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Tom Cochran '93 "Do something you love, and you don't work a day in your life"
Posted 05/01/2018 09:00AM

By Wendy Kobayashi
(The Internationalist Spring 2018 Vol. 60)

"My name is Tom, and I went to Nishimachi a really long time ago" is how Tom Cochran '92 kicked off his sessions with our grade 5 and middle school students. Tom was here in the elementary school from 1983 to 1987 – although, to his amusement, he had to convince the youngsters that he wasn't actually the first student at Nishimachi! During a tech career already spanning nearly 20 years, Tom has spent the bulk of his professional life in the digital world – and four of those years as an appointee in the Obama administration in charge of digital platforms. When he contacted Philippe Eymard from the development office to say he would be in town and hoped to visit his alma mater, he wrote: "I can trace this technology love all the way back to 1983 as a first-grader at Nishimachi when my father bought our first computer, an Apple IIC". He had an Apple machine back in 1983, when a home computer of any sort was still something of a rarity?  And he worked for Barack Obama? We had to hear more...

Tom was in Tokyo to give the keynote speech ("Yes We Can. Yes We Did. President Obama's Digital Legacy") to around 1,000 people at the Ad Tech symposium in Marunouchi last fall – only the second time in 30 years that he had been back, the first being in 2009 while on honeymoon. Philippe's offer of a lunchtime bowl of zaru soba – a keen favourite – may have been irresistible, but Tom also generously gave his free time to speak with our students about his life since Nishimachi.

Born in the United States, Tom arrived in Japan in 1979 when he was just two years old, spending four years in Kobe before his parents moved to Tokyo, where the family lived for a further four years. Tom's father worked initially for the U.S. Department of State, and subsequently the Commerce Department, where he was responsible for helping American companies sell their products in Japan. At the time Japan was highly protectionist, and it was his father's job to work out how to enter various markets (one import close to Tom's heart was the Easton brand of baseball bats). However, Mr. Cochran was also curious about technology, and Tom recalls how he even bought his two kids – Tom has an older sister, Anne, class of '89 – an early book on programming, since they thought they could programme a few games ("with mixed success", as Tom ruefully acknowledges). Asked about major differences between computers then and now, Tom says, "This (indicating his iPhone) has way more power than what was used to put a man on the moon! Computers are massively, massively faster now... It's Moore's Law: every 18 months, the computer you are using is twice as fast as the one from 18 months ago".

Back in the early 80s Wang computers were the order of the day, but when Mr. Cochran bought a PC, he brought home instead one of the new-fangled Apple IIC machines. It had green and black text onscreen and came with floppy disks; they had to dial in via the landline using a modem – and, if anyone picked up the phone, it would kill the connection. Tom even has a funny story about it. One day, Steve Jobs himself was visiting the Commercial Section at the embassy, and Tom's dad was the only one with an Apple! Faced with all the Wang computers, Steve Jobs looked over, saw the IIC, and gave Mr. Cochran a personal "thumbs up" – he was definitely onto something! 

Tom's family already had a connection to Japan. His parents had met in Tokyo in the early 70s when his dad was a young diplomat and his mother, who was Swedish, was working as an air stewardess; they were married in 1972. Flying, it turns out, is another of Tom's loves. His grandfather was a pilot, and young Tom wanted to follow suit. "When I was small I wanted to be a pilot for PanAm – which back in the day was THE airline – and fly a 747 from here to San Francisco, which was what I used to do all the time, as a passenger, to visit my family. That didn't work out. Then I also wanted to play Major League baseball... and that didn't work out. So this was my third choice."

For much of his youth Tom spent a maximum of four years in any one place and was an early "third culture kid". He now ponders the pros and cons of "not coming from anywhere", recounting how, since starting work in Washington D.C., he has been more settled than at any time in his life – but admitting that, when the first four-year period came to an end, he had to resist the strange yet strong urge to move on that seemed almost "programmed" into him.

