Tuesday, August 4, 2009

U.S. CTO Chopra: 'What can we deliver in 90 days?'

For the United States' Chief Technology Officer, the first visit to Silicon Valley is probably a bit like a new Secretary of State's first visit to Russia, China, or the E.U. All eyes are on you (is he a partner? adversary?), sizing you up, wondering who you really are and what change you can possibly bring.

For Aneesh Chopra, who took on the role of U.S. CTO in May, the challenge is even bigger: he's the first-ever U.S. CTO in history, with the opportunity to make or break the role. I attended the Churchill Club event Aug. 4 that was part of his first Bay Area trip to get a sense for what he intends to do.

If this quick snapshot is an indication, he’s a refreshingly charismatic personality, with little interest in waiting for the wheels of government to gradually spin through their normal machinations to deliver some eventual results (maybe). He talked innovation. He talked action. He talked about using quick, simple approaches to gnarly topics like visibility into what the government actually does with its $74 billion IT budget.

And, most appealing to many in the audience: he talked about doing it soon. Repeatedly during the presentation he highlighted not only an interest in doing things right for the long term, but in making tangible progress now. He kept coming back to this directive: "What can we deliver in 90 days to show progress? What can we do in the here and now?"

In fact, I think there's a broader lesson in his remarks for anyone (IT ops folks, especially) who has to manage major infrastructure and technology changes in pretty conservative, slow-moving environments. His approach is a good one: have big goals, but make sure you can show short-term progress. And, then, of course, be a phenomenal communicator and sell that vision, baby.

IT is a driver in this White House

The goals he outlined were no big revelation. He talked about infrastructure (like broadband), R&D collaboration, and educating a 21st Century workforce. He talked health IT, smart grid & energy independence, and education technology. He talked government transparency and consistent federal IT platforms. “In public policy, we eat our own proverbial dog food,” Chopra noted. All fine, but it's his more dynamic approach that's really the thing worth noting.

One of the amusing slides Chopra showed was of President Obama clicking around on a Web page, checking out one of his administration's first IT deliverables -- a site about where IT spend goes. "That’s my boss," Chopra noted with understated amusement. It was good for a chuckle, but there are two good things about that picture: the hands-on approach that Obama himself and his administration are taking in pushing technology to fill a role in government it has really never been very successful at: transparency & access. Second, because technology seems to be at the center of a lot of Obama's management approach, it's no longer a siloed discipline inside the government, but instead is being used to drive everything else.

This is obviously trickling down in many of the other remarks Chopra made:

It needs to be easy

Our personal embrace of the "digital life," said Chopra, "has not translated to global competitiveness and our public policy. It should be just as easy to get things going in government as in your personal life with things like Facebook or Twitter," said Chopra.

Of course, he admitted, it's "not the easiest thing to bring those innovations to the federal government." So the question is how.

There's simple stuff we can do

In answering questions about how to help use technology to enable higher education, Chopra emphasized a practical, get-something-out-the-door approach he underscored a number of times. "There's some simple stuff we can do," he said, with no extra money, no new laws required. Chopra told a couple stories of his time working as CTO for Virginia, including one in which technology approaches like a wiki (and asking for free contributed content from experts) helped new physics textbook content go from idea, to creation, to school district availability in less than a year -- 3 years faster than business as usual. (Thanks to @herrod for the link.)

"We need to harvest this same spirit," said Chopra.

Entrepreneurs, Chopra said, can help lower costs for public services with innovative ideas, but not alone. And also not by getting some huge government grants. Instead Chopra talked up collaboration. We may develop innovative ideas "though government contracts, but more often than not, you'll do it with each other." (He called this the "spirit of the commonwealth," being from Virginia and all.)

Listen, listen, listen

Chopra repeated the often-lamented fact that IT and business are often on completely different pages. It's like "IT people speak French and business people speak English," he said. Why? "In large part [this is] because we don't listen very well. We must listen, listen, listen for customer needs."

When taking action, talk about verbs, not nouns

After listening, and then trying to make fixes, Chopra showed a bias toward rethinking what should get done, rather than just making a list of what to buy. In figuring out how to make progress on using IT to assist with education, Chopra said, "there are lots of debates about the nouns -- what we should be buying for education." But, he said, "in the short term, the focus needs to be on the verbs" -- what actions are actually being taken.

A Silicon Valley honeymoon?

Chopra seemed to get a pretty good reception from the audience at the event and in comments from people using Twitter to report on his presentation (I saw good tweets from @timoreilly, @Jakewk, @DavidHurwitz, @mmasnick and others at #churchillclub and #aneeshchopra for starters). Backlash, of course, is probably already underway, but I think most of this should play well with the IT industry and IT folks in general. Aneesh Chopra has a big battleship to turn. If he can show the short-term, entrepreneurial progress he advocates, though, he's going to have a lot of folks clamoring to help turn it.

More background on Aneesh Chopra

TechCrunch did a good summary of the August 4 Churchill event here. Also, take a look at Tim O’Reilly's glowing assessment of Chopra just after his appointment was announced. The Wall Street Journal also included industry reaction to his appointment in this piece, also from April.

Update: "My very dear friend" Ashlee Vance ran a good overview of the event in his New York Times blog. Chris Preimesberger of eWeek also wrote up the event.

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