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A Technology Capital

A fulfillment center

A Gadget Guy 

New technologies and futuristic trends have intrigued me throughout my life. My youngest brother, Matthew, recalls that the first digital calculator, video camera, and Sony Walkman he ever saw or heard about were mine. In the eyes of a brother twenty-one years younger, this was a cool thing. I was technology centric—a “gadget guy.” 

By the time I ran for governor, the gadgets, inventions, and advancements of modern life were exponentially more stunning, and the world-transforming era of the internet was upon us. Happenstance of time and place put me in a leadership role at this precise moment of promise and epic change. 

Technology was an underlying theme throughout my service as governor, and I made it a focus of policy and action within Utah itself. I am comfortable in asserting the view that my service accelerated Utah’s transition into the information age and contributed to the ongoing economic success of the state over the next quarter century and beyond. 

As a candidate for governor in 1991−1992, my campaign speeches and debate appearances were laced with declarations that the information age was upon us and that our state needed to embrace it and lead. My first inaugural speech as governor in 1993 reaffirmed those aspirations and urged our state forward. America was again poised at a historic juncture, not unlike the period in the 1950s when President Dwight Eisenhower led the nation in creating the interstate highway system in the United States. That enormously consequential decision transformed commerce with a suffusion of millions of dollars and thousands of jobs—and left Utah well-positioned commercially and geographically at the crossroads of two major interstate highways. “We are indebted to the generation that built them for their foresight and commitment,” I said in the speech. “Now it is our turn.” 

I compared development of the “information superhighway” as similarly consequential and laid a foundation for our work over the next decade to meet the challenge and maximize the opportunity: 

In the next decade, a new and different type of highway must be built. . . . This one won’t require the laborious laying of asphalt and concrete. It will be built of fiber optics and invisible waves. It must reach beyond the boundaries of this nation to link us to the world. It will be an electronic highway—a telecommunications and technological capacity that will be absolutely critical for the high-paying, high-tech enterprises of the future. . . . 

The tremendous capacity of telephones, television, satellites, and computers will be merged into one seamless electronic highway, allowing the transmission of data, voice, and pictures interactively and instantaneously to anywhere at any time on hundreds or even thousands of channels. This will provide remarkable capabilities to business, government and education. Much interaction with business or government that now requires travel and time will be conducted from a home or business. 

In the same way that the interstate highway has been crucial to the commerce of our nation, our need to be at the forefront of technological capacity is acute. It must reach into every community of this state, ideally into every home. . . . 

It is important that this state invest in technology. But state government still has to maintain our existing automotive highways. Government alone will never have sufficient resources to build the electronic highway. Government must provide guidance and incentives, but the private sector, guided by the marketplace, must play the key role in development. This job will require a public-private partnership and we must move quickly if we are to take advantage of the profound opportunities ahead. 

 

1. Announcing Utah’s efforts to attract Silicon Valley companies to “grow out” their businesses in Utah because of lower costs, better quality of life, and abundant talent

2. An announcement in the Governor’s Office that eBay would locate part of its operations in Utah

3. Announcing the creation of a “smart site” in Sanpete County where using the internet, companies could leverage excellent bandwidth and well-trained workers 

 

One year later, my administration proposed a sweeping multi-year, multi-million-dollar initiative bringing technology and internet access into education, economic development, government services, and Utahns’ daily lives. We called the effort Technology 2000. 

In short order, Utah became the second state in the nation to have a website, the first to accept digital signatures,(1) and increasingly one of the most acclaimed for the efficiency and quantity of government services accessible to citizens online.(2) 

By the time I left office, 3,957 days after that first inaugural speech, Utah and much of the developing world had moved substantially toward the vision expressed in the speech. I do not have the illusion that it was because of me that these things occurred. However, my service as governor coincided with a historic and a significant social and economic transition—an era change. I chose to allocate a material percentage of my attention, personal energy, and creative thoughts to this task, and I believe my intense focus on the transition to the information age made a lasting difference. 

The Early Slopes 

Long before smart phones and Silicon Slopes, Utah was asserting its tech prowess with names like Evans & Sutherland, Novell, and WordPerfect. And before that, the state had planted a flag, obscurely but ineluctably, on the early map of the tech firmament with something called ARPANET. 

I was a high school junior when a group of computer scientists and U.S. government officials, predominantly from the Defense Department, met at Alta Ski Resort’s Rustler Lodge in 1968 to discuss the possibility of connecting computers together into the world’s first far-reaching communications network. One year later, ARPANET (the Advanced Research Projects Agency Network) was launched with four nodes—UCLA, the University of California at Santa Barbara, the Stanford Research Institute, and the University of Utah’s computer science department. 

“The tech boom in Utah's economy is known as Silicon Slopes.”

For the initial startup on October 29, 1969, with only UCLA and Stanford connected at the time, UCLA student Charles Kline sent the first message over the network with the single word “login.” The “l” and “o” made it through before the computers crashed. But his were the first two letters ever transmitted long distance between two networked computers. The University of Utah (U of U) became the fourth node, and the only one outside of California, in December 1969. 

