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FortiusOne Takes Teamwork From the Office to the River

Jen Reck, front, and rowing partner Ruth Stiver on the Potomac after a day of work at FortiusOne, an Arlington firm with six world-class rowers on staff.
Jen Reck, front, and rowing partner Ruth Stiver on the Potomac after a day of work at FortiusOne, an Arlington firm with six world-class rowers on staff. (By Bill O'leary -- Washington Post)
By Cecilia Kang
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, August 27, 2007

About 20 strokes from the Key Bridge, the lactic acid kicks in. Ruth Stiver and Jen Reck have spent a full day at work, and now, at the end of their second practice of the day, the Pan American Games bronze medalists are cutting through the Potomac River on their narrow doubles shell and are starting to feel the pain.

"Focus on legs!" Stiver yells from the bow with a grimace, as the sunset's soft glow reflects off the Washington Monument behind them.

Stiver and Reck are not just teammates but coworkers at FortiusOne, an Internet mapping company in Arlington that happens to be a magnet for competitive rowers, some with their sights set on the Beijing Olympics. The company has six world-class rowers on its staff of 19. The chief operating officer is their coach. The founder and chief executive, Sean Gorman, has won national titles and says he would still compete if he didn't have a company to run.

In the Washington area's hyper-competitive high-tech industry, famed for its long hours and obsessive focus on work, FortiusOne has taken a decidedly different approach by integrating the often time-consuming athletic pursuits of some of its workers with the company's aim to grow into a major Internet player.

Rowers can take weeks off at a time through unpaid leave and vacation to compete in events such as the Olympic trials and the Royal Canadian Henley Regatta. This week, chief operating officer Matt Madigan and two staffers are in Munich for the world rowing championships, in a effort to secure spots in Beijing next summer.

The athletes start each day at 6 a.m. with an hour-long workout at the Potomac boathouse in Georgetown and arrive at the office about 8:30. By 5:30 p.m., they are back at the boathouse for more training.

Gorman, 33, thinks the athletes add an edge to his team of Internet developers, marketers and salespeople. He says the company has built in redundancies to cover for employees off at competitions. Some make up for hours away by working nights and weekends.

"Rowers are by nature super-competitive and want to win," he said. "They bring that competitiveness to work."

FortiusOne was created in July 2005 as an offshoot of Gorman's doctoral dissertation at George Mason University in which he used publicly available data to map the entire fiber-optic network of the United States. Like Gorman's dissertation, FortiusOne uses public data and mapping technology to create customized online maps using content from multiple sources. Its clients include Lockheed Martin.

When Gorman started the company, he looked for talent in the competitive arena he knew best. That meant a well-educated pool of potential hires; the best rowing schools in the NCAA are also some of the strongest academically.

Stiver, a graduate of the University of Texas, is a marketing manager at FortiusOne, while University of Virginia grad Reck compiles political polling data. Sarah Trowbridge, another Virginia graduate, and Margaret Matia, a graduate of the University of Michigan, were gold medalists at the Pan American Games in Brazil this summer; they started on the data team this month. David Hampton, a collegiate competitor and second-year medical student at Georgetown, also did a turn on the data team.

Gorman says rowers bring another valuable credential: a high threshold for pain. It's an attribute that Madigan measures during boathouse training sessions through blood tests for lactic acid tolerance as the athletes sweat on an indoor rower known as the "pain machine."

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