IT Employment

Sanity check: 10 tech leaders who could become Obama's CTO

As a presidential candidate, part of Barack Obama's technology policy platform included hiring the U.S. government's first chief technology officer (CTO). If Obama follows through on this, who is likely to get the job? Here are 10 top candidates.

As a presidential candidate, part of Barack Obama's technology policy platform included hiring the U.S. government's first chief technology officer (CTO). If Obama follows through on this, who is likely to get the job? Here are 10 top candidates.

-------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

During his presidential campaign, Barack Obama used technology to organize, communicate, and raise funds in innovative ways that gave him an advantage over opponents in both the primaries and the general election. It's clear that Obama views tech as a powerful catalyst, and with the U.S. facing an unprecedented array of economic challenges, Obama will need to use technology to drive efficiency and institutional transformation.

A part of his policy platform, Obama has stated that he plans to hire the nation's first chief technology officer (CTO) to play quarterback in driving these changes. A CTO is typically an organization's top engineer and focuses on outward-facing technologies (see What's the difference between CIO and CTO), but based on Obama's policy statements he wants to use the national CTO position to:

  • Build a 21st centrury technology infrastructure
  • Unite and lead the CIOs and CTOs of various federal agencies
  • Architect innovative tech solutions to help solve big problems

As a result, Obama is going to need a visionary tech leader who can rally both technologists and standard Washington bureacrats around a common purpose. It also wouldn't hurt to bring in a big name -- someone who already has a strong reputation that will translate into political capital. Here are top 10 candidates.

10. Shai Agassi

This former technology head of SAP has the business experience and the interest in larger societal issues to do well as America's CTO. However, he's recently founded his own company, Better Place, to create an entirely new business model and power system to run the electric cars of the future. Because of his passion for that project, it's doubtful he would want the U.S. CTO gig.

9. Larry Lessig

Lessig, a Stanford Law professor, is the founder of Stanford's Center for Internet and Society and has been an outspoken commentator on U.S. technology policy. Although Lessig has a conservative background, he publicly endorsed Obama for president. At times, he has even been rumored as a candidate for numerous political offices himself. He would be an excellent tech policy wonk and a decent visionary, but he does not have a traditional tech background and that would likely hurt him in gaining the respect of the federal tech executives that he would have to lead.

8. Padmasree Warrior

Warrior is one of only two candidates on this list who is currently serving as a CTO. She was previously CTO at Motorola and in 2008 moved over to the CTO job at Cisco, where she is tasked with driving technology strategy and innovation and serving as an evangelist of what's possible in the future. She's also demostrated an interest in politics, having attended the Democratic National Convention in August and expressed enthusiasm for Obama's vision of America.

7. Shane Robison

The other current CTO on this list, Robison is the executive vice president of technology and strategy at Hewlett-Packard. All of the CTOs of the various HP business units report up through Robison, as does the forward-looking HP Labs and the company's corporate marketing department. That kind of breadth of experience would serve Robison very well as U.S. CTO. He's also a visionary who understands the larger context of the current technology revolution and its impact on business and society. It's unclear whether he has any interest in politics or if he could be wooed away from HP.

6. Vint Cerf

Cerf is sometimes called the "Father of the Internet" because he and Bob Kahn designed the TCP/IP architecture that made the Internet possible. Cerf, who currently works as Chief Internet Evangelist at Google, was awarded the National Medal of Technology in 1997 by President Clinton and the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2005 by President Bush. He has outstanding technical chops and extensive experience working with government technology agencies, but his leadership and management credentials aren't quite as strong as some of the other candidates.

5. John Chambers

One of the technology industry's most passionate characters, Chambers has a will of steel that would help him cut through the bureaucratic stone walls in Washington. The Cisco CEO is a terrific visionary and one of tech's most effective leaders when it comes to getting a team to execute. Chambers has also shown an interest in politics -- even being rumored for an eventual run at political office. He endorsed John McCain for president and was a significant donor to the McCain campaign, so that could hurt him in being considered as Obama's CTO.

4. Ed Felten

A Princeton computer science professor, Felton founded Princeton's Center for Information Technology Policy and is a leading researcher, commentator, and blogger on technology law and policy. He famously served as the Department of Justice's leading technology witness in its antitrust suit against Microsoft. He would be an excellent policy wonk, but doesn't have as much experience leading technology teams.