The revolution had begun. ARPANET was the precursor to what we now call the internet. 

At a celebration in 2019 marking the fifty-year anniversary of the milestone, the dean of the University of Utah’s College of Engineering, Richard Brown, noted the historical arc and Utah’s place in it. “The University of Utah College of Engineering is pleased to have as part of its legacy the role it played in the establishment of the internet, which has had a profound effect on every aspect of modern life,” Brown said. “It is not a stretch to say that the ARPANET led to our ability to access information instantly, to our ability to communicate for free, and to the tech boom in Utah’s economy known as Silicon Slopes.”(3) 

The U of U was the fourth node of what would be 213 nodes connected. Although this network was retired in 1990 as most university computers migrated to a newer network, those first four nodes were the launch point for what was to come next—email, listservs, message boards, e-commerce, blogs, and what, by the early 1990’s, we began calling the “worldwide web” and “the information superhighway.” The future. 

The computer pioneers who had ushered in ARPANET were renowned tech names by the time I was elected governor in 1992. David Evans, the U of U’s first computer science department chair and the man at the helm of the U’s ARPANET node in 1969, had formed Evans & Sutherland with U of U colleague Ivan Sutherland. One of their graduate students, John Warnock, had founded Adobe, and another, Ed Catmull, had co-founded Pixar. 

An aerial view of Silicon Slopes today. Located in Utah County.
Silicon Slopes

Utah County, meanwhile, was on the map with some homegrown tech giants of its own. In Provo, Novell Inc., headed by Ray Noorda, had the nation’s dominant computer network operating system—NetWare—from 1985 to 1995, and was the second largest maker of software for personal computers after Microsoft. 

Across town in Orem, Brigham Young University computer science professor Alan Ashton and graduate student Bruce Bastian had created the innovative WordPerfect processing software in 1979 and founded Satellite Software International Inc. to market the program. By 1993, the duo had captured sixty percent of the word processing software market with WordPerfect 6.0. 

Mine would be the first administration in Utah to use email and Novell’s NetWare; to write and compile documents with WordPerfect; and to bring state government online. I knew our tech community well, and I understood early on how our state’s success and prosperity could be advanced through technology. Economic development would depend on it. So, too, would education. 

 

1. Mike Leavitt in front of the “Connected Utah” logo that was used to promote Utah as a growing technology capital. 

2. The first meeting drawn together by the Governor’s Office to organize the Utah Engineering Initiative. The meeting included representatives of Utah’s universities, the private equity investment community, and state government. 

3. The site of Texas Instruments, where Micron Technology used to sit. Texas Instruments announced in 2023 that they will invest more than $11 billion, thereby creating a technology beachhead for Utah. 

4. The facility Adobe built in Utah once the engineering talent was available. 

 

Technology in Education 

Six months into my first term, I laid out a vision for the use of technology in education in the July 14, 1993, speech at Southern Utah University that we called “The Bicycle Speech.” (See Western Governors University for a more detailed account). It described my early thoughts on Western Governors University, electronically adapted high schools, and the introduction of broadband internet in every school. Half a year later in my 1994 State of the State address, I followed up by asking the legislature to embark on a seven-year effort to wire schools and classrooms, increase the number of schools with computers, and help teachers gain new skills. I also called on the state’s private sector to join with us in partnership. Private sector partnering would be a consistent theme because I knew the state could not undertake this mammoth transformational task alone. Saying Utah’s future depended on how well and how fast we adapted to the information ecosystem, I introduced my Technology 2000 initiative to the legislature and the public, calling it “broader in scope, bolder in size, historic in impact:” 

Technology 2000 will coordinate investment with local governments, schools, universities, colleges, and the private sector. I propose we appropriate by the year 2000 more than $120 million as the state’s share of this investment. And we begin this year with a $30 million down payment. . . . 

. . . Technology 2000 will revolutionize education by training teachers and professors, developing technology-delivered courses, and building the largest wide area network of its kind in the world. This initiative will make government more efficient and bring services to your fingertips. It will ultimately provide video interaction, so meetings and classes can be held electronically with anyone, almost anywhere, with participants able to see each other, talk to each other, and work together from hundreds of miles away. 

This technology will have a profound effect on rural Utah. It will make a rural location an economic advantage because of the unique combination of life quality and technological access. It will help with our transportation and environmental challenges because in the cities, telecommuting from home will reduce freeway congestion and allow flexible work schedules. Every car not on the freeway means less pollution, fewer accidents, and reduced costs for office space. 

It will change our state’s public investment patterns. Public schools, higher education, and state agencies must begin to redirect part of what they are spending on traditional bricks and mortar to technology. . . . 

Access and affordability are essential, and they can best be ensured through vigorous competition in an open marketplace. Regulators must protect citizens where competition does not exist, but the telecommunications playing field must be leveled to encourage competition and to attract new entrants and investment. 

