From Microsoft to Olympia: Q&A With Rogers Weed, New Washington Commerce Chief

4/15/09Follow @xconomy

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to the state for the first 18 months of B&O [Business and Occupation] tax, and not had to do any more paperwork, I would have been happy to overpay, and just be able to say, ‘I’m good with the state government, now let me focus on getting my business off the ground.’ So I don’t know all the details of the challenge there, but it’s a good place to start. Then we can streamline as much as possible for business.

X: Can you explain a bit of this culture idea? You want to recognize people doing innovative things. Do you also want to make it more acceptable to take a risk and possibly fail?

RW: I think that’s part of an innovative culture, absolutely. I mentioned this earlier in the reference to the Andy Grove thing (the former Intel CEO who authored a book “Only the Paranoid Survive”). I’d rather come at it from an enthusiasm and opportunity standpoint instead of from a fear standpoint. I think we’re going to get better results that way. How do you develop an environment in which people are excited by change, not fearful of change. Well, I don’t want to pick on Andy Grove, but when your title is “Only the Paranoid Survive” I think that makes people want to crawl in a hole and just hope it doesn’t hit them before they get through life. Instead of framing it in terms of the opportunity and success you can have when you embrace change. I’d rather think about how we do that.

X: Which industries are you particularly focused on, in which you think Washington has a real opportunity to do well?

RW: One analogy I’ve used is that just like a big company like Microsoft has different lines of businesses within it, and ultimately has to have a portfolio strategy about how it manages those lines of business, our state is like a giant portfolio of industry sectors. I’m interested in how we think about that in a portfolio way. Where is the life sciences sector in its evolution, and what are its needs for investment and stewardship? How are those different than a mature sector like aerospace? It might have different priorities in terms of what it needs from the state. That’s one concept I want to explore, to implement a strategy and oversee a range of activities from the state’s perspective.

I have two priorities, very short-term, on the job in terms of things I have to figure out and get them going. One has been the stimulus opportunity around energy. I love the work Maria (Cantwell) is doing, and the focus that’s getting is appropriate. It’s one of the single biggest opportunities we have to invest in our state in the next year or two. So how do we organize to do the best possible job of getting some of the federal energy-related stimulus money? That’s one.

The second one has been Boeing. For me, that starts with a lot of education, because I don’t come from the aerospace industry. So getting educated, figuring out how I can plug into a situation that’s been going on a long time, to try to inject some new ideas, and some new enthusiasm for getting that relationship into a great place. And Boeing is symbolic for aerospace as a whole. It’s obviously the leader. How do we make sure we have a good relationship with that company, because as that goes, so the whole aerospace sector will go, to some extent.

X: Have you set any specific goals in terms of job creation and growth?

RW: Not yet. I’m focused on those two priorities I just mentioned. I’m also thinking about getting to the end of the legislative session. That’s been another part, meeting all these legislators, and getting their perspective, and getting in the mix on some legislation that’s pending. As that session wraps up, and we think of the implications of it, and the energy stimulus and Boeing issues get on track, the next thing will be to work through a plan for the agency, and work through a stakeholder process. We need to update the plan. That will go on this summer.

The rhythm of the year for state government is planning for the budget in the summer and early fall. We get those proposals in to the Governor in what ultimately results in the Governor’s proposed budget. Then the legislature comes in and brings their perspective. Ultimately we get a budget at the end of April, and we start executing. It’s perfect timing in a way.

At first, I thought I couldn’t have picked a worse time to start. Because I’m starting in the middle of legislative session where I don’t know anybody, and everything’s happening. I’ve actually become more sanguine about that lately. In a way, it’s been good to come in and right away see the endgame before I start at the beginning with the planning. I’m actually glad now that I came when I did. Planning will kick off in the middle of May.

X: So you’re getting to know people you need to know in the legislature. Who are some of your confidantes in the business community, people you lean on or stay in touch with?

RW: That’s developing very rapidly for me. I have a set of people I’ve known at Microsoft, and people I’ve met while thinking about energy. But I’m meeting lots of great new people that I know will offer important support and guidance. That network is forming rapidly. I certainly have lots of connections in IT and the venture capital area, because a lot of friends of mine at Microsoft became venture capitalists. In the energy area, to some extent, I’ve networked in that area the last year or two. But aerospace or broader economic development issues, there are people who have been thinking about this for decades. I’d be foolish not to tap into their wisdom.

X: What can the business community do to help you and your department?

RW: The biggest thing for me is engage with us. I heard somebody say once the opposite of love is indifference. If nobody cared, that would be a bad situation. I need the engagement of the private sector. The good news is that I’m getting it. People absolutely care, they want to be involved. That’s what I need, is their engagement. I can’t figure this out by myself, and neither can my agency.

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