The World Is Flat, Stupid: Time for America to Hire a CTO

The role of a company’s Chief Technology Officer (CTO) is an incredibly critical, but poorly understood, one. Many startups even neglect the position, unless a member of the founding team is a strong technology visionary. Instead, they assume the CIO or VP of Engineering can be responsible for setting technology strategy as well as delivering on it – an impossible burden even for the most talented technology manager. 

Within our portfolio, I have always been an advocate of separating the two positions: (1) An internally-facing VP of Engineering or CIO, who is responsible for delivering the goods on time and on budget on an operational, quarterly and annual basis; and (2) An externally-facing CTO, who is looking over the horizon to set strategic direction and establish the priorities of where to invest taking into account how the world will look in 3-5 years.

Therefore, I read Lotus founder, Mitch Kapor’s call for the next President to hire a CTO for America in MIT’s Technology Review with great interest. Historically, America has never had a CTO. The President’s Science Advisory Committee, which had great prominence when it was first established in 1957 during America’s “Sputnik moment” under Presidents Eisenhower, has had little influence and visibility since Nixon abolished the committee in 1973 and it returned under President Ford in a weakened form. Yet technology strategy and policy permeates so many of the critical issues the country faces today: From energy policy to defense, from education to homeland security and obviously the big elephant in the room in any budget debate – health care.

During Bill Clinton’s 1992 campaign, his campaign manager James Carville famously drummed home the mantra, “It’s the Economy, Stupid.”  After taking office, President Clinton elevated the Council of Economic Advisors chairman to a cabinet-level position and appointed highly-respected Wall Street heavyweight Bob Rubin (who later became Treasury Secretary and arguably one of the most influential stewards of our economy in recent memory).

With a nod to Thomas Friedman, I might submit that an appropriate election theme this time around may be “The World is Flat, Stupid.” More and more of America’s success in the global competitive environment depends on our knowledge economy and government is playing a large role in shaping this. For example, ethanol subsidies appear to be a narrow and short-sighted way to spend billions of tax-payer money, yet they persist because no credible voice provides Congress and the cabinet with an authoritative technology perspective.

No matter who wins in November, I hope they bring with them to Washington the technology version of Bob Rubin to help steer our course. Our needs seem more urgent than the mere challenge of putting a man on the moon.