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Untangling the NZ CTO

Jay Daley, Contributor. 31 August 2018, 12:45 pm
Untangling the NZ CTO

As we approach the announcement of the inaugural NZ CTO I've seen a few lengthy comments about the nature role and what it needs to do that are quite different from what I thought this role was all about. So I thought it would be useful to give a different perspective that's perhaps a bit broader and with a more positive vision. And in case you're wondering, no I didn't apply for the job, for either round, and this is not a late pitch for the job.

Before I get to the vision, let's first tackle the big issue with the NZ CTO - the role is misnamed, which may be the cause of much confusion. The NZ CTO is set up as a one-person ministerial advisory committee just like the Chief Science Advisor and so should really be called the Chief Technology Advisor. Including 'Officer' in the title implies it has some authority for government IT, which is certainly does not have, nor should it. 

That supervisory role over government IT is already taken by the Government Chief Digital Officer (GCDO), previously the Government Chief Information Officer, which is currently Colin MacDonald. Until recently he was also the CEO of the Department of Internal Affairs (DIA) and it's not clear if the new DIA CEO will take over as GCDO or if he will stay on. Anyway, whoever it is, they're the professional civil servant responsible for preventing big government IT disasters, upskilling public sector employees, transforming government services and managing government acronyms. None of that is the role of the NZ CTO.

Before I get to what the role of the NZ CTO actually should be, it's useful to have a vision of where we want to get to.

Imagine watching the TV news one day and instead of hearing "government gives important trade concessions to win the dairy industry access to US markets" we hear "government stands firm on CPTPP intellectual property clauses to protect NZ tech sector". That would mean an important cultural change had occurred, with tech being recognised as a single industry sector that's important to the country, and something that has to be nurtured and protected as key to our future. I'm sure politicians would all agree with that if asked, but it's far from being culturally embedded in the same way as the dairy industry is part of our national psyche. For example, how many politicians, or anyone else for that matter, would know that the tech sector is bigger than both tourism and dairy as a contributor to GDP? (See p28 of this report from NZTech). Further sources: Tourism and Tech )

The NZ CTO is going to be key to making this happen because the tech sector is a long way from being cohesive even to those working in tech. To do this the NZ CTO has to a good communicator who can travel the country visiting the full diversity of tech businesses, listen to their concerns, synthesise those into a single sector position and then develop a vision for the sector that they can all sign up to. 

The tech sector in NZ is primarily known for a bunch of high-profile local companies and the local branches of multinationals, but these are just a tiny percentage of the 20,000+ tech sector firms. If Twitter was a guide then the tech sector would appear to be a few hundred people of similar views on most issues, when it is over 100,000 people in firms as diverse as the Petone manufacturer of advanced timing kit with custom embedded real-time software to the Albany developer of ICU systems written with Delphi.

The NZ CTO needs to embrace this diversity and make sure the full range of views are understood and represented. We need a national conversation about tech that brings this sector together and the NZ CTO has to work directly with those who work in the sector and with the various bodies such as NZTech, IT Professionals NZ, NZRise, InternetNZ and TUANZ to make this happen. That way at least the advisor can advise from the perspective of the whole sector.

If I were to guess what issues would emerge in common then I would say that near the top of the list would be ensuring that we have a steady stream of appropriately skilled people, representing the full diversity of society, entering the tech workforce. The NZ CTO needs to be advising at every step of this journey - from how kids are taught at school to the way they get their first jobs to the development and growth of their tech careers. A national plan for the tech workforce would be a huge step forward.

Another strategic concern that I expect will emerge is our dependence on overseas infrastructure and tools - a one-way channel of funds out of the country that would otherwise be used to build local capability and ideas. A strategic risk assessment for the tech sector, looking at these dependencies, should give us real transparency on the strengths and weaknesses of our current position and let the NZ CTO point to those NZ innovators that are leading the charge to address our weaknesses. In addition, the NZ CTO must not be scared of wading into the debate about the ethics of large overseas tech companies and what regulation we require to keep them on the straight and narrow. 

On a more urgent note, the NZ CTO needs to be pushing hard for the NZ tech sector to build cyber-fortress NZ, promoting security training, a culture of security audit and reporting and a vibrant hacker community. We are horribly exposed as a country and as the normal tyranny of distance doesn't apply to cyberspace we are living on borrowed time. This transformation is already coming from the tech sector, but it needs organising, resourcing and a sense of urgency injected into the process.

Like many others, I'm worried the NZ CTO will be a vacuous futurist who makes grand predictions about how tech will transform society tomorrow instead of the more useful futurism of helping people understand how tech is already transforming society today. That means making it real by pointing to the NZ innovators that are already doing ground breaking things, which the NZ CTO can only point to if they get out and find out about all these little firms and initiatives. We don't need an NZ CTO to go to Silicon Valley and then come back and preach the latest trends - we can all read, we all have access to the Internet and US innovators are not exactly shy in telling the rest of the world what they're up to.

Yes, the digital divide is a huge issue for NZ and the NZ CTO needs to advise on that and showcase those parts of the tech sector doing their best to close the divide, but solving this problem goes way beyond the tech sector and nobody should mistake the NZ CTO for a minister, because it's ministers more than anyone who need to take ownership and fix that.

In summary, the NZ CTO needs to be deeply connected to the grass roots of the tech sector, using those connections to develop strategic plans - a forward-looking national tech architecture that has solid buy-in across the whole sector and which brings the tech sector together. As this architecture is built and delivered, the NZ CTO needs to keep talking to government and other stakeholders, giving them sound and credible advice and keeping them in the loop so that they recognise the tech sector is taking a big step up and give it their full support.

This post originally appeared on LinkedIn. Reproduced with permission.


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