Within an hour of the announcement yesterday that John Thompson plans to retire as Symantec CEO next April, speculation on Thompson’s next move began in earnest. After 10 years at the reins of Symantec, Thompson, 59, is still young enough to take on another challenge if he so chooses. But he’s also wealthy enough that he never needs to work another day in his life. As he told the San Jose Mercury News in an interview yesterday, “The only thing I have in mind is a chaise lounge on the beach, and a mai tai. My personal aspirations are just to relax and spend more time with my family.”
That may be so, but plenty of other people believe that Thompson may be preparing himself for a role in Barack Obama’s administration. Thompson was a vocal supporter of Obama’s during the campaign and Obama has said that he plans to create a national CTO position once he’s in office. Sources close to me say that could be a nice fit for Thompson. In addition to his experience running Symantec and growing it from a consumer AV company to a massive enterprise security and data storage firm, Thompson spent a large chunk of his career at IBM, where he learned the Big Blue management style which has served generations of executives well. He also knows his way around Washington fairly well, having served on the National Infrastructure Advisory Committee during President Bush’s first term.
But the real question is, what’s the upside for Thompson? The national CTO job could be a good platform from which he could have a real effect on the way technology is used in this country. Thompson has plenty of allies in Silicon Valley and the wider business world and he’d be able to open some doors and potentially change what so far has been a sad record on information security inside the Beltway. But the downside is just as big. Plenty of former CEOs and executives have gone to Washington thinking they’d shake things up and make the government work for them, and it just doesn’t happen. The federal government is a unique animal that does not respond well to outsiders with their fancy “real-world experience” and “track records.” It can be a maddeningly illogical environment for a seasoned executive to work in.
But then again, Thompson has shown a willingness in the past to do the unexpected (see: Veritas acquisition), so maybe he has one more trick up his sleeve. He’s supposed to be staying at Symantec until April, and Obama would probably like to have his cabinet and senior advisers in place before that, so we’ll just have to see what the next couple of months bring.