Her official title is chief technology officer of the United States. But think of Megan Smith as tech’s chief evangelist in government. It’s a role President Obama takes seriously. When she started the job last September, they met regularly to formulate her priorities. “I think of it as an architecture job or an instigation job,” says Smith, 50, who is the third person to hold the position since Obama created it shortly after he took office in 2009. She came with real tech cred: Previously, Smith was in charge of new business development at Google.
Growing up in Buffalo, Smith always loved science projects. She went on to study mechanical engineering at MIT and worked for Apple in Tokyo and General Magic, an early maker of smart phones. She later joined PlanetOut, a website for gays and lesbians, rising to become CEO. In 2004 she joined Google. While head of new business development, she led major acquisitions that became Google Earth and Google Maps. The department, she says, “did all the deal work” and was great training for her current role. “We didn’t manage the engineering team, but we sure helped them a lot.”
As US CTO, Smith’s mandate is broad. Her team advises the president on significant tech topics like patent reform, privacy issues, and net neutrality, as well as the regulatory reform that will allow entrepreneurs with good ideas to advance them more quickly.
Smith also promotes and encourages top talent to join the United States Digital Service, which places teams of tech executives on gnarly problems like fixing HealthCare.gov. She does the same for the Presidential Innovation Fellows (think AmeriCorps for tech). And she’s been very involved in open-government initiatives like the partnership struck in January between the US and the UK, which allows the countries to learn from each other about how to better deliver digital services like welfare registration. “If we’re the country that makes Amazon and Facebook and Twitter, why can’t the federal government have websites and digital services that are awesome?” she asks.
Smith’s legacy, however, may come from a new effort called TechHire, which she hopes will funnel more women and people of color into tech jobs. “How do we scrub everyone into the future of our country?” she asks. Smith is trying, by working with community colleges and companies from a slew of cities to help train a more diverse workforce.
She has about 18 months to get this work underway before Obama’s second term ends. That might seem short—until you consider that many of Silicon Valley’s most successful companies were launched in less time.
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