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  •   Shannon Henry's The Download:
    Live Discussion With Guest Don Upson
    Shannon Henry
    Shannon Henry

    Thursday, January 21, 1999

    Welcome to the third live discussion with TechThursday columnist Shannon Henry. Henry's column, The Download, is a look at the latest deals, hires, and business strategies in the region's technology community. The discussion will feature guests making waves in the local tech scene.

    Don Upson
    Don Upson

    This week's guest is Don Upson, Virginia's first secretary of technology. Upson was appointed to the post by the newly elected Governor Gilmore last May. He left a vice presidency at Litton/PRC to head the new 380-person Department of Technology, which commands a budget of $96.5 million.

    As secretary, Upson plans to focus on assessing government use of technology and promoting Virginia as a high-tech business center, but he sees a challenge in the state's shortage of technical workers. Prior to working for Litton, Upson was a senior Republican aide to the House Government Operations Committee.

    Henry was live with Upson on Thursday, January 21. The transcript of the discussion follows.

    Shannon Henry: Hello, everyone. Today's guest is Don Upson, Virginia's secretary of technology. It's your chance to ask him how technology policy happens and what's new with Virginia tech businesses. Keep those questions coming!

    Gaithersburg, MD: Do other states – such as California and Washington where the tech ratio is high – have Tech Secretaries? Is your position modeled after one that's been particularly successful in other states?

    Don Upson: No other state actually has a cabinet-level Secretary. Three states have CIOs that report to the Governor for internal infrastructure management. The unique opportunity this position offers is that it combines internal infrastructure management responsibility over Virginia's computing and communications environment with policy responsibility to create a technology-friendly business environment. This allows us to develop initiatives tolink universities, community colleges with our tech business community and to engage the business community in specific and focused initiatives, for which we have four.

    Shannon Henry: Can you tell us a bit about what was accomplished at the Virginia Internet Summit you held in Williamsburg last month?

    Don Upson: Two things, really. First, the only comprehensive Internet policy of any government entity was proposed. It is one that encourages a positive government role and not one that begins with usual notions of regulation and taxation. It seeks as its primarly objective, which runs through all recommended provisions, to preserve and ensure the integrity of the network. Second, the process by which the prdoduct was achieved a new approach toward policy development in the Information Age. Governor Gilmore believes that elected officials especially find it difficult to keep pace with the change the Intenet and IT generally are bringing to society. Virginia's Internet policy was developed by a process that brought together stakeholders in business and government. They put this policy together, and in so doing, brought consensus with the policy's development. Both the product and process are important. And, of course, the entire exercise - the first of four for the governor's Commission on Information Technology - helps us in our objective of putting Virginia's reputation where its reality is, that of a world technology leader. Again, few people outside Virginia recognize that the Commmonwealth is home to perhaps the highest concentration of Internet companies anywhere.

    Fairfax, VA: Most of the economic development incentives used to attract and retain companies in VA are geared toward traditional manufacturers. Do you see the need for incentives targeting the unique needs of technology companies?

    Don Upson: Absolutely. In fact, of the four specific initiatives charged to the Governor's commission on Information Technology, I recognize, and the Governor recognizes, that the one on business environment is critical. Again, the stakeholder-driven Commission process will, when that issue is addressed, give Governor Gilmore and the legislature the perspective on exactly what should be done with our tax and regulatory structure from the point of view of those we are atrempting to attract. And, just as with the Internet policy, we hope the product not only reflects appropriate points of view, but comes with a buit-in consensus from the stakeholders. Process used for development of policy is, in our view, as important as the product in the Information Age. If we don't include the stakeholders, the product may never become viable or reflect the intended objective.

    Shannon Henry: Now that you have introduced the Internet policy proposal, what happens next?

