Posted by: Peter Burrows on December 16, 2008
With almost every major Team Obama appointment announced or rumored, the technology minded among us are wondering about the so-called Tech Czar position. The White House CTO, if you will. But is there even to be such a position? Our understanding is that the topic is still far from resolved within the transition team, with questions aplenty: Will the job be powerful Cabinet-level post, or more of a cheerleading job? Will it require legislation to extend the CTO’s reach? For that matter, what, exactly, is the job description? How can it be defined so as not to overlap too much with the Office of Science and Technology chief? Still a matter of internal debate, we’re told.
And who would it be, anyway? Our colleague Tom Lowry highlighted in this story a few weeks back— suggesting people like “Father of the Internet” Vint Cerf and Princeton computer science professor Ed Felten. The buzz in Silicon Valley is that John Thompson, who will step down as CEO of anti-virus software maker Symantec Corp. in April, is a possibility. Another name we’ve been hearing lately is Julius Genachowski, though perhaps he’d end up at the Federal Communications Commission.
So, given all the unknowns, we decided to put the matter into your hands. After all, this will be the first president who urges massive cyber-participation. Who should it be? And what should this person do?
The emerging consensus is that the person needs to handle a wide-variety of tasks—from ensuring that the Federal government and the nation are well-protected from cyber-terrorism, espionage and crime, to overseeing a major upgrade of the nation’s broadband infrastructure, to marshalling support for programs to reward innovation, entrepreneurship and to encourage increased study of math and science by our young people. Talk about expansive job descriptions.
To get the ball rolling, we’ll throw a name out there: Cisco Systems CEO John T. Chambers. He’s unlikely to want the job, given that he’d have to cut ties with one of the most influential, valuable companies in the world; he may well have as much clout running Cisco as he would as tech czar. But Chambers clearly understands the costs, complexities and opportunities associated with rolling out Internet infrastructure, in ways that go far beyond bits and bytes. For years, he’s been one of the leading evangelists for the power of the Net to improve economic productivity. He’s also championed Cisco’s efforts to forge a variety of public-private partnerships, in which the company works with governments and NGOs to pull off large projects, from earthquake relief to a 21st Century Education Initiative that uses Internet technology to improve learning. And while Chambers is known his excellence as a salesman, he’s also proven his ability to manage and institute change within a large bureaucracy. Over the past half-decade, Cisco has morphed from a traditional command-and-control hierarchy to a management system in which dozens of executive councils essentially run the company. Rather than 30 top-dawgs giving orders, now 300 or more executives have a roll in calling the shots for their part of the company. This has enabled the company to focus on dozens of major new initiatives each year, rather than just two or three. (Another implication of this shift is that Cisco is more able to do without Chambers than it once was.). Finally, Chambers is politically savvy. He’s a top-notch schmoozer of world leaders, one reason for Cisco’s success in emerging markets. He’s frequently mentioned as a potential candidate for governor of California—a rumor he’s never shot down entirely, to my knowledge. And given Obama’s desire to reach across party lines, the fact that Chambers was a major supporter of John McCain may actually be a point in his favor.
Should the CTO, if there is one, be someone like that – or someone more adept at cyber security? Should the new Administration lean towards an insider, an outsider, or an academic? Which issues should be paramount on the cyber agenda for this CTO?
So: Who do you think would be good for the post, and what should the job be?