I had been running from one meeting to the next last Tuesday morning when I suddenly realized at 11:30 a.m. that I had to be in Herndon for a noon engagement.
And I was in D.C.
Such is life in our sprawling metropolis, where a business center’s association with the nation’s capital often has little to do with its address. Thankfully, it was the middle of July — the sun was out and my route was clear. I arrived with minutes to spare.
The engagement I was rushing to was a small luncheon with three executives who head young companies that provide technology and services to other enterprises. Their companies were not necessarily tied to government work, and could have been based anywhere. One specialized in customer support, another in making sense of big data, a third in creating a way to discover what’s going on, and to help advertisers discover the people looking for those things to do. (You can see excerpts from our conversation on Page 7).
It struck me that these are precisely the sort of young tech companies the region should be nourishing if we are to diversify our local economy and insulate ourselves from the whims of federal budget swings. But to do that we need to solve more than traffic issues. All three business leaders talked about their frustration competing for capital and tech talent in a place where government contracting dominates. Success, they said, often means making trips to somewhere else — say, Silicon Valley — to solicit funds.
The government’s influence is so pervasive, said one, it “blots out the sun.”
Another, a serial entrepreneur, said his strategy to compete for technologists is to launch his companies as consultancies, an industry contractors here understand. Once on staff, they can then be drafted to start work on products, and eventually the consultancy can be what it wanted to be in the first place, a software company.
Only in Washington do consultancies have more panache than software upstarts. Perhaps that’s why tech companies here often feel like second-class citizens, and so many flee west.
Do we appreciate what we have here? Others do. When I got back to the office came this news: San Jose-based Cisco had just gobbled up our own Sourcefire, the Columbia cybersecurity firm, for a cool $2.7 billion.