What Staring Down ISIS and Working at Alphabet's Jigsaw Have in Common
By Jeremy Goldman
For Scott Carpenter, Managing Director of Jigsaw, a common narrative throughout his entire career is that he has wanted to better understand the world we live in.
Carpenter, who now oversees the entire product portfolio of the Jigsaw team on a day-to-day basis, took a gap year in China after college (’87-’88). That year, as he puts it, completely changed his perspective on life that has served him well working at Jigsaw, Alphabet’s technology incubator focused on tackling geopolitical problems.
Looking at a society in transition (as China was at that time), he found himself at a crossroads, thinking about his own responsibilities as an outsider and a teacher. He became interested in looking at freedom, how systems can be changed through legal, political, and technical levers. Trying to improve people’s human rights seemed like a reasonable way for any young professional to spend their time.
Throughout his time in government, including multiple stints in the State Department, he discovered it to be very hierarchical — for a reason. A government needs to have clarity when it speaks, and for that reason needs clear policies and a clear authority figure. As a result, government are usually top-down directed. Understanding how to create change in that type of environment was one thing.
Carpenter’s Real-World Experience
Carpenter found himself serving in the Coalition Provisional Authority, a legal entity created by the United Nations to be a transitional government after the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003. Unlike being part of the State Department, the CPA was an entity that was entirely unprecedented, and one that required a new way of thinking about how to create change. It had people from all different governments, which meant that the lines of authority were often blurred. Governments usually move slowly and with great caution; in the CPA, Carpenter says, “you were making it up as you went along; you had no choice.” Leadership meant making important choices, and fast. “Time was compressed. It was not a lethargic process,” Carpenter says, adding: “I was there for fourteen months, and it was the longest decade of my life.”
The event that had the biggest impact on him was the murder of a woman who was working with women’s organizations in Hillah at the time. She was idealistic and really motivated to be there, and had been working in a relatively stable part of Iraq. However, she had become sloppy with her own personal security, and it was this disregard for her own wellbeing that ultimately led to her death: she was murdered as she was coming back from a trip later than she should have been. That situation, and far too many other senseless losses, struck him and reinforced his commitment towards creating real change.
It’s these real-life experiences that have enabled Carpenter to bring a crucial perspective to his Jigsaw team; where they are trying to have an on-the-ground impact, he has the on-the-ground experience. As Carpenter is quick to point out, if you want to create change, you can’t think about people as abstractions. You have to go out and talk to people who have been affected and see what the human impact has been or will be.
In fact, Carpenter has done a good job at maintaining relationships so they can be helpful to this day. Over the course of 30 years, he’s lived in many parts of the world and has trust networks to tap…most people think National Security Advisors or heads of endowments are the people you tap into, but last year when Jigsaw was looking to get an understanding of violent extremism and the ISIS phenomenon was going on, Carpenter called a friend in Iraq said, “would you be able to help set up interviews with some detained ISIS fighters?” His friend said sure, no problem. No one else could get access to these detained ISIS fighters. So Carpenter took a few colleagues with him and spent a few days interviewing the young men to understand their relationships with their phones.
Creating Real Change
It makes sense, then, that one of Jigsaw’s greatest achievements – and one that he is most proud of – is Project Shield, which protects people from DDoS (Distributed Denial of Service). When Carpenter first came to Google, he wanted to protect human rights organizations from DDoS by helping them come onto Google’s servers, thus shielding them from attack. “It turns out, shockingly, that not everyone trusts Google,” he says with a chuckle. Project Shield lets people stay on their own servers, using Google as a proxy. The result? Journalists, human rights’ activists, election monitors and many more are able to use Project Shield to defend their websites from DDoS attacks meant to silence them. Now, they are free to speak.
The difference between working at Google and working at Jigsaw is that, at Google, you want to impact (and have) billions of users, whereas at Jigsaw, they believe there’s magic in small numbers. The vast majority of people live their lives without fear of virtual (or physical) attack, and that’s how it should be. But, as Carpenter sees it, if Jigsaw can make life safer for those few in vulnerable positions, then they will have done their job right.