Who’s Obama’s Best Bet for Boosting U.S. Technology?

It appears that Silicon Valley will hold Barack Obama to his promise to consider naming a national technology czar/chief technology officer for his administration, and industry observers already have a few suggestions for the president-elect.

Google CEO Eric Schmidt has been mentioned as a contender, largely due to his public support for Obama, which included campaign appearances in mid-October. During this week’s Web 2.0 summit in San Francisco, Kleiner Perkins venture capitalist John Doerr threw Sun Microsystems cofounder Bill Joy’s hat into the ring. If Joy wasn’t available, Doerr said inventor and entrepreneur Danny Hillis’ name should also be considered.

Whoever ends up being America’s first CTO, Doerr said he or she should “kick-start a huge amount of innovation and research in energy.”

Tech industry watchers are already debating whether the position should be filled by someone who knows more about the business and money side of technology, or more of a deep-thinker, futurist type with their finger on the pulse of expected technology developments over the next 10 to 20 years.

Money Man, Tech Guru or Both?

Tim Bajarin, president of Creative Strategies, thinks Joy would encompass the best of both the entrepreneurial and applied technology worlds. “Joy is brilliant, one of the more visionary thinkers in the industry,” Bajarin told TechNewsWorld. “He understands everything from infrastructure to the economic side. He’d be high on my list.”

But Bajarin has a caveat for whoever would get the call from Obama: They would have to be aware of the time difference between Silicon Valley and Washington. He’s not talking time zones; it’s the difference between Internet Standard Time and Beltway bureaucracy.

“The only way any of these guys would do this, they have to believe they would have a major impact on U.S. policy. They also have to be very realistic and practical in that when you’re dealing with Washington, you’re dealing with moving elephants. In the tech world things move very fast; we make them move fast. Washington moves at a glacial pace. That might be hard for these tech guys to wrap their minds around.”

Schmidt would do a good job as CTO, but Bajarin doesn’t think he’d accept that position. “He’s got one of the best jobs in the industry right now as CEO of Google,” he said. Google already has built strong connections between the tech industry and Washington and has been heavily involved in pushing the spectrum white space issue before the Federal Communications Commission. Plus, Sonal Shah, an executive with Google’s philanthropic arm, this week was named to Obama’s transition team.

A Vote for Google’s Schmidt

Schmidt would be a good first choice, Roger Kay, president and founder of Endpoint Technologies Associates, told TechNewsWorld. “He’s an active manager, he’s a good spokesman and he kind of appeals to me,” Kay said. “He’s not wild like Steve Jobs. He’s kind of civilized and that would go over well in Washington.”

What’s needed is someone who thinks first of innovations, then of business implications, Kay said. “It’s important to know what the technology is capable of so you can envision the evolving market realistically. The money guys bet on information flow, and it’s not the same thing as understanding what a company does, and how an industry is likely to evolve.”

Obama’s notion of looking to appoint a national tech czar or CTO is laudable, Kay said. “It makes technology policy official instead of being a part of overall commerce. It raises it to a strategic level which has been held from time to time in a boardroom, but not all the time, and not on a larger level.”

That technology policy should prioritize a sound communications infrastructure and more secure e-commerce platforms, especially if current initiatives to expand wireless broadband access become reality sooner than expected, Kay said.

Other Top Issues for a US CTO

The H1-B visa issue should be near the top of the to-do list for whoever gets the job as tech czar, Bajarin said. “High quality engineers are critical from the standpoint of the U.S. keeping its technology leadership role. The demand for engineering talent is on the rise, not on the decline.”

While the current economic crisis may put a damper on any new research and development spending on the federal level, Kay believes a national CTO’s brainpower should be put to use trying to help decode the financial and derivatives mess now embroiling Wall Street. “You’re aware of how computers are used in that context, so you know what needs to be untangled,” Kay said. “These New York-based financial modelers, gurus, physicists, people who really know deep math — they created this problem. We need guys to figure out what those guys know.”

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