    Don Upson: The Washington Post actually asked an appropriate question in its editorial – what is the role of a single state in setting policy for a medium that knows no boudaries. That is something we have to prove, but our objective is this: government will play a role in the Internet. We wanted to build on the White House framework put forward by Ira Magaziner and actually develop a comprehensive policy. We want that policy to serve as a model for other governments – state and Federal. Governor Gilmore is sending our policy to all Members of Congress, Goernors and key state legislators. He is talking to other states about the policy, and he and House Commerce Commmittee Chairman Bliely will co-host with a bipartisan and senior industry executive committee, a critical issues Internet summit at George Mason University this Fall. We will invite senior government executives – elected and appointed – from state and Federal, as well as foreign governments. We will invite senior business leaders and we will use the Virginia model and the White House framework to instill in policymakers (a) the importance of this medium to society, (2) the historical opportunity we have to shape the Information Age – one of the most dramatic and oportunity-rich eras in the history of Man, and (3) to meet that responsibility requires vision and a positive framework. Again, our goal was to provide leadership, set a standard and project Virginia as a technology leader, which has so many resultant benefits for our citizens in the Commonwealth.

    McLean, VA: With Y2K coming up, all energies seem to be focused on that issue. Once we get passed the first few months of 2000, what do you see will become the most important technology issues for Virginia companies?

    Don Upson: Information security. I believe that information security will be the next area of major technology focus and investment, and, as you say, after we pass The Midnight Hour. The world is coming online at unprecedented speed with resulting unprecedented impact – security of information is critical as more and more applications, business and education functions, and commerce occur over the Web.

    Shannon Henry: What are the similiarities between technology business in the Washington area and politics? Do you see a revolving door between politicians and tech executives?

    Don Upson: I never really thought about it from that perspective, but I don't really see a revolving door. What I do see in politics is that technology issues have not quite risen to the level of attention they deserve. This is partly because technology, and the Internet in particular, has changed our lives without all of us, including government leaders, even having had time to know it occurred. Add to that the fact that New Economy business leaders are just now beginning to appreciate the important role government can and will play – either positive or negative – depending on how issues are framed and the public interacts. Sometimes we forget that today's technology leaders were small businessmen and women just trying to stay in business only a few years ago. I am not sure that they are comfortable with hw to interact with government. In some ways it is a clash of traditional government policies and processes with new ones from a new economy. I would restate again that the process by which we are trying to develop technology policy in Virginia – stakeholder driven – can serve as a model if we are successful. Governor Gilmore believes, and I agree, that leadership in the Information Age – whether in government or business – is not about being in charge. Rather, it is about using positions of authority to bring the right people to the table to develop policy and build consensus.

    Greenbelt, MD: I am a computer programmer and I am planning to move from Greenbelt to Virginia or Montgomery county Maryland. What advantages are there moving to VA instead of Mont. county.

    Don Upson: I suppose the pollitically correct answer would be both are good areas. It depends on your taste. Both really are good areas, though. On the other hand, we in Virginia believe we are creating a vision to build a technology base around a vision that captures, includes and attempts to involve, citizens at all levels, from business, government and education. Virginia is an exciting place to be (Maryland probably feels the same way!).

    Shannon Henry: As the best-known Internet company in Virginia, is AOL working with you in a leadership role for tech businesses? Do you meet with Steve Case and other AOL executives regularly?

    Don Upson: Yes and yes. AOL is one of those companies that woke up one day and found themselves as the most recognized company driving the Internet revolution. From Steve Case to George Vradenberg to the entire AOL executive team, you will find a new and keen awareness of the important role government will play at all levels in the Internet and whether it will impede or encourage this medium's growth. They are learning how to approach government with new issues just as government is learning how to work on an agenda in this rapidly evolving information age, which is driven by the Internet. They are a great group to work with.

    Friendship Heights, DC: Will your office invest upgrading public high school's computers? How do you envision the correct use of computers in the classroom?

