Leave Google for government? For new U.S. CTO, ‘It was a no brainer.’

October 7, 2014, 9:22 PM UTC
Stuart Isett/Fortune Most Powerful Women

In her new job as chief technology officer of the United States, Megan Smith says helping government websites run smoothly (much smoother than, say, the Healthcare.gov launch) is just one part of her job — granted, it’s an important one.

Smith gave her first interview as CTO on Tuesday at Fortune’s Most Powerful Women Summit in Laguna Niguel, Calif. The former Google (GOOG) executive appeared from her office in the White House over Google video chat.

Last year’s health care website snafu, in which the government’s online marketplace for insurance was hung up during its rollout by technical difficulties, hurt what she called the “amazing legacy” of the Affordable Care Act. Today, “Americans really expect to interact with our government digitally,” Smith says. Now, she’s working across government agencies to improve the quality of the websites: “We want them to work like the ones in the private sector,” she said.

Smith took the CTO job in September, leaving her position on the West Coast as a VP Google X. “It was a no brainer,” she says of the move. “It’s an incredible honor and a huge opportunity.”

It’s somewhat unusual to see Silicon Valley elite heading to Washington to join what is sometimes derisively called the “paper belt.” But Smith is bullish on tech innovation outside of the Valley — even in DC. “We’re bringing talent in,” she says of her new role. “And thinking about how to get out of the way of top innovators.”

The similarities between the Washington and Valley cultures were greater than she expected. She was “surprised at how entrepreneurial people are in government,” she says. Adding that, “You think of government bureaucracy, but really this White House team and this government, they really want to get things done.”

As CTO, Smith works as part of the roughly 70-person White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, leading the technology group of about 12 people, analyzing tech policy issues as well as the government’s own technology platforms, and also trying to promote tech innovation and entrepreneurship around the country. That’s particularly important in places outside the Valley, where there are brilliant technological thinkers, Smith says, just not at the density as you might find in say, Palo Alto, and without the same opportunities. “Detroit is such a fabulous example of that,” she said. “You see some of these emergent groups [of entrepreneur] in addition to manufacturing,” the city’s traditional employment hub.

Of her new gig in the District, she says: “I love to use technology to help people have better lives and to reduce our impact on the planet.” Sometimes, as strange as it seems, the best place to do that isn’t California.

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