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Jay Inslee
Washington Gov. Jay Inslee. (Credit: Office of the Governor)

When it comes to innovation, Gov. Jay Inslee is asking Washington voters to help him finish what he started.

Related: Q&A: Washington state gubernatorial candidate Bill Bryant on CS education, tech jobs, and trade

In an interview with GeekWire, Inslee touted investments in computer science education, biotech research, and transportation as reasons people in the technology industry should vote to re-elect him in November.

Specifically, Inslee cited a bill that allows public school students to apply computer science classes toward their science credits, and new standards his office established for CS education.

He also pledged to expand apprenticeships in Washington to help close the region’s tech talent gap. The Washington Technology Industry Association and a non-profit called LaunchCode recently announced new programs in the state, with funding from the federal Department of Labor’s American Apprenticeship Initiative and the Obama administration’s TechHire agenda.

“Our efforts to improve the skills of people, with computer technology, are leading the country,” he said. “I don’t think that’s an idle boast. We’re the first state in the country to have our American Apprenticeship Initiative in place, where we’re going to make sure we have 600 apprentices in the tech industry over the next five years.”

Bill Bryant, Republican candidate for Washington state governor. (Photo via BillBryantForGovernor.com)
Bill Bryant, Republican candidate for Washington state governor. (Photo via BillBryantForGovernor.com)

Inslee’s challenger in the November election, Bill Bryant, believes the governor could do more to address the gap between available tech jobs and workers with the skills to fill them. Like Inslee, the Republican candidate believes the answer lies in early education.

“It should be a higher priority,” Bryant told GeekWire. “That’s a critical element in closing the skills gap and it can’t be left to the last two years or three years of high school. It’s something we need to begin introducing into middle school as well.”

During a debate last week, the two sparred over education, with Bryant criticizing Inslee for failing to resolve the McCleary ruling. In 2012, the Supreme Court ruled Washington failed to adequately fund public schools and the state faces hefty fines until it creates a funding plan. To be fair, neither candidate has made public a detailed plan to deal with the McCleary ruling. Bryant says he wants to increase state spending on public education, while Inslee cited his multi-billion investment in schools during the debate.

Inslee told GeekWire that transportation innovation is a high priority for him, as governor and as a candidate. Though he didn’t take a stance in the debate over how to best connect Seattle and Vancouver, he did say he plans to look at both autonomous vehicles and a high-speed rail as potential solutions.

Right now the governor’s attention is focused on Sound Transit 3 (ST3), a $54 billion plan to extend light rail service and other public transportation between Tacoma, Seattle, and Everett. Washingtonians will vote on the measure in November.

Continue reading for our edited Q&A with Gov. Inslee.

GeekWire: If you’re re-elected, do you have specific aspirations for the technology industry in Washington state, and where do you think it can improve?

Gov. Jay Inslee: Well, we’ve got huge potential for growth, obviously. The thing that’s exciting about our state is that we have multiple platforms, multiple industries, multiple technologies that are blossoming. You look around and find other places that are doing well in one industry, but we’ve got the whole smorgasbord of technology, and I don’t turn around without running into people that I’m working with to help the technological revolution blossom.

You know I was happy to help cancer therapy when we made sure that the Juno company stayed here with T-cell technology. We’ve been working with clean energy companies. We have a spin-off from one of our efforts that has the largest vanadium flow battery in the world, to allow renewable grid-scale integration of renewable energy. Our efforts to improve the skills of people with computer technology are leading the country. I don’t think that’s an idle boast. We’re the first state in the country to have our American Apprenticeship Initiative in place where we’re going to make sure we have 600 apprentices in the tech industry over the next five years. It’s a very unique proposal, and it’s in place.

We’ve increased a variety of college opportunities for a variety of industries, from computers to mechanical engineering to electrical engineering in our colleges. I think the exciting thing about our state is that we have huge growth potential in multiple high-tech sectors. We’re doing some really creative work. I just happened to be at the announcement of the GIX facilities, the first Chinese research and educational facility on North American soil, which is going to help people here, out in the Spring District of Bellevue.

