By Spencer Ante
On Saturday morning President Barack Obama announced a surprising choice for the new position of U.S. chief technology officer: Virginia Secretary of Technology Aneesh Chopra. “In this role, Aneesh will promote technological innovation to help achieve our most urgent priorities – from creating jobs and reducing health care costs to keeping our nation secure,” said President Obama in his radio address.
I have never met Chopra in person but I did interview the 37-year-old Indian American at length recently for a story I co-wrote reporting that states such as Virginia are going to aggressively seek federal broadband stimulus funds. And I have to say that he impressed me as a thoughtful and smart public servant who knew what he was talking about and was making things happen. I know the tech cognoscenti was hoping that the President would tap a high-profile person from Silicon Valley. But Chopra may very well have the chops to get the job done.
Obama's choice comes after months of speculation, during which many of the Valley’s most prominent figures, including Cisco CTO Padmasree Warrior, Google CEO Eric Schmidt, and other names were thrown out as possible candidates. But after speaking with Chopra I think he could make a smart choice, because he has shown an ability to bridge the divide between government and technology.
Chopra, who has been Virginia's top techie for the last four years, is not an engineer by training. He's more a policy wonk, having earned a master's degree in public policy from Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government in 1997, and a B.A. degree in public health from The Johns Hopkins University in 1994. But a pure technologist with little to no government experience would likely get lost trying to navigate the Washington bureaucracy. Chopra has deep experience in three key tech priorities of the Obama Administration: broadband, healthcare technology, and government efficiency.
Virginia has been one of the leading, if not the leading state, when it comes to helping to deploy high-speed Internet service. Under Governor Tim Kaine, Chopra made it a goal of the state to provide every business in the Commonwealth with broadband technology. In a rare partnership with telecom companies, the state has already developed a broadband map detailing its Internet infrastructure, and the gaps where pipes need to be built. To help fulfill the state's broadband goal, Chopra says his state would be applying for more than $100 million in broadband stimulus funds. "We would like to see public-private partnerships to expand the deployment of broadband," says Chopra.
Virginia has seen firsthand how big pipes can attract business. Over the past few years, broadband lines built in rural Virginia have helped the state to persuade high-tech companies such as Northrop Grumman (NOC) to set up new offices in those areas. In 2007, Northrop Grumman announced it would open up a new data center and CGI Group said it was opening a software development center—both in western Virginia.
Chopra has also led some innovative health-care initiatives in Virginia. Under Chopra’s direction, the commonwealth has created a social network on Ning to give small town doctors a tool to share best practices for advancing state goals, such as reducing childhood obesity and boosting immunization rates. Chopra should be able to help advance the President goal of using technology to reduce health-care costs. Prior to joining Governor Kaine’s cabinet in December 2005, Aneesh served as Managing Director with the Advisory Board Company, a publicly-traded health care think tank serving nearly 2,500 hospitals and health systems. In 2005, Governor Kaine tapped him to be the state's tech czar. Early in 2005, Chopra was appointed to the Governor's Electronic Health Records Task Force, in which he worked to identify technology strategies to decrease health-care costs and improve patient safety.
According to Virginia’s state Web site, Chopra was recently recognized by Government Technology Magazine’s for excellent "use of technology to improve government," and he was awarded Healthcare Information and Management Systems Society’s 2007 State Leadership Advocacy Award. Even though he's not from the Valley, he does have experience in venture capital. With a group of second-generation Indian Americans he started Avatar Capital, a venture fund that invested $11 million into 18 startups.
The firm did not produce any hugely successful investments, but it shows that Chopra understands the vital role that startups and entrepreneurial thinking plays in the economy. That experience should serve him well in his new job.