His parents chose Nishimachi, he says, because it was a natural option: it wasn't far from the U.S. Embassy compound, and, then just as now, there was a bus that took the compound kids (around 25 of them at the time) to the school every day. Even though he lived at the compound, in Grew Tower, he didn't have many non-Nishimachi friends: his group were all fellow Nishimachi students, and he never got to know the ASIJ kids, for example. He recalls the school as very international, with maybe 15% of students being American; he loved the international aspect of it and enjoyed the fact that his group comprised a Finn, a Kiwi and a Japanese-American. "I was so proud of being the American-Swedish kid, especially on flag days". 

Tom experienced Nishimachi as a warm, friendly and fun place to be. He felt completely at home here and still identifies with the school and its ways. This seems to have directly impacted his career choices. "I was never a great student but I was also not the worst! When I didn't like to do something, I wasn't very good at it; so I would get As in the classes I loved, and Bs and Cs in the classes I didn't like. You don't always get to do the things you want to do in life. Sometimes you have to do the things you don't like, and you should do your best at those as well". Tom maintains he was an average "B" student and says he felt personal disappointment for not applying himself; this led him to overcompensate in his professional career. He attributes his success to date to his determination to do better any time he failed at something. The world is full of people who promised much but proved unable to advance. This willingness to make and learn from mistakes is what has taken him forward.

He always loved P.E. and played every kind of sport offered by Nishimachi: kickball, basketball, dodgeball... (Tom didn't start to play baseball until after he left Japan and returned to the States). He even remembers playing hockey in what is now the Multi-Purpose Room, back then an open area under the gym that was at one time apparently slated to be made into a swimming pool! Because of the columns, there had to be well-developed strategies of going round first one column... then another... As for the school ski trip to Iwappara, Tom went only once as a student, but he and his dad went while his sister was on her middle school ski trip, something she didn't altogether appreciate! 

Asked about the school and its premises, he says it was originally only the Matsukata House, and none of the other buildings were here when he arrived – although he remembers the gym and the Red Building being built and throwing beans off the balcony at Setsubun. But he also says, "A lot of it is still the same... I look around this room and see a lot of my friends in you".

He remembers Tané Matsukata, already in her mid-60s, as "a really nice, lovely, warm person; a very caring, child-focused lady", who spoke fluent English, having been born and raised in the U.S., and is interested to learn that she is now a legendary figure at the school, as opposed to the real live person he knew. He also warmly recalls members of the staff such as Mr. Montgomery, who was his fourth grade homeroom teacher, and Ohta-sensei, who used to teach swimming and, of course, still teaches Japanese here in our middle school. He's in contact with many friends from Nishimachi through social media (even messaging them from the MS Commons to tell them he's visiting), and, whenever he gets together with his sister, they reminisce about friends and teachers, such as Mr. Green and his method of whispering to control the room, "Which was very clever, because everyone had to stop and listen carefully to hear what he said". Tom remarks on the fact that some teachers are still here thirty years later, saying it speaks to the strong sense of community at Nishimachi.

Because he moved to Japan so young, Tom says it was strange returning to the U.S. at the age of ten, when he was basically a blond-haired Japanese kid. There was no internet, and he had no cultural frame of reference: his world was Doraemon, not Scooby Doo! Culturally, he didn't fit in. There was a Japanese girl who was also new in his school, and they would chat together, but for a long time he had the sense of not being from anywhere and not belonging. He now credits this with making him flexible and able easily to get along with whomever he meets or has to work. He feels he is as native in D.C., where he now lives, as anyone can be and wants to give his two young children a sense of "being from here", reflecting on the importance of having roots and knowing where you are from – or, indeed, having a place to go back to.