3. Bill Gates

The biggest name that nearly everyone is forgetting is Bill Gates, the former Microsoft leader who retired from his full-time gig at Microsoft in June so that he could devote his energies to the Gates Foundation. He obviously has his sight set on larger societal impact. What better way to make that happen than helping define the critical technology policies of the next decade? Melinda can handle the foundation. Gates has the vision, the iron will, and the ability to rally the troops that would make him a successful CTO. The only problem is that he is still technically the chairman of Microsoft and it would be a conflict of interest to continue in that roll while serving as U.S. CTO. Plus, the government uses a lot of open source solutions and Gates has never been an open source fan.

2. Julius Genachowski

Genachowski went to Harvard Law School with Obama and served as an advisor to the Obama campaign on technology issues, even helping to draft Obama's technology platform. He previously served as chief of business operations at InterActive Corp, was an FCC advisor during the Clinton administration, and founded his own company, LaunchBox Digital, to help tech startups. Since the election, Obama has named Genachowski to his transition team. It's likely that he will have a role in the Obama administration, either as the first CTO or, more likely, as head of the FCC.

1. Eric Schmidt

The Google CEO endorsed Obama in October and has served as an unofficial advisor on economic and technology issues throughout the campaign. Since the election, Schmidt has served on Obama's newly-formed economic advisory board. Schmidt is a pragmatic, low-key leader who can successfully work in collaboration with other leaders. He is not as much of a visionary or a bulldog, but his temperament might be the right fit for this position. At the end of last week, Schmidt denied that he is interested in the position, and no one could blame him for not wanting to leave Google, which is at the top of its game and still has an excellent future. Nevertheless, don't rule him out just yet. He remains the most likely candidate for the job.

Further reading

-------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

For more from Tech Sanity Check and Jason Hiner:

About

Jason Hiner is Editor in Chief of TechRepublic and Long Form Editor of ZDNet. He writes about the people, products, and ideas changing how we live and work in the 21st century. He's co-author of the upcoming book, Follow the Geeks (bit.ly/ftgeeks).

45 comments
csamuels
csamuels

This is a great list. It will be interesting to see if they go for a landmark like Cerf or one of the newer folks. I agree that Schmidt is likely; it doesn't hurt to have someone with both vision and business success on his resume.

carbonman
carbonman

There's more than IT in the world. Energy production has been mentioned, the automotive industry has had a passing comment, but every kind of technology that makes manufacturing and distribution more efficient should fall under the CTO's purview. Educational technology, i.e. the methods used to impart knowledge and teach critical thinking are more important than making sure the government has a good IT infrastructure. American students rank 27th worldwide in math ability. No wonder the economy is in trouble - nobody is taught to figure things out anymore. Clerks can't even make change these days without the till calculating for them. End of rant.

BrianMWatson
BrianMWatson

I think you have overlooked a very via candidate: John Thompson, the current CEO of Symantec Corporation. John's experience at Symantec - a company that specializes in internet and information security - and formerly at IBM, as well as his friendship with Obama (or so I've heard), gives him both the technical experience and political connections to make him a viable candidate. Add to that the fact that he has been grooming Enrique Salem, the current COO of Symantec, to replace him, means he would be able, and probably willing, to take the position.

kathryn.k.james2.civ
kathryn.k.james2.civ

What would the role be for the President's CTO? Is it to guide technology policy? Is it to guide legislative/ administrative solutions for technological competitveness? Is it to encourage technological innovation? Is it to facilitate the transfer of innovative ideas to the marketplace? How would the CTO interact with other key personnel such as the Science Advisor, the National Academy of Engineering, the National Academy of Sciences, etc.? Before any candidate is recommended, it is key to identify the roles that the CTO would play.

