As Megan Smith makes her transition from Silicon Valley to the nation’s capital, she will be watched closely by members of the Washington tech community.
Smith, a Massachusetts Institute of Technology graduate who most recently served as Google’s vice president, is set to become the nation’s third chief technology officer and the first woman to take on the role that was created by President Obama in 2009.
But defining the chief technology officer’s job and how it relates to the private sector has been tricky.
Under Aneesh Chopra, the nation’s first CTO, the government expanded its collaboration with industry. Chopra ran a series of initiatives to make data more accessible to companies and the general public. In a phone interview, Chopra said one of the main aspects of his job was acting as “the interface between public and private sectors.”
His successor, Todd Park, a former health-care entrepreneur, had a more hands-on role while dealing with the troubled launch of Healthcare.gov. As a result, he had fewer interactions with industry, trade groups say.
Industry members said they liked the fact that Smith has an extensive background in the private sector. That’s why they are keen to see how she will approach her new job and what areas she will choose to focus on during her tenure.
“Megan has spent her career leading talented teams and taking cutting-edge technology and innovation initiatives from concept to design to deployment,” Obama said in a statement announcing the appointment.
According to the White House’s announcement, Smith will “guide the Administration’s information-technology policy and initiatives, continuing the work of her predecessors to accelerate attainment of the benefits of advanced information and communications technologies across every sector of the economy and aspect of human well-being.”
Contractors hope Smith’s arrival spurs the federal government’s adoption of new technology.
“It’s no secret that government technology is a step behind,” said Mike Hettinger, senior vice president for the public sector at TechAmerica, a trade group. “To have someone who’s been at Google, and who understands how technology can enable efficiency, is good.”
Hettinger said TechAmerica had already reached out to Smith’s office about setting up an introductory meeting with tech groups.
“If she can open the aperture of federal agencies to emerging technologies, that would be helpful to government as well as contractors,” said Alan Chvotkin, executive vice president and counsel of the Professional Services Council.
Smith’s appointment also makes her a role model who can encourage girls and women in technology, said Bobbie Kilberg, president and chief executive of the Northern Virginia Technology Council.
Although Smith has not yet spoken publicly about her plans, her past offers some clues.
At Google, she led Google X, the company’s secretive lab focused on cutting-edge work, such as Project Loon, a hot-air balloon experiment to bring WiFi to remote areas. Before that, she was chief executive at PlanetOut, an online LGBT community. Smith has also been an advocate for bringing more women into science and engineering and sits on the board of several educational committees.
Based on his limited interactions with her, Chopra said Smith was likely to prioritize STEM education in order to create a workforce that could fill the technology jobs of the future.
Asked whether he had any advice for Smith, Chopra said she didn’t need it.
“She is a world-class talent and just needs to trust her instincts,” he said.
Nancy Scola, who covers technology policy for The Washington Post’s “The Switch,” contributed to this report.
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