The legislature met my request that year, but I still had to make the case every year after. I asked for the next tranche of education technology infrastructure in 1995, recommending a $37 million appropriation for Technology 2000 to expand distance learning, develop courses for electronic delivery, and connect schools and libraries to the “electronic highway.” 

“We will build on challenge and turn change to opportunity.”

“While the challenges of growth are daunting,” I said, “the second major force of change can help us. We are entering the information age, a new era. We will soon live in a networked society of electronic commerce, distance learning, telecommuting and automation of many daily tasks.” 

Not Later; Now 

By early 1996, Utah was flying high, with a statehood centennial celebration under way following a year in which we saved Hill Air Force Base from closure and lured a highly coveted Micron Technology plant to Utah.(4) The centennial in particular spotlighted how far industriousness had taken us since 1896—and where we now needed to go, with a new decade, century, and millennium only four years away. 

“This only happens once every one thousand years,” I said in the 1996 State of the State address. “What’s more, it is a time when events are converging to usher in a whole new era in history as the industrial age gives way to the knowledge age. We face changes and challenges of staggering proportions. But in the tradition of those who have served before us, we will build on challenge and turn change to opportunity. Not by our declarations, but by our actions, not later but now.” 

Bold action was not just talk, as I used the opportunity of the speech to unveil Western Governors University (WGU), the most innovatively radical initiative of my administration. WGU had matured from the concept floated two years earlier in the Bicycle Speech to an actual structure and needed legislation to provide the initial capital. I did not need to utter the words “electronic superhighway” that year. WGU would be built on top of it. 

In addition to protecting and enhancing our basic infrastructure of water and roads, we must take advantage of the new infrastructure of information technology and telecommunications. I want to make a proposal that a decade from now will benefit thousands of our citizens. I propose that we partner with neighboring states to create a regional, virtual university—a higher education institution for a new millennium. Students in several states will take electronically-delivered classes originating from public and private institutions all across the region. 

We have great colleges and universities. Their research is changing the world of information technology, space, biotechnology and medicine. But there’s a new element to be added. For the past 2,500 years, people traveled to college and university campuses to access the knowledge that is stored and taught there. In the Knowledge Age, the knowledge will go where the people are. The simplicity of that statement belies the earth-shattering consequences of its impact. . . . 

Discord had already begun to manifest itself within the traditional higher education community. While some were believers, others were highly skeptical. Others were blatantly dismissive of my ideas. I choose to address the doubters head on. 

Our higher education community in Utah is very progressive, almost visionary on this subject. On every campus many are moving forward, but there will always be those who want to stick with the status quo. There are centuries of cultural and bureaucratic barriers to overcome. But these changes are being driven by the marketplace. 

Will this replace the on-campus experience? No, that’s not its purpose. But it will offer thousands of citizens an important alternative, and it will enhance the choices and options of those who want the campus experience. 

None of this will seem particularly visionary to a person born after the year 2000. By the time they became adolescents, computing power had become a routine aspect of daily life, and ubiquitous high-speed internet was simply the way the world worked. However, in 1996, only a few homes had internet service, and those that did had to dial in using an external modem—a box that home computers and landlines both connected to, although both could not be used at the same time. Internet speeds were a bare minimum. 

Routinely, my enthusiasm for technology and commitment to tech advancement were the subject of humor among my friends and sniping by my critics, and the conceptualization of an internet university—WGU—was considered “out there.” 

We were poised, however, at a remarkable moment—the twentieth century counting down to the twenty-first century and a new millennium. Y2K, as we called it, was coming, along with so much that was new, promising, challenging, and “out there.” In a few short years, as the early slopes of Silicon Slopes began to bustle, I knew the existence of internet service in homes, schools, and businesses would be a distinct comparative advantage. We needed a foothold in the climb to becoming a technology capital. 

Wiring Utah for the Internet 

Today we assume an internet signal carries digital information. But in the 1990s, telephone networks and, therefore, computer networks were connected by copper wires that carried information and sound at very slow speeds. Although it was slow, it was a start. Even cable television used copper to carry signals. 

The future, we knew, would be fiber optics. But we were not there yet, and the Governor’s Office was deeply involved in the mid-1990s in promoting the extension of internet connectivity to homes and public buildings through any means available. As we began to aggressively rebuild highways, we were careful to ensure that rights-of-way were preserved for cables that carried internet signals to towns, neighborhoods, and homes. We traded access to those rights-of-way to telephone companies, cable television providers, and satellite firms in exchange for them investing capital in “web tone”—our terminology for immediate high-speed access to the internet, and a play on the more common term “dial tone.” We were intent on getting web tone into neighborhoods, down to the last quarter mile, and we put special emphasis on wiring public buildings and schools. 

Having access to internet was a new luxury. I recall visiting a school in southeastern Utah where faculty and students initiated a project to pull fiber optic cable throughout their school by themselves. 