When asked about how Japan has changed, he laughingly remarks that it used to take six months for popular movies to reach Japan – and is amazed when the students tell him it still does! But other things have changed. Calling overseas was expensive, whereas now it's free or very low cost, and it's so easy to stay in touch. In the 80s Japan was on top of the world, dominating the economy, but these days the country is struggling with the effects of an ageing population that consumes less. He notes, however, that Thailand has changed more: when he lived there you might occasionally see elephants in the street (you certainly don't see that anymore!).

After Nishimachi, Tom attended the International School of Bangkok, then Langley School in Virginia and Phillips Exeter Academy in New Hampshire, before going on to Vanderbilt University in Tennessee. He started off studying engineering, but, ironically, he didn't like it and switched to a Bachelor of Arts degree in Economics and Business Administration ("And, lo and behold, I found myself in a career requiring engineering!"). But he clearly enjoyed technology and the early form of the World Wide Web, so that one day a professor said to him, "You really seem to like this, why don't you think about it as a career?" As Tom told his young audience, "If you do something you love, you don't work a day in your life". 

Asked about his college days, he says, "It's a really important thing to be able to use various skills. Learning how to learn is the most important skill I learned in college. Knowing I didn't know something and being comfortable in working out the answer on my own was another key skill I learned". He does also say, however, that writing and presentation skills, plus being able to speak to groups of people as well as superiors, are really important, too. It's hard to find people with good writing skills, and speaking to others isn't an easy thing to do. (Asked what he uses the least from his time in college, he hesitates before saying he once took a course on Roman Civilisation...).

How was it that he came to land his first job, with AMS (American Management Systems, a big technology company), from 2000-2003?  Luck, and being in the right place at the right time, according to Tom. AMS, like other big corporates, would visit the Vanderbilt campus during recruitment fairs. Tom laughs as he recalls how the AMS representative told him, as he was half-way through a speech, "That's a really BAD answer!" Tom thought he had messed up. But they called him back and flew him to a second interview – and he was in. The moral of the story being that you don't have to have the right answers all the time, but you should have something to offer.

Tom's belief is that "being nice" (however you define that, whether it's working well with others, or listening attentively, or not putting people down) is more advantageous in the long run. It's often the "soft skills" – people management and leading teams – that are most essential in getting things done. His philosophy is that it's how you work – bringing people together, collaboration and so on – that's key: some people want to work together and others don't, and you have to know how to manage that to move things forward. "It's important to understand computers, but the most difficult thing I have had to learn is how to "program" humans! Understanding human social dynamics is the most important thing you need to do". 

While at AMS Tom worked as an analyst at the U.S. Department of Agriculture, responsible for the business architecture of the largest geographic information system implementation in the world; he was also the lead developer on a content and feedback management system that was awarded a U.S. patent. There were nevertheless periods when he wasn't especially busy, when he could have sat back and enjoyed some free time. Instead, when told he could teach himself how to program in earnest, he jumped at the chance. "I never formally trained in software development – I taught myself". With hindsight, though, it seems obvious to Tom that he was destined for a career in technology, engineering and programming, as he recalls playing for hours as a child with LEGO constructions, building massive structures and losing himself in total concentration. 

After AMS he worked for a spell as Web Software Developer with AC Technologies, building a large-scale content management system to power the Department of Education's website, before moving in 2004 to Blue State Digital (Blue of course signifying the Democratic party), where he was part of the team that created "DeanSpace" to support the political candidacy of Democrat Howard Dean. In an early intersection of politics and technology, this was a plan to introduce fundraising via a digital platform; Dean was one of the first presidential candidates to use the internet as a major fundraising tool, an idea still in its infancy at the start of this century. As Senior Software Engineer, Tom was responsible for developing roughly a third of the first phase of Democratic Party campaign and advocacy software. 

In the event, Republican George W. Bush won a second term in 2004, but the applications and tools that Tom built evolved into key robust digital platforms which supported the Democratic National Committee and Barack Obama's 2008 and 2012 presidential campaigns, helping to raise US$1.2 billion online in two election cycles. Another example of his work is the first version of early social networking software that evolved into MyBarackObama.com (otherwise known as MyBO), where people could get information about Barack Obama and also send information to him; this was a more sophisticated and politically-aware attempt to harness the power of communication, and became an important part of the campaign to elect Obama president. 

