If you look In the Biden-Harris transition team roster, it’s quickly apparent that the incoming administration is at the forefront of technology. This is no surprise given the systematic dismantling of the federal government over the past four years and the significant logistical and scientific needs of a large-scale vaccine deployment. The Obama administration had similar priorities, investing significantly in strengthening the Office of Science and Technology Policy, which, for all intents and purposes, has remained inactive for the past four years. He also hired the first CTO to help imagine what a tech-savvy U.S. government might look like. As the Biden-Harris transition makes plans for January 20, many people in my networks are in turmoil, wondering who the next CTO might be.
My advice to the transition team is this: You need a VP of Engineering even more than a CTO.
To the non-geeks of the world, these two titles may seem meaningless or maybe even interchangeable. The roles and responsibilities associated with each are often mixed, especially in startups. But in more mature tech companies, they signal distinct skills and responsibilities. More importantly, they indicate different priorities. In their ideal embodiment, a CTO is a visionary, a thought leader, a great thinker. The right CTO sees how technology can fit seamlessly into a complex organization and sits in the C-suite to integrate it into strategy. A tech-savvy White House would have such a person help to imagine a technocratic government structure that could do great things. Yet a CTO is nothing more than a figurehead if the organizational infrastructure is dysfunctional. This can encourage organizations to innovate separately within a “CTO Office” rather than doing the hard work of integrating their technology and systems into the larger organization. As for the government, we have learned the hard way how easily an advanced technological effort exclusively inside the White House can be swept aside.
Within tech companies there is often a larger, but less visible, role when it comes to execution. In my experience, when a system is down, finding the right VP of Engineering is more essential than getting a top-level CTO. A vice president of engineering is a repairman, someone who looks at broken infrastructure with a debugger’s eye and recognizes the critical importance of running organizational and technical systems together. While CTOs are often public figures, VPs of Engineering tend to shy away from public attention, focusing most of their efforts on their team’s ability to innovate. They have technical qualities, but their superpower comes from their ability to manage large technical teams, understand the whole landscape, identify roadblocks and unblock them for their team to thrive. A VP of Engineering also understands that finding and nurturing the right talent is key to success, which is why they tend to spend extraordinary time recruiting, hiring, training, and mentoring.
When properly structured, the technical director faces outward while the vice president of engineering faces inward. They can and should be extraordinarily complementary roles. But while the Obama administration has invested in a CTO, built numerous programs to attract tech talent to the White House, and disseminated technicians across all agencies, it has never invested in identifying and fixing problems. underlying factors that prevent government agencies from successfully building and deploying technical systems. .
Of course, this is not a direct comparison: government works very differently from industry by design. And it is essential that those who seek to work on it – or criticize it – understand these disparities. As I listen to friends and peers in Silicon Valley talk about all the ways tech folks are heading east to “fix the government” in 2021, I have to admit that I cringe. In industry, our job is to serve customers. Our businesses may want more customers, but we have the luxury of focusing on those who have the money and want to use our tools. Government, on the other hand, must serve everyone. As a result, the vast majority of government resources are directed to solving the most difficult problems and offering universal solutions.