Who Would Make A Good U.S. Chief Technology Officer? - InformationWeek

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Software // Information Management
Commentary
11/7/2008
05:33 PM
Roger Smith
Roger Smith
Commentary
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Who Would Make A Good U.S. Chief Technology Officer?

Early in his presidential campaign, Barack Obama said that the United States isn't doing nearly enough to create jobs through technology and pledged to create the first-ever Cabinet-level post of chief technology officer.

Early in his presidential campaign, Barack Obama said that the United States isn't doing nearly enough to create jobs through technology and pledged to create the first-ever Cabinet-level post of chief technology officer.A recent BusinessWeek article had many of the usual A-list techno business leaders on a short list for U.S. CTO candidates, including Internet pioneer Vint Cerf, who's currently Google's chief internet evangelist; Microsoft's chief executive officer Steve Ballmer; Amazon CEO Jeffrey Bezos; and Ed Felten, a prominent professor of computer science and public affairs at Princeton University. Another name often mentioned for U.S. CTO is Google CEO Eric Schmidt, who endorsed Obama in September and campaigned for him.

With the exception of Felten, I'm convinced that all of these figures have real or perceived conflicts of interest that should preclude any of them from taking the U.S. CTO position. It's likely a White House tech czar would be deeply involved in overseeing several projects the president-elect proposed during his campaign, including a promised federally-backed national broadband buildout and a plan to invest $150 billion over 10 years in green energy research. Google, Amazon, and Microsoft are all actively involved in aggressive, accelerating data center construction programs, with each company on pace to roll out $500M to $600M data centers every couple of months. It's unlikely a U.S. CTO who worked for one of these major players could be perceived as impartial, especially if the new CTO has the ability to create incentive programs or offer tax credits that would enable easier broadband access to any or all of these data centers.

Perceptions are important. At the moment, many on Wall Street are pointing fingers of blame at U.S. Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson, a former chairman of Goldman Sachs investment bank, for not rescuing archrival Lehman Brothers, which they say precipitated a collapse of the global money and credit markets and created the credit crisis that is still unfolding. Without questioning Paulson's judgment or motives in the Lehman debacle, I think choosing a U.S. CTO who has roots in Google, Amazon, Microsoft or any of the other major technology companies would subject that person to similar accusations of impropriety, especially during an unexpected period of energy or economic crisis. So, who would make a good U.S. Chief Technology Officer? The New York Times reported earlier this week that billionaire venture capitalist John Doerr told Barack Obama that he should hire Bill Joy as the nation's new CTO. Joy, a co-founder of Sun Microsystems, is now a partner at Doerr's VC firm, Kleiner Perkins. (Doerr was quoted saying that it would be a sacrifice to lose him to the Obama administration, but that "there is no greater cause.")

I agree with Doerr that Bill Joy would be an excellent choice for U.S. CTO, primarily because he has a deeper understanding of networking issues than any of the other candidates. (He helped write BSD Unix while at Berkeley and made big contributions to the TCP/IP stack that is used by everything that connects to the Internet. He also has been a primary figure in the development of the Java programming language, Jini /JavaSpaces, and JXTA.) Since the U.S. ranks 15th among industrial nations in broadband penetration, with just 23 out of 100 Americans having access to high-bandwith service, expanding broadband penetration in the United States, particularly in rural areas, is most likely going to be the No. 1 priority for the U.S. CTO. Bill Joy has a strong background and understanding of the networking issues needed to address this priority. I've taken issue -- both in print and in person -- with what some have described as Joy's "neo-Luddite" philosophical position that he expressed in his 2000 Wired magazine article, "Why the future doesn't need us", in which he said that growing advances in genetic engineering and nanotechnology could bring risks to humanity. My position, at the time, was that that I thought Joy was a technology pessimist, in much the same way that I classify New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman as a techno-optimist, whose quasi-utopian ideas often seem to imply that new tech and free markets solve all problems. (My own opinion is that the concept of technological progress [or lack of progress] is not directly applicable to happiness, compassion, and other states of mind. Another way of saying this is that technological progress does not imply that modern man is happier or more compassionate than his ancestors were.) On re-reading Joy's essay, though, I think he may have a point and that he was wise to understand that there are risks inherent to almost any technological solution, and we should not just adopt technology for technology's sake. Which makes me think now that Joy is fundamentally more of a pragmatist. But whether pragmatist or pessimist, Joy's background still makes him the best person to solve the No. 1 technological problem at hand, which is expanding broadband penetration in the United States.

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