Monday, August 31, 2009

Remembering Senator Kennedy as a Champion for the Technology Community

by Joyce L. Plotkin, President Emerita of the Massachusetts Technology Leadership Council (formerly President of the Massachusetts Software Council)

Although most people will remember U.S. Sen. Edward M. Kennedy for his championship of important social issues, I will also remember him for his support of the technology community.

I was president of the Massachusetts Software Council in the mid-90s when I received a call from a reporter about the H-1B visa issue. The reporter asked for my comments regarding Sen. Kennedy's opposition to increasing the number of H-1B visas, a position which put him at odds with the technology industry. I replied that we were in discussions with the senator's staff and, beyond that, I had no comment. At the beginning of the next workday, I received a call from one of the senator's senior staffers thanking me for diffusing a difficult situation. The next day I received a call from the senator himself, and that began a dialogue with the senator that lasted 14 years.

Over that 14-year period, I brought in groups of technology executives to talk with him about visas, class-action suits brought against technology companies whose stock fell, taxes on the Internet and patent reform. It was the visa issue, once again, that provided another seminal Kennedy moment for me, enabling me to learn very specifically about his ability to listen, reach out and find compromises that benefit all sides. Three years after the reporter called me about H-1B visas, I was in Captain Marden's fish market when my cell phone rang. The senator -- who, because of his recognizable voice, never identified himself when he called -- said, "I have just left the White House and we have agreed on a compromise that will allow an increase in the number of H-1B visas issued." He added that the compromise he had struck with the unions was that a $500 fee would be assessed for the visas and that part of the money would go into a fund the unions could tap to train their members for technology jobs. We went from that one victory... to a few years later when one of the national technology associations gave the senator a 100 percent ranking for his votes on key technology issues. Trust me, no one was more surprised than he was about that particular ranking!

Another outstanding memory I have of Sen. Kennedy's commitment to the technology community has to do with Net Day, a late-90s effort to get computers and Internet access into Massachusetts schools. I had the honor and pleasure of chairing the organizing committee for him. When the press got wind of the effort, they wrote us off saying the effort was bound to become "mired in profits and politics." In the usual Kennedy fashion, the day after that column appeared, I got a call from another senior Kennedy staffer. He said that the senator wanted all of us to know that the work we were doing for the children of Massachusetts was too important to let comments like that get in the way. Net Day, under the leadership of and with the full support of the senator, went on to bring computers and Internet access into half of the public schools in Massachusetts. More than $30 million in private donations was raised and more than 15,000 volunteers were mobilized and deployed to help over 1,000 schools move into the Internet Age. In addition, the senator met with union leaders who emerged from that meeting and declared that they, too, would volunteer their help. The school custodians, who originally were going to charge the schools time and a half for working on Saturdays, donated their time. And in a truly magnanimous gesture, the IBEW Local 103 blew us all away with their commitment to wire every one of the Boston Public Schools for free. One meeting with Sen. Kennedy was all it took. The immediate benefit to the children of Massachusetts was huge -- the longer-term benefit to the technology community was immense.

We had been working together on patent reform when he was diagnosed with brain cancer. I know that Sen. Edward M. Kennedy will be remembered for many things. My belief is that technology should be one of them. I know I will remain "linked in" to the Senator ... through my wonderful memories of him.

(photo credit: Ted Kennedy Official Photo Portrait from Wikimedia)

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