This was the spirit of the times. Bandwidth also was a new term then, used by those who understood that bandwidth was an economic asset. My 1998 State of the State speech captured the optimistic, almost sci-fi mood, and the frontier-meets-future disposition of the leadership I was providing during this period: 

One hundred and two years ago, Utah was a new state of 270,000 people in the twilight of a waning century. Two years from now, our young, vibrant state leaves the epochal cradle of its infancy and charges into the next millennium. 

. . . Tonight, as we examine the state of this great state, let us lift our eyes to the horizon beyond our time. Let us envision our future so we can shape it. 

. . . Microchips have replaced mule teams. Our pioneer settlement has become a metropolis. Two hundred-seventy-thousand people are now two million. 

The next century will be a time of supercomputers and smart highways. Digital television will be used for entertainment, but also for education. Microprocessors will be in our kitchens. We’ll get the morning’s Dow Jones on our toast.” 

Upheaval was upon us—but in a good way. Every couple of centuries the world goes through a massive transition, I noted in the speech. At such times nations are shaped and entire economies defined. America became a world power because it combined unprecedented freedom and leadership during the transition from the Agricultural to the Industrial Age. Now we were moving from the Industrial Age to the Knowledge Age at blinding speed, and our nation’s future as a world leader was dependent on our navigating that change as skillfully as we did the last. 

“The state or nation that leads that trend will rise to preeminence because its sociological and geo-political implications are enormous,” I said. “It is a force that will push and shape governments for the next half century. Utah will not be a bystander.” 

Digital State 

As fiber optic technology advanced, we began pushing toward technology that would carry digital signals at the speed of light—much faster than copper-based signals. We began to talk about Utah as a “digital state” rather than a “wired state.” 

By the time of my 1999 State of the State speech, the 2002 Winter Olympics were three years away, we had hit the halfway point in the massive I-15 reconstruction project, and our commitment to leading the tech wave was unabated. 

With a new century and millennium beckoning, the speech took a quick detour to the turn of the twentieth century to mark the contrast between the high-speed, digital advancements of 1999 and the newfangled marvels that captivated our state in the early 1900s—as exemplified by a particularly colorful gentleman from Iron County. 

In 1903, the first telephone lines came to my hometown of Cedar City. Two years later, an extension was run into a small town to the north called Enoch. Just outside Enoch lived a gentleman by the name of William H. Grimshaw, and it was William H. Grimshaw’s desire to obtain what was then unobtainable: a telephone in his own home. 

The manager of the Cedar City phone company tried to dissuade him, noting that the cost of extending the wires was impractical and expensive. But William was not a man to be denied. 

He set about connecting every barbed wire fence, connecting his property to town. Few believed it would do anything but maybe spook the cattle a little. 

But then William borrowed a phone, installed it and rang up central. Arabella Jones, the operator said, “Number please. Who is this?” The smuggest voice in Iron County replied, “This is William H. Grimshaw on Linger Longer Lane talking on the barbed wire fence. 

It took decades for William’s dream of a home phone to become reality for every Utahn. That would not be the case for our state’s digital transformation. 

With the world’s attention about to be fixed on Utah for the Olympics, I proposed we also let the world see the future—the foundation of a truly digital state, including the ability to deliver high-speed, high-capacity internet access to every home, school, and business in the state. 

“It is quick, immediate, high-speed access to the worldwide web, and soon it will be as commonplace and as easy as picking up a telephone and hearing dial tone. It works at speeds one hundred times faster than we have today.”

“Web tone is not a familiar term yet, but it will be,” I said. “It is quick, immediate, high-speed access to the worldwide web, and soon it will be as commonplace and as easy as picking up a telephone and hearing dial tone. It works at speeds one hundred times faster than we have today.” 

Once in place, web tone would enable all other goals: the capability to deliver education from colleges and universities directly into homes. The capability to pay bills, conduct banking, and make purchases online. The capability to deliver medical services to remote areas electronically. The capability to access government services twenty-four hours a day. 

“High-speed access would be a boon to business bottom lines throughout the state,” I said. And for this to occur we had to have a new level of cooperation, as well as appropriate competition among technology providers, telephone companies, cable operators, wireless companies, and internet service providers. 

“It will not happen unless we work together.”

“It will not happen unless we work together. The state’s role will be to remove unnecessary barriers to innovation, incent new investment in infrastructure, protect ratepayers, and create a level playing field for competition. And we must make sure this buildout of digital infrastructure occurs all over the state. Today the dream of web tone, building a ‘digital Main Street,’ and a college class in every kitchen is achievable.”(5) 

One year later, as noted in the 2000 State of the State speech, more than seventy percent of all households along the Wasatch Front now had access to high-speed internet. Statewide, the number was fifty-five percent. That was unmistakable progress, but we still had work to do in rural Utah. The goal was high-speed, high-capacity internet service in every community of Utah within two years. 

A Grow-Out Center 

The new millennium had dawned, and the world had changed profoundly in the seven years since my election. Once an exciting idea in abstract, the internet was now a reality at our doorstep. 

