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Tech Interests Go on Hiring Spree in D.C

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Correction Appended

While much of Washington, D.C., has been focused solely on health care reform, the technology industry has been quietly undergoing a massive shuffling of the decks on the personnel front.

Since the beginning of the year, more than half a dozen tech companies have installed new government relations office heads, including Microsoft Corp.’s Fred Humphries, Applied Materials’ Gary Fazzino, Hewlett-Packard’s Larry Irving, Cognizant Technology Solutions’ Robert Hoffman and McAfee Inc.’s Thomas Gann. Several of the industry’s associations are also in the midst of major restructuring, personnel changes or expansions.

Headhunters say the shift comes as the Obama administration and the Federal Communications Commission, in particular, are paying more attention to the industry and are poised to take a more aggressive regulatory position on such issues as net neutrality.

“These technology companies have come to the realization that they can really be hurt if they ignore Washington and that they need to have somebody representing their interest,” said Ivan Adler, a headhunter at McCormick Group.

Nels Olson, head of Korn/Ferry International’s Washington office, said the changes are part of a confluence of events rather than a systematic shift in the industry.

“Obviously any time there’s a change in an administration or a Congress, it’s a time for an industry to step back and reflect if they have the right team on the field,” Olson said. “Combine that with some retirements and mergers ... all those events brought about significant changes in the heads of some of the offices.”

Most recently, wireless technology company Qualcomm Inc. picked up Democrat Greg Farmer to lead its Washington lobbying team. Farmer, who joined as vice president of government affairs, started with the company last week.

He had been heading Nortel Networks’ now-defunct Washington office. Nortel, the struggling telecom-equipment company, filed for bankruptcy protection in January and shuttered its 101 Constitution Ave. NW office earlier this month. The technology firm had six in-house lobbyists and spent $640,000 on federal lobbying in 2008, according to Senate disclosure records. The company filed a lobbying termination report in August, disclosing that it had stopped its lobbying as of December 2008.

Nortel declined to comment.

Nortel’s lowered profile is definitely an outlier among tech companies. Several others, including McAfee, Intel Corp. and Blackboard Inc. are increasing their Washington footprint.

The antivirus and cybersecurity company McAfee brought on industry veteran Gann to head up the process. Gann, who joined the company five months ago as vice president of government affairs, has brought on Fleishman-Hillard Inc. to do press outreach in Washington and in the European Union. He also hired Dickstein Shapiro as its contract lobbying firm.

Gann said he expects to grow the company’s Washington presence over time.

“We are seeing a once in a decade confluence in Washington on cybersecurity policy where we expect big changes to occur,” Gann said. “We felt we have a real expertise in the area and want to participate in the debate and contribute to the discussion.”

Educational software firm Blackboard is also ramping up its efforts. While the company has been headquartered in Washington, D.C., for more than a decade, it has just recently waded into in-house government affairs, hiring Republican Erin Tario, formerly of the National Association of Home Builders, as a manager of government relations.

“I think it’s fair to say, we are getting more proactive in terms of a federal agenda,” said Michael Stanton, senior vice president of corporate affairs and treasury at Blackboard. “Erin is just the first step in terms of a long-term process as we build out a team.”

Intel also recently expanded its footprint under the direction of Peter Cleveland, who joined the chip maker last October. This fall, Intel brought on Republican Ryan Triplette, who had previously been chief intellectual property counsel on the Senate Judiciary Committee for Sen. Arlen Specter (D-Pa.), and Democrat Peter Muller, who had most recently been with Genentech Inc. as directors of government relations.

While much of the job market around the country has struggled, the tech industry appears to be rebounding faster than others.

“Our companies are a bellwether of where the economy is going,” said Dean Garfield, head of the Information Technology Industry Council. “The tech sector seems to be leading the way out of the great recession.”

There are also several remaining job openings in the tech world. The Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers is looking to fill a newly created vice president of government affairs position. There are also senior-level positions at Oracle, to replace Robert Hoffman who departed for Cognizant, and Cisco Systems Inc., to replace Laura Ipsen, who is leaving her position as head of global government relations to help run the company’s smart grid division.

It’s not just companies that are expanding.

ITI is among those hiring. The trade group has two openings, one focusing on energy efficiency and one for a Democratic lobbyist with leadership ties, and the group may fill a third position with a cybersecurity specialty. TechAmerica is also still looking to fill a vice president of state government affairs position that was vacated earlier this year.

Compete America, the tech community’s coalition for highly skilled immigration reform, is also moving from a near-dormant status in 2008 to a much more robust operation.

“With renewed interest in laying the groundwork for comprehensive immigration reform, Compete America has decided to formalize its structure, to hire an executive director who can lead the coalition and really be in charge of our day-to-day lobbying activities,” said Alice Tornquist of Qualcomm, which is a member of the group.

The coalition recently sent out a request for proposal for an executive director.

“Opponents of highly skilled immigration and immigration reform generally will continue to engage the Hill, media, and blogosphere on a day-to-day basis and our advocacy needs [to] be able to meet and successfully respond to that challenge,” the RFP states. “Our advocacy will involve pressing the case for access to talent, while also defending against provisions that could unduly burden the recruitment process.”

Several lobbying firms with tech practices are expected to compete for the position, including Monument Policy Group. Intel’s Jenifer Verdery, who is married to Monument Policy Group’s founder Stewart Verdery, will not be part of the selection process, according to coalition spokesman Eric Thomas, even though Intel is a member.

TechNet has also been searching for a new head since its president and CEO Lezlee Westine exited for the Personal Care Products Council in April. TechNet General Counsel and Senior Vice President Jim Hawley, who is based in California, has been serving as acting CEO of the high-tech trade group.

“The search process is ongoing,” TechNet spokesman Jim Hock said.

Korn/Ferry, the headhunting firm doing the search, declined to comment about any potential candidates.

Still, the search committee is said have whittled the list of potential candidates down to two and is expected to make a decision within weeks. Rey Ramsey, CEO of One Economy, and Mary Beth Cahill, former head of EMILY’s List and manager of Sen. John Kerry’s (D-Mass.) failed presidential bid, are the two leading candidates, according to tech lobbyists.

Correction: Oct. 28, 2009

The article stated the incorrect name of the head of Hewlett-Packard’s government relations office. Larry Irving holds that position.

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