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Warner Moves Smoothly From Technology To Government

Virginia's governor says his experience in business and technology has helped him in his current job.
Mark Warner, the 49-year-old governor of Virginia, is one of the most tech-savvy state chief executives, having co-founded a high-tech venture-capital firm and been an early investor in mobile-phone provider Nextel Communications Inc. Warner recently sat down for an interview in his Richmond office with InformationWeek editor Stephanie Stahl and editor-at-large Eric Chabrow. Here are excerpts from that conversation:

InformationWeek: How has your experience in business and technology helped you as governor?

Warner: It was that background that made me run for governor in the first place. As I surveyed the political landscape, it didn't seem like anybody in Virginia was talking about how to make the opportunities in this changing economy available everywhere in the state. How do you make the promise of the networked world a reality so the kids in rural Southside Virginia don't have to pick up and move to northern Virginia--the Dulles Corridor--to get a good job? How do you build the state around the creation of intellectual capital and a network economy as every bit as much of a component of economic development as bringing in the next factory into the state?

InformationWeek: Can your state's diversified university system help create intellectual capital?

Warner: Virginia is blessed with perhaps the best higher-education systems in America. We have a lot of great universities--with the UVas (University of Virginia), the Virginia Techs, the Williams and Marys, the George Masons--but we also have a very decentralized system. So the ability for us to leverage our R&D dollars out of our universities has not been as successful as a state like Michigan, where you have a single, premier, flagship institution in terms of research. How we use limited state dollars to leverage our intellectual capital creation [is a priority]. We created, for example, the Institute of Defense and Homeland Security to see if we in Virginia can take advantage of enormous new opportunity in post-9/11, how we can make our universities the spot where security technology is done.

InformationWeek: As a venture capitalist before becoming governor, you set up funds to help finance high-tech ventures in rural areas. Is that still needed?

Warner: How do we empower, particularly the rural communities, to not be left behind? While we created over 50,000 new jobs in the first two years of this administration, not enough of them have been knowledge-based jobs or blue-tech jobs or high-tech jobs in rural communities.

InformationWeek: You've cited the Advanced Learning Institute, associated with Virginia Tech, a newly formed R&D center in the rural community of Danville, near the North Carolina border, as a place where the state can help create "blue-tech" jobs, which you've described as "less than a programmer but more than a call center--a $40,000- to $50,000-a-year job that might not be hugely sought after in Fairfax County [suburban Washington] but in Grundy, Va., or Galax, Va., that would be a top-notch job." How difficult is it to create those kinds of jobs?

[This] is very much a work in progress of how we [achieve] the promise of the Internet. People pontificated in mid- to late '90s that time and distance don't matter anymore. We can make that a reality. As I look around and talk to other governors, there aren't that many success stories in that area. It's not simply how you bring a wire-to-wire infrastructure to a community and hopefully bring more of high-end call center to a community. It's more about how you work on the culture of some of these communities so that a young person might not want to opt to leave. [It's the] promise of new economy that you can build it anywhere. That's still a vision I believe in, but it hasn't happened yet. I would like Virginia to be the place it happens.

InformationWeek: Is there a middle ground in offshore outsourcing--a way that's neither protectionist nor free trade? (Warner refers to free trade as "fair trade.")

Warner: Nobody has yet defined the notion of fair trade. That's where people from both political parties are trying to move. How you balance that in a way that you continue to give taxpayers--our shareholders--the best value that doesn't always send every job to the lowest-priced labor--I don't think anyone has figured that out. We've got to keep wrestling with it because there is always going to be somebody else in the world--labor-wise--who will do it cheaper.

InformationWeek: You said the previous administration outsourced offshore a handful of jobs to develop applications for the state Department of Social Services. Has offshore outsourcing become a big political problem in Virginia yet?

Warner: I share the concerns. We've got to figure out a way to protect jobs but not fall into that protectionist approach. How [can we] balance value for our shareholders--our taxpayers--but at the same time not send jobs, particularly state jobs, offshore? I'm working on it, but I don't have a full answer yet. I think this is a struggle that lot of governors are starting to grapple with.

There's no official policy in Virginia right now, so the lack of any policy means we're evaluating on cost basis. Over last six months, we've been looking much more closely as we've done procurements about where these services will be performed. We don't do, at this point, a lot of outsourcing of government. That's not been the culture in Virginia; that's not the culture in most states.

Photo of Mark Warner by AP

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