Obama's CTO: Not a Valley Insider, Not a Dev, and That's a Plus

by Ostatic Staff - Apr. 19, 2009

Early Saturday morning, U.S. President Barack Obama named Aneesh Chopra, Virginia's Secretary of Technology, the country's new Chief Technology Officer. While some in the tech industry were more than a little disappointed that the appointee wasn't one of their own, others are optimistic about what Chopra can do for technology in government (especially where health care is concerned). Tim O'Reilly goes into particularly fine detail about what this appointment means for open source.

I agree with O'Reilly (and ZDNet's Dana Blankenhorn) that there are some real benefits to a CTO whose resume is light on lists of preferred programming languages and positions held at prestigious software projects and technology firms. Chopra works with technology because he likes technology, and he's familiar with the intricacies and idiosyncracies of working with technology in the public sector. There is a huge value in that alone. Forget the idea that a government job might be a pay cut for someone coming in from the Valley -- think more along the lines of an abrupt change of pace, with a very different set of concerns and obstacles to overcome.

Chopra isn't a programmer, he isn't an open source executive, but he has a history of supporting open standards and seems, at least, willing to entertain viable options for moving technology infrastructure, government, and health applications forward. Is programming experience (or a nitty-gritty "2.0" tech company management background) really necessary in this position? Could it have potentially been a weakness?

This is a position that calls for someone who is knowledgeable, and interested, in technology, but not married to any one school of thought or business ideology. It isn't necessary that the CTO knows how every last line of code works, just that the chosen platforms are the optimal tools for the job, and work effectively, efficiently, and reliably. It is best filled with an applicant who isn't merely intelligent -- it needs someone who can throw "smart" aside, ask questions, and then think it all through. The CTO needs to think, and understand, the developers, but empathize, relate to, and experience the finished product as a community member and end user. It certainly looks as though Chopra fits the job description.