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For Tech Executives, More Business and Less Limelight

By Ellen McCarthy
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, October 25, 2004; Page E09

Raul J. Ferndandez ran with a fast-moving crowd of industry leaders in his last go-round as a local technology chieftain. Executives such as Steve Case of America Online, John Sidgmore of UUNet Technologies and Jeong H. Kim of Yurie Systems Inc. loudly declared that Washington was not just a government town anymore.

These were executives who built big companies with broad missions, then soaked up the limelight buying sports teams, throwing lavish parties and doling out dollars to younger entrepreneurs summoned to audition before them.


Raul J. Fernandez, part of the area's first tech leader wave, says the current group keeps a lower profile. (John Mcdonnell -- The Washington Post)

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Tuesday, 1 p.m. ET: Filter columnist Cynthia L. Webb hosts Mark Heesen, president of the National Venture Capital Association.
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Many of those early leaders have stepped way back from the tech community. And their replacements are hard to find. Fernandez, who came to prominence as the founder of Web development firm Proxicom Inc., insists there are lots of bright lights in Washington's tech sector -- it's just that most of them are too intent on building their companies in a tough environment to play a visible leadership role yet.

"There is a next generation out there; it just takes time to mature. It just takes time to separate the great companies and great entrepreneurs from the also-rans, but it'll happen," said Fernandez, who sold Proxicom in 2001, but got back in the game in January when he took the top spot at ObjectVideo, a Reston security technology company.

The tech executives working today are a quieter, more disparate bunch, reticent to trumpet their achievements after watching some of their local predecessors fall far and fast. The networking events they frequent now are low-key, practical affairs, not see-and-be-seen events. And because so many are scraping for funding themselves, they have less to give out to others.

Mike Lincoln, a venture capital lawyer at Cooley Godward LLP's Reston office, compares the local tech scene to a forest that was ravaged by wildfires. The giants of the landscape have all but vanished, leaving room for new leaders to sprout.

He said the new generation of leaders has learned some hard lessons from their predecessors.

Martin Roesch, for example, knew that technical prowess alone was not enough to build a successful company. Roesch developed an open source network security system that developed a cult-like following on the Web. But after he established Sourcefire Inc. in 2001 to commercialize the technology, he brought in an industry veteran to lead the company. That's a decision headstrong entrepreneurs of the bubble years may not have made often enough.

"Most really, really smart technical guys are insufferable. They don't necessarily know business, but they don't admit it," said Wayne Jackson, the chief executive Roesch recruited.

Matthew S. Pittinsky said his online education company, Blackboard Inc., benefited from the groundwork laid by earlier entrepreneurs. "Our greatest unexpected fortune was starting Blackboard in Washington," he said. But that doesn't mean Pittinsky and his partner, Michael L. Chasen, will follow in the exact footsteps of their predecessors.

When Blackboard sold stock in its initial public offering in June, the shares rose 43 percent on the first day of trading. Rather than throw a glitzy IPO party in a swank locale, as so many dot-coms did in 1990s, the company's founders returned to their corporate headquarters for a small reception that included only employees and their families.

Some of the area's technology veterans like what they see in the newcomers.

"This group is but another wave of what is a solidly growing and developing business and entrepreneurial community," said Mario Morino, a well-known local tech executive who spent many years encouraging local entrepreneurship and is now focused on philanthropic work.

There are some names that come up frequently when industry veterans are asked to name individuals who have caught their eye the past few years: Serial executives such as Piyush Sodha, who has ushered three young companies to big-name status, most recently guiding Matrics Inc., a radio frequency identification company, through a $230 million acquisition. Entrepreneurs-turned-investors including Tien Wong, who sold his 2,500-person customer service firm, CyberRep, in 2003, and is now pumping money back into the area through a private investment firm named Opus8. And young venture capitalist Harry Weller, a partner at New Enterprise Associates' Reston office, who has led several big investments for the firm, including one in Vonage Holdings Corp., the New Jersey company that was among the first to widely market Internet phone services.

But even this group is reticent to be portrayed as industry leaders.

"There is so much potential, but a lot of it remains to be seen," Weller said. "And I think that's true of me and true of the region."

Staff writers Yuki Noguchi and Michael Rosenwald contributed to this report.


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