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November 13, 2008

What are the top priorities for our nation's first CTO?

Obama CTO - What are the top priorities for our nation's first CTO?

One of the promises of our new President-elect Obama is to establish a role of CTO in his new administration. A lot of blogger and media attention has focused on potential candidates for this position, among them Eric Schmidt of Google and Lawrence Lessig of Creative Commons. However, I think it is more important at this point to participate in a dialogue about the initiatives that will be tackled by our new CTO.

ObamaCTO.org (built on the UserVoice platform) was launched yesterday and garnered a bunch of attention on Twitter and the likes of Dan Farber, BoingBoing and the New York Times Bits Blog. I created two priority entries:

  1. encourage adoption of Agile software development practices
  2. standardize on Ruby on Rails for custom web app development

The first one about adoption of Agile is totally serious and I believe it's one of the only ways to reduce costs and improve effectiveness and success rates of government-sponsored IT projects. For example, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Directorate of Science and Technology has an annual budget of $830 million. It has 250 projects in process and 50 percent of them are expected to fail, according to Jay Cohen, Under Secretary for Science and Technology for the DHS.

Breaking that status quo is going to be a ridiculous challenge and will require radical and idealistic thinking from the top.

The second priority suggestion, to "standardize on Ruby on Rails" is just one of my (unabashedly self-serving) pet causes that I'm not 100% serious about, but I think merits some debate. Does it make sense for the government to standardize on any particular technology? My fear is that the normal way that government agencies go about making technology decisions is skewed towards big vendors with money and influence and without a degree of activism on our part, projects will continue to be based on proprietary and brain-dead old technology.

By the way, the Obama transition team also announced its internet outreach staff yesterday, but as far as I can tell everyone named so far comes from the existing group of insiders already involved with Obama via campaign operations. I will be much happier if/when I begin to see Web 2.0 thought-leaders such as Lawrence Lessig drafted for those jobs. Frankly, I'm still somewhat dazzled that Obama actually won and that we're having this conversation with any degree of seriousness.


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