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Becoming New Zealand's first CTO is quite the job - and here's why

Justin Tomlinson, a former corporate CTO, is the founder of Delivery Craft, a digital consultancy and advisory company that helped the re-launch of Pottermore, the digital heart of the Wizarding World created by J.K. Rowling.  Here, he questions why New Zealand isn't leading the world in agritech R&D and in all fields where our market size, but physical space, represent an advantage, like energy, food and infrastructure, as well as whether appointing one person as CTO to tackle all this is the right solution.

I've kept right away from this topic, but I might be one of the few people in the country who's actually qualified. Here are some observations on New Zealand's search for its first CTO:

  • Anyone "big enough" from technology industry probably won't want the job. The spec reads like an impossibility wrapped in vagueness on what constitutes successful outcomes. The structure is a mess, with a now outgoing chief digital officer (CDO) and an incoming chief technology officer (CTO). There are other confusing roles in the mix too. I suggest get the story totally straight on who does what. 'A national architecture and roadmap' just smacks of assumption and ignorance of what's needed. This job is hard enough in corporate. In government, god help them.
     
  • The moment anyone is appointed, they will be classed as "totally wrong for it" by a whole bunch of sideline 'experts'. Critically though, why do we think appointing someone as a CTO is the right solution anyway? Where's the truly successful precedent for that? Does anyone know who Megan Smith is or what she has achieved or what the two previous incumbents ended up doing. Clue: rescue failing government IT projects. Sound appealing?
     
  • Derek (who is rumoured to have been appointed) isn't someone I know. So I'll mostly stay away from that. I have friends who speak highly of him and I have watched some of his stuff online. I was impressed by the focus on people and his EQ. That said, I do know that in any modern CTO role, you've gotta know a lot about a lot. This includes, one would hope, demonstrable industry delivery of world class digital services, products at real scale as well as knowledge on infrastructure, security and data in depth. Oh yeah, and everything else: SaaS, Open source, IOT, Blockchain, AI, ML, autonomous, robotic and wearables. Simple, huh?
     
  • New Zealand is genuinely behind on execution horsepower in these areas, in modern delivery approaches and deep expertise in T-shaped people. Enterprise software is wrongly rife here and the big consulting firms have way too much their own way. So if this person that takes on the CTO role had one job, I'd say it was: work to produce policy and conditions that encourage world-class talent (not middle management) but doers and knowledge workers to these fine shores because sadly, without them, the rest is more hubris about innovation and strategy, and absolutely no execution chops. The best delivery people here are likely more motivated by commercial success in the private sector than social good in public.

Beyond that one thing, R&D spend and resources would also be a major focus for me, as well as the means to encourage foreign investment. We simply aren't leading the world where we should be in agritech R&D and in all fields where our market size, but physical space, represent an advantage. I'm thinking energy, food, infrastructure, transport, logistics and the future of money.

Our handful of companies who have managed to grow outside New Zealand are amazing and admirable but not a cogent argument that we 'punch above our weight'. If you want to see that in tech, we can take a look at what Israel has achieved and maybe learn from their model.

Anyone appointed will need some serious help, and that's how I am sure this will have to be set up. I'd avoid massive programmes that are doomed to fail and multi-year road maps that are out of date before the printer ink dries, and split the work into where the big value and risk is and mobilise around that. It can be done, but I'm skeptical that we may just be setting one good person up to fail.

I wish them the very best. Really though. This needs a rethink in my humble opinion. If you've already accepted it, Derek, sorry!

This piece was originally published on LinkedIn.

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