by Esther Schindler

Choosing the U.S. CTO: Who Would You Pick?

Oct 23, 20084 mins
IT Leadership

The word is that the next president of the United States will invest heavily in technology, and at least one candidate has already discussed choosing a Chief Technology Officer to lead the charge. Who do you think would be right for the job?

I’m busy reading Joel Garreau’s 2005 book, Radical Evolution (which, by the way, is wonderful so far). In one section, Garreau describes DARPA’s goals to “accelerate the future into being.” (You remember DARPA: That wacky government agency that, among other things, invented Arpanet, which you now know as the Internet.) Garreau writes, “One program manager, in his DARPA job interview, was asked to describe where he thought science would be in 20 years. Then he was asked whether he would like to try to make it happen in three.”

I don’t need to tell this crowd about the impact that computer technology has on business, and about the challenges it represents. More and more, I think, we are all being asked to “make it happen” in three years, sometimes without enough time to consider the consequences. It makes sense to me that the U.S. Government should have someone whose job it is to think deep thoughts about these matters, to warn about societal impacts, and so forth. Whoever winds up in the oval office (and, as with my earlier blog post about the management styles of recent U.S. presidents, this question is not about your choices for that position), I want someone whom I can trust to find that ever-so-wobbly balance between technological possibilities, security-versus-privacy, implementation logistics… in short, the hard stuff. I’m just not sure who the person should be.

Fortunately, others are already thinking about that question. BusinessWeek’s Tom Lowry wrote an article a few days ago, identifying several candidates he believes are on the short list for U.S. Chief Technology Officer, at least if Barak Obama is elected. Lowry says that candidates who would be considered for the job, according to Washington insiders, include Vint Cerf, Google’s “chief Internet evangelist,” Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer, Amazon’s CEO Jeffrey Bezos and Ed Felten, “a prominent professor of computer science and public affairs at Princeton University.” I’m not convinced that these are the right people; but then, I’m not wholly convinced they’re wrong, either.

However, I don’t think that the “kingpins of industry” are the right people for this job, whether that’s Bezos or Ballmer (aside from whatever I think of Ballmer’s and Microsoft’s corporate behavior). The rules and motivations that enable someone to serve stockholders—that is, where the key question in evaluating technology is, “Can we sell this at a profit?”—are not what we need here. That’s an honorable question; it’s just not the most appropriate for this job.

A U.S. CTO has to be aware of what’s currently possible, even if it’s not “cooked” yet. He or she needs to be aware of current trends, whether that’s cloud computing or the impact of Gen Y technology expectations on enterprise IT hiring. To provide useful advice to the president, that individual needs to have non-ivory-tower-academic vision (to know what’s feasible, likely and capable of implementation), legal training (for all the intellectual property issues that technology innovation brings) and enough street smarts to predict possible outcomes. The right individual has to understand predictability and also think at right angles to the expected. For example, we need someone who, had a US CTO position existed in 1992, might have asked, “What can or should we do with the Internet infrastructure to prevent misuse by those who will see it as an opportunity for unsolicited commercial e-mail?”

I don’t have the courage or the knowledge to make specific suggestions (though I confess I wouldn’t mind it if Jonathan Zittrain got the job… though this may be because I’ve known him, primarily electronically, for nearly 20 years and it’d be fun to say, “I knew him when he was a CompuServe sysop”). However, I think the people here do have the qualifications to nominate people for this important position. You know which technology leaders you trust and you probably have interacted with a few people who are worthy of consideration.

Won’t you share your opinions here? Or, at least, identify what ought to be on this Help Wanted ad?—Esther Schindler, senior online editor and BlogMom