President Obama's top technology adviser, Megan J. Smith, a 50-year-old M.I.T-trained mechanical engineer and former Google exec, is working hard to bring her experience from Silicon Valley into the Obama administration. Four months into her job as the chief technology officer of the United States, Smith is facing a culture shock in a government ruled by old technology and apparently, floppy disks.
Smith comes fully equipped with a BlackBerry phone and a 2013 Dell laptop - new by government standards, but dated compared to the cutting-edge technology of her former life where her division at Google helped create technologies like Google Glass and the driverless car. So far, she has been optimistic about the venture.
"'We’re on it,' she said of trying to solve the administration’s technology problems a year after the disastrous rollout of the federal health insurance website, healthcare.gov. 'This is the administration that’s working to upgrade that and fix it.'"
Smith advised the president on technology issues prior to his decision last year to come out in favor of a free and open Internet, including making sure that President Obama heard Google's Vice President, Vinton G. Cerf, and the inventor of the World Wide Web, Tim Berners-Lee.
“Having the engineering voice saying, ‘This is how the technology works,’ was very important,” she said.
Smith is the country's third person to become chief technology officer and the country's first woman to hold the title. Yet, a fact which may come as a surprise to some, four of the five divisions of the Office of Science and Technology Policy are headed by women. Last month, Smith created a page on the White House website devoted to "the untold history of women in science and technology," including the stories of tech pioneers like Ada Lovelace, the world's first programmer.
Unfortunately, technology experts say that there is a problem. The mandate of the chief technology officer has so far been unclear since President Obama created the job five years ago. While Obama started the United States Digital Service in August to upgrade the government's tech systems and improve its websites after the healthcare.gov fiasco, the team is housed in the Office of Management and Budget and overseen by a chief information officer - a position that does not currently have a permanent occupant.
“The real struggle for Megan Smith is that while this role does have a direct line to the presidency, it does not have much of a budget or any authority over other agencies,” said Clay Johnson, the co-founder and chief executive of the Department of Better Technology, who ran Mr. Obama’s online campaign in 2008 and worked in his administration as a presidential innovation fellow.
Johnson suggested that a high-profile technology visionary might be poorly suited to help, comparing the government's infrastructure to a burning building.
How big of an impact Smith will be able to make on the Obama administration to improve the state of their technology is a question that remains to be seen.
Source and Image credits: NYTimes