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Industry figures weigh in on Derek Handley being ousted as New Zealand’s first CTO

Industry figures weigh in on Derek Handley being ousted as New Zealand’s first CTO
Derek Handley

Following a long and convoluted process, Derek Handley has today announced in a LinkedIn post the government will no longer be hiring him to be New Zealand's next chief technology officer. We reached out to a few industry players and asked what their reaction was to the strange twist in this saga, as well as what they think should happen next.

In the post, Handley said he was offered the role of CTO a month ago by the government and was deeply grateful, uprooting his family from their New York home to relocate to Auckland for the new opportunity, but earlier this week he was informed that he no longer had the job.

“However, given the unnecessary and sustained lack of transparency around the process and building pressure to rethink the approach, their decision to stop the process is understandable,” he said.

As has been hotly reported on in the media, Handley has been offered a settlement payment of three month’s pay, which digital services manager Megan Woods confirmed is a figure above $100,000.

However, Handley said in his post he had decided to not keep the money, and is instead donating it towards a fund to support ideas, programmes and grants to tackle digital inequality in “creative ways”.

He also called for New Zealanders to behave in a kinder, more inclusive and open-minded way, following backlash to his appointment on social media from members of the New Zealand tech community.

Minister for Government Digital Services Megan Woods said the government had put a full stop to the process of finding a CTO as of today.

"What's clear is that we need to step back and have a good look at the role and see how it fits in with the other work being done in the digital transformation space,” she said.

"Derek Handley was offered the role and we are honouring the agreement we had with him. This decision in no way reflects on him as a candidate and the State Services Commission review shows that the process was suitably robust.”

So after all of the fuss of the past month, New Zealand still doesn’t have a CTO. Where to from here?

An industry figure close to the process who didn’t want to be named said they hoped the debacle surrounding Handley and ex-minister Clare Curran’s off-the-books meetings didn’t get in the way of ensuring New Zealand is adapting to a changing world.

“The right person with the trust and respect of the private and public sectors could make it work, working as a partner to others. It’s a shame that the extremely arduous – and I’m sure expensive – process ended in such a farce.”

We reached out to several figures in the technology industry to gauge their thoughts on the matter, as well as what should happen next.

Method managing director Sam Ramlu says she’s feeling for Handley right now, as it’s a situation that could’ve been entirely avoided.

“It’s an important role so it has to have the right person in it, but tech also covers a lot of functions, so I think it’s difficult to choose one person who would be perfect for it. I know a few people who would be so right for the role but they’re all busy running their own companies,” she says.

“However, I feel like that’s the sort of person who would excel at this: a successful leader with current and relevant experience, while also being visionary and having a holistic view. This feels bigger than one person to me. You definitely need a leader with vision, but the team around this person is really important – there’s just too many aspects for one person to cover. 

“I believe, as a country, we truly can be leading digital, tech, and gaming but as an owner of a creative tech company myself, we need the wider support of government behind this to really get it to the next level. The industry needs more than just a champion – we need someone who can effect change and really transform our digital landscape.”

ZeroPoint Ventures co-founder and CEO Dan Khan, who also put himself forward for the role, says it was sad to read Handley’s article, as he believes Handley did have the best intentions at heart, despite the process letting him and others down.

“I still stand by my comments around this being a critical time for leadership, to lead a vision and roadmap for how we get there. There's a role for a strong leader here to lead this work, whether that's a CTO or someone leading a consortium of people. Design by committee is not going to get us there, in my opinion,” Khan says. 

“The worst thing that can happen now is this all gets swept under the carpet, or put in the too hard basket and we move along. There must have been over 100 qualified people who passionately put in applications like mine, for the good of New Zealand, to change the future direction of this country. 

“How can we be more open, and transparent about solving that together, and using those people as the starting point? I don't know the right solution for what's next, as it feels there's a political dilemma for government to solve. The work to be done is clear, as I outlined in my article. How that is achieved now, unfortunately, is at the hands of politicians, not the public.”

Vend founder and vice chair of the Hi Tech Awards Vaughan Rowsell said in terms of what the country does next, the correct answer is not ‘nothing’.

“Developing the strategy for New Zealand's future driven by technology is too important to just throw our hands up in the air,” he said.

Instead of lumping all the responsibility on one person, he said the government could look to gather a group of change makers, such a storyteller, a strategist and someone who has political chops.

Otherwise, he said the role could be re-framed (such as chief technology advisor) and a very different and deliberate hiring process could take place to find the right person. Read his full piece on why we can't let the failed CTO appointment get in the way of New Zealand's future here.

For now, the tech industry will have to wait with bated breath for the government’s next move.

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