March 01, 2016 SciTech Profile

Congresswoman Suzan DelBene: Co-Founder and Co-Chair of the Congressional Internet of Things Caucus

Congresswoman DelBene (D-WA) has had a long career in the technology industry and as an entrepreneur before she became a member of Congress. She thus has particular knowledge and insight about the important role of technology in our lives and how quickly technological advances can occur. She is using that knowledge to engage and educate policymakers about the emerging issues relating to the Internet of Things.

Cynthia Cwik: Please describe your current position and the career path that led you to your current position.

Suzan DelBene: I represent Washington’s 1st Congressional District, which spans from northeast King County to the Canadian border, and includes parts of King, Snohomish, Skagit, and Whatcom counties. Having more than two decades of experience as a successful technology entrepreneur and business leader in the private sector, I bring a unique voice to the nation’s capital. My mix of real-world experience in the private and public sectors gives me a deep understanding of how to build successful businesses and create jobs, implement real fiscal accountability, and adopt policies that provide individuals with access to opportunity.

I didn’t have a natural path that led me to my current position. My career had some changes, from life sciences to technology and software, and then from that I went to nonprofit because I wanted to make a difference. I went through a lot of changes and challenges in my life growing up, and I wanted folks to have the same opportunities I had. I moved into policy and public service because I thought, “Here’s another problem I think I can get engaged in and try to help address.” When I see a problem, I think my entrepreneurial spirit pushes me to tackle it. I don’t just sit back and point out the issue. I’m seeing problems that are important to me, and I want to have an impact, and the way I can do that is by being a voice working to actually make a difference, and so here I am.

Cwik: What surprised you the most about your current position?

DelBene: I think what surprises me most is how hard it is to get things done even when everyone agrees. We actually agree on more things than I think people realize. Reauthorizing the Export-Import Bank was one example of a bill that a majority of members supported, but it was really difficult to finally get it done. The Electronic Communications Privacy Act (ECPA) is another example. We have more than 300 people on a bill to update this 30-year-old law so law enforcement must obtain a warrant to access emails, and we’ve struggled to move that forward. We do have issues we disagree on, but if we could just do the things we actually agreed on, we’d make a lot of progress.

Cwik: What background do you have with science and technology issues?

DelBene: Before coming to DC, I had a long career in the technology sector, where I had the opportunity to work on everything from embedded systems to e-commerce. Right after I graduated, I started working as a researcher in the biotechnology industry. Then, after earning an MBA, I embarked on a successful career as a technology leader and innovator. In my time as an executive and entrepreneur, I helped start as its vice president of marketing and store development, and served as CEO and president of Nimble Technology, a business software company based on technology developed at the University of Washington. I also spent 12 years at Microsoft, most recently as corporate vice president of the company’s mobile communications business.

In Congress, I have been a leader on tech and telecom issues ranging from protecting Americans’ electronic privacy to promoting more STEM education in schools. As co-founder and Co-Chair of the Congressional Internet of Things Caucus, I am working to help educate other members of Congress to ensure the policies we create are forward-looking and grounded in the realities of the 21st century.

I am also a strong proponent of increasing both our scientific and medical research. I understand that research isn’t a faucet that can be turned on and off, and no business would make drastic cuts in research and development. Smart investments in science-driven research yield profound returns that will save our country money in the long run and boost the economy.

Cwik: How do you keep up with advances in science and technology?

DelBene: In my job, I often get the opportunity to speak with people who work in science or technology. I am constantly meeting new entrepreneurs, scientists, and people in the business community. And because of my background in science and technology, information proactively comes my way. As a self-proclaimed “geek,” I also have a key interest in what’s happening in areas from life sciences to the Internet of Things (IoT). The best way to keep up with new developments in science and technology is to be actively involved because things change so quickly. In fact, what’s also really cool is all these different fields are merging. Science and technology aren’t purely separate areas anymore. There are areas of bioinformatics and other areas where we’re seeing more crossover, so that is really exciting.

Cwik: What do you see as the next big science or technology trend that you will have to deal with?

DelBene: As Co-Chair of the Congressional Internet of Things Caucus, I talk quite a bit about the challenges that will come with it in terms of consumer access and protections, spectrum supply and demand, and the balance between our national security and right to privacy. Our laws need to keep up to date with the way the world works, and right now, they are woefully behind the times so we have to deal with that. It’s also complicated because so many lawmakers don’t have a good foundation or baseline on a lot of these issues. We need to educate folks, hence the IoT caucus and other efforts like that.

Another thing—it’s not a trend, but it’s certainly an important issue—is diversity and education of the next generation. We need to make sure we do a great job educating our younger generation and making sure they’re excited to be the next innovators. We have all these great trends and information of things and sensors and bioinformatics and huge breakthroughs in personalized medicine. These are all trends that I think are going to have incredible impacts, but if we’re going to continue moving those forward, we need to prepare our next generation of researchers, scientists, and computer programmers. And unfortunately, we’re behind in that endeavor.

Cwik: What keeps you up at night when it comes to your job? Why?

DelBene: The more general answer is that we’re not getting much done. We’re not getting the easy things done, and so how are the American people going to trust us to tackle the big problems? When we can’t even do a budget every year, we’re not able to take the time necessary to be more forward-looking and plan and invest in the future. That’s really concerning because we’re seeing some consequences of that already. We have to function the way we’re supposed to and get the basics done.

Cwik: What is the best career advice you have received?

DelBene: Love what you do. You do a great job when you’re truly interested and excited about what you’re doing. It’s a great luxury to do something that you really love, so when you get up in the morning you’re excited about what you’re going to do at work. I have a sign that some folks at my old team gave me a long time ago that says “love what you do” that I keep in my office because I think that is an incredibly important piece of career advice. u