                                                    ©Tom Cochran 2018

For the next few years Tom was employed as Chief Technology Officer at SevenTwenty Strategies, where he managed the engineering team and technical infrastructure to support national legislative advocacy campaigns totalling over 6 million Democrat supporters. But, after his former Blue State Digital co-workers were called in by the new administration, and the team that had worked on DeanSpace moved on to work for Barack Obama, Tom eventually joined them as lead engineer, becoming White House Director of New Media Technologies at the beginning of 2011. In his new role, Tom was now responsible for the security, stability and scalability of the President's global digital platforms. Talking about the White House and the whitehouse.gov platform, for which he maintained 100% system availability over 18 months of operations, Tom says, "My role there was to run a team that used digital technology to connect the President to the people and, conversely, the people to the President. There were about 3,000 people who worked for him, so I'm pretty sure he would not know my name. But I did meet him once or twice". 

As a feature of the website they would live stream every time the President or a member of his team spoke, and Tom recalls wondering why, around about 9 p.m. on Sunday 1st May, he got the call that they were shortly to go live. It turned out that President Obama had just received news that the United States had finally got Osama Bin Laden, and he was preparing to address the nation. This website broadcast would go out to the whole world, and, interestingly, Tom says that the entire process was normally supported by only about 100 people.

His team also created and developed a platform that would leverage peoples' rights under the First Amendment. In Tom's words, "We built a platform called "We the People" which allowed ordinary citizens to petition the President. This was the first time in United States history that the people were directly connected to the President in this way. 100,000 signatures were required on any online petition to get an official response from the government. This could have interesting outcomes. Someone wrote a petition that the U.S. government should build the Death Star... and it reached the threshold required in terms of numbers of signatures. The reply that emerged is archived, as government policy, and went something like this: "We won't build the Death Star because it would cost 100,000 times the national budget and take 10,000 years to build, and that doesn't seem like a wise investment". This shows that the people who work in the White House are regular people like you and me: they have a sense of humour". 

In 2012 Tom left the White House to join Atlantic Media, a private company, where he was again Chief Technology Officer, charged with executing business strategy with industry-leading digital and enterprise technology across all their brands (including The Atlantic, Quartz, National Journal and Government Executive) and managing a digital product infrastructure team that handled over 25 million monthly visitors. Tom focused on eliminating unplanned downtime, enhancing security and improving page load times (by 800%!). Security and measurably improved efficiency are common threads running through everything he has done. He also founded an advisory group for his CTO peers from other media companies such as Vice, Mashable, Politico, Salon.com, Hearst Corporation, Conde Nast, Fast Company and Vox Media.

In 2014 Tom landed at the U.S. Department of State, where he was Deputy Assistant Secretary and Deputy Coordinator for Platforms, working in the Bureau of International Information Programs (IIP). He was now a presidential appointee to the Senior Executive Service (which Tom finds somewhat ironic, since, when his father was at the State Department, he often used to grumble about temporary political appointees – as opposed to career diplomats and civil servants  – making public policy or thinking they could come in for four years and change things), overseeing the offices that managed online and offline spaces for U.S. public diplomacy while focusing on data-based decisions and individual engagement. During this time Tom lead the U.S. Embassy website upgrade for the Department's largest digital platform (with 150 million visitors and 650 million annual page views), and implemented a global public diplomacy prototype Customer Relationship Management system with sixteen embassies. Importantly, he also led the implementation of ShareAmerica, which is a "socially-optimized platform for distributing foreign policy-relevant public diplomacy content to global audiences" (check it out!) and provided digital strategy consultations to government officials, NGOs and media companies in many other parts of the world, including Bolivia, Ukraine, New Zealand, Indonesia, Poland, Germany, Mexico and Hong Kong. As an example of the various programmes the State Department has, Tom talked about the development of "American Spaces", of which there are now over 800 around the world, and how he has received personal testimony of the efficacy of this programme, which also heavily leverages technology.

