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Brier Dudley offers a critical look at technology and business issues affecting the Northwest.

November 29, 2012 at 8:39 AM

Innovation Summit: How to fuel the state’s growth?

People – and Washington’s ability to attract them – are why the state has become a world leader in information-technology over the last 30 years.

“For the most part our success story is in many ways a story that has been built on being a magnet for attracting people to come to Washington state from across the country and around the world,” Microsoft General Counsel Brad Smith said at the Washington Innovation Summit in Seattle today.

Continuing to compete for talent “will dictate whether our region can prosper on a long term basis,” Smith said.

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During his opening keynote speech at summit, Smith argued for a greater emphasis on computer science education, including new standards requiring the subject for high school graduation.

Smith also said the country needs to do a better job ensuring that students entering college complete their degrees and expand visa programs for skilled workers from overseas under a plan Microsoft is pitching in Washington, D.C.

“The number one thing we need to think about is the competition for talent,” Smith said.

Smith set the tone for the summit, at which government, business and education leaders are gathering at the Bell Harbor conference center to discuss ways to nurture innovative industries in the state. It’s sponsored by the Technology Alliance.

Incoming Gov. Jay Inslee is scheduled to address the group later in the day. He may echo some of the themes discussed by Smith, who is advising Inslee on his transition.

Smith said the state has a great foundation to build upon, including institutions such as the University of Washington.

“Now is the time for us to raise our sights and aim higher,” he said.

Smith was followed by Ed Lazowska, Bill & Melinda Gates Chair in Computer Science & Engineering at the UW.

Lazowska provided an overview of “big data” and opportunities around the rapidly advancing ability to manage and quickly analyze massive amounts of data being generated nowadays. This flood of data and computing challenges are transforming businesses and spawning new software companies.

A related trend is the rise of cloud computing. With Microsoft, Amazon.com and Google developing their cloud services here, “the Seattle area is really kind of the owner of the cloud,” Lazowska said.

“It’s a good time to be in Seattle and a good time to be doing big data,” he added.

Lazowska moderated a panel of local people involved in the big data industry including Christian Chabot, chief executive of data-visualization company Tableau Software; Mike Fridgen, chief executive of consumer shopping service Decide.com; Cameron Myhrvold, a venture capitalist backing machine-data software company Splunk, and Ruben Ortega, Google engineering director.

Myhrvold, a founding partner of Bellevue’s Ignition Partners, said big data opportunities have just started.

“I think big data is going to give us a 15-year investment horizon … and we’re in year three today,” he said.

Meanwhile companies in the field are growing like crazy.

Chabot said Tableau has grown from 350 to 720 employees this year. The company is in the “sweet spot of high-tech company growth.”

Splunk is based in San Francisco but opened a Seattle engineering office with around 30 people, Myhrvold said. Fridgen said Decide has about 30 employees.

Google is continuing to expand in the area. It employs around 1,000 in the Seattle area including 600 in Kirkland and 400 in Seattle, Ortega said.

Ortega said the majority of Google’s cloud efforts are coming from engineers in the Seattle area, which is developing into a “critical cluster” of cloud computing expertise.

Chabot said it’s a tragedy that so many of the world’s smartest engineers have spent the last decade working on how to get people to click ads or put more things in digital shopping carts. Now the technologies that they advanced are being applied in other areas.

“Every single industry you can name is doing really pioneering things with big data collections to improve the world,” he said, adding that:

“I think getting out of this click on an ad/shopping cart rut we’ve been in for the last 10 years … it’s going to create a huge wave of job creation.”

Comments | Topics: big data, Education, education

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