    Don Upson: We have a policy we are developing to bring computers and a common architecture to K through 12 classrooms. My fingers are too tired to go into detail, but to answer your key question: we do not want to put them in just to put them in. We hear "wire the schools," but nobody answers the question "why?" We will attempt to answer that question with a pilot program we will launch by the end of the year that puts a computer architecture in three volunteer schools – one rural, one urban and one suburban.

    Mt. Lebanon PA: So when's the federal government going to step in and strangle the internet baby in its crib? Hint: Taxes and regulation.

    Don Upson: That is why we put our model out – The Virginia Internet Policy Act – to show that there is another way and that the impact of this medium is too great to apply the usual tax and regulate philosophy. Also, I am pleased that the most important rules to be written on electronic commerce will be developed and recommended by a conressionally-created, White House signed Commission on Electronic Commerce. These rules will be on tax and regulatory issues. The reason I am pleased is that Governor Gilmore chairs the Commission and brings a fresh philosophy to the table. His perspective will be first to listen, and then to build a frameowrk that we hope recognizes legisitmate revenue concerns of governments, but also legitimate administrative burdens feared by business.

    Shannon Henry: How do you figure out how to regulate something that has never been regulated before? Are there non-Internet models you are using?

    Don Upson: That is what is so exciting about the period of history in which we live. There are no rules; we must create them. Further, we look at other models, such as the advantages given to the railroad industry during its inception, but really, we question old processes. The Internet and the Information Age seem to require not only new rules, but new ways of building them. Governor Gilmore correctly refers to us, to those in our society participating in this age, as the forefathers of the Information Age. As a society, we really are presented with a great opportunity, and we will be judged by what we do with it.

    Arlington, VA: I am encouraged to see that Virginia is focusing on this area. However, how much of this focus will be given to bringing companies and technology to Virginia's rural areas west of Fairfax County and south of Prince William?

    Don Upson: The second of four issues to be addressed by the Governor's Commission on Information Technology is "Statewide Technology Investment Strategy." We will meet as a commission in Abbingdon Virginia on May 11 and 12. Between now and then five commission chairs from Northern Virginia will work with five vice-chairs from srespective regions of the state to develop business reasons why companies should locate in rural Virginia. This is a priority issue and we are addressing it, again, fromn a stakeholders' perspective.

    midlothian, virginia: You are doing a great service utilizing the "bully pulpit," but just how large a staff do you have to back you up? Do you have plans to offer direct contact or assistance to high tech companies?

    Don Upson: I like to believe we are offering assistnace to companies. We also are working on a spefific R&D strategy that links small high tech companies with R&D funds available fromn a number of sources. Also connect them with our university structure. As regard to staff, our philosophy is to engage and use the resources of those affected, to facilitate appropriate interaction betwween affected parties, industry sectors, the education community, etc.

    Chantilly, Va: Mr. Upson, there were already numerous state agencies working with high tech companies before your job was created. Now, your group is still another. Are there any plans to rationalize all these groups or have them pursue a consistent approach?

    Don Upson: My Department's total focus is to technology – inside and outside of government and to focus with a vision. We work in concernt with other programs where appropriate, but we believe that new stakeholder-driven approaches to particular technology-related problems should be sought and pursued.

    Richmond, Va: Northern Virginia Community College responded to the need for technical workers by introducing an "immersion" curriculum to train already skilled workers to be programmers. They report that employers are reluctant to hire these newly minted workers – how can that be, given all that we've heard of the acute shortages?

    Don Upson: I am very familiar with the TRIP program. It illustrates a major finding and belief we have, which is this. Our education community and business community both are going in the same direction. They just are not seeing each other all the time. I am and have helped TRIP meet new business leaders and improve their placement effort. Remember, too, that the biggest customer in Northern Virginia is the Federal government and too often the Fed awards contreacts and then dictates resumes as to education credentials and years of experience. We have to address that issue as well.