Vulpinemac
Vulpinemac

I think one of the best choices was left out of this list. One man who created an industry out of his own garage and when he became CEO of a major computer company turned it around from a long slide into bankruptcy into major profits over the course of ten years. His progressive sight developed computers people wanted, instead of just 'needed;' developed music players that quickly outsold every other player on the market in a matter of years; developed a smart cell phone that outsold even the ubiquitous Blackberry after barely more than a year on the market. This is the kind of man we need as CTO; one who can make a difference quickly. I nominate Steve Jobs.

kci833
kci833

It may be good to consider a list of the best hackers in he world for this position(ie, the ones that have been already caught !)

dkarthik
dkarthik

I think Eric Schmidt is the right choice for US CTO. He did defined the Information Technology rules for this decade through Google and am sure will do US CTO better than anyone else.

bigjude
bigjude

I'd like Vint Cerf but would probably agree to Bill Gates because he has longer life expectancy. I think this is at least a 10 year job. I'd probably ask several of them to join a backup think tank.

walbrown
walbrown

I think Michael Powell fits the bill even more than the technocrats listed. Powell's regulatory experience at FCC, his sensitivity for all social strata in USA's fragmented society, and the need to keep top ICT technocrats in innovation without being distracted by the need to fix the world and the USA makes him an ideal candidate. His family background can only help.

Chuck L
Chuck L

Even if he completely resigned from Microsoft, Bill Gates would still be a bad choice. As the article noted, Gates is no fan of open-source solutions. And he holds an enormous amount of Microsoft stock. So any move away from open-source platforms onto Microsoft platforms would help him financially.

NickNielsen
NickNielsen

For two reasons. First, all US executive departments, from Agriculture to Veterans Affairs, use or regulate technology in some way, shape, or form. Taking your logic to its extreme (and that's what the Congress does best!) would result in the consolidation of any technology from all executive departments under a new Department of Technology. It would be seen as a power grab; not only will it not happen, but it shouldn't happen. Second, it is not the function of government to tell business what to do or how to do it. That model failed miserably in the former Soviet Union.

jasonhiner
jasonhiner

At the top of the article I listed the three factors we know about the CTO role from Obama's policy statement. My sense is that the role will primarily be about architecting and orchestrating new systems to help the government be more efficient and more transparent.

s.runyon
s.runyon

Good questions, Kathryn! I can't begin to suggest an answer, except to say that maybe the CTO will have to define the breadth and depth of the job him- or herself. Since power in the CTO's hands will come at the expense of somebody else, it'll take political skill and maybe some presidential deal-making to really define the CTO's role and authority.

s.runyon
s.runyon

The CTO will have to be a great politician first and a great technologist second. Jobs is WAY too autocratic and secretive to qualify.

K_Green
K_Green

Jobs would make an interesting choice. But the continued health concerns might sideline his chances. My mother died from pancreatic cancer after a 20-month battle, and it was caught very very early. The procedures to treat that cancer take a massive toll on the body. Even if Jobs never goes into remission, the treatments obviously have affected him. (Witness his appearance and the speculation from earlier this summer.) The US CTO position is going to be intense. Perhaps too intense for someone that's not in top health. Further, Apple's focus on consumer-grade electronics and polish isn't what our first CTO should focus on. The first one will need to focus more on baseline policy, nuts & bolts. Jobs would make a better 3rd or 4th one, once the ball is rolling and it needs more public appeal & charisma.

henleyjr
henleyjr

Vint Cerf has the tech background, knows how to deal with bureaucrats, and is largely apolitical. Obama needs someone with tech cred who can get things done thru concensus.

R1scFactor
R1scFactor

Kevin D. Mitnick would be a good start, if you consider top hackers. Of course, it's a question as to if we need the better code hacker or the better social engineer.

NickNielsen
NickNielsen

The best have never been caught. Besides, a committed hacker would never willingly submit to the political infighting required to survive in Washington.

MmeMoxie
MmeMoxie

You must not be an American or if, you are an American, you don't know anything about how our government works. The man or woman selected for this job, IF, it is offered ... will only be for 4 years. That is all Obama can serve for one term, 4 years. IF ... he is re-elected, it would be for another 4 year term. So, should the person who is selected as CTO, the most they could serve is 8 years. Knowing how Capitol Hill works, Congress tends to 'drain' all advisors of any Presidential Administration. They rarely last more than 4 years and usually a lot less. Bottom line, at this point in time, this is all speculation. The position of CTO, which will be a 'new' position. There honestly is so much more on Obama's 'plate' right now, than a CTO position. What with the economical issues the USA faces, he may not be able to institute this 'new' position. I feel, that Obama's desire to do this isn't in question, but, that right now, there is a LOT to get done, right after he is inaugurated, like select his Cabinet, which all have to be approved by Congress. Even with a Democratic controlled Congress, it still takes time. Then, Obama must figure out with his Cabinet what political actions to take on first, especially with the USA's economy. Technology is important, but, the economy supersedes anything and everything. That is the reality of the situation.

