Recently, the US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), announced the appointment of Indian American Nand Mulchandani to serve as the agency’s first-ever chief technology officer (CTO). Mulchandani, who moves into the newly minted job of CIA’s tech boss from the US department of defense where he served as the CTO and acting director of joint artificial intelligence centre, is also a Silicon Valley veteran having helmed several successful start-ups. His bio-data reads like many other Indian American technology serial entrepreneurs; the only difference is that he chose to give it all up and move into a role in government.
The incoming CTO of CIA explains the move in his LinkedIn profile: “I pivoted from my career in private industry to serve in the government by joining the Joint Artificial Intelligence Center at the US Department of Defense.” And it’s not just him; there’s a trend among Indian American technology honchos of jumping on to the government band wagon, with their tech savvy and business expertise, from plum private sector positions. And the numbers are going up. M.R. Rangaswami, Silicon Valley based investor, entrepreneur and philanthropist, feels that Indian Americans follow the ethos of ‘seva’ or service which is one of the main reasons that many give up high-paying jobs to serve in the government.
Another Indian American appointed to a top IT job in government recently is Dr Raj Iyer, former partner and managing director at Deloitte Consulting LLP, who took over as the first Chief Information Officer of the US Army, last year after the Pentagon created the position in July 2020. Dr Iyer, who grew up in Bengaluru and moved to the US to pursue higher studies, holds an equivalent rank to a three-star general and is the highest ranking Indian American civilian in the US department of defense. He supervises an annual budget of $16 billion for the US Army’s IT operations with over 15,000 civilians and military personnel posted across 100 countries working under him.
“Indian Americans already have great recognition in the US for their technology acumen. Serving in government in tech leadership roles is a new paradigm for the community and provides a huge opportunity to make a difference in the country,” says Gopal Khanna, who was the first person of Indian origin appointed to a CIO role at the Peace Corps, an important US government agency, by President George Bush in 2002. Later in 2005, he was invited by the then Governor of Minnesota, Tim Pawlenty, to join his cabinet as the state’s first CIO and reappointed to the position in 2007. Khanna, who worked in the insurance industry before launching his own consultancy firm in 1996, believes that technology can make a big difference in creating government policy impact. “For me, government should be citizen centric and a private sector perspective is important. I felt that it was my duty to give back when I took time off from my successful career to serve the country,” he said.
The very first technology honchos at the White House – Aneesh Chopra and Vivek Kundra – have their Indian roots in common. Chopra, the first CTO of the US, was appointed by President Barack Obama in 2009. The highest ranking Indian American in the Obama government, he quit in 2012 to run for lieutenant governor in the state of Virginia where he had earlier served as secretary of technology having given up a successful career in the private sector. Chopra, who is co-founder and the current president of CareJourney, an open data service for the pharma sector, was feted by President Obama for fostering an innovation culture in government, and for his leadership on applying technology for the betterment of all Americans.
Vivek Kundra, the first chief information officer of the US, too served in the Obama administration from 2009 to 2011. Earlier, he was the chief technology officer of the District of Columbia. Kundra is considered to be the force behind Data.gov which made a big impact by releasing thousands of US government datasets to entrepreneurs, allowing them to build innovative applications. He moved back to the private sector from his government role and has recently he has joined Pro ject44, a leading supply chain visibility platform, as chief operating officer.
The opportunity to make the world a better place through public service is a powerful driver for people like Chopra, Kundra, Iyer and Mulchandani to leave comfortable jobs and take up challenging assignments in government, feels Nish Acharya, CEO of consulting firm Equal Innovation, who had served in the Obama administration as director of innovation and entrepreneurship and senior advisor to the secretary of commerce. “While they can make more money in the private sector, these opportunities have much greater significance. They will help define the innovation and technology strategies to keep America and the whole world safe,” Acharya said.
Some of the people of Indian origin who are playing critical roles in harnessing technology for a more efficient and effective government in the US are Rajiv Rao, New York State chief technology officer and executive deputy chief information officer; Suresh Soundararajan, CIO at the department of health of Virginia state; Rohit Tandon, chief information security officer of the state of Minnesota and Gundeep Ahluwalia, chief information officer, US department of labor.
The ease of movement between corporate jobs and public service in the US is seen as an advantage for technology professionals. “The US system encourages lateral movements between private industry, academia, and government, and it is not uncommon to see people going through these revolving doors from the corporate sector-to-government sector and then back. In the process, both the private sector and government benefit by the cross-disciplinary experiences of such leaders,” says Robinder Sachdev, president of the Delhi- based think tank Imagindia Institute and one of the founders of US India Political Action Committee, a bipartisan non-profit organisation in the US.
Gopal Khanna, who was a Republican political appointee to the top government positions, now sees a shift with more and more professionals from the Indian American community choosing to join influential government jobs. “It’s not just the corporates; there has been more visibility for Indian Americans in top tech jobs in government too, both at the federal and state level. Many are not political appointees and have chosen a government role as a long-term career option. They are often elevated to top positions in view of their professional expertise,” Khanna said.
Anushree Bag, executive director, enterprise GRC (governance, risk and compliance) and resiliency for the state of Indiana, is an example of a successful private sector executive who crossed over to government work not as a political appointee but because she feels that having strong governance is critical to ensuring that good business practices are being followed. “I came to government at not only an interesting time when the focus on digital transformation had started accelerating, but also at a historic time,” says Bag. Four months after she joined the job late in 2019, her agency assumed the responsibility of moving 38,000 employees of the state of Indiana to a distributed remote work environment because of the pandemic.
As director of enterprise solution services for the Texas department of information resources, Krishna Kumar Edathil, is also in a leadership role in government. He believes that as an Indian immigrant, he needs to engage and embrace and be part of policy making and government. “The best way to achieve this was to take technology to people and serve in government. For almost all of us it is passion and to serve the nation that we now call home,” says Edathil who went to the San Francisco Bay area in 2000 from India and from the early days firmly believed in developing a connect between technology companies in the Bay Area and the US government agencies in Washington DC.
Bag believes that high-profile appointments such as Raj Iyer and Nand Mulchandani help in blazing the trail for others, and validate that it is possible for Indian Americans to get selected to serve in senior roles in the upper echelons of the US government.
Currently, the role of CTO of the US government has not yet been filled by President Joe Biden. It remains to be seen if he has another Indian American IT leader in mind.