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Cutting Class with Debra Lam, Chief Innovation & Performance Officer for Pittsburgh

This North Hills HS grad is re-inventing the way Pittsburgh incorporates technology Photo by Chandler Crowell/Government Technology

This North Hills HS grad is re-inventing the way Pittsburgh incorporates technology
Photo by Chandler Crowell/Government Technology

What is it about Pittsburgh and the surrounding areas that make it such a great place to live, work, and play? Is it the people, the history, or the businesses located here? Is the convergence of the rivers and the other natural wonders of our area? It is our enthusiasm for working hard and playing hard? According to Debra Lam, the answer to these questions would be ‘all of the above.’

As Chief Innovation & Performance Officer for the City of Pittsburgh, Lam oversees all technology, sustainability, performance, and innovation functions of Pittsburgh ?s government. Her job description contains some incredibly varied and almost peculiar topics such as coordinating the city information systems, overseeing the 311 response line, finances, and the Intergovernmental Cooperation Authority. With oversight of the 311 system, Lam monitors the department that acts as the first point of contact for city residents with questions and comments or complaints. ?We are always trying improve the lives of Pittsburghers. Right now, we are having a very significant pothole blitz in which the number of potholes is being actively addressed, ? Lam told me.

As part of the executive branch of the city government, Lam is key to the city ?s everyday functioning and problem-solving. Since late 2013, she has used her unique background and wide-ranging skill set to create an ‘innovation road map’ that is designed to analyze the city ?s problems, create solutions, celebrate successes, and enact strategies designed to continue Pittsburgh ?s strong march into the 21st century. Mayor Bill Peduto (also recently interviewed for this site) set up a wide-ranging talent search through Talent City to find unique, qualified candidates and chose Lam for this newly created position.

Lam grew up in Pittsburgh, but how she ended up back again recently is a captivating story. She certainly did not follow a straight path towards city governance work. In fact, Lam didn ?t even take a straight path to our interview site despite being rather familiar with the location. As part of this interview series, we agreed to conduct the interview in an unusual location, which in this case was her high school alma mater of North Hills High School, where she was giving a presentation for 100 students. Lam admitted that she had to take a bit of circuitous route to arrive there. ?I had to drive back to my parents house and drive from there from here. It still took me seven minutes exactly. Incidentally, knowing this exactly was a big part of me making it to school just moments before the start of first period. Sometimes it worked and sometimes it didn ?t. ? Lam ?s high school experiences at North Hills allowed her to explore her many different career options, but not exactly in the ways the her parents had in mind. ?Growing up, my parents told me that there were two career options: Doctor and lawyer. That ?s what was deemed as being successful for me. But after a disastrous experience in which I got a D in my first quarter in 10th grade chemistry, I had to reevaluate what I wanted to do. ?

Lam ?s career goals became more concrete upon admission to Georgetown. While there, she decided to pursue foreign service and had planned on being a diplomat. Being able to see concrete examples of diplomacy in action at embassies, by attending lectures from speakers from around the world, and by having college professors currently engaged in governmental service while still just an undergrad gave her a peek behind the curtain and an idea of the magnitude of world affairs. ?It was pretty incredible having former Secretary of State Madeline Albright as an instructor. Having class at her house with the Secret Service right outside was intense, but then having a class interrupted so she could provide some advice to the current Secretary of State (which was Condi Rice at the time) was an amazing moment in my education. Secretary Albright was embarrassed to have to stop class for this, but we were fascinated. ?

I cajoled Lam into namedropping some other famous people she ?s met since then and the list sounded a bit like the line-up of the SNL Celebrity Jeopardy skit as it includes Joaquin Phoenix and Sean Connery. She was rather cagey when I asked if she ?s interacted with any other famous people who were filming movies in Pittsburgh. ?Not that I ?m able say, ? and a coy smile were her responses.

Lam explained that she soon learned the harsh reality that a large part of an entry-level diplomat ?s role was simply stamping passports. This disappointment led her toward graduate school and a degree in Public Policy, which shaped her as well as her perception of time in an unusual way. It seems that at UC-Berkeley, where she did her graduate work, there is an unspoken rule among all the educational community that everything should start 5 minutes behind the actual scheduled time. She admitted to sliding back in these habits a bit too frequently.

Her Georgetown and UC-Berkeley experiences, her decision to take three different languages in high school, and also being fluent in Mandarin and Cantonese prepared Lam extremely well for trekking across the globe. She casually mentioned that she studied climate change and public policy at the University of Cambridge in England. But whether her travels and work took her to New York, the United Kingdom, China, Taiwan, or Hong Kong, ?There is always a Steelers bar wherever you go in the world. It is not really that hard to find. I remember watching the Superbowl in London at a very strange hour and the place was very, very full. Whenever people ask me where I am from, just saying ‘Pittsburgh’ galvanizes their imagination. ? Lam ?s work has taken her around the globe many times and she spent the last ten years as an consultant and a government advisor in many different countries. This has included work for the State Department, work with Arup (a global consulting and design firm) and strategy work with the World Bank, APEC, and the C40 Cities Climate Leadership Group. While giving credit to Mayor Peduto ?s vision and his eye for talent, there is no mistaking that Lam ?s resume does stand out a bit.

As we see our city moving onward and upwards, it ?s hard to imagine Pittsburgh won ?t be benefiting greatly from having a hometown girl like Debra Lam come full circle and bring her global perspective and experience into the pursuit of taking Pittsburgh to the next level. Coming back to her hometown certainly does not mean Lam is taking her foot off the petal, though, as she indicated, ?Sustainability is not just an end state in which you say ‘Ok, I guess I ?m done.’ It ?s a dedication to a continuous process of improvement, which is what I am trying to think of from a city-level perspective for the betterment of all Pittsburghers. ?

Dave’s previous interviews for this site can be found here.

David Barkovich interviews newsmakers from the Pittsburgh area in unusual locations using non-standard interview formats. David is a lifelong Pittsburger, a proud father and husband, and is extremely sore from training for the 2015 Pittsburgh Marathon.