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Originally published April 24, 2013 at 4:52 PM | Page modified April 26, 2013 at 12:47 PM

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What happens when you put Microsoft managers in charge of the state budget

For the first time in state history, the Washington state budget is being written by Microsofties, with company alums chairing both budget committees, writes editorial columnist Sharon Pian Chan.

Times editorial columnist

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For the first time in state history, the Washington state budget is being written by Microsofties. The chairmen of budget committees for the state Senate and the House are alums from the Redmond software company: Rep. Ross Hunter, D-Bellevue, and Sen. Andy Hill, R-Redmond.

The two are staring down a major innovation challenge in Washington state: education. After the Supreme Court’s McCleary ruling, the two must find $1 billion in new money for the state’s K-12 system. The two are up for the challenge.

Hunter, with a decade of Olympia experience, said he has tamed his Microsoft-style head-butting with a politician’s trust-building. Hill, a first-term senator, sifted through spending requests by drawing on his work as a Windows 95 group manager, when he carried a little card in his pocket listing the team’s top priorities.

At Microsoft, when a product gets to $1 billion in sales, it’s like entering Valhalla. The team that built SharePoint software, for instance, always brags that it’s the fastest product in Microsoft history to hit $1 billion in sales — in just seven years.

That’s how a $1 billion increase should feel to our state’s education system. If we come out the other end with the same results, then we may as well spend the billion on a truck filled with Zunes, Microsoft’s abandoned iPod competitor.

Too often in politics, maintaining the status quo is considered success. What’s success for a politician? Getting re-elected. What’s success for city government? The libraries stay open, garbage gets picked up and streets are maintained.

The status quo on education isn’t going to cut it anymore. A state system that struggles to serve every student is like Microsoft’s recalcitrance, for many years, to go all in on tablet and smartphones. “All in” is a pet phrase of Chief Executive Steve Ballmer.

Washington state needs to go all in on education.

The state’s failure to graduate 13 percent of students from high school is like Bing’s search market share of 17 percent. (Google’s share is 67 percent.)

Where is the just-in-time delivery of science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) graduates to fill jobs at Boeing? The state’s inability to produce college graduates to fill open jobs is the equivalent of the slow motion launch of Windows Vista.

Without a worthy competitor, generations of Windows PC users flocked to Apple and Google for the iPad, iPhone and Samsung Galaxy phones running on Android.

Our state’s competitors are other states and countries. Without a solid hiring pool, the companies here will create jobs elsewhere, in Charleston, Chicago or Palo Alto. Startups will choose to launch their ventures elsewhere.

At Microsoft, success is shipping a product on time, selling enough software to dominate a market and recruiting developers to build on Microsoft’s software. Washington state needs to graduate high school students on time, generate enough STEM graduates to fill open jobs and recruit companies to start and expand here.

Hill is drawing on priority-setting skills he picked up working on Windows 95, the most successful product launch in Microsoft history.

“At Microsoft it was hundreds of decision based on trying to rate the different priorities” for what new features to build into Windows 95, he said. “OK, how does that meet up with our goals and priorities?”

While drafting this year’s budget proposal, his priority was to create jobs, build an education system for the 21st century and create a sustainable budget. “Instead of measuring success by the number of dollars, we wanted to measure success by the outcome,” said Hill, who was the first Senate budget chair ever to request Excel files instead of paper spreadsheets.

A few items in the Senate’s budget fell short of the sustainability goal (for instance, cutting a social service for people who are blind), but the state must be held accountable for a $1 billion investment. The education measures for Hill, and the Senate’s education committee led by Sen. Steve Litzow, are kindergarten readiness, third-grade reading level, eighth-grade math and science skills, and the high school graduation rate.

There’s plenty of Microsoft that does not apply to the public sector. Microsoft’s aggressive, arrogant, trench warfare mindset does not work in a legislative setting.

Hunter, who helped build Microsoft’s Access software, said he got schooled when he first arrived in Olympia. It took him four years to get over the “blunt force trauma method,” the way stuff got done at Microsoft.

“At Microsoft it was the idea that won,” he said. “Here, it’s ‘do people trust you?’ ”

I’ve got some trust issues with whether investing $1 billion in education will result in measurable improvement.

Like Windows 8, the budget’s got issues. But both are headed in the right direction.

Sharon Pian Chan's column appears regularly on editorial pages of The Times. Her email address is schan@seattletimes.com On Twitter @sharonpianchan


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