Chief executives of leading technology companies urged Congress on Wednesday to promote math and science in U.S. schools, avoid interfering with industry efforts to hire more workers overseas and crack down on foreign software piracy.
The executives included Microsoft's Steve Ballmer, Bruce Chizen of Adobe Systems Inc., John Thompson of Symantec Inc. and George Samenuk of McAfee Security. The head of Solidworks Corp., John McEleney, described buying a black market copy of his company's $4,000 engineering design software for $4 during a recent swing through Asia. (MSNBC is a Microsoft - NBC joint venture.)
The executives said they support plans to let the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office keep more of the fees it earns for reviewing inventions so it can hire more examiners and issue patents more quickly. The process can stretch over years.
"Our innovations are getting kind of bollixed up," Ballmer said.
But the business leaders tempered their latest lobbying with recognition that election-year politics will largely overshadow policy debates important for them.
"We can't expect a lot of viable legislation," said Bill Conner, chief executive at Entrust Inc., which makes software to protect Internet traffic.
Execs warn against protectionism
Executives urged Congress not to interfere with their efforts to hire more technology employees overseas, a politically sensitive subject. Greg Bentley of Bentley Systems Inc., which makes engineering software, said such hiring moves were "a natural aspect of globalization."
"We have an awful lot to lose through protectionism," he said.
They complained about math and science classes in U.S. schools, saying India and China are graduating far more students with skills needed as software engineers.
But during a 90-minute public meeting on Capitol Hill with senators, the executives did not offer detailed plans for overhauling America's schools. The forum was organized by the Business Software Alliance, a Washington-based trade association.
"Why can't we get in the educational system the same increase in productivity that we've gotten in the rest of the economy," asked Art Coviello, head of RSA Security Inc.
Conner said schools should offer better opportunities in math and science for women and minorities. He said students who excel in these areas still face stereotypes they are nerds.
"We need to turn up the volume, make it OK and cool to be in math and science," Conner said.
Chizen, whose company's Photoshop graphics software is among the most widely pirated programs on the Internet, urged lawmakers not to change a 1998 copyright law that bans the sale of products that can break the digital locks on software or entertainment discs. Such products can be used to make personal backup copies of DVD movies or software.
Executives agreed that although piracy is common in the United States, it is far worse overseas. Ballmer said Italy has a relatively high rate of software piracy, but not anywhere close to the worrisome rates in China.
"If China was as good as Italy, we'd all have a party and I would pay for it," Ballmer said.