Barack Obama's CTO Choice Nears

Michael Santo's picture

One of Barack Obama's still unfilled cabinet positions is a brand-new one: Chief Technology Officer (CTO). According to a new Business Week story, that choice has been narrowed to two.

Top of the list, and the more likely candidate according to many, is Padmasree Warrior, CTO of Cisco and former CTO of Motorola. The other candidate is Vivek Kundra, CTO of the District of Columbia.

It would seem that Kundra might have the inside track because he's been in government already, and has experience dealing with bureaucrats, while Warrior has been in the private sector her whole carrier.

But if Obama is looking for a pure techie, Warrior might be the better choice. She has also lived in Chicago, Illinois for a number of years, where Obama first got his political start. She commented as follows in a non-commital email to BW:

"Cisco is committed to working closely with the Obama Administration on their plans to deploy digital infrastructure to grow our economy and create jobs. Smart networking technologies and IT play a critical role in transforming government, energy, education, and health care. President-elect Obama and his team fully understand the importance of digital infrastructure to further our technology leadership as a nation."

On the other hand, Kundra is currently a tech policy advisor to the Obama transition team. He also, as the Washington Post notes:

Kundra has gotten attention for taking an unconventional approach to government, which is not typically first to adopt the latest computing trends.

Kundra has introduced popular consumer tools to bureaucratic processes, runs his office like a tech start-up and works by the mantra that citizens are "co-creators rather than subjects."

That actually sounds, to me, like the better person for the job. We don't necessarily need a core techie to lead as CTO, but rather someone who can bring the U.S. government out of the stone age (Ted Stevens and "Tubes," anyone?). Let's not forget, also, that Warrior, despite her success, has also had failures: she oversaw the turning of Motorola from an industry-leader to a barely alive company, trailing in innovation.

However, one thing has come up in comments at the BW story: outsourcing and H1B visas. While these are both excellent candidates, both are Indian (as BW points out in its headline), which may mean a more favorable approach to outsourcing and H1B visas than may be necessary in this time when Americans are out of work.

After all, companies say they need the H1B program because there are not enough Americans for these (usually tech or science) jobs. It is hard to imagine that with the huge number of layoffs we are seeing that is still true. Companies have often been criticized by those who say the goal of the H1B program is cheap labor, not workers for jobs that cannot be filled.

Some would label that sort of stance as protectionist. As a recent guest on Bill Moyers' Journal, Leo Gerard said (emphasis mine):

And by the way, what's - how why does protectionism become a bad word? Why does creating jobs at home become a bad thing? You know what? Try to do this in France. President Sarkozy said immediately we're going to help our auto industry in France. But the French taxpayers' dollars are going to be spent in France. What's wrong with that? Try to do this in Japan. I was at a meeting with the head of the Chinese steel industry, where one of the American steel company CEOs said, "What do you think if we were to buy into part of the Chinese steel industry?" She said, "No, no, no." She said, "No, no, no. Steel is too important to China." In America today 52 percent of our steel is foreign owned.

Should we worry about the effect of our next CTO on this subject? After all, the CTO would not be heading up the Labor Department, and thus may not have an impact anyway. And these commenters at BW don't necessarily even know what the candidates thoughts are on this matter.

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