Getting Real About The U.S. CTO

It’s only a slight exaggeration to say that Silicon Valley is complete binary in its passions. It’s only feels like it’s either fully on or fully off. But when it comes to politics, that statement rings more true that it does with others. And right now, the valley is fully “on” for Obama.

The fact that the president-elect has a Blackberry habit almost as bad as his nicotine addition (and harder to break) adds to the allure. It’s not just that Obama “gets” the Internet and the culture it’s created; he uses it. And clearly, to judge from his campaign, he likes it.

This has led to all sorts of silly conversations, mostly about the job of “chief technology officer”. With breathless enthusiasm, the names of some of the smartest folks in town have been mentioned. Google’s Vint Cerf (aka “father of the Internet”) or its CEO Eric Schmidt. Even more ridiculous: Bill Joy or Stanford professor Larry Lessig. It’s been suggested that the job was cabinet-level, meaning the CTO would be in touch with the president regularly.

Yes. Well. All these suggestions assume that the CTO job within the U.S. government will be akin to the CTO job within a high tech start-up. The job held by the guy who is either the founder or the inventor who turned the founder’s ideas into real products, thereby changing the world – for the better, of course.

The U.S. CTO will be a similar visionary, goes the thinking. Someone who can convince the government to change copyright laws, create and enforce net neutrality, put all government records on the Internet, create email accounts for all bureaucrats, and make Congress put its proceedings on-line. A miracle worker, in other words. But no administration needs a room full of visionaries; it only needs one. And we elected him in November.

Which is why U.S. CTO job is probably going to go to someone who knows how to run something. Something big. Like a large high tech company with a history of buying, developing, refining and commissioning software and hardware for its employees. If Cisco CEO John Chambers weren’t a Republican, he’d be perfect. Assuming he’d take the pay cut. For my money, the speculation about John W. Thompson – recently retired (!) CEO of Symantec and one of Silicon Valley’s few African-American executives – is closer than any of the “Internet famous” visionaries’ names being bandied about.

The reality is that the Internet infrastructure the U.S government uses has been built with the 20th Century equivalent of paperclips, bubble gum and duct tape. Various agencies have gone their own way in getting on the web and the confusion is a little bit like what happened when the airlines started selling tickets on-line. There was the system the company used; the system customers used and God-only-knows what else in the middle. Like the old SABRE system, the government needs help. Badly. And that’s what the U.S. CTO is probably going to end up doing.

That doesn’t mean the job isn’t going to be important. It just means it’s not going to be West Wing glamorous. It can’t be. Can you imagine the breathless drama over the ordering of another 1,000 Apache servers to, for instance, get the Environmental Protection Agency’s enforcement division up and running on the web so inspectors can share maps, photos, reports and information as seamlessly as they do at say, Boeing? Hmmm. You’re not staying up past 10 p.m. to watch that an neither am I, even if it is on

What many of the folks new to politics – and this is Silicon Valley – forget is that the U.S. government can move markets by purchasing to somewhat dramatic effect. Quietly. Over time. A government purchase can create a de facto standard not just for the feds but for state and local governments. Getting government procurement agents to realize that all software doesn’t come from Redmond is one part of this process of changing how the government sees the Internet. So is the idea that off-the-shelf might just work for their needs. And “open source” doesn’t mean stolen; it can, in fact, mean low-cost and reliable.

That change will push a lot of money into the tech sector. It will foster a lot of low-key innovation and, by the end of the next four years, it will probably give us a lower-cost, more efficient federal government.

All these are obvious ideas to anyone with a working knowledge of how the mechanics of the Internet actually function. But for many many people in government agencies, this is news. The reality is that a working on-line presence – internal and external – doesn’t cost very much money and may, in a few short years, save the government a lot of money is one that I’m betting you’ll hear the Obama administration start touting in a big loud voice. It only makes sense.

But these initiatives won’t be announced in the Rose Garden while Obama’s Silicon Valley faithful look on with delight at how the Internet is now cool. They’ll be rolled out without a lot of fanfare as part of the way a restructured U.S. government should work. And if the U.S. CTO is successful there will soon be little difference between the folks who “get it” and those who never thought there was anything to “get” in the first place.

Copyright (c) 2007, SteelWill, Inc. All Rights Reserved. Spot On is a trademark of SteelWill, Inc.


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