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Thursday, 3 May 2012

Does the UK need a CTO?

During this visit, one name keeps cropping up - Todd Park. Who is he? He is the US Department of Health and Human Services CTO. He was here in Lafayette at Cajun Code Fest this weekend, one of a large number of codathons currently running across the States. He, and rightly so, fully enjoyed the Cajun Code Fest, partly because it was aimed at getting coders together to solve a now near global health problem - childhood obesity. And partly because this is Lafayette and the Lafayette/Geoff Daily way of doing this type of event is quite simply fabulous. He was joined by the likes of the CEO of, top health executives from within Microsoft (developers of Health Vault) and other enormous companies, and the winning apps, as you will see will undoubtedly make their way into mainstream adoption. Todd made an interesting observation - Lafayette is small enough (population 120k =tiny in US!) to behave in the same entrepreneurial, flexible, agile manner as a start up, but large enough that anything achieved here can be of national importance. It strikes me that this thinking applies equally in the UK, for instance in communities such as B4RN, and that some community broadband and technologically aware communities may be missing a trick here - more on that in another post as it was a subject of some fascinating debate and ideas in Dallas at #bbcsum12 and I am still getting my head around a proposal from that to bring back to the UK. Back to Todd - his remit is within the Department of Health, and looking at his bio it is quite obvious why this entrepreneur with a background in health related businesses would be chosen. It set me to wondering what the UK requires in the form of a CTO. After all, even from this side of the Pond it has been near impossible to miss the furore about the Minister ostensibly in charge of broadband, Jeremy Hunt, which of course comes from the DCMS having far too wide a remit to focus on technology, and being in charge of Culture, Media and Sport - all so distantly related that the weekly emails from the DCMS range across a vast array of 'disassociated' topics. Also, a CTO needs to be fully cognisant of his role in the economic well-being of the company -it's all very well saying, "No-one got fired for not buying IBM (pick any well known tech co and replace)" but the truth is if you adopt enterprise level equipment when there is a superior and free open source alternative that your competitors all use....well, we know how it ends don't we? The necessity for experience within a commercial environment is essential, although one wonders how many of those in charge of making fiscal decisions within government even have that experience? (Being a paid member of a Board does not count; having lost your shirt and learnt how not to do it again does). So, should we have a CTO of each of our departments, agencies and the assortment of quangos in charge of our daily lives? I feel not as it only adds complexity, bureaucracy and a lack of appreciation of the big picture, but others may differ in their opinions. I do feel the UK urgently needs a CTO - please, not with the title of technology tsar -someone who behaves as though she/he has precisely the same responsibilities as the CTO of any company - to get maximum bang for the buck, best return on investment, improve efficiency, use the right technology for each job, aggregate demand, save our money, encourage innovation etc so that our company -UK Plc - becomes a world leader in technology. Not to win votes, but because this country MUST seek to be competitive or, as Blair Levin put it so succinctly at the Dallas Broadband Community Summit last week, we will join the US in being on the wrong side of economic history. (He was actually speaking about having a strategy for bandwidth abundance, but without said strategy, most of the required technological advances will fail either at the first hurdle -research - or any of those following: development, deployment, adoption, sales etc. Britain has a dreadful reputation for IT projects. Take, for example, NHSIT (affectionately known by the cognoscenti as NHsh*t). An appalling waste of money that demands (one would think) a comprehensive review of how the UK approaches techie projects forever more. However, we keep doing it. I have spoken to people about BTOP last week and this. It is a similar program to Race Online 2012 and UK Online, and it sounds as though many of the same lessons have been learned on both sides of the Pond by those involved at the coal front, but few if any feel that those lessons have successfully been reported 'upwards' to policy makers and funders to ensure that similar mistakes are not made again. And whilst Helen and Martha may both feel that their campaigns/projects have been successful, sadly, they are missing the point of where the race actually needs to get to, and hence what is required to do so. This is not in providing cheap computers, courses in surfing, or access in learning centres, but in training everyone, and I mean everyone, so that the skillset required over the next 10-15 years in order to have a booming digital economy is present through out our society. And being able to surf just ain't it. That is setting the bar so low as to be almost derisory to the general public who will need the skills to survive the changes we have been given a glimpse of with the developments of the past decade. Here is where a CTO could come in most handy - in assessing the skills which will be required to drive UK PLC into a competitive position and ensuring that every single program, campaign, university course etc is designed to do precisely that. UK Online would have failed the acid test, and as one who has had to deliver their courses to many, I could tell them precisely why, how, when (now), etc as could many of the others who have actually met the people coming through the doors of Online Centrres such as Cyberbarn whilst being an active part of both the local, regional, national and global community and economy. Being a successful digital economy does not mean that more people buy online, or download premium content. And it should be the task of a CTO to not let sales or shareholders lead the decisions in all other departments eg training, accounts, R&D etc. We have managed to trash the vast majority of our manufacturing sector through some spectacularly poor policy over the years, and it is time for the Board in Westminster to find an advisor to prevent such happening again. The Industrial Revolution (during which we were quite successful as a nation) did not have the advantages of the communications we do now. Once again, a CTO would come in useful in understanding how all the different areas of our plant could be working together, sharing technological advances, cutting costs etc and communicating those to the appropriate parties for nationwide success. It's fairly clear that we have developed an island mentality to such an extent that we think there is not much to learn from beyond our shores, but as a frequent traveller, I can only disagree with that notion. Which is why one of my souvenirs from USA is the idea of a national CTO. Your thoughts?


Somerset said...

Already thought of!

UK plc 'needs a chief engineer'

chris said...

heck, I would just love to have someone in charge who actually understood the issue, and didn't receive their emails on dead trees... totally agree!