Silicon Valley: A Thumbs-Up for CTO Aneesh Chopra

As Virginia's secretary of technology, Aneesh Chopra expanded high-speed Internet. He now will be U.S. Chief Technology Officer

For all of its attributes as the world's epicenter of innovation, Silicon Valley remains an insular region in some ways. But that hasn't stopped many technology leaders from rallying behind President Barack Obama's surprising choice for the nation's first Chief Technology Officer: Virginia Secretary of Technology Aneesh Chopra.

Chopra was educated on the East Coast and has never worked for a California tech stalwart or startup. But giants such as Google, industry trade groups such as TechNet, and top Valley luminaries such as Intel Chairman Craig Barrett and prominent blogger Tim O'Reilly are applauding the 37-year-old Indian-American as a superb choice for the nation's top technology czar. Chopra has the chops, say Valley veterans, to have an impact.

"Aneesh Chopra is one of technology's leading lights and we are lucky to have him as our nation's Chief Technology Officer," said Intel's Barrett in a written statement. "Aneesh demonstrated outstanding leadership as Virginia's secretary of technology and believes to his core that innovation and technology are the backbone of our economy."

Vinod Khosla, the prominent Indian-American venture capitalist, said in a statement that President Obama had picked a rising star who can use technology to bring people together. "This man is a 'doer,' plain and simple," wrote Khosla.

Chopra: an Obama transition volunteer

Obama announced the appointment during his weekly Saturday morning radio address. His 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 others were mentioned as possible candidates.

"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," Obama declared in his radio address. One of about 50 volunteers from across the nation serving on the transition's technology, innovation, and government-reform policy working group, Chopra had put in long hours in Washington helping the new President's transition team.

Chopra, who has been Virginia's top techie for the last four years, is not an engineer by training. He's more of a policy wonk, having earned a master's degree in public policy from Harvard University's John F. Kennedy School of Government in 1997, following a B.A. degree in public health in 1994 from Johns Hopkins University. Prior to joining Governor Tim Kaine's cabinet in December 2005, Aneesh served as managing director with the Advisory Board, a Washington-based health-care consultancy.

Although some tech blogs portrayed the appointment as a rejection of Silicon Valley, others have been rushing to Chopra's defense. In a lengthy post on his blog, Tim O'Reilly, founder of top tech publisher O'Reilly, described Chopra as a guy who gets it, a smart public servant who could talk the talk and also make things happen.

Virginia stressed high-speed access

"Chopra has been one of those who have taught me the most about how we can build a better government with the help of technology," wrote O'Reilly, a thought leader credited with coining the term Web 2.0. In the post, O'Reilly praised various projects Chopra has overseen in Virginia that have used technology and social media tools to improve education, health care, and access to fast Internet service in rural areas of the state.

The Commonwealth of Virginia has been one of the leaders—if not the leader—among states helping deploy high-speed Internet service. Under Kaine's administration, Chopra made it an official goal to provide every business in the commonwealth with broadband technology. In a rare partnership with telecom companies, the commonwealth has already developed a broadband map detailing its Internet infrastructure—and the gaps where pipes need to be built. To help fulfill Virginia's broadband goal, Chopra says the commonwealth 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 commonwealth persuade high-tech companies such as Northrop Grumman (NOC) to set up offices in those areas. In 2007, Northrop Grumman announced it would open a new data center and CGI Group said it was opening a software development center—both in western Virginia.

Tim O'Reilly: "We couldn't do better"

Chopra should also be able to help advance the President's goal of using technology to reduce health-care costs. 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. 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 such state goals as reducing childhood obesity and boosting immunization rates.

Even though he's not from the Valley, Chopra has 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 tech leaders say that this and other experience should serve him well in his new job.

"Chopra may not be a Valley guy, but Silicon Valley is going to like him a lot," wrote O'Reilly in closing his post. "He's energetic, insightful, and can speak the language. He's no bureaucrat. And just because you didn't previously work for a chip company or an Internet start-up doesn't mean that you "are not a tech guy" as I just read in another blog. He knows technology, he knows government, and he knows how to put the two together to solve real problems. We couldn't do better."