running this, which we’re going to spend some time about in a few minutes. But give us the middle of that sandwich. You know, you get out of Harvard, and what do you go and do, and what’s that path?
Amanda Renteria: Yeah. So it was interesting ’cause I went to Harvard Business School not exactly knowing where my path was going to go, but before I had worked at Goldman Sachs. And I’d also went home to teach and coach in my hometown. And so I was trying to figure out what’s the in-between of that, right? How do you have the intensity and all of that and, at the same time, this mission, this calling for public service mission? And so that’s why I went to the city of San Jose, and everyone thought I was crazy when I graduated. But I really got to see some of the inner workings. And then from the city of San Jose, I ended up getting on the Hill, working for Feinstein, working for Senator Stabenow as her chief of staff during a really interesting time where the Affordable Care Act passed, where we had a restructuring of the auto industry, Wall Street reform. So much happened during that period of time in different areas of work, but that all kind of touched Michigan and the committees we were on, like the Finance Committee that helped write the Affordable Care Act. And so it was an incredible time to be there.
Amanda Renteria: But what I also learned is that we needed more perspectives in the room, whether that was me, at eight months pregnant, trying to push the Affordable Care Act to have maternity care, I mean, literally in the back, right? And you kind of look around, and you’re like, there’s not enough sort of folks – you know, even going through this journey to understand that piece and how can we – how can I help in it? Or when we were talking about how are we going to work with immigrant communities or permanent legal residents, the lived experience in that room – even though it was my own, I recognized how it was missing. And so it was a real rude awakening. I mean, it was kind of like our basketball team, right? We had a lot of different skills, and I think that’s why we were good.
Marc Van Zadelhoff: I mean, I’m a little bit of a political junkie, and I could go on and on about these topics, which would be bad in two ways – one, probably off topic, and, two, I’m not good enough to actually ask you great questions. But you must have been fascinated by the recent speaker election. You must have been glued to C-SPAN and some of the video there. I mean, that was unusual, right?
Amanda Renteria: Yeah. I mean, it was all unusual. And it was very different than when I was there, and we were working through the actual, like formal processes and structures. And at the same time, what I recognize is it was sort of not well-known enough, right? It wasn’t a public discourse. And I always used to say, God, it would be better if we had more engagement and involvement. I might not – you know, some engagement and good, healthy…
Marc Van Zadelhoff: Yeah.
Amanda Renteria: …Engagement is what I wished for, but…
Marc Van Zadelhoff: Careful what you wish for, right?
Amanda Renteria: Yeah. I know. Exactly. But it did lead me to recognize that – how can I help actually expand the perspectives of who is at the table? Who’s writing laws? Who’s thinking about these things? I mean, I still remember the testimony where folks said the internet was a, you know, bunch of tubes. And when I looked at my colleagues who are younger and my age, you know, we were like, what is going on? Like – but anyway, that led me to really explore the politics side – so both running for Congress but then also being asked to be Hillary’s national political director in 2016.
Marc Van Zadelhoff: Wow. Yeah.
Amanda Renteria: So, yes, that was the politics side of it.
Marc Van Zadelhoff: I have to ask – so Hillary – what was it like working with Hillary? What’s that really like?
Amanda Renteria: Yeah. It was a incredible, intense, competitive, just in general, you know, environment in the world to try and win a presidential election. So that is just one of the most life – unusual things. You don’t know what day, what time it is. I was in 30 different states on planes. We never knew what time it – you really have to like, you are in this state at this time when you get off the private plane to go, like, shepherd into the hotel and then wake up the next morning. But I’ll say she’s incredibly smart and just really – when you think of an executive and you think of an executive with just a depth of experience who wants to lean into a world that looks different, particularly for women – it was eye-opening.
Amanda Renteria: It was eye-opening in a lot of ways – one, the seriousness by which she brought – ’cause she was at the State Department, she understood this international, global world at a time when we weren’t having a discussion about Russia and Ukraine, right? She understood what was at stake when it came to women. And, like – so in some ways, I felt like being on that campaign, I was getting an early view with, like, a extremely smart professor who could see, you know, the edges of what we live in today, and we were trying to navigate it.
Amanda Renteria: She is incredible to work for from a personal standpoint, like asking me how my kids are, but also, hey, Amanda, like, you haven’t seen your kids in a while. And she was actually helping me with balance but to, also, a high standard of what do – you know, what kind of relationships are we having in the political environment? How are we engaging them? How are we making sure people feel a part of this campaign as the political director?
