Street credibility essential to state efforts to grow high-tech industry
By John Duchemin
Advertiser Staff Writer
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In the Cayetano administration, those tasked with overseeing the growth of the technology industry often had little or no technology background.
But they often had close connections to top Democratic party and cabinet officials, or long careers in government.
The state's former top technology official, Cayetano special assistant Joseph Blanco, was a real estate developer who was appointed to the University of Hawai'i Board of Regents by Gov. John Waihee. Blanco became the first-ever "tech czar" after serving several years on Cayetano's staff.
His high-tech experience: Zero.
The head of the High Technology Development Corp., Nola Miyasaki, was appointed to her position after a career as a private-practice lawyer and some time as a special assistant to Cayetano on high-tech affairs. Miyasaki was a top-notch golfer who almost turned pro. But her previous technology experience is limited to a bachelor's degree in biology from Stanford University.
One of Blanco's key assistants, Clarita Barretto, was a protegé of former DBEDT director Seiji Naya, under whom she earned her doctorate in economics while he was a professor at UH. She was transferred from DBEDT to help Blanco create a strategy to build the high-tech sector. Her previous technology experience was as minimal as that of Blanco or Miyasaki.
These officials' lack of high-tech credentials says nothing about their intelligence, skills and dedication. But technology industry advocates frequently, and reasonably, argue that good intentions alone don't create an industry from scratch.
The industry seeks an experienced, visionary leader who is already well versed in high tech issues and problems, has off-island industry contacts, and knows Linux from Unix but who can also play the political game and help the government appreciate the value of, and therefore work to help, small start-up technology firms.
In other words, a technogeek with people skills.
The Cayetano administration didn't have such a person, and as a result its pro-technology efforts suffered from a dearth of street credibility. Blanco, to his credit, was well-versed in the mechanics of the Act 221 high-tech tax incentives, which were similar to the state's existing low-income housing credits. But he was forced to spend far too much time fending off critics and defending his record as an industry advocate.
That's not what high-tech Hawai'i needs as it attempts to create a world-class name for itself.
The tech community thus hopes the Lingle administration will consult with them before replacing Blanco.
Lingle has not said whether she will appoint a replacement tech czar, or find another way to achieve Blanco's former mission. But high-tech advocates have reason to hope she is listening to their concerns. The governor has promised to bring in someone who doesn't just know the right people but also knows tech.
If she does so, her avowed "new beginning for Hawai'i" will seem one baby-step closer, at least for one industry.
Reach John Duchemin at email@example.com or at 525-8062.