The State of Utah had its website—the second state in America to launch one—and by this time was actively contemplating ways to offer state services via the internet. We had created a new university (WGU) that would be entirely operated online. WordPerfect and Novell were our two major tech employers, but beyond those two important businesses, the state lacked much of a foothold. We also had just one venture capital fund in the state, with a whopping $20 million. 

We aspired to be more and developed a plan. It included building the ecosystem required to attract and build those jobs—the web tone and access component already under way across the state. Then, too, people needed to learn how to use those tools. And if we wanted to play a meaningful role in technology, we had to attract investment funds, law firms, and accounting organizations with sufficient capacity and reputation. We were in a race. 

The second critical piece of the plan was to attract and grow tech jobs, and for that we had to look out of state. We set our sights on Silicon Valley. I set a goal to be in Silicon Valley more often than the governor of California—and I was. 

We had a compellingly simple message and strategy for the Silicon Valley CEOs: Grow and expand your businesses in Utah. Your workers are commuting an hour and a half each way to San Jose and the surrounding tech towns of Silicon Valley because they can’t afford housing. Come to Utah, we said, where there is an abundance of quality workers and an unbelievable quality of life. Workers could buy a home on a reasonable salary, and they would love the recreation and atmosphere of the community. One more thing—you can fly to Salt Lake City from Silicon Valley faster than it takes to drive from Stanford to Berkeley. 

A speech I gave on October 5, 2000, at a conference sponsored by Governing magazine, reflected our strategy and approach: 

In our state, we are in pursuit of high-tech jobs. We have noted that we have a particular geographic advantage in that we are only an hour from Silicon Valley. In fact, you can get from Salt Lake City to Silicon Valley faster than it takes to drive across Silicon Valley. 

Silicon Valley is a boiling pot of ideas and money. But it has a couple of challenges: there are not enough workers to supply its need, and it does not have space for anybody anymore. A 1,500 square foot house in Silicon Valley costs $750,000. A square foot of office space costs about $12 to 14 . . . per month! In Utah, a square foot of office space goes for $15 to 18 . . . per year! We have a workforce growing at twice the national average. We have the capacity to become a grow out location for these companies. 

We formed the Utah/Silicon Valley Alliance to partner with high tech businesses to bring jobs to Utah and to discover how we can make ourselves more attractive to these companies. People are responding; they are participating in the alliance. 

This experience has taught me that the most important thing I can do in my role as governor is to bring people together. The role of an economic development executive, or a state executive or a county executive today is not just to operate the functions and levers of government; it is to lead the important collaborations between the public and the private sector that will bring a better quality of life to our communities. 

Change is going to happen. These are grand, shaping forces. We can fight them and die; we can accept them and survive; or we can lead them and prosper. 

I would just leave you with this challenge. This is a grand opportunity we have to be in public service at a time when this transition is occurring. Let it be said of us that we were the ones who made the transition into the Information Age, that we met every challenge and did not waver. Let it be said that we believed, that we cared, and most of all that we did it with our eye on the next generation. 

History will show that our strategy worked in both the short term and the long term. The long-term strategy held that once tech companies were in Utah and the ecosystem in place, we would begin to see a start-up culture develop—and it did. Shorter-term was all about landing those tech companies. 

Persuading eBay 

One company I had been actively courting since the late 1990s was eBay. I visited CEO Meg Whitman several times, repeatedly proposing that eBay grow out its business in Utah. One day, out of the blue, they called us. The message was direct: We are growing so rapidly we’re about to explode, they said. We need expansion and fast. eBay had narrowed it down to two sites: one in Utah, the other in Arizona. They needed capacity for four hundred people in four months and asked if we could deliver it. 

A meeting was held in the Governor’s Office. It was all-hands-on deck. We got local government officials, landlords, and utility companies together and assembled a plan. It proved persuasive. eBay did choose Utah over Arizona and opened a customer service center in the southern end of the Salt Lake Valley. Once here, they found the quality of the workforce high. The facility and the number of jobs in Utah grew rapidly in subsequent years. 

I had a conversation with an eBay employee several years ago. “There’s a piece of lore that makes the rounds about how the site ended up in Utah,” she said. “The story is that you called Meg Whitman and told her you understood the decision was between a site in Utah and one in Arizona, and that you talked her into choosing Utah on the basis of your personal eBay user rating. Is that true?” 

I said, “Yes, it’s true.” I’d been selling a few things on eBay to understand how it worked, and when Meg Whitman told me we were competing with Arizona, I said to her, “I have a suggestion on how to decide. Check and see if the governor of Arizona has an eBay account. If he doesn’t, then I think you know where you should be. If he does, compare his user ratings with mine and then go to the highest one.” 

Maybe it was just a coincidence, but we got the deal the next day. There are stories like that about the arrival of many of the earliest tech businesses on the scene, like Fidelity, Goldman Sachs, and others. However, one of the most consequential moves involved not just bringing a company to Utah but bringing one particular Utahn back. 