Marc Van Zadelhoff: Those are the best bosses, right? I mean, you said like three things – you know, encouraging, you know, balance, interested in you as a person and then still demanding excellence, right? And I think sometimes you have a boss that does one or the other, but all three, it’s great.
Amanda Renteria: And then the last thing is just extremely curious. You know, when you run a campaign, you are on the front edge of public discourse – right? – and of outreach and different constituency groups that you have – may never have interacted with. And I appreciated how much I saw her not just be curious, but enjoy being in the curiosity, getting to know it. So I try and keep that even as a leader now – how important that is, particularly in a tech environment, where everything is changing.
Marc Van Zadelhoff: Yeah. It’s crazy. I agree with that. After that, you went back to California?
Amanda Renteria: Yeah. I did. Attorney General Becerra – he moved out to California and asked if I would be his chief of operations. And so I spent a year really helping get him and the team up and running; what does it mean? Got to know a lot more about not just tech, but how we deal with justice today. And so it was great. All of that, though – after the Hillary campaign, working in local government, what I started to realize is, you know, if we want our institutions of democracy to work, we have to start thinking about, what are the tools we need today? What are the people we need today? Who are the organizations that are actually bringing back some trust in institutions and how things just work – right? – ’cause after the Hillary campaign, for me, it felt like a lot of things were broken, and they were going to break even more.
Amanda Renteria: So I started to think, where are – in some ways, I got a preview to the movie today that I never wanted to see, right? And when I started to look at what are the institutions and the industries that are actually moving things forward, for better and for worse, it was technology. And when I looked at places I could go with a clear mission statement, Code for America spoke to me because it was on the front lines of trying to figure out how government services actually reach people, and with a focus on people who are often left out – the very same folks that felt really disconnected from the political environment.
Marc Van Zadelhoff: Let’s go there next here. With the Code for America…
Amanda Renteria: Yeah.
Marc Van Zadelhoff: …Since it’s technology, we can talk about elevator pitch, right? What’s the elevator pitch? What does Code for America do, exactly? Tell our audience about that.
Amanda Renteria: The easy one is we partner with government to help them improve to reach people so that people can access government benefits. I mean, it’s a pretty simple idea, right? Like, maybe we use human-centered technology in how we distribute food assistance – right? – or tax benefits in a real way, as opposed to, you know, the big, huge tax form you have to fill out. How can we simplify that in the phone with a couple of steps, particularly for people – for low-income folks or people who’ve never even filed before. Those kinds of things are at the front edge. And we decided to work on programs that had the biggest gaps of access or intake. So we know we can use our data. And we know what programs, like earned income tax credit, which help – particularly help low-income communities – we know folks are not being reached. Or worse, they’re being reached but being reach with fraud or something else, right? And so these are vulnerable communities that we know technology can help if we can be that bridge.
Marc Van Zadelhoff: So, like, technology to demarginalize certain groups – right? – to bring them back in.
Amanda Renteria: Right. Even the way I often talk, ’cause everyone’s like, gosh, but it’s so not human to use technology to reach people – and what I often say is if you go to a social services office and have to walk through a metal detector, that to me is not human, right? But we can make a connection on a mobile phone that does feel right.
Marc Van Zadelhoff: Yeah. That’s amazing. So maybe – I think it’d be interesting to talk about – you kind of mentioned one, but give us just a sense of, like, the type of projects you guys work on. Then I want to talk about how you guys have grown a lot and why you grew so much. But give us first a sense of, like, a project that you guys would have done.
Amanda Renteria: Yeah. So one of our first was what’s called GetCalFresh here in California, which is the food assistance program. And it used to be a paper form in all of our different counties. And we created an intake app where people – it’s in multiple language – Spanish, Mandarin – really for the community. And what we did is we sat with people who were applying. We walked with them into the social services office. We sat with caseworkers, and we just redesigned the entire thing. And now we’re, like, 80% of everything that comes through. And what we do then is we actually now have the data where we see, listen, you’re getting huge inflows here. We – when the pandemic hit, we could see immediately the spike in applications, called the governor’s office – right? – and said, here is what is coming at you at the beginning of the pandemic. You need to be ready for it.
Amanda Renteria: So it’s a little bit of not just making the system better, but really making sure we’re bridging it, ’cause our belief is government should do this. It shouldn’t be us. We want to be out of business. But some of the other things we do is the – when the child tax credit came out, we built the mobile app in Spanish and English for the White House and Treasury, launched with them, took them through an iterative process, which is very different for government, right? They were like, have it ready. And we’re like….
