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

Patrick Thibodeau | Feb. 23, 2015
Steven Spielberg's biopic, 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.

Steven Spielberg's biopic, 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.

Patil, for instance, has work 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 fast-growing trend.

About two years ago, only about five percent of the master's degree graduates of the Institute for Advanced Analytics curriculum 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 next class is expanding to handle 120 students, and the college is expecting more 1,000 applications. Students typically get three to four job officers 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 Group.

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

 

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