Tech's future at stake in 2016 presidential election, experts say


A group of former CIOs and senior IT executives in government said that this country's outdated IT infrastructure and seeming disinterest in true innovation are holding back the country in both the public and private sector.

They published a position paper, "Tech Iconoclasts – Voting for America's Success in a Network World," and spoke at an event in Washington, D.C., on Thursday. 

That paper, published by MeriTalk, a public-private partnership focused on government IT, outlined fundamental changes that would alter not just agency IT programs but the expectations citizens have for digital government services.

The eponymous Iconoclasts who worked on the paper – including big names in government IT like Alan Balutis, senior director of U.S. Public Sector for Cisco Systems and former CIO for the U.S. Commerce Department; Woody Hall, SVP for Operations, Health, and Civilian Solutions Division for General Dynamics; and Richard Spires, CEO of Learning Tree International – are a collection of former CIOs and senior IT executives in government who said that the system cannot be maintained as is. 

MeriTalk executive editor Dan Verton

The five goals of the group include rebuilding trust in government and institutions, simplifying and enhancing people's lives, reinventing government technology – including a complete shake up of aging infrastructure by 2020 called .usa2020 – advancing America's competitive edge, and evolving the workforce, with the latter two having the most direct effect on the private sector.

"Consider some of the biggest tech advances of 2014: the first landing on a comet, discovery of a new particle, development of the world's fastest supercomputer, and the germination of new plant technology and biology to feed the planet," said Dan Verton, executive editor for MeriTalk. "None of them had U.S. DNA."

There was a time when moon shot meant The Moon Shot – reaching the moon for the first time. Now, the word has been coopted by any visionary project, and the results have been coopted by other countries, according to Verton.

Innovation is most definitely a private sector undertaking, though the public sector creates the environment in which the entrepreneurs build, the leaders said. Right now, they said, the federal government is restricting the country's businesses with its unrefined approach to tech. Their paper offered some fixes:

  • Focus research and development investment to put more emphasis on the research than the development, since those are the roots of true innovation. Also move a portion of funding to rural America to build up that area of the country and incentivize U.S. companies to repatriate capital from overseas contingents on research investment. 
  • Change patent law to lapse patents that are not productized within five years in order to stop patent trolls and big-money interests that bully upstarts.
  • Reform immigration law to allow for double the amount of H-1B visas for tech jobs as well as applying a strict screening process. Also, retaining the talent that comes to the U.S. for college then is forced to return home after graduation. (This topic is not without its controversy.)

It's all anyone can do in IT to discuss employment in a general sense without uttering the words "skills gap." The government has it even worse as 70 percent of current science, technology, engineering and mathematics students have no interest in pursuing an IT career in the federal government, according to a MeriTalk report.

President Obama most recently highlighted the need for creative employment thinking in his proposed budget with the CyberCorps Reserve, a $62 million debt forgiveness and scholarship program for cybersecurity experts and graduates to serve the country. The Iconoclasts would take that a step further by offering debt forgiveness to any STEM employee who works a two-year "tour of duty" in the federal government and embracing alternative forms of education, like online courses and apprenticeships, for continuous education.

The group further said a serious social conversation needs to be had with the marginalized populations of the country to involve them in what will hopefully be a future tech-driven workforce.

At the outset of last year, Verton said just 17 percent of Fortune 500 CIOs were women, and only 6 percent of programmers were women. Meanwhile just five Fortune 500 CEOs were black. There are numerous reasons and potential solutions for the lack of diversity in corporate America, and the Iconoclasts think part of it involves altering the perception of success as early as childhood.

"[We should] identify heroes early on in every child's development -- both male and female inventors, business leaders, the people who make the technology kids use every day -- to drive students' interests in education and tech-related careers at an early age … Better role models who succeed on education, brains and hard work might help keep kids in school longer and drive them towards innovative career fields," Verton said.

For more:
- read the position paper "Tech Iconoclasts – Voting for America's Success in a Network World"

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