Marc Van Zadelhoff: (Laughter).
Amanda Renteria: …It’s a journey. We’re going to test pilot. We’re going to iterate.
Marc Van Zadelhoff: Didn’t use the word agile, did you?
Amanda Renteria: No. No. We did not.
Marc Van Zadelhoff: OK.
Amanda Renteria: That’s why I just said iterate. That has been a banned word. (Laughter) Although, I’m worried about banned words right now. And then the last one is criminal justice. So cannabis laws passed in the state of California. Why is it that you still have to go to court, petition to get rid of something on your background check that is legal, right? So those are the spaces we’re in. We often get asked to do a ton of other things ’cause there’s so much work we can do. And we’re always looking to do that. But we want to make sure we deliver on some of these major goals we have. If we could change safety net – right? – to just be a little more human centered, how important that is as we think about the environment and the much more involving environment that we’re going into.
Marc Van Zadelhoff: And you guys have grown from 77 to 200 employees. Let’s sort of start us off with why. What – I mean, for me, you know, Devo, we’re growing because we’re a software company. We sell more software, people buy more, I have to hire more people to help, right? But what drives your growth?
Amanda Renteria: Yeah. So when I started, one of the biggest challenges for Code for America – and it was right when the pandemic hit – but one of the biggest challenges for us was convincing government that you had to deliver services digitally. And so that was, like, a huge hump for our work. People would be like, ah, it’s a nice-to-do, but not a have-to-do, right? Like, people can still come in. Well, pandemic hits, and all of a sudden, it’s the only way, right? And so the big – I mean, everything from – when I started, in the first two weeks, I got a call saying, is there any way we can help, you know, a dozen states across the country get kids who are on school lunch programs – who are eligible for school lunch program – is there any way we can figure out a way to get them, like, money – right? – resources so they could go buy groceries?
Amanda Renteria: And so we immediately jumped in, working with 12 states, trying to figure out, how are we going to do this digitally? What’s wrong with the data? How do we clean up the data? How do we then make sure it gets to the people it needs to? – and on the back end, who do we work with so that it’s – so that people can use those resources when they get them, right? Is it a check? Is it a card? – all those kinds of things. And so that was the story, though, of all of our different programs.
Amanda Renteria: People started to wonder about food assistance, right? Like, we’ve heard from a lot of food banks, like, listen, we can only hold so much. And we know families aren’t coming in because they’re scared. Can you help? And then child tax credit happened. And so what it did is a lot of philanthropy came to us and said, all right, I know you’re doing pilots. Can you just, like, you know, quickly turn those over into volume? And I think that really changed the shape of, like, what we do, how people saw our work. And so we went from 77 to now we’re moving in into 200.
Marc Van Zadelhoff: Amazing. Couple more questions for you. So just leadership style – how would you describe your leadership style? What are your core things that you do?
Amanda Renteria: Well, it’s funny. We’re just coming off of, like, a week of having my executive team together, in person, in the same room, but for the first time ever in 2 1/2 years, largely because we were built in crisis mode, right? And so in some ways we’ve gotten really good at reactionary. But it’s very much like a basketball team, right? I mean, I do see it very much as a coach to a team, largely because – I call Code for America – we’re a little bit nonprofit; we’re a little bit technology company, and we’re a little bit government. So the truth is no one on my executive team could actually – on the one hand, we’re a team because not everyone’s a good 3-point shot, right? Not everyone’s a good big man. And so that’s my style, is it’s much more of a coaching, how-are-we-going-to-do-this kind of style together because it’s also modeling for our teams that are very, very, very cross-functional. But I mean, I got to say, we have fun while we do this. And it’s hard stuff, but we, as a team, I would say – I’m pretty based on we’ve got the play, go run.
Marc Van Zadelhoff: So, hey, one area that you do run into is the underrepresented and vulnerable elements of our population. They’re getting attacked as much or more as anybody else, right? Tell us a little bit about your perspective there.
Amanda Renteria: So we read a lot about this because we worry so much about the clients we have. And what I’ll say about it is one of the biggest – the hardest barriers is that people don’t trust our system. That’s a lot of reason why low-income folks, communities that have been left out don’t actually apply for government benefits. So it’s key top of mind ’cause the last thing we need is for them not to trust us, but the last thing we need is for some sort of fraud to happen, and/or we have a deep sense of responsibility to help our clients understand fraud and the difference between what they see from us and what they see from others. As an example, we have learned that Spanish-speaking clients want more formal language. Even, like, the style and tone…
Marc Van Zadelhoff: Yeah.
