Today, the Obama administration confirmed what CNET, Fortune Magazine, and Bloomberg News had reported last week: Megan Smith, a vice president at Google[x], will be the next US chief technology officer (CTO). In a blog post at WhiteHouse.gov, John Holdren, the assistant to the President for Science and Technology and Director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, where the US CTO serves, announced that Smith will be the next US CTO and Assistant to the President and that former Twitter general counsel Alexander Macgillivray will serve as a deputy US CTO.
"Megan has spent her career leading talented teams and taking cutting-edge technology and innovation initiatives from concept to design to deployment," said President Barack Obama, in the blog post. "I am confident that in her new role as America's Chief Technology Officer, she will put her long record of leadership and exceptional skills to work on behalf of the American people. I am grateful for her commitment to serve, and I look forward to working with her and with our new Deputy U.S. CTO, Alexander Macgillivray, in the weeks and months ahead."
Smith will replace Todd Park, who officially stepped down last week and moved west to Silicon Valley this month to recruit technologists to work for Uncle Sam, and Macgillivray will take over former deputy US CTO Nicole Wong's portfolio of internet policy and privacy. Neither the White House, Smith, nor Macgillivray responded to my request for additional comment, though both the new US CTO tweeted and the outgoing US CTO tweeted about the announcement.
— Megan Smith (@smithmegan) September 4, 2014
— Todd Park (@todd_park) September 4, 2014
A White House spokesperson referred me to Holdren's blog post:
"As U.S. CTO, 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," wrote Holdren. "Smith is an internationally recognized and award-winning entrepreneur, engineer, and tech evangelist. She joins the White House from her most recent post as a Vice President at Google[x], where she worked on several projects, including co-creating the 'SolveForX' innovation community project and the company's 'WomenTechmakers' tech-diversity initiative."
The pair are important additions to the White House's technology policy team, with deep experience at the world's leading technology companies. Smith is an MIT-trained mechanical engineer, with a distinguished record of delivering ambitious projects and integrating acquisitions; Macgillivray is something of a unicorn: a Harvard-trained lawyer who is also a developer, meaning he understands both legal code and software code.
In nine years at Google, Smith led the acquisitions of Keyhole (which became Google Earth), Where2Tech (which became Google Maps), and Picasa, the search giant's photosharing platform. Smith also worked on the Google Crisis Response, GoogleforNonprofits, and Earth Outreach/Engine projects, all of which represent some of Google's most important, meaningful contributions to humanity.
Smith, a widely respected entrepreneur, engineer, and advocate for technology education and inclusion, also breaks a glass ceiling (or perhaps a Silicon one): she will be the first woman to serve in the role created by President Barack Obama. In this role, she instantly becomes one of the most influential women in technology in the world. At a time when the federal government's use of crowdsourcing has grown six-fold since 2011, Smith's experience with open innovation in the private sector will be of immediate use as the Obama administration continues to look for ways to tap into the power of distributed intelligence through online platforms like Challenge.gov.
Smith is an "excellent choice," commented Aneesh Chopra, the first US CTO. "She will bring greater focus on ensuring we harness the full power of technology and innovation to both grow our economy and solve complex problems," he said.
Smith will need every bit of experience, wisdom, respect, and confidence that she's built until today: she'll enter public service at a time when there are historic lows of public trust in government, and, in the wake of the failed launch of the Healthcare.gov marketplace, government's capacity to deliver the technical components of legislation or rules. She'll inherit new government initiatives with huge potential, from the capacity to create technology products at 18F and the Presidential Innovation Fellows program that Park began, to being a partner in the recently launched US Digital Service at the White House Office of Management and Budget. The new US CTO will have the opportunity to analyze how Park, Chopra, and the Obama administration have approached opening up government data and, hopefully, not only extend that legacy but focus upon how to better realize the impact of its release on economic, social impact, and accountability outcomes.
Smith also embodies the Obama administration's commitment to a diverse team, particularly as seen in the approach Park took to building the technology staff at the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy. Both of her predecessors were the sons of immigrants: Park is of Korean descent, and Chopra is of Indian descent. As Colby Hochmuth reported for Federal Computer Week, the White House of Office and Science and Technology Policy achieved near-gender parity under Park. Smith, who previously served as CEO of PlanetOut, a leading lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) online community, has been a powerful voice for women and the LGBT community in the technology industry. There's no reason to expect that to change when she joins a White House that has embraced and celebrated the LGBT community like none other before, from championing human rights to signing an executive order to protect federal contractors from discrimination.
Macgillivray, who established a well-deserved reputation at Twitter as a defender of free speech, was formerly a deputy general counsel for products and intellectual property at Google. He also led Twitter's corporate communication, public policy, and trust & safety division, walking a perilous tightrope between protecting users, free expression, and deciding where and how to comply with the laws of other nations. Under Macgillivray (or @amac), Twitter shone a spotlight on secret FBI subpoenas. When the federal government used national security letters to secretly request user data, he went to court to fight to be able to notify them. Macgillivray, who famously described Twitter as "the free speech wing of the free speech party," left Twitter in August 2013.
In a personal blog post, he highlighted a series of accomplishments that will be relevant to his new role: "I am proud to have worked with colleagues who defend and respect the user's voice; who push freedom of expression and transparency; and who innovate and lead," he wrote.
At a time when the beleaguered Obama administration remains under scrutiny for its record on transparency around secret bulk electronic surveillance and drone programs, including secret laws around them, his appointment means that there will be another defender of privacy, civil liberties, and freedom of expression at the table in the White House. That's good news for everyone, particularly when "speaking for the users" in this context means speaking up for hundreds of millions of US citizens and billions more around the world.
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Alex Howard writes about how shifts in technology are changing government and society. A former fellow at Harvard and Columbia, he is the founder of "E Pluribus Unum," a blog focused on open government and technology.