Tom left the State Department towards the end of 2016 and is currently Chief Digital Strategist and Vice President of Public Sector at Acquia, the leading provider of cloud-based, digital experience management solutions, where he works with city, state and national governments to help them improve services to their citizens. An example he mentioned is Amazon Alexa: in Georgia, you can ask, "Hey, Alexa, where do I renew my driver's licence?", and Alexa will tell you. He talks about open government and making governments work better. In his spare time (?!) he is Adjunct Professor for Digital Marketing at American University in D.C., where he teaches a graduate-level course on digital marketing and e-commerce, "blending theory with practice and exploring the best paradigms, practices and principles of traditional, new and emerging marketing techniques, along with their effects on individuals, audiences, publics and cultures".

Talking with the older students, Tom told them the internet is not free and not always a safe place... "But, if you are wandering around in a bad neighbourhood, and if you are aware of your surroundings, you can operate in a safe space". That same day the grade 6 students had been learning about the risks of sharing passwords and what can happen if you allow someone else to access your account. "Let's say you give someone the key to your house and ask them to get your computer or a toy... and then they forget to lock the door... and then someone comes in and takes your family's Lamborghini... Your friend didn't mean to do anything bad, but you lost something precious to you. There are real dangers with sharing passwords". There were knowing murmurs of assent from the kids, who totally got the analogy. He went on to say, "At some point your brain is going to be plugged in to the internet, for better or worse. You'd better understand the security of the internet".

Asked what he doesn't like about the internet, he says that's easy: "I don't like the hate and anger that is spewed on social media more and more. The election of 2008 was one of hope and change and making the country a better place. In 2016 it was almost the opposite, although the technology was even better; the election itself was one of hate and bullying, there was so much anger on the internet. Technology can be a force for good and a force for bad: it depends on who is using it".

Questioned on what concerns him most about the world in which his children will grow up, Tom answers immediately: "Cyber-bullying". These days you cannot simply disappear or move towns and create a whole new identity. With the advent of social media in particular, the amount of information that is online and can be collected about you over the years is immense. There is a movement away from social media, where it is considered cool not to be part of it. On the other hand, Tom cannot think of a single reason why any professional would not have a LinkedIn profile...

Asked about his family, Tom says that, apart from his job, his children – who are 3 and 1 – are his passion. This prompted questions from the students about his own childhood. He loved gaming when he was younger, but doesn't have time now and hasn't played in a while. When he was their age, it was all about Super Mario (this information was met with excited recognition). Asked about hobbies – he doesn't watch TV... doesn't even own a TV – he says baseball, of course (he supports the Washington Nationals), and travelling. He used to write a blog entitled D.C. History, which had a couple of million followers back in the day (pre-kids, is the unspoken understanding).

A final question came on how to develop a skill. "The most important skill that anyone can learn in life... whatever it is you're interested in... is being curious, exploring, asking questions, taking things apart and learning how they work. Even if you are 80 years old, as long as you are curious, you're going to be successful at whatever it is you do. Be curious. Find something you love". He left our middle schoolers with the (certainly for some) comforting and somewhat tongue-in-cheek assurance that, "You know, nerds rule the world, eventually!"

"In 1983, when Ronald Reagan was president, I don't think it ever crossed my mind that I would get to work at the White House. I've had the good fortune to have amazing opportunities like this, marrying my passion for digital engagement and technology with public service and government". 

And to think it all started with that Apple IIC back in first grade at Nishimachi...
 

Nishimachi International School
2-14-7 Moto Azabu, Minato-ku, Tokyo 106-0046 Japan Tel: +81- (0)3-3451-5520

A well-recognized, independent, and coeducational K-9 international school in central Tokyo.

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