Bloggers give Obama marching orders for the IT industry

On Friday, a group of IT experts gathered to create some marching orders for president-elect Barack Obama after he takes office Jan. 20. The participants included Computerworld's Dan Tynan (Culture Crash) and Network World bloggers Matthew Nickasch (Considering Convergence), Jamey Heary (Cisco Security Expert), Craig Mathias (Nearpoints), Jeff Doyle (On IP Routing) and Curt Monash (A World of Bytes).

Moderator Julie Bort: Hello and welcome everyone.

Doyle: I have a question for everyone: Obama has said he's going to appoint a federal CTO. What do all of you think of that? Is it a good idea? Will it have effects beyond the federal government networks?

Mathias: Having a central CTO could do some good, but getting all of the various bureaucracies and agencies and departments to pay attention would be tough, very tough.

Tynan: I say it's good idea (what's taking him so long to find someone?) but also, what's the job description? That seems a bit murky.

Monash: I've been on the CTO issue extensively. I think s/he needs to be a CIO. The "council of CIOs" isn't enough and ambitions are too low.

Mathias: A bigger question will be policies and objectives, not implementation.

Tynan: One problem, I think, is that people will expect too much of this position. Look at and you'll see what I mean.

Doyle: There was a pretty good job description on Obama's campaign Web site. I agree it should be a CIO; Eric Schmidt at Google has been mentioned, as has Vint Cerf. Personally, I'd like to see Vint in the role.

Mathias: It would be hard to have a single individual do everything. DoD/intelligence/energy would have to be separate regardless.

Monash: Yes, it's a job for a team, not a person. Vint Cerf is NOT a CIO type. He's exactly what I'm arguing against. Although he certainly could play an important role. My first recommendation was Charles Rossotti. He turned around the IRS. He ran a large professional services firm. He's one of the most honest men I know. He insists he wouldn't want the job, but that's a detail.

Tynan: Did the IRS really turn around? That would be news.

Mathias: The IRS project wasted billions, as I recall. But Curt has a good point -- we need a manager not a star.

Nickasch: Sure, I can see the "scope creep" happening already. But a "council" or advisory committee that handles the roles of a CIO or CTO would be more beneficial.

Doyle: I think what's needed here, however, is vision, which Vint could provide.

Mathias: Vision is easy. Management is hard, especially with politics and constrained budgets.

Heary: I can't see putting anyone from the IRS in this role. The IRS doesn't seem very visionary to most people.

Nickasch: Perhaps such a CIO position would get lost in a "devil in the details" implementation, without proper roles being defined in the first place.

Monash: Let's back up. There are two or three major kinds of CTO functions. One is making the government be a better user of technology. I don't see why the public's perception of who is a visionary would matter much at all to that. Second, there's a need for a senior adviser that decides which new technologies to promote. That's the role where people think they want a star.

Tynan: I really think the position is symbolic, and if that is indeed the case, then a highly visible geek with political skills is what's needed, not a hands-on guy or gal.

Heary: Curt, you need to be a visionary in order to implement the right solution. Whatever is picked for a solution will be the standard for years. The government doesn't change standards lightly. I would argue that all good CTOs are visionaries. In order to properly structure an enterprise you have to be looking out three to five years.

Nickasch: We need commercial influence at this point as much as intergovernmental influence. It needs to be a hybrid position or council.

Monash: A third part of the role is to be an adviser about technology-related legislation. I think privacy-related legislation is crucial, for example.

Technology development

Doyle: A related question: The fed CIO role is supposed to be focused on federal standards and directions, but how much influence do you think it will have commercially, and for international competition? The fed can influence things just by where it spends its money.

Mathias: Spending what? The federal government is broke. I think the best thing the government could do right now to encourage economic development is to get out of the way. Stop spending money we don't have. Cut taxes. Encourage business formation.

Nickasch: What about trying to steer technological development in an economically positive direction? How much integration should exist between public/private sectors?

Monash: Let's review government influences on commercial IT in the past: Fifty-five to 60 years ago, they were huge. Early spending started commercial computing. Arpanet is a similar example. But in later stages of commercialization, not so much. I can see it happening more easily with hydrogen cars than with computers -- maybe educational computing.

Doyle: A simple example of low-hanging fruit is in the standards arena: The government currently defines broadband as 200kbps and above. Welcome to the '90s.

Monash: That's a good point regarding standards. The government has tech standards for buying. But it also has its more passive "standards-recognition" duties at NIST. All of that could have a major reorganization.

Tynan: A key area would be making the telcos make good on their promises to build out fiber and other high-speed nets to consumers. They got tax breaks for this in the '90s, and we're only now seeing some of this development.

Nickasch: Infrastructure needs to be a priority regardless of the current economic state. No infrastructure, no economic growth. We need investment in telco transport nets and especially power.

Heary: For an economic stimulus, a nationwide broadband initiative would help.

Monash: We also need a new electricity grid, and Obama has recognized that. Turns out the current one can't handle small energy producers. And we need a lot of clean energy: wind, solar, biomass, etc.

Tynan: Yes. We need clean energy, including thermal, which would then fuel data centers.

Nickasch: There are isolated pockets of innovation, but we need wide-scale development of these new technologies. It can't come fast enough.

Doyle: The big question about pumping federal dollars into infrastructure upgrades is, which projects best creates jobs, both presently and into the future?

Protecting privacy

Heary: So backing up to the topics the new CTO will tackle around policy and privacy, how about repealing the Patriot Act?

Tynan: Warrantless wiretaps weren't part of the Patriot Act, technically. But they are something very closely related. There are provisions that sunset and should be allowed to sunset.

