New Zealand’s First CTO: How to Turn Recruitment into a Dog’s Breakfast

Author: Scott Duncan

When the government announced that they were advertising for New Zealand’s first Chief Technology Officer, I was excited. Here was a chance for New Zealand to take control of what the future of our technology space was going to look like.

Unfortunately, the entire process has been an absolute dog’s breakfast. From articles from applicants that detail just how incompetent the process was, to the release of messages between the successfully-appointed (then unceremoniously-dumped) CTO Derek Handley by Jacinda Ardern, it’s apparent that the whole thing is just an embarrassment all round. The failure of the process comes down to how the role was defined (or not defined) in the first place, along with its recruitment strategy – which looks like it didn’t exist.

The problem started with the definition of the role. When Vend’s Vaughan Rowsell applied for the job, the job description was so vague he didn’t know what he was actually applying for. To him it was apparent that the government didn’t know what they were looking for, so when he didn’t get the role he was a bit relieved. When Dan Khan applied for the role, he heard nothing for three weeks. One Thursday afternoon he received the news that he’d made it through to the next round, but was given just one working day to supply some seriously big answers to some even bigger questions in both written and video form. When he didn’t get the role, he received no feedback and realised at the end of the process that he’d never spoken to a human throughout. Rowsell and Khan’s experiences pale in comparison to Derek Handley’s. Handley was formally offered the CTO role on August 10th. Already planning to move home to New Zealand if he knew there was a job waiting for him, he relocated his family from New York on September 9th. Three days later he was told that the role was being ‘rethought’ and it was no longer his.

Handley was offered a $100,000 settlement payment plus expenses (which he has since donated to the Spark Foundation) and finally received an apology from Digital Services Minister Megan Woods on September 25th. It’s unclear if Handley has been given an explanation about why the process went so pear-shaped, but “clearly this was a process that got incredibly messy” (thanks, Megan Woods).

Given that the tech sector is New Zealand’s third-largest money earner, the role of CTO makes perfect sense. Yet no one in Parliament seems to understand what the role should look like, why they need it, or indeed anything about the tech industry (epitomised by this screenshot inviting applicants to send their application in via snail mail … because if they can’t figure out how to do it electronically, did they really deserve the role as New Zealand’s CTO?).

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While a great idea, the very idea of a national CTO is now ridiculed by much of the tech community. Why? Because the government made such an amateur attempt at constructing a recruitment process for an industry they have no idea about.

It all comes back to Recruitment 101:

1. Clearly define the role, responsibilities and expected outcomes, along with background skills, competencies and experience required;

2. Invest the appropriate level of resources to the process, engage expert support and design a process that makes sense;

3. Communicate, communicate, communicate! Judging by the various accounts I’ve read, candidates had a terrible experience. They weren’t treated with respect, dignity or appreciation, and as a result the government disengaged some of the most experienced and valuable members of the tech community.


postscript – sorry for the rather glum final note on this blog, perhaps to lighten the mood you might want to check out this tongue in cheek offering from Mike “MOD” O’Donnell on the whole sorry fiasco.