As the tech community eagerly awaits more details on President-elect Obama's proposed chief technology officer post, many have made wish lists of what they would like to see come of the first-of-its-kind job. In a recent interview with NationalJournal.com's Theresa Poulson, Google's vice president and "chief Internet evangelist," Vinton Cerf, who has been rumored to be on the short list for the job, outlined what he might include on the CTO's agenda and how the position could invigorate the economy by creating jobs through investments in infrastructure.
Cerf, who is widely referred to as "father of the Internet" for his work as co-creator of TCP/IP protocols and the architecture of the Web, has served as chairman of the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers, and is familiar with the politics of enacting tech policy. Edited excerpts follow.
NJ: What challenges do you see for this proposed CTO position?
Cerf: I see a lot of them. I think the ambition level is laudable. Taking President-elect Obama at his word, he's expressed a desire that the U.S. government make better use of information technology. And that message fits very well with another message I understand that he's expressed, which is to invest in American infrastructure. I think that applies equally well to the civilian and private sector -- the consumer sector -- and also to the government itself and its facilities.
I do not have any specific knowledge of a job description other than what I have read in the newspapers or heard on television or radio. My guess is that it's not an easy job to define. It's a new job, and so that's always a challenge right at the outset. It could be quite dramatically varied. It could be a kind of evangelistic position, where you simply go and lobby everybody to do the right thing. It could be a much more operating-like position where you have real budget and responsibilities and you can actually make things happen -- not simply by asking for them, but in fact telling people that this is what we're going to do.
I have the feeling that anyone assuming the position would probably walk in and step on about a thousand CIO toes -- the chief information officers scattered around various parts of the executive branch. And so whoever is in that position is going to have to be a consummate diplomat, trying to figure out how to be very persuasive, particularly in the absence of having any budgetary authority.
NJ: In a dream world, how would you envision the CTO role? What would be at the top of their agenda? And what power would they have?
Cerf: Here's the problem: CTO is a very general term. It's chief technology officer. And for a number of people, the definition has tended to be narrowed down to information -- chief information officer and information technology. But you could also imagine a very broad mandate. If it's really chief technology -- gosh, what would be at the top of the list? Well, dealing with the current economic crisis -- will the CTO have a role to play in that? Well, possibly. Are there steps that the CTO could take that would generate new jobs? Infrastructure development that needs to be done, that might be the responsibility of -- or at least the subject of -- CTO consideration.
Does that mean energy independence? Does it mean energy efficiency? Does it mean research into new products and materials that would make cars lighter and produce better gas mileage? Does it deal with cybersecurity? The list goes very far, and you know that every one of those topics has at least some already interested party -- in the Department of Energy or in the Department of Defense or the Department of Commerce. So figuring out what should be at the top of the CTO's agenda is very much a function of what the responsibility is in that position. And I know I'm not answering the question terribly precisely, but it's because I actually don't know what the transition team will conclude.
I think that -- at least from my very narrow perspective as an information technology guy -- that there are some serious contributions that the IT side of the equation can make toward some of the challenges that have been outlined by the president-elect. For example, a reinvigoration of broadband infrastructure for the business and consumer community would be a very powerful objective. Another one would be to significantly improve the cybersecurity of all of the various applications, both inside and outside the government. Another one might be to look very seriously at how information technology can improve energy efficiency. Another one might actually be to look at alternative energy production and whether the remote control of energy-consuming devices could benefit the efficiency of our energy use. If you had a way of shifting demand for energy from one time to another so as to reduce the peak loads at certain times of day or certain times of year, that could actually be a very powerful way of reducing the capital cost of generating electricity.
So I see just a very elaborate range of things that a CTO, by any definition, might be able to do in order to improve our efficient use of resources in the government.
NJ: The CTO, however the role ends up being shaped, will have to work with other parts of the administration. Looking at the appointments that Obama has made so far, have his selections given you confidence that he will carry out his technology agenda?
Cerf: I am very personally impressed by the roster of candidates that the president's assembled so far. They're all extraordinarily smart and experienced people. They have very strong opinions. And I think it's a tribute to President-elect Obama's appetite for hearing and absorbing and considering and then trying to resolve different views of things. It's refreshing that someone in that position, in fact, seeks out different views -- when he said to his Republican colleagues that he would listen to them especially well when they disagreed with him on the grounds that disagreement means that there's some useful analysis that can be done to understand the nature of the disagreement, maybe deeper insights into whatever the problem is. So I do not have the sense that any of the already named members of the administration would be at all inimical to this new position.
I do think, though, that anyone in that position would be well advised, for example, to learn to work well with the Office of Management and Budget -- if the position has a budget. Of course, if it does have a budget, then you're going to want to work carefully with whichever congressional committees are responsible for that budget. You can easily imagine -- in a new position, it means it's a new budget, and it might mean that somebody else's budget is being transferred over, in which case some member, some committee is not going to be happy that budget authority has moved from one place to another. Perhaps there will be arm-wrestling matches among the various Senate and House committee members over who will oversee the CTO's budget, if there is one.
So you need to make friends on the Hill, you need to make friends at OMB, and you certainly have to make friends with your counterparts in different parts of the executive branch, because in the absence of a working relationship with all of those components, I think the job would be hard to accomplish, whatever that job turns out to be.
NJ: It's been reported that you're on the short list for this position.
Cerf: You know, let me tell you honestly and quite frankly, I've had no official contact from anyone in the transition team. The only reason that you're hearing that buzz, I think, is that there was an article -- I think it was in Business Week, and I think it was at least a month and a half ago. In the absence of news, someone decided to speculate on various possible names, and mine happened to get tossed into the mix. But it's pure rumor and speculation. I have nothing that I can give you of any substance at all; I haven't had any discussions on this topic with the transition teams. When people ask me what's my opinion about X, Y and Z, I've felt very free to express it. And if anybody's listening, of course I appreciate that, too. But at the moment, I have no indication that I'm actually on anybody's list other than the one that's being speculated on in the media.
NJ: I would ask you if you'd be interested in the CTO position, but there doesn't seem to be a job description yet.
Cerf: Well, yeah, it makes it really hard. I suppose you could fantasize and say, well, you know, if it had the following features, maybe I'd be interested in, let's see, a private jet --
I think the real answer is that, whoever ends up in the role, I think if the job is of the sort that I imagine and I hope it might be, I'd certainly want to be supportive of the party in that role. I think it's hard, but I also think that this is an amazing opportunity, given our current economic situation. The need to produce jobs, the opportunity to invest in American infrastructure in the widest possible sense -- not just bridges and roads and physical facilities and so on, but also our information infrastructure, our energy infrastructure, our electrical power grids, and our ways of managing energy-consuming devices -- all of this is just an amazing opportunity to say, hey, we're about to enter the second decade of the 21st century, let's think about what a 21st-century infrastructure should look like and let's put ourselves toward making it happen. I can't imagine why anyone would not want to support that.
I don't know what the transition team is considering right now, but I certainly hope that they take advantage of the opportunity to define a role that's achievable -- you know, something that you can actually do -- and that takes advantage of this moment, when the possibilities are so rich, to make a difference.