Although Google and Facebook may just now be finding out what a minefield Washington can be for popular but politically unsophisticated technology firms, K Street veteran Jack Krumholtz has been there before. He founded Microsoft’s D.C. office 14 years ago at a time when the company was perceived to be thumbing its nose at Washington and then had to scramble to respond to the federal government’s blockbuster antitrust efforts. Now at the Glover Park Group, Krumholtz talks to National Journal about how technology is shaking up the lobbying business and how tech firms are dealing with Washington. Edited excerpts follow.
NJ Over your time working with the tech industry, what has changed the most?
KRUMHOLTZ I think the tech sector has really matured over the past 15 or 20 years in terms of its approach to Washington. I think you see more companies having a foothold here and more companies engaging with policymakers at the federal level. I think one important thing that is increasingly apparent is, tech isn’t a monolith. In the early days, people thought of tech in a holistic, uniform way, and that’s not as much the case anymore.
NJ Were Web-driven protests against antipiracy laws the start of a trend, or merely a blip?
KRUMHOLTZ Only time will tell. Companies in all economic sectors are really looking to the Web and online platforms to build communities. Whether that means they will ultimately look to those communities for advocacy purposes, I think it remains to be seen.
NJ Do you find technology companies open to learning the ways of Washington?
KRUMHOLTZ Most companies are good about knowing what they don’t know. There still is a very different worldview in the tech sector than what we have in Washington, and I think people understand that. I think companies appreciate that there still is a lot of education that needs to be done.
NJ What can other companies learn from Microsoft’s experience?
KRUMHOLTZ That it’s important to engage earlier, start to educate policymakers early, develop relationships early. A mistake that some companies made in the past was they didn’t engage; they didn’t really invest the time and resources in defining their business. What happens then is, you leave the door open for other people to define you.
NJ Are companies doing that?
KRUMHOLTZ I think so. Oftentimes, the Microsoft example is cited as what not to do in the early days. They thought that if they just continued to sell great technology, that government would leave them alone. I think we learned that wasn’t the case, and we left the door open for others to define the company. Having that example has been a good learning experience for the tech sector.
NJ What’s the most unconventional method you’ve used to get your message heard in D.C.?
KRUMHOLTZ It’s amazing how these new online platforms are used and how people consume news now and get their news—particularly younger congressional staffers. I think there is a lot of opportunity for creativity. All that said, I think there is definitely still a place for the more traditional shoe-leather [approach] and being up on the Hill and meeting people.
NJ With all the new tools, is there a new breed of lobbyist coming to D.C.?
KRUMHOLTZ To some of my younger colleagues, this stuff is second nature to them. For an old guy like me, I’ve had to learn it. I definitely see it coming much more naturally to them. I’ll sit in meetings and often be just astounded by the creativity that they bring to bear on a particular problem or issue.
NJ Some in the tech community complain that too many in Congress don’t “get” technology. Do you agree?
KRUMHOLTZ Just as the tech sector has moved up the learning curve in terms of how it engages with government, policymakers have also moved up the learning curve. Maybe 15 or 20 years ago I might have given credence to “they don’t get it,” but I don’t buy that anymore. I think they do get it.
This article appears in the Sep. 29, 2012, edition of National Journal.