Eugene Huang is an introvert who's on an extended lecture circuit, a high-level government official who dislikes politics and, as of Oct. 1, one of the youngest state Cabinet secretaries in the nation.
Virginia Gov. Mark R. Warner (D) appointed Huang, 28, as the state's secretary of technology last month after George C. Newstrom resigned the post. Although Huang (it's pronounced "Wong") had been Newstrom's deputy since the beginning of the Warner administration in 2002, their styles are very different.
Newstrom, 57, was a longtime executive of computer services giant EDS, known for his diplomacy and deep local connections as well as a passion for golf. Huang, who grew up in Beverly Hills, is a marathoner, the founder of a start-up, and currently on leave from Oxford University, where he is finishing a PhD in economic history and a dissertation on mobile phone standardization.
"It is a difference of age and energy," says Peter Jobse, president of the state-funded Center for Innovative Technology in Herndon. Still, he says Newstrom and Huang have similar goals. "The mission is simpatico," Jobse says.
Since Huang took over he has spoken to crowds at least three times a week, not the easiest undertaking for the most introverted of introverts (according to personality tests he has taken). Preparing for the New York City Marathon this weekend, the lanky Cabinet secretary is trying to eat more to keep up his calories. Yes, he says, he would rather be running or researching than negotiating with state legislators and preaching the virtues of Virginia's technology community. But he says he also has a sense of how technology has changed his generation, and of what Virginia can do to better compete in a high-tech world. Huang is embarking on a finite opportunity: Because Virginia has a one-term governorship, Huang has 15 months to make his mark on the job, and the state.
Working with Newstrom, Huang helped refocus the Center for Innovative Technology, which over the past few years has lost funding and struggled to define its mission. Now the CIT focuses primarily on nanotechnology, biotechnology and homeland security, Huang says.
On his own, Huang hopes to address what he sees as Virginia's biggest technology problem -- the lack of a world-class research institution, the likes of Stanford University or the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, which helped define the technology meccas of Northern California's Silicon Valley and Boston's Route 128, respectively.
"Alan Merten will kill me for saying this," Huang says of the president of George Mason University, "but there isn't a high-tech research institution that exists in Northern Virginia."
Huang brushes off the notion that Washington area operations such as the National Institutes of Health could replace a university. "You tell people 'government' and their eyes glaze over," he says. So in the next year, how can Huang solve this problem? Huang says one possibility now being explored is to establish a Northern Virginia outpost for Virginia Polytechnic Institute, located in Blacksburg.
One of Huang's other projects is to use government resources to bring high-speed Internet access to areas of the state that don't have it.
Huang is a longtime Warner friend. They met in 1995 when Huang was a sophomore at University of Pennsylvania doing an internship for the mayor of Philadelphia. Warner dropped by the mayor's office on a fundraising trip for his unsuccessful Senate race. Huang was so impressed by Warner that he took a year off from school to work on the campaign. "My parents thought I was crazy," Huang says. When Warner lost, Huang returned to college. But Huang says he loved working on a campaign just as he loved working on a start-up technology company. "You believe in the product, whatever the product is," he says.
When Warner finishes his term in January 2006, Huang will have just turned 30. He plans to return to Oxford to finish his PhD, which will take an additional year and a half. After that, he wants to somehow address the "macro trends" that he believes politicians today don't understand: globalization and the rise of Asia.
"The U.S. will have to share the stage," he says. "Policymakers need to have some experience overseas." Huang says he'd like someday to spend time in Asia, maybe in Shanghai, before settling down to have a family. Huang is the son of immigrants: His mother came to New York from Japan and his father from Taiwan in the 1960s. His parents became successful scientists, his mother earning a PhD in microbiology and his father becoming a medical doctor with a specialty in infectious disease.
Huang can see himself starting another company eventually. BuildPoint, the software firm he co-founded in Redwood City, Calif., in 1999, struggled and was sold, but it gave Huang some good experience, not to mention enough money to buy his green Jaguar convertible. And it wasn't Huang's first company -- he patented a mobile phone technology and formed a corporation called Navispace while he was a college undergraduate.
Huang is a true tech enthusiast, even in his off hours. He wears a sensor on his shoe that records his running times and speeds, which he can download onto his computer. He uses a BlackBerry, four mobile phones (he likes to check out all the cellular standards), an iPod and a tiny digital camera, the kind advertised as so small it can fit into an Altoids tin.
What Huang doesn't look forward to this year is the state's General Assembly session, a political process that those who worked with Newstrom said drove the latter from the job."Last year's General Assembly was bruising," says Huang. "That was difficult for all of us."
Huang keeps in touch with Newstrom, as the two happen to live in the same building in Richmond. "Truth be told, he loves post-government life," Huang says.
Newstrom says it was simply a good time to go, and Huang was a logical choice to get his job. "The agenda we laid out has mostly been fulfilled. I'm going to be relaxing," Newstrom says. "I never was going to be the guy who turned the lights out." He says he hasn't figured out exactly what he's going to do, but he plans on joining some boards and will "dabble in tech in Northern Virginia." Newstrom announced recently that he would rejoin the board of software firm IMC in Reston, a position he held before joining Warner's cabinet.
While they clearly respect each other, Huang sees himself as different from his predecessor. "George is very big picture," says Huang. "He has a very corporate CEO mind-set. I'm a bit more freewheeling."
Shannon Henry writes about Washington's technology culture every other Thursday. Her e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.