A decade ago, we had industry leaders like John Doerr, John Chambers, Jim Barksdale, Reed Hastings, Craig Barrett and so on who put on the hat of industry steward and talked about the growth of the technology industry and the policy issues that would impact it. They weren't necessarily reserving their big keynote addresses or sit-downs with the Wall Street Journal to discuss Kleiner Perkins portfolio companies or Cisco's growth strategy.
Who is doing this in 2008? With a few exceptions, it's pretty much the same people. That's a good thing when considering how well Doerr, Chambers and Barrett do when evocatively connecting the dots between sound policy and innovation that benefits society at large. But, it's also a bad thing when you consider that a whole lot of companies have grown up and a lot of executives have made their marks since then without a contribution to the policy dialogue.
This made me wonder why there has been such a leadership gap.
Now, much has changed since 1998 that changes the dynamics of need. Back then, very few companies had strong government affairs staffs and the different tech trade and lobbying groups were just getting their footing. Now, the big companies in the Valley have a straight line to key policymakers via their own teams; organizations like TechNet, ITIC, and TCC; ad hoc issues focused coalitions and advocacy groups. This means that while it is nice for Eric Schmidt to take a leadership position on spectrum issues at a National Press Club event, it is not wholly essential. Google has a strong team and informal coalition of folks doing the day to day work on the issue that make an appeal from the boss merely a helpful component of the overall strategy.
But, I can't help but think that one of the biggest trends of the last decade of tech policy is how the rich have gotten wiser and the poor, less informed. That is, the big and/or smart companies have made a land rush to DC to hire the best staff; secure lobbyists and establish control over the existing trade groups. This has had the effect of transferring much of the tech policy conversation and work to DC. Now, this may seem like a no-brainer and the right thing to do (which it perhaps is), but it wasn't so long ago that there were many more public forums in Silicon Valley that revolved around policy issues. Without the DC apparatus in place, executives needed to do the work themselves in talking about a bad piece of legislation. Media covered this in the Valley. Events were held to take advantage of this. People paid attention. They then got involved.
Now, with the policy stuff "taken care of" by the DC types, very little Valley buzz is created around specific issues (save Net Neutrality) and, more importantly, dedicated ongoing policy activities. Not only is this because there is less of a need for executive involvement, but because the DC types who are now controlling the conversation see very little need in including Valley audiences in it. If they can talk to Roll Call and the key staffer on the Commerce Committee, why do they need to brief GigaOm?
The net impact of all this is that the CEO of the emerging start-up that may or may not be the next Facebook rarely reads about key policy issues that may impact her business and almost certainly never sees her peers engaged on them. If confronted, the CEO would probably say that she assumed that the Googles, Ciscos and Microsofts of the world were taking care of a particular issue. And, while that may be the correct answer, is it the right answer?
To be considered:
Have the big players left the small ones behind?
And, if they have, should they care?
If John Chambers is the next John Chambers, who comes next?
Are there any new executives out there who can make policy issues relevant to the Twitter-class? Or does Michael Arrington become the default leader from his perch at TechCrunch? (He does write about policy from time to time). I would prefer if someone who didn't profit from their words would take this mantle, instead.
What is the real impact to all of this? I, for one, have thought that if there was better organization among the new turks, that there would have long been a forceful organization created that would advance the interests of the new online video industry. I have felt the same about the social networking niche.
There also has been a lot of lost opportunity. While the big companies are now controlling the message in DC, the truth is that policymakers like hearing from any sized firm that can educate them. They don't care about market cap. A perfect recent example is the storm that the content distributor Vuze created when it made a FCC filing on network management not so long ago.
Happy to keep kicking these thoughts around....