CTO wish list

Executives go on a fantasy holiday spending spree

In a cruel gesture only a grinch could love, InfoWorld went to CTOs of major enterprises with checks that would bounce from here to the North Pole. We wanted to know how they would spend a fictional financial windfall of varying amounts: $10,000, $50,000, $250,000, and $500,000.

We found four CTOs willing to humor us, so we put their names into the proverbial hat (in this case, a plastic bag from the supermarket). The original plan would have designated a single amount to each CTO based on the luck of the draw, but because scheming about ways to spend these bogus checks turned out to be so much fun, we ended up giving them lots of flexibility. It’s the season of giving, after all.

Each CTO came up with a number of ways to splurge, but there were some common interests across the board. Open source development projects, education, and staff appreciation made it onto all of their wish lists. No Scrooges here. All would use at least part of their checks to give back to the people who’d helped make them and their companies successful.

Paul Cormier
Executive vice president of engineering
Red Hat
Snagging the smallest check from the financial grab bag, Paul Cormier, with a slightly boggled brain from a major case of jet-lag, has a tough time figuring out a creative, cool, or practical way to spend $10,000 that would get him even one step closer to world domination of open source development.

After careful consideration, however, Cormier decides the best thing would be to blow the entire check in one grand, frivolous gesture.

“I’d throw a big, all-weekend-long party for all the Red Hat open source engineers, who continue to astound me and the entire world with the talent and productivity they invest in bringing the open source technologies to the enterprise,” Cormier says.

Had his check been more generous, Cormier would have spent it on education -- not for his staff but for all the future software programmers and heads of industry.

“With a spare $50,000 to $500,000, I would fund bandwidth, software donations, and teacher training in the K-12 public school systems all across the U.S. to give kids access to the best open source software systems,” Cormier says. “The goal would be for every student in the country to have hands-on access to Linux, the ideas behind open source development, and all the great opportunities that come along with it.”

He insists this wouldn’t be a sinister plan to get future generations hooked on his company’s product. Rather, he believes kids would get a better technical education working with open source operating systems and programs because they’d have full access to the programming code and could tinker with it to their little hearts’ content.

Given unlimited financial resources -- an option he comes up with all on his own -- Cormier says he’d use the money to attack an issue that has been the center of heated discussion in the open source development community.

“If I didn’t have to worry about funding, I would work with the top universities and open source community to develop a truly open source alternative to either Sun’s Java or Microsoft’s .Net,” says Cormier, who figures that would be a holiday gift that would keep on giving.

He’d also siphon off a bit to host the occasional weekend-long revelry, but not during the holiday season when he figures most people are too stressed to really have fun.

Don Kosak
Vice president of technology
Lycos
The luck of the draw hands the biggest check to our only CTO who actually loves the winter holidays. Given his fondness for the season of giving, it makes sense that he would spend his $500,000 check on sponsoring an open source project.

“Lycos has some great internally developed software I’m really proud of. We have content management tools, reporting tools, community tools, and the Lycos search software itself. Any one of these would make a great open source project,” Kosak says.

“Lycos is a heavy user of open source software like Linux, Apache, PERL, and PHP,” Kosak says. “Some of our engineers have given back to the community on their own time by contributing to these projects. It would suit the holiday tradition to give ... by releasing the source of one of our technologies.”

If Kosak had gotten the $250,000 check, he would spend it on fostering a collaborative project, but financial constraints would probably force him to keep it in house.

“Lycos is a very collaborative company. We like to meet together and hash out ideas. I would use the $250,000 to create a really great “commons” area,” Kosak says. “I’d outfit it with Wi-Fi, an unending supply of great coffee … and lots of comfortable furniture. It would have a nice, big, central area plus plenty of little private nooks where small groups could have power meetings about the next great idea.”

And what about $10,000? Would that be anything more than a stocking-stuffer?

“We’re knowledge workers here, and do our best work with the freshest information. So I’d use the $10,000 to bring in a few knowledgeable high-tech speakers on topics like grid computing, emerging Web service architectures, agile software development, or other interesting topics.”

With $50,000, Kosak would give each member of the Lycos IT staff his or her own personal, portable reference library. Clearly, this is a generous man.

