Youth is on his side

Virginia tech chief Eugene Huang brings fresh ideas to the commonwealth

Ten months shy of his 30th birthday, Eugene Huang is a rising star in state government. As Virginia's technology secretary, Huang is the youngest member of Gov. Mark Warner's Cabinet. He faces the tough task of making a mark on technology policy in the final stretch of the governor's term. Huang, who took the helm as technology chief last fall after three years as deputy, said he sees his youth as a benefit and a challenge.

"I make mistakes, and some of my colleagues are willing to attribute that to relative youth and inexperience, and I am more than happy to leverage that," he said. "But by the same token, there are a lot of my colleagues who think I represent this new generation that is very comfortable with technology and expect it to permeate every aspect of our lives."

Indeed, Huang is far from a high-tech neophyte. He hails from the analytical background of an academic and brings experience from the start-up heyday of Silicon Valley. But learning the legislative ropes hasn't been easy.

"He is an extraordinary, tireless worker," said George Newstrom, Virginia's former technology secretary, who worked with Huang throughout his term and recommended him for the job. "His age, I think, works for him."

Huang met Warner nearly a decade ago when Warner was running for the U.S. Senate and Huang was an intern for Philadelphia's mayor at the time, Ed Rendell. With Warner's background in technology and Huang's interest in government, the two hit it off, and Huang took time off from college to work on Warner's campaign.

Several years later, after earning a bachelor's degree in electrical engineering and economics from the University of Pennsylvania, starting a software company in California and diving into a Ph.D. program at Oxford University, Huang returned to assist Warner when the governor summoned him.

"When he was elected governor, he called and asked for my help and tracked me down when I was very happily doing a Ph.D. program," Huang said. "It is hard to tell a governor-elect no."

Huang put his studies on hold in 2002 to be Warner's deputy secretary of technology, suspending his dissertation research on mobile phone standards, a topic fueled by his frustrations with a U.S. wireless phone service that wouldn't work when he moved to Great Britain.

Now, Huang has stepped into a lead role, one he said has sometimes changed focus. When Warner took office, Virginia was mired in a multibillion-dollar deficit, prompting the governor to question whether the state was getting the most out of information technology funds, Huang said.

For the first three years of the administration, the IT division shifted operations to better manage technology rather than simply automate business processes, he said.

"What we are moving toward next is what we call the transformation process and getting back to the concept of IT transforming the government processes," Huang said. "It's really taking the power of technology to [improve] how the business of government runs."

For example, one of the largest projects Huang hopes to make progress on is

public/private partnerships, based on legislation that allows companies to submit proposals for more timely, cost-effective government projects. The effort allows government officials to tap the private sector for tasks the government doesn't have the money or the appetite to fund, Huang said.

The goal is to build a data center in which to consolidate Virginia's dozens of independent computer facilities that store servers and back-office equipment. The initiative aims to merge data operations, server management and help-desk resources to reduce costs and increase security.

"The initiatives, if they were to be tackled by the state alone, would cost tens of millions of dollars or hundreds of millions of dollars," Huang said. "The state doesn't have that capital floating around."

Building those partnerships required Huang to work with companies and clearly articulate the value of technology in state government.

Michael is a freelance writer based in Chicago.

The Eugene Huang File

Title: Virginia's technology secretary.

Age: 29.

Family: His father is a doctor who specializes in infectious diseases, and his mother has a Ph.D. in microbiology. They live in Los Angeles with Huang's younger brother.

Hobbies: An avid runner, Huang ran a marathon in Orlando, Fla., last month and hopes to qualify to run in the Boston Marathon in the spring. His best time hovers around three and a half hours. Also a voracious reader, Huang recently cleaned out his wish list on Amazon.com as a Christmas present to himself. Of the two dozen books he ordered, he is planning to start with "The Right Nation: Conservative Power in America" by John Micklethwait and Adrian Wooldridge.

Education: He earned bachelor and master's degrees in engineering from the University of Pennsylvania and a bachelor's degree from the university's Wharton School. He is on leave from his economic history studies at Oxford University.

Work history: Huang co-founded BuildPoint, a software company in Redwood Shores, Calif. He also worked as a policy analyst for the Federal Communications Commission, where he developed pricing models for wireless spectrum auctions.

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