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Why Former Microsoft Executive Doug Burgum Wants to Be Governor of North Dakota (Q&A)

"The role of governor is the closest thing to a CEO job in government," says Burgum, one of three main Republican candidates.

Doug Burgum for North Dakota

Doug Burgum is already known as one of North Dakota’s most successful businessmen, having sold his Great Plains Software to Microsoft for $1.1 billion back in 2002. He served as a top Microsoft executive for the next six years and more recently has been a board member and investor in a number of technology companies.

Now, Burgum wants to be the state’s governor. Burgum, one of three main candidates in the Republican primary, says he is running as a social moderate and fiscal conservative.

Doug Burgum for North Dakota

“The role of governor is the closest thing to a CEO job in government,” Burgum told Re/code. “I have spent my working life attracting capital and talent to North Dakota.”

In a wide-ranging email interview, Burgum talked about his motivation, the role technology can play in North Dakota and his thoughts on the Republican primary. Here’s an edited transcript of the interview:

Re/code: What made you want to run for governor?

Doug Burgum: The private sector, free markets and technology are all huge positive forces that have literally helped change the world. I am grateful to have been able to spend my life as an entrepreneur in the global software industry.

The role of governor is the closest thing to a CEO job in government. I have spent my working life attracting capital and talent to North Dakota. I am interested in working where I can have the biggest impact on my home state, and the role of the governor in North Dakota, among other duties, is to be the lead ambassador and cheerleader for attracting human and financial capital to the state.

I have no desire to be a politician. I do want to be an elected leader.

Are there lessons from your career as an entrepreneur that you feel guide your political philosophy?

Yes. Competition drives innovation, lowers cost, speeds delivery and more. Most government services are monopolies, or near monopolies, and therefore have lacked the market forces that produce better solutions. And most government agencies are lagging behind private industry in technology adoption. There are big opportunities to re-invent government service delivery at all levels.

Which is hardest, running your own business, working for Steve Ballmer or running for office?

Each of these represent unique joys and challenges! I ran Great Plains for 18 years, worked with Steve for six and a half years, and have been running for office for 16 days. The biggest change across all three of these over the last 30 years is the nonstop, 24-hour role that social media plays in building brand, driving opinion and engaging with customers (voters).

What do you make of the Republican presidential race?

It has been great for TV ratings and for people who own media outlets in Iowa and New Hampshire. It remains to be seen if the process produces a viable national candidate who will be competitive in the fall. Today’s campaigns and candidates are a product of a convoluted, legacy, state-by-state primary process that would possibly not exist if one was tasked to start from scratch to invent a new process for identifying and vetting the very best individuals to serve as president of the United States.

How can technology help solve some of the issues facing North Dakota?

Every industry in North Dakota (and everywhere else) is facing accelerating change. Moore’s law, super-cheap storage, increasing bandwidth infrastructure and a proliferation of super low-cost, highly accurate automatic data sensors are transforming every process and workflow. There has been a truism in the tech world that “every company needs to become a software company, or be disrupted by one.” I believe this is absolutely true.

We have a global oil surplus today because of the rapid advancements in technology. This stands in stark contrast to a multi-decade narrative that we were “running out of oil.” In energy exploration, some of these technologic advances that have contributed to the unforeseen abundance, such as deep horizontal drilling, were pioneered in the Bakken formation in North Dakota.

Technology ranging from self-driving tractors with GPS precision, real-time soil analysis (to reduce fertilizer needs) and continued advances in hybrid seed technology are reshaping production agriculture.

Health care delivery markets and systems have been completely distorted by government regulation and mandates, making our health care system less productive. These productivity losses will be compounded by demographics: We have more caregivers (doctors and nurses retiring) and more patients aging, so this will put additional pressures on our health care systems. The only way out of this productivity inversion for health care is to streamline operational workflows with automatically generated data.

And our North Dakota education system, which needs to serve a significant rural as well as increasing urban population, will need to accelerate its efforts to raise outcomes to ensure students of all ages have the skills they need to be competitive in a global economy.

What role is technology playing in your campaign?

Our campaign team is like a lean tech startup today. We are into rapid prototyping and continuous improvement and building community. There are so many low-cost amazing tools, solutions and platforms — from social media, to fundraising, to building websites, to CRM, to accounting and more — to help us share our messages.

Anything else that you want to make sure people know?

I am running as a moderate on social issues and as a fiscal conservative in a state that is socially conservative but has seen government spending rise more rapidly than even our fast-growing economy (fueled by the oil boom and billions of dollars of revenue surpluses at the state level). This race will be decided on the June 14th primary.

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