Warnock, Adobe, and Engineers 

On another visit to Silicon Valley, I paid a call to John Warnock, the CEO of Adobe and a University of Utah graduate. It may have been the most important visit I made during all my trips to Silicon Valley because of a key lesson I learned. 

I made my pitch. When I was finished, I waited for John Warnock’s reaction. There was silence as John stared at his shoes, and then at me. Finally, when he spoke, he practically shouted at me. 

“Look,” he said, “you want tech jobs in Utah, you’ve got to have more engineers. Utah isn’t investing a fraction of what it needs to. Tech companies need engineers. You’ve got good universities, but they don’t have capacity. Companies like Adobe can’t come to Utah unless you fix that.” 

“I want to know what it would take to double the number of engineers graduating from Utah colleges and universities and how long it would take.”

I have to admit, I wasn’t expecting his response, and I was taken aback. I returned to Utah and began doing homework. John Warnock was right. 

I called a group of people together from the universities and our tech community and asked a simple question: “I want to know what it would take to double the number of engineers graduating from Utah colleges and universities and how long it would take.” 

A few months later I called John Warnock back. I asked him to come to Utah for my 2001 State of the State speech to the legislature. There was a special reason I wanted him there. 

As I addressed the legislature and the people of Utah that night, I proposed the Utah Engineering Initiative, a serious program of investment in our engineering schools with a clear goal: Double the number of engineering slots in Utah colleges and universities. These were my words: 

Our education emphasis cannot stop in our primary grades. All Utahns need access to higher education. We are expanding our system of branch campuses and increasing the velocity of our entire system. I have challenged the Board of Regents to reduce the time students take to get a four-year degree to four years. 

We also need to double in five years and triple in eight years the number of engineering, computer science and tech graduates in Utah universities, colleges and applied technology centers. 

Let this be the beginning of a new emphasis on market relevance in the allocation of resources at our colleges and universities. I have proposed an aggressive building program to add the physical capacity on our campuses, and funding to ensure we have qualified faculty and up-to-date equipment. We need 15,000 engineering and computer science students by 2005. Our economic future depends on it. 

To get there, we need to nurture math and technology skills among our students in junior high and high school, especially among young women. 

We are losing from our public schools too many teachers in high demand areas of math and technology. Something has to be done to stop this drain. 

I meet qualified math and technology teachers all over the state. Unfortunately, I meet many of them at high-tech businesses, not in our schools. They simply could not afford to stay. 

Representative Tom Hatch has as his guest tonight one of those former teachers, Jeff Owens, who taught math at Panguitch High School. Jeff influenced many from that small High School to pursue technology careers. 

Despite his love of teaching, despite his love of Panguitch, he left, taking a job with a computer software company. 

Jeff’s story is not unique. Too many Utah teachers are forced to make the same decision every year. We hate to lose a great teacher in English, art, social science in any category. We value all teachers, but right now there is a magnified problem when math and advanced technology teachers leave. It starts an economic domino effect. 

Our economy depends upon those who can teach these skills. If we lose them, we lose our capacity to educate our young people in the careers that will keep them competitive. To have great schools, we have to have a great economy. It is that simple. 

It is time to do something unconventional. 

I propose a plan of financial incentives similar to those used in private industry to keep the qualified teachers we have in these areas and add at least 850 teachers who have master’s degrees in learning technology. I propose a one-time benefit of as much as $20,000 on top of their existing salaries in exchange for a commitment to stay in Utah schools for four years. Outstanding teachers in other disciplines willing to retool themselves in these high demand areas are also eligible. The state will pay for their master's degree in technology or their certificate in math and give them a retention contract when they graduate. 

The legislature embraced the engineering initiative and has, over the ensuing years, appropriated generous amounts of money to build capacity in all our colleges and universities. 

But there was more to this vision than just money to universities. It was clear just having capacity in the engineering schools wasn’t enough. We needed emerging students who were academically ready to fill seats in engineering schools, and so we had to up our game in public education, too. We improved curriculum in our schools and began promoting math and science among students, especially female and minority students. 

As part of the engineering initiative, we built five new charter high schools specializing in math, science, and engineering. Each was tied to a college or university and structured to produce graduates who left high school with both a high school diploma and an associate degree. They could matriculate directly into the engineering schools. 

It worked. Since that day John Warnock chewed me out in Silicon Valley, the number of engineering and computer science graduates each year has steadily increased. In total, forty-thousand students will have graduated with engineering or computer science degrees from Utah’s system of higher education. Those engineers have fueled a remarkable story of technology growth in Utah the last two decades. 

Some years later, Warnock called the engineering initiative an “unqualified success” emulated by more than a dozen other states. In an op-ed he wrote for The Salt Lake Tribune in 2019, he noted that since its rollout in 2001, the initiative had increased the engineering and computer science graduates in Utah’s system of higher education by almost two-and-a-half times—from 1,375 in 2001 to 3,283 in 2018. 

