Iowa Law graduate and former Deputy U.S. Chief Technology Officer Cori Zarek (class of 2005) stopped by the Boyd Law Building on September 8 to chat with current Hawkeyes about technology and politics in the law.
The “lunch and learn” event, hosted by Professor Paul Gowder, gave students an opportunity to hear about Zarek’s career and ask her about issues of net neutrality policy, protecting open data, and diversity within the tech community.
Though she is currently a senior fellow leading Mozilla’s Tech Policy Fellowship Program, Zarek’s journey into the tech industry was by no means predictab
A former editor-in-chief of the Daily Iowan, Zarek’s first move after earning her J.D. was to relocate to Washington, D.C. where she joined the nonprofit Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press.
“It was my dream job,” she said of her work providing free legal assistance to journalists across the country.
While in the nation’s capital, Zarek connected with leaders who were “trying to build a better system, to do the right thing and be more responsive to the [American] people.” It was not long before she was asked to join the Obama administration and began a four-year stint working at the White House.
“It was awesome. I was working to increase transparency, traveling to a dozen countries as part of a 70-nation effort to improve openness,” said Zarek. “That was my passion, which came from the years I spent working with journalists.”
After helping the current administration’s tech team transition into the White House this past year, she joined Mozilla to continue her passion for fostering free speech.
“They’re really my people,” Zarek said. “[They promote] keeping the internet open, free, and accessible to all. Right now, I’m helping [members of the Mozilla fellowship program] work with governments and NGOs to make better and smarter use of the internet.”
Through her experiences, Zarek has continually noted the need to improve communication so that those in power can make informed decisions for the benefit of everyone.
“One of the things we did at the White House, and now at Mozilla, is to always be looking out for who’s not at the table,” she said. “It’s not enough just to consult people of color, women, etc. You need to give them a seat at the table.”
The launch of Healthcare.gov was one example of how Zarek saw, firsthand, the need to include many perspectives early on in the decision-making process.
When technical difficulties marred the healthcare enrolment website’s launch, the administration had to bring in a “SWAT team” of computer experts to work around the clock for two months. The experience made it clear that there “needed to be tech experts at the table from the start.”
Zarek went on to explain how she emphasized cultural diversity with her current Mozilla fellows team, but warned that a lack of diversity will continue to be a problem until it becomes “a top priority everywhere.”
In addition to seeking out varied perspectives, she highlighted two more ways in which the legal community could begin making proactive strides—start teaching technological literacy to law students, and encourage those students to be brave in seeking out their own career paths.
“It’s important to understand that there are an infinite number of jobs that will require some form of tech knowledge,” said Zarek, adding that it’s also important to “find your own way and be a little bit aggressive” in navigating your career path, whatever it may be.
First-year law student Chris Pinckney was particularly interested in Zarek’s insights about the nexus of law and technology.
“Like most 1Ls, I didn’t know exactly what area I wanted to practice in when I started law school, but the idea of tech and government intersecting in different spaces has always been an interest of mine,” said Pinckney.
“I’m interested in hearing more about [opportunities in] that space, and events like this definitely go a long way in helping me decide where my career path might be.”
The next Iowa Innovation, Business & Law Center sponsored event will take place on Thursday, September 28. Corynne McSherry, Legal Director of Electronic Frontier Foundation and a leading lawyer in entertainment and intellectual property, will present on the Digital Millennium Copyright Act in BLB room 235 at 12:30 p.m.