Telka
Telka

Michael Powell wasnt even qualified to run the fcc let alone be america's CTO. His fines on what he deemed indecent were a joke.

hkjjr
hkjjr

That is the kind of Republican Like Blather That has led this country into the worst situation it's been in Since The Great Depression. Obama'a ability to foster change would be completely negated by hiring political hacks like Michael Powell. The FCC is the last place we should go for innovation and the fixing of at least the USA should the goal that Obsma was elected for. The mess the current adminstration has gotten us into shows a lack of understanding the benefits of technology.

gil_gosseyn
gil_gosseyn

Michael Powell is less qualified for this than he was for the FCC chairmanship(anyone remember Broadcast Flags, broadcast media ownership consolidation, and ridiculous "obscenity" fines?). Plus, he was McCain's tech adviser, as well as an adviser for Cheney.

m4rk.gm4il
m4rk.gm4il

Eric Schmidt, Bill Gates or Scott McNealy they are the best in what they do and probably America's best options !

Walthy
Walthy

David Packard is legendary in the US Military for changing the way the military buys and maintains its aircraft fleet. He served as an Assistant Secretary of Defense but changed procurement and development policy for aircraft and other military hardware. In Vietnam, each flight hour required 100s of hours of maintenance, while current aircraft use only hours of maintenace for hours flown. I've been told that it was because of Mr. Packard's influence at the Department of Defense to make the equipment more maintainable, more reliable, and less costly to maintain.

scarville
scarville

He is ruthless enough to survive in Washington and has proven that he can work in the shadow of a huge ego.

jmarkovic32
jmarkovic32

Who would leave a cushy CIO position at a Fortune 500 company for a crappy government position.

michael.baldelli
michael.baldelli

The entire purpose of the CTO and the various technology czar positions that have been pushed in the last 8 years are simply to add more gears in the wheels of bureaucracy. How about we fix those failing and broken gears that are already in place before we start adding more to the machine?

Vulpinemac
Vulpinemac

... and neither is the #3 man on the list, Bill Gates. In many ways, Steve Jobs and Bill Gates are like two peas in a pod.

Vulpinemac
Vulpinemac

... I merely point out that any man who can turn a company around within two years of taking over has the business acumen and the managerial smarts to do a similar job for his country. I agree that his health will always be in question; to the best of my knowledge cancer has yet to be completely and irrevocably removed once someone has suffered it. But I also know that given a significant challenge, some people will fight that disease and succeed where others would let it control them. Steve Jobs is obviously one of those people. While I don't expect him to live forever, I truly believe he's got a number of good years left in him.

jmgarvin
jmgarvin

If he wants to do it great, but does he?

Vulpinemac
Vulpinemac

The comment above shows some well-reasoned thought and does go into the real issues rather than the political rhetoric and propaganda that some other commenters are posting. However, even MmeMoxie seems to overlook something; while technology isn't necessarily the answer to America's woes, technology is a tool that can help pull us out of those woes. Take a look at where we are in our economy. In particular, if you look at our automotive industry, the "Big Three" and most of the imports have all seen drastic reductions of sales, especially in the last year. Part of this is due to the economy in general, but the sudden, drastic drop is due even more to the oil crisis that drove the price of gas over $4/gallon for a short time. We have also seen a serious problem with energy generation in general, our exploding population rapidly overwhelming the power grid, creating "rolling blackouts" in the heat of summer and the risk of overloaded circuits and short-term blackouts over entire regions of the country. Our power currently comes from hydroelectric dams, coal-, oil- and natural gas-fired power plants and aging nuclear plants with a designed life span of 35 years and many being shut down or operated beyond their expected lives. However, a wind farm in the state of Washington demonstrated such high efficiency that the power generated forced some hydroelectric dams to actually reduce output or risk overdriving circuits. Technology is going to play a very big part in America's future and needs to be high on this next administration's priorities. These technologies can provide jobs; can help reduce costs and even restore our leadership in world events if properly guided.

apotheon
apotheon

Is that your nomination for the "Even Worse Choice Than Bill Gates Award"? Holy mother of god, that's a terrible, frightening idea. Steve Ballmer, by the way, knows next to [b]nothing[/b] about the technology. He's the business guy at MS. Not only would he be a terrible, awful influence on federal policy, but he'd be in way the heck over his head, too. How about we pick someone that, y'know, knows something about IT?