Gov. Jay Inslee speaking at GeekWire Startup Day 2013.
Gov. Jay Inslee speaking at GeekWire Startup Day 2013.

The sky’s the limit for technology here, and we’re doing some really creative things to help. I guess the point I would make, the reason it’s a joy to be governor is that we’ve had innovation in software design, we’ve had innovation in carbon fiber airplanes, but we also have innovation in public policy. That’s what I’m excited about. We have found new, innovative ways to advance computer training in our schools because we’ve passed the bill, and I’ve signed it, which established K-12 education standards for computer science. We’ve created a K-12 computer science teaching endorsement, and we’ve enabled teachers to access these scholarships pursuing computer science. These are innovative things, and when you do things differently to produce great results in public policy, it’s not as exciting as the fact that rockets, made in Redmond, just took off in a NASA mission to capture an asteroid and bring it back, but it is meaningful in people’s lives. We’re really innovating in our public policy to help technology blossom in this state.

I’ll mention one other thing. This is not a new thing to me. I’ve been working on these tech issues now for many years, in multiple places. I was an early advocate for net neutrality and vocal when I was in Congress. I helped make sure that Pandora survived, and if you call Pandora, they might mention the work I did to make sure that their business model was not destroyed by a copyright decision, and I’m glad to see their success. I’m enthused about doing this work.

GW: I definitely want to talk a little bit more about computer science education, but first I want to ask you about connecting Seattle to Vancouver. There are a couple of different proposals right now to create this innovation region between the two, one from Madrona that makes the case for driverless cars on I-5, and another that involves a high-speed rail. Which of those do you think is more compelling?

Inslee: Oh, I don’t think it’s an either-or situation. We’re not in a place where we have to make any either-or decisions on transportation modalities. I believe that you need a mix. I believe strongly that a guiding principle is to try to give options to people, and we’ve been successful in that. We’ve passed not only the largest transportation package in the history of the state, but also the greenest and most multifaceted by allowing multimodal options together with single-occupancy cars, so I really don’t believe there’s an either-or in this decision.

I do think that this beginning of a relationship with British Columbia is potentially really productive for us, to look for ways to do simple things. I just mentioned this. This doesn’t sound cosmic, but it’s important, which is to decrease the stop time as people wait to cross the border. We’re doing a simple thing, which is trying to eliminate the fifteen-minute stop on trains at the border right now, something that we ought to be able to accomplish I hope.

GW: Sure, and I understand it’s not an either-or but they both would be really significant financial investments. If the state could only put its resources toward one, a high-speed rail or this ambitious driverless car proposal, is there one area that you think has more potential?

Inslee: First I would say that I think both technologies are very promising. I’m very pleased that we succeeded in getting Google to have their testing facilities for autonomous vehicles be here in Kirkland, so we’re happy about that. High-capacity rail is something we’ve got to certainly investigate, so both technologies have real promise. I’m not in a position where any of us should try to decide between one or the other right now. They both have promise.

We’re focusing on light rail right now in the ST3 issue, and I’m a candidate who supports that increased light rail. It’s been very, very successful. Ridership is booming in our light rail system now, so I hope to extend that. First things first, is I guess what I would say. Firstly, we’ve got to get this light rail system built, but I do believe autonomous cars are very promising, from a safety perspective as well. Ninety percent of traffic accidents are caused by humans, and I think that real safety benefits eventually will come from this technology.

GW: When do you think autonomous vehicles will become ubiquitous on Washington roads?

Inslee: When you say “ubiquitous,” I guess that’s in the eye of the beholder.

GW: Sure, when will we see them regularly on Washington roads?

Inslee: I don’t have a projection, but it’s probably sooner than I would have told you four years ago. Technology is advancing very rapidly. What I can say is, I’m optimistic enough about it to be delighted that we’ve got one of the leading testing facilities in the world on this subject in Washington. That’s why I’m glad we’ve welcomed this innovation in our state.

