Q: When Microsoft hired you, what didn't the leadership in Redmond understand about Washington, D.C.?
A: I think they felt that if they continued to invest and innovate, and develop great technologies and and create jobs, that government would largely leave them alone. And that was true not only of Microsoft, it was true of most tech companies—certainly most software companies. The hardware companies had more of a history of engagement in Washington because they had export control-related issues. Those weren't really a top priority for software publishers at the time.
And the converse question: what didn't Washington get about Microsoft or the tech sector generally?
There are such distinct world views, or at least there were at that time. And particularly at that time, founders were still very much in the leadership of the companies. And, you know, a lot of them are engineers. It's a very linear, and literal, way of thinking.Where in Washington it's a much more nuanced way of thinking. In some ways in Washington, the fastest way between Point A and Point B isn't necessarily a straight line.
What's an example of that?
The debate around high-skill immigration. Over the last 10 to 15 years there's been growing appreciation for the role that foreign nationals can play in helping to drive and jumpstart innovation here in the U.S. and help companies be job creators here in the U.S. But just addressing that one issue is—well, I shouldn't say it's impossible, but it certainly has historically been caught up in a lot of other cost-cutting issues, many of which are totally unrelated.
So there's a lot of integrated thinking, I guess.
Exactly. There are other very important immigration reform issues, but ones that aren't necessarily tied to or connected in any way other than politically to addressing the high-skill immigration issue. Where in the tech sector they just say, if it's the right thing to do, do it.
Is it true that you were working out of your car for a while?
It's a bit of an urban legend. What happened was I was housed up in the company sales office, which was up right on the Maryland line. And to go to a meeting on the Hill or a meeting downtown could sometimes be an hour. So I literally spent a lot of my day in my car and on my car phone, often parked on the side of a road.
That phone must have been a foot long.
Yeah, it probably was. It was one of those things that sat on a stand. It didn't fit in a suitcase, I will tell you.
And how long did that last?
It was not quite a year before I hired my first additional person in the office, but we were in Chevy Chase for three years.
Really? Does that say anything about Microsoft's culture and its approach to Washington?
I think it just said they had space. Space in Washington is expensive, and it was a small function. At the time I certainly didn't push back on it—it was what it was. We just got to a point where we sort of outgrew what space we had. We thought well, maybe now's the time to move downtown.
How did you go about building a lobby shop? What did Microsoft need to do in D.C.?
Well, you know, half of life is just showing up—being at the table and participating. And in doing so, really, the overarching objective for Microsoft and other tech companies as they began to engage in Washington was to define themselves. Certainly what Microsoft learned is that if you don't engage and define yourself for this important constituency, others will take advantage of that blank slate and do the defining for you. It's well-chronicled that a number of Microsoft critics at the same time were really working to define the company in a negative way.
My memory of that period during the antitrust litigation was that Microsoft wasn't helping itself so much. It sort of came across like a steamroller.
I would take issue with your characterization. Obviously the company was seen as sort of the 800-pound gorilla at the time. But at least with respect to our engagement here in Washington with policy elites on an array of policy issues, we worked hard to try to position ourselves as a trusted resource on a whole host of issues, some of which were issues of first impression because the technology was evolving so rapidly. And I think we largely succeeded in that regard. Yeah, of course the company had a reputation for being big and powerful. But I'd like to think at least in the world that I was engaging, we weren't seen as steamrolling, to use your term.
How did the issues change over the years?
Well, the immigration issue never really changed. And I think the intellectual property issues are still very important, but they've evolved as what we know of as the Internet or the network environment has evolved. Fundamentally, if you list out the issues, a lot of them are exactly the same. But the aspects or characteristics of the issues have changed as the technology has evolved.
Why did you leave Microsoft?
Microsoft is a great company to work for. But I'd been there for 14 years. I was 47 at the time and staring the big 5-0 in the face and just decided it was a good time to do something different.
You're still lobbying for a couple tech firms in private practice. What has Silicon Valley learned about Washington?
Back in the mid- to late-'90s, even the early 2000s, people saw tech as an issue or a single set of issues. That's not the case anymore. What's emerged is that tech is not a monolith. There are a lot of segments of the broader tech sector, each with their own set of concerns, some of which may cut against concerns of another segment of the tech industry.
And you hear a lot of companies say, we don't want to make the mistakes Microsoft made by being late to engage. Google stated that publicly. So I think you see companies building a presence in Washington more readily than they may have, say, 15 or 20 years ago.
Has Washington figured the tech sector out at this point yet?
I don't know if they've figured it out. But I think they've learned a lot. There's a much deeper understanding of the issues that underlie the technology. There are certain members of Congress that I think really play a leadership role on tech policy. And Washington at large has moved up that learning curve, and that's the reflection of the engagement of the industry at the end of the day.
And not familiarity with the Internet?
It's a little bit of both.
There was a story not long ago about how Facebook is going to Capitol Hill and showing members of Congress how to use Facebook to manage constituent relations—a pretty clever way of introducing yourself. Are there a lot of opportunities for tech firms to do stuff like that or was Facebook in a unique situation?
Social networking, is relatively unique and relatively new in this realm. Certainly not new but—but relatively new in this realm or in this space. I'm sure there are others. Look at search optimization—how that can be deployed by a policymaker, or more likely by a political interest.
What do you think is the future face of tech industry lobbying?
One of the challenges, I think, for the tech industry across the board is that there are just a lot of associations that represent pieces of the industry that all purport to speak for the industry. And it wouldn't surprise me if over time, you see an evolution toward hopefully fewer and more effective association voices for the industry.
You represent FairSearch.org, a coalition of e-commerce companies that think Google's search practices are anticompetitive. Besides engaging early, what else could Google learn from Microsoft's experience?
Oh, I don't know. Nothing comes to mind immediately.
What about you — have you thought about how to apply your Microsoft experience to FairSearch?
Not a lot. I live for the moment.
Jack Krumholtz is now managing director of legislative affairs at The Glover Park Group, a lobbying firm.
[Image: Flickr user Thomas Hawk]
A version of this article appeared in the November 2012 issue of Fast Company magazine.