    Reston, VA: How can you sell Virginia as a
    Internet capital? How can business along with state gov't market the success of the state in the Internet arena?

    Don Upson: It is happening now. Governor Gilmore first built a mechanism that produced the first comprehensive Internet policy, he is now marketing that policy, he and I are meeting with some of the leading technology executives in the country. We just returned from the Consumer Electronics Show where we had a very successful meeting, for example, with Cisco Systems' John Chambers. John offered to come to Virginia and speak with our university and business leaders and to arrange and facilitate a West Coast Silicon Valley tour for Governor Gilmore. We have a message and people are paying attention.

    Shannon Henry: I'm curious about what technologies you personally use. What kind of computer, pager, cell phone, etc. do you rely on and which is most vital?

    Don Upson: I probably use the same most of us find ourselves using – cell phone, pager (during the current legislative session anyway) email, phone, fax – home and office. I do find email a bit much sometimes. Someone needs to write a Garfield book on email protocol! I find sending email just generates response after response! Its hard to get closure.

    Whitehouse, Ohio: As Tech secretary, what educational needs and instruction must be met by today's youth prior to high school graduation? How will this impact curriculum development, and who do you see overseeing such implementation?

    Don Upson: Math and students need to know that the curriculum is connected to participation in very exciting and challenging opportunities.

    Ft. Myer Heights, VA: How important is biotech to Virginia – seems like the one thing that MD has cornered the market on around here

    Don Upson: It is important. Its center for Virginia is in Richmond primarily, where we have a biotech part, major biotech companies and an outstanding biotech curriculum at Virginia Commonwealth University.

    Shannon Henry: There are so many tech councils in Va., Md. and D.C. working on similar issues. Is there any chance they will start to work together more?

    Don Upson: Virginia's seven regional tech councils now formed a coordinating body – the Virginia Technology Alliance. Proximnity of Northern Virginia to Maryland and DC notwithstanding, the issues in each are different because these issues often are dictated by political boundaries. There is no Greater Washington tax or regulatory authority, there are three distinct ones. That is not to say there are not issues where cooperation can and should occur.

    Shannon Henry: A chain of command question: who's your boss? Is it Gov. Gilmore?

    Don Upson: Indeed it is Governor Gilmore. That is a very important part of what makes this position different.

    Shannon Henry: Don, what's your relationship with the Center for Innovative Technology? What's new at the CIT?

    Don Upson: CIT now resides within my Secretariat. CIT is in the midst of a strategic planning proess. They will be a very critical component of an organized and focused Virginia technolog strategy. They have outstanding staff capabilities and talent and have contributed much to Virginia and its technology efforts.

    Falls Church, VA: I've heard a great deal about our public school math and science scores being much lower than other countries – this seems like a major disaster waiting to happen. How can we make these subjects more interesting for young children and college-bound kids alike?

    Don Upson: Good question. I agree that it is important, but I must pas this one to our Secretary of Education Will Bryant. I do work with Secretary Bryant on a number of initiatives, but he is best suited to answer this one.

    Washington DC: How much does Virginia TRULY want to work with DC and Maryland to fully leverage the region's technology resources?

    Don Upson: Our priority is projeting Virginia's leadership as a technology leader. That does involve cooperation with border jurisdictions, especially in Northern Virginia's tehnology corridor.

    Arlington, VA: In order to facilitate the increase in the pool of available employees in the IT field, is the Commonwealth of Virginia willing to offer either tax or educational incentives for citizens interested in pursuing a career in the field?

    Don Upson: Virginia is interested in providing quality education to a host of locations inside and outside established educational facilities. We want to have the tools to train and educate and assist. I hope the industry and attractions to it are enough to entice.

    Shannon Henry: Thanks, Don, for all the thoughtful answers. And thanks to all of you for joining us. We'll invite Don back again for an update on Virginia's Internet policy proposal. I'll be back on Feb. 4 with another member of the local tech community. Bye!

    © Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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