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A CTO manifesto

Shutterstock image: digital technology.

Some may say we’re biased, but we have always considered the role of chief technology officer as one of the most interesting and challenging positions in any organization that utilizes IT to operate as efficiently and effectively as possible. It’s a role that allows one to identify technology trends that can boost productivity and innovation, and to define tactical, long-term strategies for the success across organizations.

It is not an overstatement to say that the role of the CTO is more important today than ever, both in private enterprise and in government. This is because technology is defining our future, and is absolutely essential to the functions and operations of every organization.

While the CTO's job description and responsibilities vary depending on the organization, there are some important common denominators. Developing new technologies, or integrating recent innovations into existing systems and processes, is a key aspect of how we help an organization to improve operations, efficiency and service delivery. Perhaps the most overlooked aspect of the CTO's role, however, is that we are charged with understanding trends and innovations related to a wide variety of technologies and determining how they may affect an organization, customers (or citizens), and future operations.

Because CTOs and their teams are focused on new technologies, sometimes referred to as the “bleeding edge” of innovation, CTOs are often the first to spot and understand emerging trends and inflection points that can determine long-term organizational strategy. By doing so, we are helping our organization chart a course for the future, even as we design and implement strategies and technologies that can help save money in the present -- and improve efficiency and the delivery of essential services in the process.

One of the greatest obstacles faced by CTOs in both the public and private sectors is the old "if it ain't broke, don’t fix it?" mentality. This way of thinking, which is often simply the fear of change or a bad case of organizational inertia, is a serious problem for both the organization and the CTO.

Of course, the private sector has traditionally been more proficient at embracing the recommendations of its CTOs, but today many government CTOs are recognizing that this paradigm is shifting. This is a result in part of external influences beyond our control, such as increased domestic and international security threats, decreased budgets, and the constant call to "do more with less" -- all of which increase pressures to deliver productivity, efficiency and cost savings through IT. 

Public-sector CTOs, like their peers in the private sector, are increasingly being called upon to help improve their organizations by identifying trends and innovations, then adapting to address or take advantage of them in ways that benefit the organization, the mission and the people it serves — as well as the taxpayers who pay for it all.

Integrating new technologies into existing infrastructure and demonstrating the positive outcomes on operational efficiency is a core part of the job of any CTO. Recently, however, a number of technological advancements and trends have simultaneously created both problems and solutions for government CTOs in particular, demonstrating the crucial need for an analytical outlook and a focus on innovation:

  • Big Data: The improvement in server technology and virtualization has provided previously unimaginable solutions for processing large amounts of structured and unstructured data. This has changed the federal government’s approach to data management, and put departmental CTOs at the forefront of developing processes for different agencies and organizations to access, share and disseminate information.
  • Security: Protecting sensitive government data, facilities and assets is essential to a number of key government programs, ranging from financial and healthcare data to national security. CTOs, working with CIOs and other key officials, play an essential role in the fight against hackers, cyber terrorists and rogue disruptor groups that are attacking U.S. IT infrastructure.
  • Visual Computing: Graphics and video technologies are delivering unprecedented productivity and efficiency improvements for organizations. From improving collaboration and product development, immersive simulators for education and training, to reducing costs for travel or other operations, these technologies are improving the top and bottom lines of organizations in the public and private sectors. CTOs know and understand these trends as well as the latest innovations and are helping organizations to take advantage by integrating them into their operations.
  • BYOD: The emergence of the ‘bring your own device’ culture has had an unprecedented impact on the role of the CTO, changing it beyond all recognition. Previously, their remit was confined to the office. Now CTOs must consider how stakeholders can utilize technology from anywhere in the world, at any time. Security is the biggest factor for government-related BYOD, which is why innovation is so important.
  • Energy Efficiency: The explosion in the number of computing devices and digital content combined with the growing demand for energy makes energy efficiency more important now than ever. Government should be able to contribute equally to the energy efficiency trend.

The importance of the CTO to driving innovation and improvement is fully embraced in the private sector, and increasingly public sector agencies are recognizing the immense value and perspective CTOs bring to the management table. The next step is for the federal government to follow the example set in the private sector and more fully utilize the expertise of their CTOs and their teams. This means CTOs must be empowered within their organizations to work hand-in-hand with CEOs/agency heads, CIOs, acquisitions officials and line workers to ensure that the most effective and efficient solutions are designed, implemented and maintained.

From our experiences, we have seen the most positive results when we’ve liaised with our private industry counterparts to leverage best practices, exchange knowledge and share processes that can be transferred into the public sector.

About the Authors

Wolf Tombe is chief technology officer for Customs and Border Protection in the Department of Homeland Security.

Mark Papermaster is senior vice president and CTO at AMD.

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