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What Kind of CTO Will Megan Smith Be?

White House CTO Megan Smith

White House CTO Megan Smith // Flickr user Joi Ito

It's barely been a week since ex-Google executive Megan Smith was named the Obama administration’s top technology official.

In some of her first public comments since taking on the chief technology officer position -- the third person to hold the title and the first woman -- Smith said she remains in listening mode.

But speaking Friday during a President’s Management Advisory Board meeting, which is made up of high-ranking agency officials and corporate CEOs, Smith said she’s already thinking of how she plans to put her own stamp on the role.

For starters, she said she’ll take an expansive view of the “technology” that makes up part of her new moniker.

"It's not exclusively focused on IT," she said of her new role. "It's focused on all the technology opportunity ahead for our country and for ourselves. So, it could be energy related or basic science related or innovations in biology -- all those areas."

Her priority areas include economic growth and "empowering the talent of our country," as well as leveraging technology to improve health care and education and advance clean-energy efforts.

Qualified IT Workforce a 'National Issue'

Her background as a mechanical engineer is likely preparation enough for the technological nitty-gritty of the role, although she stressed it’s not an exact analogue to that of a vice president of engineering -- or “VP eng” as she put it.

"A CTO is really a sort of strategic role within companies, within entities, to kind of look out and kind of see what architecturally should we be prioritizing and where might we be moving?” Smith said. “And often, it's not your team who's implementing -- it's other teams."

In her remarks, Smith also provided hints of how she might differentiate herself from her predecessors.

Obama’s first CTO, Aneesh Chopra, who stepped down in 2012, "needed to do a lot of focus very specifically on technology policy and has a great legacy there,” Smith said.

For the legacy of her immediate predecessor, Todd Park, Smith cited the Presidential Innovation Fellows -- the competitive fellowship program he championed that pairs “agile, rock star teams” from outside government with agency insiders to help solve technology challenges.

Smith suggested her focus would be not only making sure the federal government has the IT know-how available, but also making sure the country is prepared for an increasingly networked age, in which, as Marc Andreessen famously said, software is eating the world.

There are 1.4 million jobs coming in the IT and technology sector, Smith said, while only about 400,000 Americans are currently qualified to fill those positions.

"So, we have a national issue,” she said. “How do we attract our young people? How do we make those [jobs] available to the extraordinarily talented veterans who are returning from serving? How do we make them available to all American citizens who could train for them?"

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