Megan Smith Explains What It Means To Be America's Chief Technology Officer
The name Megan Smith might not be familiar to the uninitiated, but the third U.S. Chief Technology Officer of the country and the first woman to hold that position is a big deal in the administration. On a chilly Monday morning, before Arianna Huffington presented Smith as an honoree at the Matrix Awards recognizing women in the communications industry at the Waldorf Astoria in Manhattan, Bustle managed to snatch a few minutes of Megan Smith's time to understand what the CTO does exactly.
Conceived by President Obama in 2007 during his titillating run for president, the chief technology officer title was first held by Aneesh Chopra, whom Obama named to the position in 2009. While the CTO's function in the administration has been unclear at times, Smith says that the job involves a lot of tech policy and to look into the current technological issues and advancements of our time.
She tells Bustle, "[We work] around net neutrality and privacy and spectrum and broadband and big data, and all the big questions of this time. And I think the CTOs will always work on whatever the current questions are."
Embedded in the Office of Science and Technology Policy, Smith works with who she describes as "incredible tech teammates" in the department, alongside Obama's science adviser, John Holdren (who wrote the White House brief on Smith's appointment to CTO). According to Smith, she works with teams in energy, environment, national security, and innovation — like space, technology, and robotics. The teams focus on topics ranging from astronomy to Ebola.
Smith — who, it has to be said, has a disarming smile if only because it feels so sincere — had a direct hand in the global Ebola epidemic that sparked overblown fear in the U.S. Despite only a handful of cases, the nation was wild with panic, thanks in part to an over-excited media. Gathering a team of health authorities, engineers, and designers, Smith developed better protective suits for health workers on the front lines of the fight against Ebola.
A CTO, however, does not "run the government," as Smith puts it. Her department is neither in charge of running NASA nor the National Institutes of Health (NIH), "but we can architect and create and instigate." For example, her predecessor, Todd Park, created the Presidential Innovations Fellow program aimed at bringing in exemplary innovators from outside the government to work with those inside on various ambitious projects, which, in turn, has provided her department with a lot of talent.
Smith also pointed to Jen Pahlka, founder and executive director of Code For America, who took a year-long sabbatical from her non-profit organization to serve as Deputy CTO for Government Innovation in 2013. Pahlka helped build the U.S. Digital Service to change the way citizens and businesses interact digitally with the federal government.
Among Smith's achievements is her commitment to advance diversity, particularly in science fields. As the former vice president of new business development at Google, Smith initiated TechHire this year, a campaign to bring in more women and people of color into tech jobs across the country, which, as Wired reported, could well become her legacy. Smith also seems devoted to promoting women's participation in STEM fields — she created a page dedicated to "the untold history of women in science and technology" on the White House website, telling the stories of women in STEM and their contributions to the nation in an effort to encourage young women to pursue a career in science.
If you cheered the Federal Communication Commission's (FCC) decision to adopt net neutrality rules earlier this year, you also might have Smith to thank for that. The nation's top tech authority orchestrated meetings that led to Obama urging the FCC to take up strict net neutrality rules, a move that many saw as strong political support for the idea.
As the nation's CTO, Smith — who describes those in her department as her "CTO team" — seems to have a genuine enthusiasm for her job. She has broad mandate in the White House, which means that she isn't restricted to certain duties. But her ultimate goal is to push the federal government into the "Google Age" — she says she is helping to bring technology quotient (TQ), like its emotional and intelligence counterparts, EQ and IQ, to all facets of the federal government.
"We're doing a lot of architecting and instigating, of helping bringing TQ to every program in government — all of our colleagues: domestic policy council, the national economic council, stuff like that," she says. "It's a really interesting job."
With 18 months left until Obama's second term ends — it's unclear whether Smith will remain CTO with a new administration — Smith might have a finite amount of time to achieve all that she wants in government, but take heart in the knowledge that her Silicon Valley experience will have probably trained her for that.
Image: maryannerussell.com (1); Getty Images (4)