What’s more, Warnock reported, from 2016 to 2017 alone, tech-related job postings in Utah increased by an astonishing 42 percent. Net tech employment in Utah totaled 135,000 in 2019, and the economic impact of the tech industry was an estimated $14.9 billion in direct contribution to the state’s bottom line—10.25 percent of the state GDP. 

His advice nearly two decades later was the same as it was back when he and I met to talk about reversing the brain drain of Utah STEM talent to California and Washington: Keep on investing in engineering education. 

“The Engineering Initiative remains Utah’s best hope for building the technical workforce,” he said. “For more than a decade, state, business and higher education leaders have shared a single vision of a robust, diversified high-tech economy built on a foundation of Utah-bred engineering talent. If companies can rely on a steady supply of highly skilled local graduates, combined with business-friendly policies, Utah will remain a mecca for high-tech investment.”(6)

Incidentally, Warnock’s ties to Utah proved lasting in other ways. In 2003, John and his wife Marva Warnock donated 200,000 shares of Adobe stock to the University of Utah for a new College of Engineering building. The building was named after the couple. 

Warnock also brought Adobe to Utah in 2009. Its $1.8 billion acquisition of Omniture marked the beginning of a corporate investment in Lehi that created Adobe’s third largest site. The Adobe building is an architectural standout along I-15 in Utah County. Every time I pass the site I am reminded of the pivotal early meetings with Warnock and how his vision—and mine—came to fruition. 

Micron in Utah 

Before eBay’s and Adobe’s moves to Utah, another tech firm established itself in Utah County, and, in doing so, helped establish Silicon Slopes. 

Part of our strategy in the mid-1990s was gaining a foothold in the advanced microprocessor world. We started a conversation with Steve Appleton, then Micron Technology’s CEO, and the company’s principal shareholder, J.R. Simplot. The company was headquartered near Boise and needed a major expansion. They were trying to decide whether to expand in Boise or another location. We saw this as a potential game changer for Utah, believing an abundance of smaller ventures would follow, creating thousands of family wage jobs. 

The competition for the Micron plant was intense. It boiled down to Utah and Nebraska. As we got close to the end, we had two advantages: Our workforce and a superior physical site. However, there was a problem. The site Micron wanted wasn’t for sale. 

“You get that land, and we’ll build the plant.”

In conversations with Steve Appleton, I learned that J.R. Simplot wanted it on the favored site or not at all. I asked for a meeting with Mr. Simplot. 

J.R. Simplot is one of the most colorful and remarkable men I’ve ever encountered. He dropped out of school in the eighth grade and became a billionaire after starting a potato business in Idaho. He was plain spoken but had a big persona. Every time I saw him, he was wearing a Stetson hat. 

“Mr. Simplot,” I said, “We want your new plant in Utah. What do we need to do for that to happen?” 

“Well,” he said, clearing his throat, “I love that site up against those hills. It’s a beautiful piece of land. If we build it in Utah, that’s where it will be, but they tell me it’s not for sale.” 

“Mr. Simplot, we need you in Utah. I hear you loud and clear—that site, or no site. I’m going to do everything I can to make it available, but I need two things from you. I need a commitment that if it’s available, you’ll be fair with the people who own it now, and that you’ll build the plant—soon.” 

There was a long pause. Then he said, “You get that land, and we’ll build the plant.” 

There were basically three families who owned the land. Some of them had farmed the land for many generations. 

I met with one of them—Brent Beasley, who I knew personally—and made a strong request of him, asking that he think about it. I also arranged to meet with the other families—the Batemans and the Holbrooks, if I remember correctly—the next Saturday morning. 

That Saturday we gathered at a home in Lehi. Sitting in the living room were members of each family from multiple generations. I explained why I was there. 

I had grown up in Southern Utah, where we farmed land that had been in our own family since the area was settled. I understood the feeling of heritage, of the hesitance about selling land that had been passed down. I knew they had turned down many buyers previously. 

I said, “I know what I am asking you to consider is an extraordinary request, but I’m here as an elected representative of the people of Utah. I’m here on behalf of thousands of Utah families who want their children to be able to stay in Utah and earn a living. If Micron builds their facility in Utah, it will launch an entire industry—a twenty-first century industry. It will set off cascading growth in this area that, over the next half century, will enable tens of thousands of families to earn a living and educate their children. It will mean that some who would otherwise have to leave the state will be able to stay. Your land could be put to many uses, but this is likely a once in a lifetime opportunity to do something this lasting.” 

They were very gracious to me, but it was a sober meeting with no conclusion. I simply asked that they discuss it and let me know. 

A few days later, on March 13, 1995, I had another conversation with Brent Beasley, who said he would agree to a discussion with Micron. A short time later, I spoke with a representative of the farming families, who conveyed a similar message. They had all agreed to sell. 

