My bold decision to withdraw from consideration as Obama’s CTO

To: President-Elect Barack Obama

From: Lewis Shepherd

RE: My Imminent Selection as Chief Technology Officer for the United States

Mr. President-Elect, I am hereby reluctantly but insistently withdrawing my name from consideration as your appointment to the newly created position of Chief Technology Officer for our nation.

No, no, please don’t try to persuade me otherwise. My decision is final.

Analysis: My earlier post about John Brennan being President-elect Obama’s “imminent” selection as CIA director is now a curio, given Brennan’s decision yesterday to withdraw from consideration. 

Like any good intelligence analyst writing a balanced assessment, I had included the caveat that the only thing standing between Brennan and the appointment was the likelihood of a last-minute political squabble or contretemps.

This being Washington we’re talking about, that is precisely what happened. 

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Crisis? Pshaw. Be Bold with Research Investments

Bottom line: The smart companies will weather this fiscal crisis by “steering into the skid,” and actually increasing their investment in the future.

One of my last pieces of advice to DIA’s director before leaving last year was to increase the amount of money annually invested in IT research and innovation. DIA’s technology budget was typically too bloated on the side of operations and maintenance for current systems, and not investing enough in the future, though during my time there we had made significant progress in redressing that, increasing the resources (people and money) put against “what comes next.”

In government-agencies particularly (and many torpid commercial enterprises also), budgeteers make the mistake of throwing money at legacy systems instead of being bold and prioritizing research for the next generation of systems. (Last year I wrote about these issues in “Moving Money to the Left.”)

Now, no one has asked me about my views on the fiscal “bailout package,” which makes sense, particularly when there are people who make far more sense than me expressing their well-founded opinions in ways I thoroughly agree with – such as, say, Harvard economist Jeffrey Miron in his excellent op-ed piece for CNN last night (“Bankruptcy not Bailout is the Answer“).

But a number of people have asked me what the impact on Microsoft might be from the current “crisis” and market volatility.  I have to say that I’m pretty optimistic, precisely because Microsoft is investing in the future, in ways that are designed to carry us through short-term downtimes and on to exciting new platforms.  The company’s cash-rich, which helps. 

 Most importantly, our CEO Steve Ballmer firmly pointed to our increasing bet on our new approaches to the future.  Speaking in Silicon Valley, he said proudly that not only will Microsoft continue to buy about 20 innovative companies a year, but we will also keep spending $9 billion a year, or 14 percent of revenues, on internal research and development. (See the Venture Beat story here.) 

 

Microsoft “will use the slump as a chance to invest more in our future than the other guys we’re competing with” – Steve Ballmer, quoted in Bloomberg.com  

 

There are going to be winners and losers coming out of this slump, as there have been in each of the tech slumps I’ve seen in my short (!) life over the past three decades I’ve been involved.  The winners are inevitably those with a vision for the long term and the determination to plan beyond the horizon. 

Microsoft won’t be the only winner (see “Microsoft, Xerox Invest in Innovation” for a description of the Xerox CTO’s similar thoughts), but I’m convinced we will be in the front rank.

 

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San Francisco’s Wild and Wacky World of Technology

Fact: San Francisco’s municipal IT continues to self-destruct, according to new reports this weekend.  According to an IDG story (San Francisco hunts for mystery device on city network), “With costs related to a rogue network administrator’s hijacking of the city’s network now estimated at $1 million, city officials say they are searching for a mysterious networking device hidden somewhere on the network. The device, referred to as a terminal server in court documents, appears to be a router that was installed to provide remote access to the city’s Fiber WAN network, which connects municipal computer and telecommunication systems throughout the city. City officials haven’t been able to log in to the device, however, because they do not have the username and password. In fact, the city’s Department of Telecommunications and Information Services (DTIS) isn’t even certain where the device is located, court filings state.”

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Birth of Cool (Cuil) – History Repeating Itself?

Fact: Cuil reaped the whirlwind of the media buzz it craved today.  As CNET put it, “Google challenger Cuil launched last night in a blaze of glory. And it went down in a ball of flames. Immediately after launch, the criticism started to pile on: results were incomplete, weird, and missing.”