“We’re big fans of the O’Reilly technical books, and $50,000 would be just enough to buy a few sets of the O’Reilly CD-ROM Bookshelf collections, which typically have seven or eight full books on each disc that cover everything from programming languages to [OSes], for each member of the Lycos tech department.”

“But, as with any gift, the wrapping is half the fun. So I’d load each set onto an Apple iPod.”

RaelDornfest
CTO
O’Reilly Media
As a kid, Rael Dornfest was probably a handful around the holidays. He would have been the one demanding a pony or a spaceship.

When asked what he’d do with a spare $250,000, Dornfest replies, “I don’t want anything. Because all the things that I really want won’t be available for at least two years.”

What? No heavy-duty hardware, beefed-up security devices, not even a batch of BlackBerries for the nice folks at O’Reilly? Nope, Dornfest says, pointing out that his job is all about the future. Unlike many CTOs, Dornfest isn’t expected to purchase and deploy everyday business solutions; he’s responsible for investigating emerging technology.

“So I’d use the check to research promising new ideas, no doubt to the dismay of our systems administrators who’d absolutely spend their checks on far more tangible purchases. Happily, ‘practical implementations’ is not part of my job description,” says Dornfest, who is also program chair of the O’Reilly Emerging Technology Conference.

“But I wouldn’t be totally frivolous,” Dornfest adds. “First I’d try to find or encourage the development of a truly holistic application that would sync all data and devices across the enterprise, for both our mobile and in-house workers. I’d also explore whether some of our applications -- like content and contact management and certainly project management programs -- could be better replaced by Weblogs and Wikis.”

Dornfest would also use some of the money to conduct a year-long evaluation of prototype mobile devices. “Desktop computers are living on borrowed time. They’ll all be wiped off the face of the planet in two years,” he says. “Mobility and ubiquitous computing are where we’re heading now.”

He would also spend time and money looking into alternate ways to enable e-commerce.

“I’m especially interested in what you might call ‘syndicated e-commerce,’ building Web sites that hook into other companies’ APIs,” Dornfest says. “eBay, PayPal, and Amazon already offer APIs that extend functionality from their business and into other businesses’ applications and servers. Openness always breeds innovation, and innovation always generates sales -- so Web services are here to stay.”

However, he wouldn’t use any of that cash to deck the halls.

Dave Simon
Information Technology Director
Sierra Club
Dave Simon likes Thanksgiving … “but the other holidays … OK. Honestly, I much prefer summertime.”

When asked what he’d buy with $50,000, Simon says that, at risk of being a greedy grinch, he would much rather receive a $50,000 check every year.

“An annual annuity to spend as I choose would make a noticeable difference for the Sierra Club’s systems, but one $50,000 check would just help to address some of my passing fancies,” Simon says.

Still, he could find use for that single check. First he’d hire “a great Java programmer” as a contractor for four to six months. “I’d have that programmer fix all the nagging little problems that drive me nuts,” Simon says.

“While many of our Web site functions are totally integrated with our core CRM system, I would like to integrate the functions that are not assimilated. We also have some vendor interfaces that could be moved to Web services to be more efficient. And we have some legacy systems that are meeting business needs but are running on obsolete system software that could be rewritten in order to support fewer technical architectures.”

Simon would also fund a complete security evaluation of the Sierra Club’s information systems and networks, but he’d hire only a firm that could fix whatever problems they might find. “It’s useless to me to hire a company that would just give me a list of issues. I don’t want a second opinion, I want action.”

He’d also hand out bonuses. “People are all that really matters. I guess you can tell I’m a squishy leftist type?” (Let’s just say we weren’t surprised to learn that Simon spent two years in the Peace Corps in Cameroon working with farming cooperatives.)

Had he been given a check with more zeroes, Simon would “invest a large chunk of the money into developing a holistic support and security system for our mobile and remote workers.”

“Sierra Club has 500 employees in 40 locations,” Simon says. “I would like to set up VPNs, individual firewalls, spam and spyware filtering software, and everything else necessary to empower and protect our workers -- enable them to do the work they need to do without worrying about security issues.”

And how about $10,000? After a pause, he says he’d just have some fun.

“I’d give out some little bonuses, and then maybe buy some cool geek trinkets for the staff to share.”

Copyright © 2004 IDG Communications, Inc.

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