Mr. Simplot, in turn, lived up to our handshake deal. In July 1995, two months after the family negotiations, construction began on the plant that is now so prominent in the economy of that region. Billions of dollars were invested, and a Utah economic beachhead was born. Thousands of Utahns are employed and tens of thousands more will be in the future. I’m confident Mr. Simplot was fair with those families, but they didn’t need to sell. It was a sacrifice of a heritage asset to establish an opportunity for future generations. 

Texas Instruments bought the Micron chip fabrication plant for $900 million in late 2021, ending the Micron connection forged with Scott Appleton and J.R. Simplot more than two decades earlier—but establishing a Utah hub for Texas Instruments and semiconductor manufacturing. In 2023 Texas instruments announced it would invest $11 billion in the site. They estimate the investment will add eight hundred mostly tech jobs. All of this progress can be directly attributed to the existence of the facility.

TechTown USA, a Technology Capital

Today, Utah truly is viewed as a technology capital. At the time of this writing, the state was ranked seventh among states for venture capital activity and third when measured per capita. Utah’s tech industry now accounts for 302,000 total jobs and one in every seven dollars of GDP in the state. There are more than seven thousand tech companies in the state. This is a striking achievement.(7) To understand what happened in Utah during these years, it is important not to look at any singular aspect of our team’s work, but rather the totality of it. 

It was the combination of pushing for the necessary infrastructure, the engineering initiative, the founding of WGU, the hard, thankless work getting the e-commerce taxation system right. Then it was also important to remember that leadership is a generational relay. Those who preceded me left assets I could build on, and I did the same for my successors. I was intensely focused on the transition into the information age. Looking back on the past thirty years my efforts were properly directed. The seeds we planted have been harvested now for many years. 

Hachman Index Ranking, 1970-2020
Utah Economic Diversity

A Utah Success Story: Utah’s Economic Diversity

By Natalie Gochnour, Director, Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute


The Utah economy ranks among the most well diversified economies in the country. Diverse economies benefit from a healthy industry mix and demonstrate more economic stability over the long term.

Utah’s economic diversity is a relatively new phenomenon. For much of the state’s modern history Utah’s economy specialized in the goods-producing industries of mining, manufacturing, and construction. Because of this dependency, Utah ranked thirty-fourth in economic diversity among states in 1970, eighteenth in 1980, and twenty-sixth in 1990. Entities such as Kennecott (now owned by Rio Tinto), Geneva Steel (closed in 2001), Hill Air Force Base, and other defense-related companies comprised a large share of Utah’s economic activity. Utah’s economic success rose and fell based on the performance of just a few industries.

A major and fortuitous inflection point occurred between 1990 and 2000. As technological advancements fueled the information age, Utah competed and won. State leaders made forward-looking investments in a more than doubling of the number of engineers, computer scientists, and math graduates from Utah’s institutions of higher learning. This well-trained workforce benefitted Utah’s tech and life science industries and helped create what is known as Silicon Slopes. In subsequent years, tourism at Utah’s national parks (boosted by Utah’s successful hosting of the 2002 Olympic and Paralympic Games and Mighty 5 ad campaign) increased dramatically, as did skier days at Utah’s ski resorts. These and other changes resulted in a much more diversified economy. Among other states, Utah ranked first in economic diversity in 2000, second in 2010, and third in 2020.

This remarkable transition from a specialized economy to a diverse economy didn’t occur by accident. It occurred as Utah leaders made smart decisions and invested in Utah’s economic future. Today’s Utahns benefit from the thoughtful, strategic, and future-oriented decisions of the past.

 

Footnotes:

1. Associated Press, “Utahns are using e-signatures already,” Deseret News, 19 June 2000. https://www.deseret.com/2000/6/19/19513279/utahns-are-using-e-signatures-already 

2. Utah won the 2022 Best Government Mobile Website Award and came in second for the 2022 Government Experience Awards. https://www.utah.gov/about/awards.html  (See also: https://www.govtech.com/cdg/government-experience/government-experience-awards-2022-winners-announced; https://dts.utah.gov/news/utah-ranks-among-top-states-in-delivering-digital-government-services) The Center for Digital Government has also given Utah an “A” grade in the Digital States Survey.

3. UNews, “Birth of the Internet.” University of Utah, 26 September 2019. https://unews.utah.edu/birth-of-the-internet/ 

4. The Micron Technology plant was bought by Texas Instruments in 2021.

5. Michael Leavitt, “The Best of a State: Faces Utah,” State of the State address, 18 January 1999. 

6. John Warnock, “John Warnock: Utah’s Engineering Initiative has boosted state’s high-tech boom,” The Salt Lake Tribune, 31 January 2019. https://www.sltrib.com/opinion/commentary/2019/01/31/john-warnock-utahs/ 

7. Brock Blake, “Beyond Tech Unicorns: What Other States Can Learn From Utah’s Small Business Economy,” Forbes, 11 May 2019. https://www.forbes.com/sites/brockblake/2019/05/11/utahs-small-business-economy/?sh71cc2436352d 

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