Analysis:  For several months I’ve had running an RSS feed along the right-hand side of the ol’ blogspace here, entitled “Who’s Talking about ‘the next Google.'”  Ha ha – the RSS feed pulls from a Google News query.

Well, if you judge by the echo chamber hungry for positive tech news amid a down market, you might think “the next Google” has emerged: the birth of Cuil.  (Extra credit if you’re a Miles Davis jazz fan, by the way.)  I may retire the crown, or at least the RSS feed.  Here’s some of the global attention:

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Mutual Interest: Microsoft and Startups

Short post to make up for the long one on robotics earlier today – just to point out the good SF Chronicle story today on Dan’l Lewin, Microsoft’s lead guy in the Valley itself – he “oversees Microsoft’s global relationships with venture capitalists, startups and Microsoft technology partners as well as industry and community organizations in Silicon Valley.”  I was a user of his group’s great online presence, the Microsoft Startup Zone, before I ever met Dan’l.

A telling quote in the story, from founder/CEO of mobile startup Loopt: “”Were it not for Dan’l – if we just knew Microsoft by reputation – I don’t think we’d be working with them nearly as closely as we are.”

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Google Accelerates Hiring of Nobel Laureates

FACT:  Answering a question in this week’s Business Week about several recent high-profile departures of Google executives and engineers, CEO Eric Schmidt said: “What bothers me is that some people write: ‘So-and-so left the company.’ Well, they don’t also write that we hired 120 people that week, five of whom have Nobel prizes, three of whom have PhDs, and so on, who are beginning their career here now.”

ANALYSIS: There have only been some 700 Nobel Laureates awarded in the history of the program since 1901, according to the official Nobel site, and at least as of a 2001survey there were approximately 210 living Nobel prize-winners.

So, with some trepidation, I calculate that by Schmidt’s aggressive hiring of five Nobel laureates in a typical week, the entire roster of living prize-winners will be working for Google within a year.

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Expect Some “New Thinking” on Cyber Security…

FACT: Department of Homeland Security head Michael Chertoff last week: “I am pleased to announce my appointment of Rod Beckstrom as the first Director of the National Cyber Security Center. Rod will serve the department by coordinating cyber security efforts and improving situational awareness and information sharing across the federal government.”

ANALYSIS: There are people who think inside the box, those who think outside the box, and those who ask: What box?

Then there are “the anti-box people.”  They see the box, shove it on its side, stomp on it to squeeze it flat, and consign it to recycling where it belongs.

One of those kind of people is Rod Beckstrom, a well-known Silicon Valley successful entrepreneur and author. I knew him at Stanford, aeons ago, and like others recognized his leadership drive when he ran successfully for student body president, and he left with both a BA and MBA on the way to forming his first successful software startup.

I was surprised when I read last week that Rod is moving to Washington to take a high-level government job.

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Puncturing Circles of Bureaucracy

In my airplane reading this week was the February issue of Defense Systems magazine, with an interesting article on the Department of Defense’s “Rapid Reaction Technology Office,”  or RRTO.

(Also in my reading stack was a hilariously disturbing article in WIRED about the merry pranksters of Second Life, but it has nothing to do with my topic right now.)

RRTO is facing great challenges inherent in trying to innovate DoD practices, and I’d argue some of the problem is evident right there in its title: there’s rarely anything truly “rapid” about a reactive approach to technology innovation.

After I joined DIA in 2003, leading that agency’s efforts at “innovation” in information technologies, I began to structure my thoughts about the impediments to change and improvement.

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TechFest and its Value

I am spending much of the week at Microsoft Research’s annual TechFest, which is proving to be an absolutely mind-blowing experience.  So much, so cool, so out there….

There’s been some good press about the show already (ComputerWorld, and ITWorld for example), and the official Microsoft TechFest site has a wealth of material.  The media were allowed in on the “Public Day” to report on a carefully selected subset of the projects being displayed. But I think the coverage has missed an important difference between this show and something like COMDEX or CeBIT.

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