GW: Switching gears a little bit, what’s your plan to improve computer science education in Washington and get students ready for today’s job market?

Inslee: Well, we’re doing a lot of things, and I think there are a lot of things that we need to do. As I’ve indicated, I was pleased to pass a bill to make sure that computer science counted as part of your science requirement. That seems like a no-brainer, but we had to change a law to do it. I’m glad to give more students the ability to take computer science and still graduate from high school. That was a good step.

We want to grow our apprenticeship program, which we have now started. We started with six hundred students. We want to grow that over time. I think it’s going to be very, very successful because I believe that increasing career and technical education will be very important in increasing our graduation rates, certainly no more successful than in computer training apprenticeships. We want to do this for multiple careers as part of my effort to expand career and technical education throughout multiple industries. That includes increasing skill center slots. It includes expanding our Core Plus program and my Youth Works program I started, but specifically this American Apprenticeship Initiative, I’m very excited about it.

Next, we want to give more kids coding experience. I just believe that we have to give all of our kids a meaningful experience in coding to find out if they have an aptitude or an interest in it. We have to widen the funnel, if you will, of kids who might come into the computer science realm in a serious way. That means we have to have more kids, our students, be given a coding experience in our educational system. Now, where that takes place? We’ll be talking to educators and the larger community to design a system to do that.

Next, we have to continue to expand our slots that are available to computer science in our colleges. We did that in my budget, and I was pleased to help expand in that regard.

I’ll mention something too, that people don’t think of a lot as a tech issue, but I do. Expansion of early childhood education for 3- and 4-year-olds, I consider a tech issue. I’ll tell you why. There are a lot of really smart 3-year-old kids with good intelligence living in poverty who, if we don’t catch them to help them be ready for first grade, never get into the tech pipeline. I’m pleased that we have dramatically increased early childhood education opportunities. We’re making sure every kid gets full-day kindergarten. We’re having smaller class sizes in K to third grade. These are things that are tech issues, in my mind, because they expand the number of kids who have a shot to be in a position to succeed in computer classes later on. But if you don’t help them at age 3, they may never have that shot.

GW: Is there anything that you think Washington can improve on when it comes to international trade?

Inslee: Yeah, there’s always more markets, and I’ve been very vigorous in expanding markets for high tech since I started on getting apples to Japan when I was first in Congress. Even apples are a high-tech product now because we use tech in growing them, whole new technologies that didn’t exist four years ago. I know that doesn’t strike you as a GeekWire type of issue.

GeekWire: Well, we look at things broadly.

Inslee: Obviously, protecting intellectual property is very important in working to help countries, particularly China, become more vested in the wisdom of protecting intellectual property. That is an ongoing effort. We’ve had some gains in our trading partners, but we have a long way to go, frankly, and the more I believe that China has an investment, so they start to understand the value of intellectual property, the more successful we’ll be in being able to protect our IP in our products. It is still a significant concern. We’ve got to be both consistent and helpful in helping them understand why IP needs to be protected. This is something that’s been very important. It’s something that I’ve worked on a lot. I worked to protect IP in medicines and was very active in forging a consensus to be successful on that when I was in Congress.

Other things we do as far as marketing, I’ve been active in a variety of trade missions to try to connect Washington state businesses with markets. I’ve been impressed by how businesses succeed when we do these trade missions of unexpected products in unexpected places. They’ve actually been quite successful.

GW:  Let’s talk about drones for a second. In 2014, you vetoed a bill that would have regulated the use of surveillance drones, but where do you stand on law enforcement’s use of drones and broader regulation of this pretty new technology?

Inslee: Well, I don’t think we should shut down development of the technology. I put the kibosh on a bill that would have shut it down. I think we need to consider having a fair regulatory approach for safety and privacy concerns. The federal government and the FAA obviously has an important role to play. Over time, we’re going to look at some privacy issues to give people confidence that they’re not used to violate people’s privacy. The first order of business is, the federal government’s going to have to set some ground rules for safety purposes. They’re starting to move the wheels to do that.

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