WASHINGTON — President Obama’s top technology adviser cringes when she hears highly educated adults say how bad they are at science and math, particularly when they do so in front of children.
“That has to change,” Megan J. Smith firmly told a group of teachers at the White House not long ago. “We would never say that about reading.”
Smith, 50, an MIT-trained mechanical engineer and former Google executive, is working hard to bring her Silicon Valley sensibility to the Obama administration. But four months into her job as the chief technology officer of the United States, the woman whose division at Google dreamed up Google Glass and the driverless car is facing culture shock in a federal bureaucracy ruled by creaky technology and run in part on the floppy disk.
Not only does she now carry a BlackBerry, she uses a 2013 Dell laptop — new by government standards, but clunky enough compared with the cutting-edge devices of her former life that her young son asked what it was.
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So far, she has adopted a cheery tone.
“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 the technological issues before his decision late last year to come out strongly in favor of a free and open Internet, including making sure that Obama heard from Vinton G. Cerf, Google’s vice president and one of the chief architects of the Internet, and Tim Berners-Lee, the inventor of the World Wide Web.
“Having the engineering voice saying: ‘This is how the technology works,’ was very important,” she said.
She came up with the idea for a brainstorming-and-prototyping day at TechShop, a “maker space” in suburban Virginia, where teams of health experts, engineers and designers worked on improving protective suits for health workers fighting the Ebola virus.
She has also briefed the president on ways to recruit top technologists, particularly women, into the government to build state-of-the-art digital and mobile services.
Smith, the country’s third chief technology officer and the first woman to hold the job, is one of a small but growing number of female scientists at the White House. 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 pioneers like Ada Lovelace, the world’s first programmer.
A nebulous mandate?
“It’s our country, so if we show up or not, that shapes what our government’s going to be,” Smith said one recent afternoon between meetings near her open-plan office in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building.
She sits at a small wooden computer desk surrounded by 11 colleagues, with numerous whiteboards covered in black and green scribbles lining the walls.
The problem, technology experts say, is that the mandate of the chief technology officer has been nebulous since Obama created the job five years ago, not least because it does not come with a substantial funding stream, a crucial source of power in the government.
And while Obama started the U.S. Digital Service in August to upgrade the government’s technology systems and improve its websites after the HealthCare.gov meltdown, that 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 CEO of the Department of Better Technology, who ran Obama’s online campaign in 2008 and worked in his administration as a presidential innovation fellow.
Comparing the government’s infrastructure to a burning building, Johnson suggested that a high-profile technology visionary might be poorly suited to help.
“I wish they had people in there for this last two years that could make the trains run on time, not somebody who has big ideas,” he said.
The daughter of a public-housing consultant and a schoolteacher, Smith has had ideas, and a curiosity about how things work, from a very young age.
A formative experience came in eighth grade, during the energy crisis of the Carter administration, when she used a circular saw in her father’s basement workshop to build a solar-powered house for one of her public magnet school’s mandatory science fairs.
“I learned that not only was this work interesting and impactful,” Smith said, “but also that I could do it.”
By the time she was at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, she was sneaking into the mechanical-engineering shop with friends to build a solar-powered car, then racing it 2,000 miles across the Australian outback. (They came in ninth.)
She later joined Apple Computer in Tokyo and then General Magic, an early maker of wireless handheld devices, before jumping to PlanetOut, a site for gays and lesbians, where she became chief executive in 2001. Two years later, she went to Google, where she led major acquisitions, including Google Earth and Google Maps.
She is separated from her wife, Kara Swisher, the technology journalist and co-executive editor of Re/code, with whom she has two sons.
Smith came to the White House after she caught the eye of Valerie Jarrett, Obama’s senior adviser and confidante, three years ago at a Silicon Valley event on attracting girls and women to science.
“She is infectiously energetic,” Jarrett said. “She has been able to translate for those of us who are not as well-versed in technology how we can use innovation to do good.”
How much Smith will be able to haul the Obama administration away from floppy disks is another question. But her supporters, at least, are optimistic.
Aneesh Chopra, Obama’s first chief technology officer, said Smith had “a tinkerer’s enthusiasm for finding problems and looking for ways to solve them,” and a “mindset of execution and getting things done.”