Amanda Renteria: …Of the language as you go back and forth made it feel it was real. But it also helped against some of the attacks that you get in Spanish where it’s very pithy. But we look at that because of how important it is.
Marc Van Zadelhoff: Yeah, as somebody who’s been in cybersecurity for 25 years and somewhat of a technology guy by now in my life, there’s rarely a session of Congress on these topics – technology and cybersecurity – that you tune into that make really any sense unless they happen to have brought in somebody that’s deeply technical. And then the question that that person is being asked are often nonsensical. It’s gotten a little better lately, but man, yeah, the naivete on these topics is scary.
Amanda Renteria: Yeah. And it’s hard for us because it’s also a balance, right? Because on the one hand, you know, if you restrict ID verification to the things you know for a lot of low-income folks – right? – they might not have a house or, you know, they certainly don’t have a mortgage, they don’t have some of these – you know, the bill is sometimes not in their name – right? – it’s a family name or it’s a landlord name. And so some of these things are really hard, which is how do you, you know, microtarget a way to get folks in without exposing – you know, without opening things up too much?
Marc Van Zadelhoff: It’s the old conundrum between access and security. And often, there’s a trade-off between these two. You button down the hatches on security, and suddenly, you’re shutting down access, which frankly, is some of the debate you see on the election law stuff, not to get into that one. But, you know, you want everyone to have access, but you don’t want there to be security and fraud issues. So the last area I wanted to just chat about is hiring for diverse talent. This is a huge goal at my company, Devo. We’ve made huge strides over the last few years getting to almost – over 30% of our employees – from I think 10- to 30% have gone from diverse, especially female. So it’s been a nice journey for us to go. But you’ve, by definition, been really a forerunner in hiring for diversity at Code for America. What are some tips for cyber CEOs or any managers in the cyber space on how to bring diverse talent into the workforce?
Amanda Renteria: Be intentional. For us, we have, from the very beginning – our executive team is majority women and people of color. We look at metrics all the time. So every single all-staff – right? – we have our metrics of how are things looking? And over the course of time, we’ve really moved the needle. But I’ll also say we talk a lot about lived experience and the communities we’re trying to reach. That mission orientation really speaks to – I love when I do my coffees – right? – people are like, either this is the lived experience I have or I was connected to it in this way. I worked on the front lines. And we tell those stories so that not only that you’re comfortable coming into Code for America – and we’re still always working on that – but that you see yourself in not only our mission but what it could be for someone else and it be better than your experience. That has been really pretty fantastic.
Amanda Renteria: We have apprenticeship programs and fellows and built some learning communities just almost organically so that we’re bringing in a pipeline. We try and upskill people on the tech side. We put them in places where their lived experience can really benefit the way we are designing a program, and we work it through. And it’s what we’re teaching government to do, too; so when they bring in folks, like, asking those questions early on. And I think just us talking about it, that this is a mission, it’s an OKR, it’s the way we think about it. And as I said before, like, if you don’t have a good three-point shot – right? – like, your team – it hurts the team – right? – if you don’t have the big man. And our work is so spread in these different areas that we need that kind of – yeah, we just need that kind of involvement.
Marc Van Zadelhoff: The super advice – I have to say, watching the NBA nowadays, I’m not so sure big men are even needed anymore. It seems to be all three-pointers. But I get the theory.
Amanda Renteria: (Laughter).
Marc Van Zadelhoff: So, Amanda, I’m going to close it out there. Thank you so much for spending time of your career and your time. So maybe one final question. Ten years from now, where do we find Amanda? What’s that look like? Come on…
Amanda Renteria: Oh, my gosh.
Marc Van Zadelhoff: …That’s a hard one, right?
Amanda Renteria: Come on, Marc. On the basketball…
Marc Van Zadelhoff: On the basketball court…
Amanda Renteria: …Court. My answer is so easy.
Marc Van Zadelhoff: …Getting threes.
Amanda Renteria: (Laughter) Listen, I want our democratic institutions to work. And wherever I can find that, I want to be there. And so when I think about technology, when I think about what you’re doing, it’s going to be somewhere in that space, right? And I think it’s good for all of our kids to make sure we have healthy institutions.
Marc Van Zadelhoff: Super. I think that’s a great note to close things out on. Amanda, thank you so much for joining “Cyber CEOs Decoded.” And thanks to our audience for listening. And that’s the end of this season. So wait for Season 2 to open up. Appreciate everyone listening, and Amanda, awesome to see you again. Take care.
Amanda Renteria: Great to see you. Take care.