Federal CTO Sees IT Leading U.S. Out Of Recession
Having survived their own dot-com bust, information technology CIOs may be the catalyst to help pull the country out of its recession.
That's the opinion of Aneesh Chopra, the newly minted federal chief technology officer and assistant director for technology at the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy.
Chopra is just beginning to firm up his priorities in a role in which he'll drive an endlessly complex national information technology innovation strategy. His task will be anything but easy, and quickly he's looping in the private sector and pushing CIOs to think about strategy and innovation above cost containment.
Stepping into a newly created position as federal CTO only three weeks ago, Chopra is a busy man these days. His administrative assistant is able only to steal away precious seconds between meetings and at the end of the day, and he moves from one meeting to the next, including an interview with InformationWeek in his Washington, D.C., offices last week, with no let-up between them.
Chopra steps into his role during the deepest recession in several generations, amid pressing concerns about healthcare, the environment, and the United States' ability to compete in a globalizing world. It's arguably part of his job description to have a sunny disposition about IT, but even with the economy on shaky ground, Chopra sees a great opportunity for CIOs and the tech industry in general to help lead the country out of the recession and deliver on some of the federal government's most pressing IT priorities.
"The firms that will succeed and lead us out of this recession, I can't envision a scenario in which they didn't produce some game-changing innovation led by technology into their either existing product portfolio or the creation of a new paradigm," Chopra said last week. "It's a terrific opportunity for the top-line, top-level revenue growth oriented CIOs. Investments in game-changing ideas to improve the quality of products and services is very likely on the CEO's agenda."
As federal CTO, Chopra has the ear of officials in high places, including, as needed, the president. Every morning at 8:15, he sits down for the White House senior staff meeting led by Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel. He sits on the influential National Economic Council and Domestic Policy Council, and his office will be the driving operational force in implementing the president's chief IT priorities. Chopra's busy at work creating "a network of thought leaders" to advise him on fleshing out a more detailed agenda to best serve President Obama's wide-ranging information technology goals around things like healthcare IT, a smart grid, technology education, and cybersecurity, and he implied innovative CIOs will likely be among his informal advisers.
"Traditional corporate CIO functions have largely been about efficiency," he said. "Emerging CIOs are focused on ways they can deliver value to the business, whether that be to help spur a new business within the corporation, of new product development, [or] new methods by which they create value for customers. I want to listen to the policy challenges and opportunities to support the CIOs interested in pursuing top-line growth."
An army of committees alone won't keep the country competitive in a fast-moving world, so Chopra's doing his best to look for game-changing ideas to meet the president's agenda. He sees a number of new ways to include the private sector in those priorities, including creating public-private-academic collaborations in applied research and development, and encouragement of beta tests of technologies that might not meet traditional specs necessary for procurement or grants.
"If you are the developer of a product that could be repurposed in support of the president's healthcare agenda, or to lower energy costs, whether you get paid for it commercially or whether that's part of a civic responsibility or you could offer it to a commercial entity to turn it into a business, we need to start getting people to apply their brainpower and their creativity in ways that the traditional approaches to solving our nation's challenges might not quite understand," he said.
Chopra is also an outspoken advocate of open data standards as a force for innovation.
"Envision a world in which the energy world had a very simple and common way of producing information on kilowatt-hour of consumption by the minute, and a private entrepreneur could capture that information, build a widget that tells me to do my laundry at 6, not 4, because it will avoid peak load," he said as an example.
It's not just bluster, either: immediately after meeting with InformationWeek, Chopra sat down to meet with three top Teradata executives, one of a nonstop parade of meetings for a CTO trying to hit the ground running.
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