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Why we can't let the failed CTO appointment get in the way of New Zealand's future

Vend founder Vaughan Rowsell put his hat in the ring to be New Zealand's first CTO in the initial call for applicants and got as far as being reference checked, before hearing the government was going back to the drawing board. Now, after appointing Derek Handley as CTO, the government has rescinded Handley's appointment and is back to square one. Where to from here? Rowsell says the answer is not 'do nothing', as the future of New Zealand's tech industry is far too important. Here, he shares what he thinks went wrong, and what the government – as well as the technology industry – can do to move forward, following the botched process. 

I am often a judge for hacker startup business idea pitch type events, where you get a hundred interesting people together to pitch their amazing visions and then I do my best with other judges to pick a single winner. It’s hard and I always say it’s a great way to make one very excited new friend and 100 new enemies. The way the process was run for the Government CTO role was like that, except there was no excited winner. The process was not run well and it ended up alienating 100 or more of our best and brightest in the tech industry, making it tough for a successful candidate to work with us as an industry when we are all hyper-analytical and nitpicky on a good day.

I had firsthand experience with the process as I threw my name in the hat on the first round. I did interviews, met ministers and got as far as the reference check phone calls before being informed they were having a wee bit of a rethink. I was told about the plan to go back to the drawing board five minutes before the press release was issued about going back to the drawing board. I was a bit miffed, mostly wondering what my references said, and did they realise I know where they live? I honestly wasn’t 100 percent sure how I would fit it all in any way with an already unbalanced portfolio of life and ventures, so I was a little bit relieved. But the process did make me wonder how they would make it work, even if they found the right person.

The role was so vague no one was really sure what they would be doing in it unless of course, the role was to be vague and do not much but talk a lot about the future. I probably could have been good at that – but if that was the plan, then I think we saw a pretty strong reaction to the idea of the role being that from the industry a few weeks back. Otherwise, it seemed apparent they didn’t know what they were looking for. Probably because perfection in this role doesn’t exist, and the tech community doesn't accept anything less than perfect. Perhaps it didn’t matter who they chose, the process set them up to fail.

So what do we do next? The 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. Knowing a few of the others who were in the running right up to the final round of the first attempt, I joked at the time that we should all just job share it.

We were all so very different with unique skills that together we would make the role incredibly successful in a Voltron kind of way, and besides, we were all really busy anyway. I was half joking but now I wonder if that wouldn’t actually be a bad idea. What if we got together a small group: a connector, a storyteller, a strategist and someone who knows how to work a political gearstick?

Between them, they can spread the load, inform within government, align industry outside with a far greater network and inspire New Zealanders on the street about the digital future and the opportunity ahead for us all. As a bonus, they don’t need to all be middle-aged white guys either, and the double bonus, is there is already a group that has been pulled together in February this year to do a similar thing called the Digital Economy and Digital Inclusion Ministerial Advisory Group, and it is already full of awesome people. So perhaps we give them the $400,000 left over from the CTO role as extra budget and let them go at it?

Otherwise, they could also re-frame the role as chief technology advisor or something different and shoulder tap the best person into the role by running a very different and deliberate process. I am pretty sure there are executive recruiters who are good at that.

But doing nothing is not an option if we want to position New Zealand as the best place to make the most of a rapidly changing world out there.

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