The U.S., with the monumental election of Barack Obama, will soon get not only the first president who appears to be technology savvy, but one who has promised to bring the U.S. into the current century by hiring a CTO. I meet with a lot of CTOs and only one stands out as capable of addressing the problems the U.S. is likely to have. Let's walk through the problems first, then I'll float my recommendation and close with some advice.
U.S. Technology Problems
For a long time, the U.S. has appeared very tactical in its technology purchases. It has appeared that, far too often, platforms were selected either because the company selling them was connected or because there was a small pool of vendors who could meet the daunting list of requirements it takes to bid on a U.S. project.
If the U.S. were a company, it would likely be out of business. And you could argue, given the current economic climate, that no company could survive long enough to get to the debt load the U.S. has. In short, U.S. purchasing agents can seldom pick a product or an offering that is best for either the situation or best in the market. This not only fosters bad behavior on vendors, it creates huge inefficiencies in government.
Given that the bidding process and account management for a government contract is more expensive, by a massive amount, than any other I am aware of, and that these bids try to be competitive, the vendors who aren't getting the business through lobbying are likely unprofitable at bid. This means they have to make it up with $25,000-hammer kinds of alterations or services, adding to both the unreliability of what they provide and making maintenance shockingly overpriced.
Finally, the U.S. IT organization, like any very old organization in either public or private markets, is probably awash with dead wood, cronyism, bureaucrats and back stabbers. Some of them likely unofficially work for one or more vendors. The first requirement for the CTO job would likely be a distinct lack of survival skills so the poor guy would actually take the job.
Who I'd Pick
There is only one CTO I know that even comes close to having the skill set to fix the kinds of problems that exist in the U.S. government. He was instrumental in fixing similar problems in a large multinational company, he appears to be more motivated on getting excellence into the job than in empire building, he has been incredibly creative in his successful solutions, and he made his company the leader in most markets where it competes. Before, his company was having trouble getting out of its own way.
I'd pick, assuming he were foolish enough to take the job, HP's Shane Robison, who built a network of CTOs loyal to him, integrated those CTOs into a network so they could help keep a very complex company on the same successful path, and eliminated much of the bureaucracy that HP had been saddled with. He survived and flourished after the CEO change from Carly Fiorina (who I thought might have made a better VP choice than Sarah Palin) to Mark Hurd (arguably the best CEO in terms of broad skill set in the market) by being loyal to the job and company, and he has an incredibly broad skill set that goes back to his time at Apple.
Of the people I know, if the U.S. wanted the best, Shane Robison is the best.
Advice for the New CTO
The first thing I would suggest doing is bringing on board at senior levels a team of people you can trust who are both capable and driven to excellence -- not looking for a career in politics. I would then send them out to assess what I had to deal with and identify any part of the organization that was at or below minimum performance levels. As part of the process, I'd want them to quickly assess who in the staff was under appreciated and who was dead wood. I'd suggest they interview any employees who recently voluntarily resigned and, after vetting these folks, use their comments on people and systems to help develop a plan. There won't be much money so focus should be on patching, removing obvious inefficiencies, and putting together a prioritized wish list for systems that need major help and improvements that would have the greatest impact.
I'd also suggest having as a senior advisor someone who may have recently retired. Someone who was positioned to know where all the bodies are buried but doesn't have a personal agenda anymore. I expect that at the top of the list will be to fix the information flow internally so that the decision makers actually have good information. I'd meet, early, all of the key CIOs and listen to them -- but only after I got an assessment of each from my own network of people. Removing the ones he can't work with and working to promote people that will make the needed changes would have to be one of the highest priorities.
Next, I'd suggest doing something that was high profile and provided a distinct advantage for U.S. citizens. People like to see results and validation. The more progress they see, the more willing to ride through hard times they will likely be. Take something that is visible and broadly annoying and fix it.
Finally, on the short list, would be to assure information flow to the president was as clean and fast as it could be. He remains the primary customer. If he doesn't succeed, everything falls appart.
Here in the Silicon Valley, there are already rumors that folks are positioning for what will likely be the highest-profile tech job in the world. My hope is they will pick not based on political affiliation, donations, or favors owed but on capability. I believe we picked the most capable president, my hope is he will pick the most capable CTO. For a complex problem like the one the U.S. faces there is, to my knowledge, no one better than Shane Robison. My only worry is that he may be too smart to actually accept the job.