Monash: The government has MANY ways of getting information that are scary. Wiretaps, e-mail wiretaps, cameras in public places, data mining like the private sector does, etc.

Tynan: Yes, when it comes to limiting data's use, access, providing guidance on notifications, etc., we need an overarching agreement that says our data is ours first, and Uncle Sam's second (and only in specialized circumstances).

Monash: As I see it, there will be scary amounts of data kept. We need new laws limiting its use. If you think about it, the Fourth Amendment doesn't prevent searches and the Fifth Amendment doesn't prevent you from having to testify. But the uses of information you divulge are controlled. What I'm saying, Dan, is that your approach will increasingly be incomplete.

Nickasch: That's true, but are we really going to roll back all of the data-gathering policies and procedures already in place?

Mathias: We need to start with a premise that information about us belongs to us, and no one else.

Heary: But that is never going to happen, Craig.

Mathias: Why not?

Heary: Restricting data gathering will restrict e-commerce as well. The two are linked. That's why companies bother to collect the data in the first place. I don't see personal data gathering as a national security concern.

Tynan: That's the premise for most of the rest of the world. The U.S. and totalitarian governments are the exception.

Mathias: Commerce at the expense of freedom isn't commerce. It's tyranny.

Net neutrality

Bort: Let's talk about the FCC. What should the new head of the FCC do about regulation, Net neutrality, white spaces and so on ?

Mathias: From my perspective (wireless), I think Net neutrality and open access need to be at the top of the FCC's agenda.

Monash: Do we need extreme forms of Net neutrality, or can we let telecom companies charge differently for different qualities of service? I've long advocated the latter.

Tynan: The problem with Curt's idea is the cross-ownership of the media. Some companies that own the pipes also own the content coming down the pipes. They're likely to exert control to give their own content favorable treatment.

Mathias: Dan, they do not. And they shouldn't. QoS is OK with me. But they can't prohibit legal traffic even if it competes with services they offer.

Nickasch: Sure, I'll go with Craig on this one. The focus needs to be strongly aimed at economic development.

Monash: Well, you still need regulation to ensure that the QoS rules aren't biased toward single providers. You have to let the content provider pay for certain QoS, rather than the consumer. Otherwise, advertising gets TOTALLY borked. I think the necessary levels of regulation are limited enough that the FCC can pull them off competently.

Nickasch: True, otherwise who ultimately sets QoS policy? Another oversight concern?

Heary: We absolutely need a nationwide standards-based QoS implementation.

Doyle: Jamey, I was thinking the same thing. But how do we block abuse of QoS standards?

Heary: We could use Layer 7 traffic analysis to help with abuse.

Doyle: How does that affect performance?

Heary: Develop a smarter QoS infrastructure that doesn't rely on 5-tuple matches. Well, I didn't say it would be free.

Mathias: All we need is a simple law -- if you're a carrier, you must carry. You can set QoS classes, but any traffic within a class must be handled uniformly.

Nickasch: I agree with Jamey, let's use the technology already in place to solve the QoS problem. Authenticity, verification, etc.

Heary: We would need oversight to make the system reliable across carriers. Global oversight would be even better.

Nickasch: Good idea, but good luck!

Doyle: Like making the IETF part of the UN?

Monash: Great. Then they can have a "downloading is a form of racism" resolution.

Personal technology

Bort: Let's talk about the idea of Obama as a personal consumer of technology. There's so much chatter about if he can/will use a BlackBerry, if he uses a Wii, how he used the Internet and social Web sites like Twitter to campaign. Will it help the IT industry in any way to have this young, gadget-loving guy in the White House?

Tynan: Yes. It's an IT world and an IT economy from here out, so yes, symbolically it's important.

Mathias: I hear they're taking his BlackBerry away.

Monash: Craig, you're not keeping up. (See: More on the great Obama Blackberry debate.)

Nickasch: The Oval Office is still in the days of pen-and-paper. The President doesn't even have a workstation at his desk.

Tynan: Let's retrofit the Oval Office. Usually in DC, it's the staff that are the geeks and the politician is clueless. I don't think Obama is clueless, but it's his staffers who saw the value in social media.

Monash: Exactly, Dan. All the we-can't-have-high-tech arguments can be gotten around.

Heary: Has any president's use of technology influenced the public? No.

Tynan: Because they don't use it, Jamey. Or haven't until now. He "gets" it. That's what is important even if he isn't really a geek.

Monash: Obama is more of a mobile device user than I am.

Heary: He can start pop trends perhaps, but I for one am not going to look to the President's use of tech to see what I should be doing. Remember, guys, they are thinking of taking away his BlackBerry due to security reasons.

Doyle: The issue isn't only security, but the fact that when he's President we, the public, own what comes over his BlackBerry and e-mail.

Heary: I'm all for the government using the Internet more, but that is different from saying it will innovate it. The government should use the technology but stay away from trying to influence its innovation. That usually adds bias to the system (like ethanol subsidies have, for example. That is a unviable solution). If the government starts picking technologies, then it will bias them just like it did with bio fuels.

Nickasch: The White House is also famous for its archiving disasters.

Tynan: Remember 5 million missing e-mails? That's what I want to talk about. I'd love to see a commission of blue ribbon computer forensics experts appointed to look into the Bush administration's e-mail problems.

Monash: Odd that we're talking both about the Bushies "misplacing" e-mail and Obama leaving e-mail tracks.

Technology education

Bort: One of Obama's campaign issues around IT was that Americans are at risk of being left behind in the global economy unless we invest more in tech training in schools (and for adults). Thoughts? Is America's tech industry really falling behind? What should the feds be doing for technology education in schools?

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