In six months, the White House has replaced its top IT leaders

It turns to Silicon Valley's brand names for tech help

Steven Spielberg's bio-pic Lincoln included a famous line President Lincoln may or not have said: "I am the President of the United States, clothed with immense power." That description might apply today to D.J. Patil.

Patil was just appointed as the White House's first "chief data scientist" and "deputy chief technology officer for data policy." Those two titles suggest immense power and dazzle, both of which Patil will need in spades to help set technology direction across the government's $80 billion IT budget.

The appointment is part of a pattern by this White House to appoint people with credentials from Silicon Valley's iconic companies, and then some. The Patil appointment, paired with the arrival of a new CTO and CIO, represents a complete change of top federal IT leaders in just six months.

D.J. Patil Flickr

D.J. Patil, shown here in 2011,  is the White House's first chief data scientist.

Patil, for instance, has worked for LinkedIn, venture capital firm Greylock Partners, Skype, PayPal and eBay.

The latest appointment comes with a twist. The creation of chief data scientist positions is still relatively new, and the government may be on top of a fast-growing trend.

About two years ago, only about 5% of the master's degree graduates of the Institute for Advanced Analytics program at North Carolina State University were hired for "data scientist" jobs, said Michael Rappa, who heads the institute and created the program in 2007. (It was the nation's first.) The positions were called other things, and typically had "consultant" and "analyst" in the title.

But of the next class of 86 students that's soon to graduate, "in all likelihood, a third of them will go into positions called data scientists or senior data scientist," said Rappa.

Demand for people with data analytics skills is increasing. Rappa said last year the institute had 800 applicants. The program is expanding to handle 120 students in the next class, and the college is expecting more than 1,000 applications. Students typically get three to four job offers before graduation, he said.

By creating a chief data scientist position, the White House may be signaling that it's trying to improve its IT operations by aligning itself more with Silicon Valley thinking. Other appointments underscore that tack.

Earlier this month, the White House announced it had tapped Tony Scott as the federal CIO. Scott, who served as VMware's leader of its global technology group, is a former CIO at Microsoft and The Walt Disney Company.

Last fall, Obama appointed Megan Smith, previously a vice president at Google, as the federal CTO. Appointed along with Smith was deputy CTO Alexander Macgillivray, a former general counsel and head of public policy at Twitter. He is also a practicing developer and coder.

Their predecessors in these posts all had strong private-sector credentials: Todd Park, the former federal CTO, created IT firms at an early age, and Steven VanRoekel -- who served as acting deputy director for management in the Office of Management and Budget -- once served as a top assistant to Bill Gates at Microsoft.

Obama has long reached into the private sector for help on IT. He has had a long affiliation with Google's Eric Schmidt, who continues to serve on the White House's technology policy advisory board. But the latest round of appointments is striking in the range and number of Silicon Valley firms represented.

The White House may be trying to bring new energy to its IT goals of shared services, cloud computing, data center consolidations, agile development and better use of data. There's also the need for preventing IT boondoggles, such as the problematic launch in late 2013.

Obama's IT appointments face a challenge, however. The president's control over government IT spending has limits. Federal agencies and departments operate under complex rules, congressional oversight, inflexible purchasing procedures, and other factors that make it hard for a federal CIO to set new IT course corrections.

The White House has budget sticks it can use. But the real strength of federal IT leaders is in how effective they are at influencing, evangelizing and convincing federal IT managers to move in new directions. Having people affiliated with successful companies may help with that effort.

One thing is certain, these appointees have less than two years to make an impact. Obama's second term ends on Jan. 20, 2017.

Copyright © 2015 IDG Communications, Inc.

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