Tech & Work

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.

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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

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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 book, Follow the Geeks.

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