When President Obama fulfills his promise to name what he has described as the nation's "first chief technology officer," two enormous tasks will lay in front of that person. One is to drive the government to use information technology more effectively and efficiently. The second, even broader job is to influence how IT is leveraged for economic growth and national competitiveness everything from financing tech R&D to building out a national broadband infrastructure to helping tech employers develop and get access to the most talented people.
But the federal CTO won't be able to address, much less fix, every tech-related problem, so he or she will need to focus. But on what, exactly? For answers, we asked the nation's technology leaders a who's who of private-sector CEOs and CIOs, government IT leaders and thinkers what they want to top the federal CTO's agenda. Their thoughtful, passionate answers are a must-read for the Obama administration. They tend to fall into one of these two visions for the federal CTO: as inside-the-government change agent or leader of tech innovation more broadly.
At the top of the five-point priority list laid out by General Motors CIO Ralph Szygenda (see box, right) is the need for the government to standardize IT and processes across government agencies, to promote "optimal and cost-effective sharing of information."
Chiquita Brands CIO Manjit Singh thinks the first priority must be to update the country's crumbling tech infrastructure, particularly where it poses the biggest risk, like air traffic control. "I don't think the average person has a comprehension of how old and how broken those systems are," says Singh, a self-described aviation buff. CA CEO John Swainson says many barriers to delivering better government services "stem from the complexities of what is a stovepiped and messy set of federal IT infrastructures," so one of the CTO's first jobs must be to simplify and streamline and automate, where possible the federal IT systems and processes. Salesforce.com CEO Marc Benioff lays out the steps for the government to take advantage of cloud computing.
On the other end of the spectrum are those who want the CTO to steer clear of government's use of IT, and to instead focus on how technology can improve U.S. competitiveness in a global economy. Sybase CEO John Chen goes so far as to say he'd like to see the post called "chief innovation officer," to avoid any temptation to step into issues such as guiding tech standards.
General Motors Group VP and CIO, Ralph Szygenda
For his and other executives' opinions, click here
Among the issues Chen wants the CTO to focus on are technology education, immigration and the tech talent pool, trade and national competitiveness, private-public cooperation, and tax policy to encourage R&D. The risk is that the CTO will "jump into technical stuff, under pressure of getting tangible, short-term results, and miss the focus on frameworks and the innovation environment," he says.
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Some see the role as directly fueling innovation. "Why couldn't the CTO be considered a bit of a venture capitalist?" says Dave Duffield, founder of PeopleSoft and more recently software-as-a-service provider Workday. Duffield cites the futurist thinking and products that came out of AT&T Bell Labs and Xerox PARC, both recipients of federal funding, or the federally supported nanotechnology research now happening at Cornell University (which Duffield himself seeded with a $20 million donation).