Counter to what you might expect to hear from a seasoned and innovative Chief Technology Officer, Andrew Stillman reminds us that technology is NOT the answer to all our problems, by any means. Rather, he says, “The technology needs to enable the humanity behind how we relate to each other as people, and there are no silver bullets… sometimes face-to-face or over the phone works best, no apps or social media needed!”
Andrew was raised by “die-hard Democrats” but both his work in education and his career since have led him to take a more balanced view of the various polarizing issues in the U.S. today. He notes, “From my own life experiences, I understand why people on the right are concerned… there’s a lot of change, and we are all right to ask questions. We should be more curious about the lens people use to assess things instead of leaping to judge each other all the time.”
He believes in the proven power of institutions in our culture and society to help us work together to meet the challenges and opportunities in front of us. Public education was one such institution where Andrew began to form his views, and he has been a hands-on instructor both in and out of the classroom, teaching kids everything from science and math to sailing and wilderness survival skills.
“I was an educator first and foremost, and felt I had a mission to do something socially important with what I was seeing and learning,” he recalls. Studying physics and philosophy in college, he also learned early on to take a systems-approach to problem solving, to look at underlying processes, people and technology that aim to drive specific outcomes.
I was an educator first and foremost, and felt I had a mission to do something socially important with what I was seeing and learning.
Andrew earned a teaching fellowship in the Bushwick neighborhood of Brooklyn-New York, where he had a broad array of experiences and exposure to different walks of life (and also where he met his wife of 18 years!). “There were all these people trying to do something big… it reminded of the Peace Corps or something but inside America, which was really exciting.”
As his parents were fond of reminding him, ‘To whom much is given, much is expected.’ Andrew then went on to found a public school start-up, The Columbia Secondary School for Math, Science & Engineering, and then later moved on to develop digital tools and support as a Program Officer for New Visions for Public Schools, a school-reform non-profit which strives for better pedagogy and academic intervention systems through technology.
With his desire and skills to mix tech and learning, Andrew has built multiple applications and tools that came to be used nation-wide by secondary school teachers, and which are still in use today. Leveraging nearly a decade of software development experience, he built and delivered freeware in the form of a suite of popular “add-on” utilities for educators using Google Apps for Education, and reaching over 100,000 active users monthly across the U.S.
As he began to see things more and more at a systems level, he was better able to notice why and how well-meaning people and programs can often fail. He learned that “there’s not a lot of tolerance for bad systems, and I discovered a huge need and role for technology to help automate, streamline and organize large volumes of data to help make smarter, faster decisions where you could actually measure impact.” He also observed that high-needs environments live in deep chaos in more ways than one, including from a data and communications standpoint.
As polarization and division continued to grow in the U.S., Andrew wanted to bring these same revelations and his passion for practical, technology-based solutions to the work of Braver Angels. Like so many among the full-time Braver Angels’ team, he was a volunteer long before he became part of the leadership team. He notes that, “Often something that people least understand about Braver Angels is that we are an organization and a movement that is really run by volunteers… the amount of weight they carry and the decision-making freedom they wield is unique.”
In fact, volunteers are the #1 customer for his work in technology today, and Andrew has helped to bring multiple innovations to Braver Angels in their service, including upgrades and new capabilities around fundraising, building out data pipelines and automations for field work, and improving the user experience for the people doing the crucial daily work to depolarize U.S. society.
Andrew is especially keen to use data analysis and communications to help understand, engage, and recruit those who feel most left out, divided, and estranged from today’s socio-political currents. He notes that often such folks tend to be those on the more conservative end of the political spectrum. “Again, I think technology is just an enabler to help us all do what’s most needed… to explore why and how people think differently than each other.”
As Andrew knows and helps others to realize, it’s work to figure out what drives people, and often he finds that when organizations look across all the data and information that come to us only in bits and pieces, it is possible to form a much clearer picture and understanding at scale when you have the tools and time to see it. He says, “It’s too easy or convenient to chalk up differences to something that is ‘lesser’ about the other, but many of us have learned that’s not the case at all.”
Andrew is most excited about what he sees in Braver Angels as a decentralized social movement where increased collaboration and communication, enabled by the technology he and his team deliver, can help pave the way. He smiles into the Zoom call when he concludes that, “For some it may seem like really unglamorous stuff – all this technology – but it is really vital to helping the movement thrive.”