Walthy
Walthy

What about Jon Shirley?

NickNielsen
NickNielsen

Who would leave a cushy job as an NFL player for a crappy government position. If you can't understand why Pat Tillman would give up an NFL career and enlist in the Army, you will also be unable to understand the answer to your question. edit: corrected title

jasonhiner
jasonhiner

and are looking to make a difference. Those are probably the primary candidates. Of course, wading through bureaucracy can be extremely frustrating, so it takes someone with a lot of perseverance and grit to do it.

dukeusc
dukeusc

well if the job is 'crappy'... no one would. But Change is not about prescribing to the same ideals of yesteryear. For the past 8 years we've been "going out to shop," The person that takes this job would be doing it because it's what's best for the country--not their bank account. ... and yes that's a Utopian rant, but I do think we have to get away from this mentality that serving your country through government would be crappy. We are in charge of our own destiny, so you have to believe you can become the change we need.

s.runyon
s.runyon

People - especially people in regulated industries - do exactly that all the time. That's one of the complaints many DC-watchers have about places like the SEC or FDA: the political appointees tend to come from industry and go right back into industry after their patron leaves office. Unfortunately, in many cases these are also really truly the most qualified people for the job, so even if they have the integrity to regulatory correctly and fairly (and I'm optimistic and idealistic enough to think that most of them do), there's still the appearance of a conflict of interest. So what do they get out of it? Access! They're building connections with the political world, for which their former employers will handsomely reward them when they return to the private sector.

apotheon
apotheon

It'd probably be good to have someone like Cerf in there -- but I'm not sure he'd be up to the political challenges. I guess only trial by fire would answer that question. Another one I'd love to see doing that job is Lessig. Schmidt's third place for me, out of that list.

NickNielsen
NickNielsen

However, I think the federal CTO's mission should be to improve IT implementation at the federal level. Such a function would set standards, and provide vision and guidance to the Cabinet departments. I [u]don't[/u] think this needs to be another Cabinet-level post. The technology you address is more the purview of the Department of Energy.

Your Mom 2.0
Your Mom 2.0

Your guy is going to see wealth as a means to an end, and not the goal itself. For someone that already has plenty of wealth, the appeal is to attain power, to attain a place in history, or to benefit humanity. Maybe I'm naive, but I'd like to think that the best of the best are not just motivated my the almighty dollar: "I don't have a problem with guilt about money. The way I see it is that my money represents an enormous number of claim checks on society. It's like I have these little pieces of paper that I can turn into consumption. If I wanted to, I could hire 10,000 people to do nothing but paint my picture every day for the rest of my life. And the GNP would go up. But the utility of the product would be zilch, and I would be keeping those 10,000 people from doing AIDS research, or teaching, or nursing. I don't do that though. I don't use very many of those claim checks. There's nothing material I want very much. And I'm going to give virtually all of those claim checks to charity when my wife and I die." -Warren Buffett

s.runyon
s.runyon

For being "optimistic and idealistic" I hope the last paragraph of my previous post didn't come across as too cynical. Plenty of people - political appointees and regular gov't employees both - work EXTREMELY hard to serve the public, without expectation that they'll ever receive any kind of remuneration except knowing they did a good job and left the US and/or the rest of the world better off for it. Of the government employees who are my friends and relatives, I can say that they're some of the best *people* I know. But it is true that even those who don't expect extra money from their government service will nonetheless often receive it if and when they choose to enter the private sector, and it seems likely to me that folks who choose to leave high-paying positions to enter government service - even if their primary motivation is the service of their fellow citizens - are at least marginally conscious of the fact that this 4- or 8-year detour will yield dividends later. That's just human nature, and understandably so - like "the rest of us" these are folks who need to pay their mortgages and send their kids to good schools, too.

Editor's Picks