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Federal CTO Agenda: The Industry's Advice To Obama

Think big and transformational, advise two dozen industry leaders, from CEOs to CIOs. And get going now.
More Important: Innovation

No one disputes there's a huge opportunity to improve the government's use of IT. But many see a higher calling for Obama's CTO. "Technology is a piece, and a means to that end, but the focus should be on innovation," says Sybase CEO Chen. He envisions the CTO working to improve the economic environment for technology innovation; foster public-private tech research partnerships; improve education in math, science, and technology; and develop trade policies related to green technology standards. Among the broader tech population, however, only 16% of business technology pros see encouraging industry-driven tech innovation as the CTO's No. 1 priority.

The fed CTO shouldn't try to influence U.S. technology standards, Chen argues, since industry can work those out on its own. However, the CTO likely will have to take on other countries' efforts to dictate standards that give their tech industries an advantage.

Immigration could prove a flash-point issue. U.S. tech employers lobby to import talent from abroad, but as unemployment climbs, the pressure's already mounting for limits.

Still, some tech leaders will push this issue. "Whether it's Google or eBay or Intel or Yahoo, all of these companies were started by immigrants who came to the United States because we were the magnet for great innovation," says Xerox CTO Sophie Vandebroek, herself an immigrant from Belgium. She says Xerox struggles to find Americans with Ph.D.s in microelectronics, one reason she puts rebuilding the U.S. science and education system and increasing the number of H-1B visas on her list of federal CTO priorities. Like Chen, she would focus the CTO on long-range goals, including making R&D tax credits permanent, investing in green and health care technology, improving interagency information sharing, and investing more in basic science research.

More likely than pushing for more open immigration is for a CTO to evangelize for science and technology education, something John Halamka, CIO of Harvard Medical School and the CareGroup Health Systems, puts among his top goals. A data point he cites for urgency: Only 5% of U.S. college graduates are pursuing engineering careers; in South Korea, it's 38%. AMD CEO Meyer cites a study that the U.S. produces 225,000 college graduates a year in science, tech, engineering, and math, but by 2015 will need 400,000 a year. "The technology industry in the U.S. is becoming increasingly vulnerable to this widening gap," he says, calling on the CTO to find creative ways to get students interested early in science and tech careers.

Dan Mintz, who spent three years as CIO of the Department of Transportation under Bush, says the federal CTO must focus on fostering the use of technology among citizens and improving the country's global standing in math and science education. The CTO should stay out of tech implementation and policy-making "that steps on toes of others already doing that," he says.

EMC's Nick sees the CTO playing the role for the Cabinet that a private-sector CTO does for the board and executive team: helping Cabinet members understand the future of particular technologies so they can fund tech R&D and projects using similar criteria. While industry leaders don't speak with one voice, they generally agree on this: If the federal CTO isn't given clear or sufficient authority, he or she will fail. "What's required is a unique combination of the person's ability and persistence and the clarity of the role that's carved out," says Allstate's Coffey.

Dell's Bell worries that the position will be set up "as too much of a coordinator role, without the teeth to make things happen." Again and again, tech leaders we spoke with warn against a symbolic or pulpit role, or a CTO who's toiling in the trenches. "Transformation" is a description that comes up more than any other.

Whatever the CTO's agenda, Mr. President, think big.

--By Chris Murphy, with J. Nicholas Hoover, Mike Fratto, Mary Hayes Weier, Marianne Kolbasuk McGee, Rob Preston, and Roger Smith

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26 Tech Leaders On Fed CTO Priorities