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

Olympia, in the view of many entrepreneurs I’ve talked to over the years, is practically a code word in this state for “bureaucrats out of touch with what it takes to run a business.” So when I heard Gov. Chris Gregoire turned to Rogers Weed, a former Microsoft vice president, to be in her cabinet as the new director of the state’s commerce department, I figured he might bring a fresh perspective on what can be done to patch up this notoriously tense relationship.

First, a little background on Weed. He’s a lanky guy, 45, who lives in Seattle with his wife and three sons. He was raised in South Carolina, and still has a slight Southern accent if you listen closely. He got his bachelor’s in computer science from Duke University, and when he decided he wasn’t cut out for hard-core computer programming, he poured his energy into business. He did a three-year stint at Bain & Company, the Boston private equity firm, and got an MBA from the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania.

It was still in the early days of the PC revolution when he came to Microsoft in 1990, during his mid-20s. Over his career at the Redmond software giant, Weed took on a variety of management challenges there that included stints in online media as publisher of Slate magazine, and in Windows. His proudest achievement there was in helping Microsoft catch up and grab market share from Palm, which had taken the early lead in the world of handheld organizers. He left the company two years ago, and since then has gotten interested in alternative energy, partly through work with Climate Solutions, a nonprofit organization.

Weed’s new full-time job is to run a state agency with a $2 billion budget, and 180 different programs to administer. The department, still called Community, Trade, and Economic Development (CTED) become “a catchall for programs from emergency food assistance to control of lead hazards,” according to this story from The Seattle Times. Weed took the job as director on St. Patrick’s Day, so he’s still awfully new and hard to put on the spot. But I spoke with him for about 25 minutes last week at the Washington Innovation Summit in Bellevue, and got a good feel for how he’s approaching this important job at the nexus of business and government.

Here are edited excerpts from our conversation:

Xconomy: How did you get this job? Did you have connections to the Governor or participate in the campaign, or just send in a resume?

Rogers Weed: I just sent in a resume. I heard nothing for several weeks, and thought it probably wouldn’t happen. But then I did get a call, saying they’d like to interview me. I got a panel interview with seven people. They told me after that, it may be a number of weeks because they had other people to see, and because of the Governor’s schedule. Two days later I get a call, asking me to come down and see the Governor. And I came. And she offered me the job. On the spot.

X: How do you like to think about solving problems? What is your gift?

RW: One of them is empathy. I’m pretty good at thinking about other people’s perspectives, and being able to meet them in the middle about what their needs are and what I’m trying to get done. That’s a strength. I also like to brainstorm problems. I’m a pretty good idea generator. That’s what I’ve been told in my performance reviews over my career at Microsoft. I’m pretty good at framing up problems that aren’t well-framed. Working in a complex organizational setting like state government or Microsoft, if you don’t have some empathy, you struggle.

X: Why did you take this job?

RW: We are in an unprecedented time in the economy in our lifetimes, and I saw an opportunity. As I talked to people about the job, what needed to happen was there needed to be a tighter connection between Olympia and the private sector. Over 80 percent of our economy is private-sector driven. Businesses contribute over half of the tax revenues to the state. We’re not going to get out of this recession without the private sector leading this. So how is government best going to help that? You need a tight connection … Next Page »

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