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Originally published September 30, 2005 at 12:00 AM | Page modified September 30, 2005 at 12:07 AM

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Ballmer offers antidote to traffic and education woes

To fix its traffic and education woes, the Puget Sound region should take a cue from Microsoft and emphasize agility and continuous improvement...

Seattle Times technology reporter

To fix its traffic and education woes, the Puget Sound region should take a cue from Microsoft and emphasize agility and continuous improvement, Microsoft Chief Executive Steve Ballmer said yesterday.

"We want to see the region continuously improve just as we do our own company, and there are certainly opportunities," Ballmer told 1,200 business leaders at the Greater Seattle Chamber of Commerce's annual luncheon meeting.

Ballmer's speech reinforced the political tone of the meeting, where chamber leaders called on members to vote down Initiative 912, a measure that would repeal gas taxes funding road improvements. They also called for considering an overhaul of the state tax system.

Microsoft has pushed for road improvements before — its suburban campus has both contributed to and suffered from cross-Lake Washington gridlock — but yesterday's speech is part of a broader effort by the company over the past year to play a bigger role in state and regional politics.

Chairman Bill Gates has recently urged lawmakers to better fund high schools and universities, and General Counsel Brad Smith is part of a government-business coalition trying to make the region more business-friendly and create more jobs.

The company is also stepping up its support of local charities. In addition to matching employee donations dollar for dollar, the company will now match employees' volunteer time with $17 for every hour they contribute, Ballmer said.

Ballmer called for more investment in both K-12 education and research universities to fill the talent pipeline that Microsoft and other "innovation" companies need to expand here. He said Microsoft has many job openings but it "just simply cannot find enough of the kind of talent we need to run our business."

"We'll fill them in the Puget Sound, we'll fill them sometimes in Beijing or Bangalore," he said. "The problem is the absolute size of the talent pool isn't large enough."

There's apparently enough talent to take on Google, however. In describing new products from Microsoft, Ballmer drew applause by saying its new search product will make Microsoft "the center of innovation in that search business, also."

Ballmer also noted the irony of Microsoft calling for better roads, since it makes products that help people work from home and collaborate online.

"What's a high-tech company doing saying roads are a big deal — roads, roads, roads — tell everybody to stay home and work from home. You build this interactive technology; you should be able to stay home," he said.

"We do believe there is a value to direct human interaction. The technology's not quite there yet," he explained. "I know if I want to know if a project's on track, I have to look deeply into somebody's eyes."

Brier Dudley: 206-515-5687 or bdudley@seattletimes.com

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