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Teaching the Facebook Generation the Ways of Washington

By Kim Hart
Monday, March 30, 2009

The federal government is in spending mode. That means a host of new business opportunities for Washington technology firms -- even those that have not typically sold services to agencies. Companies that have traditionally focused on creating Web services for consumers and energy-saving technology for big corporations see lucrative chances to break into government contracting.

For example, Current, a Germantown-based firm that has developed smart-grid technology, including sensors that regulate the flow of electricity throughout every home, has applied for stimulus dollars to revamp the nation's aging utility systems. PointAbout, a District-based firm, has used public city data to develop tools for residents to look up local crime information on an iPhone or BlackBerry; it may experiment with creating similar applications to make federal data more accessible to citizens.

But the expansion of government contracting is not without cultural challenges.

Many of the companies vying for federal business are new to the buttoned-up ways of Washington. While the employees of a small, scrappy start-up may be used to communicating with bosses through text messages and organizing conferences on Facebook, the traditional providers of information technology services tend to conduct business using more formal practices. Introducing the Web 2.0 generation to agency offices means in some cases teaching newcomers what to bring along and what to leave behind.

Patricia Crew, career counselor for Potomac-based Comprehensive Career Counseling, said she spends a great deal of time working with young professionals who use social networks inappropriately by posting risque pictures or questionable comments.

"In-person networking is always the safest because you are able to make the best presentation," she said. "Don't put anything on any social-networking site that can work against you."

A large number of recent college graduates are more interested in government work, she said, but will listening to iPods in cubicles and sending Facebook friend requests to colleagues send inappropriate signals?

"These questions are coming up more and more as technology fundamentally changes the way we interact," said Anna Post, the great-granddaughter of etiquette queen Emily Post. She was speaking to Women in Technology, a networking group of technology professionals, about the new standards of social graces. She told the group during the meeting Tuesday at Maggiano's in Tysons Corner that "etiquette is not a static thing to put on a shelf and pull out for special occasions."

Stephanie Wilson, principal at information technology consulting firm Interactive Technology Solutions, questioned Post as to what she should do about a Facebook friend who posts inappropriate messages and photos on her page. Wilson removed the Facebook offender from her list of virtual friends, but wondered whether she needed to explain her actions.

Post said she thinks it is acceptable to ignore friend requests or delete friends without explanation. "Know the software you're using," she said. "Facebook doesn't send a message to your friend to tell them you have removed them from your list; their friend count simply goes down by one. That is a tacit 'no thank you' response."

And if you're agonizing over whether to accept a friend request from a colleague whom you'd rather not have see those vacation photos of you in a bikini, ignore their request but respond with an invitation to instead connect on LinkedIn, a social network that is viewed as more business-friendly.

Deborah Raghaven, federal marketing manager for Deloitte & Touche, wondered whether it is appropriate to confront a stranger who is talking loudly on a cellphone in a public place, such as a movie theater, restaurant or train car.

"I prefer to ask the manager or maitre d' to address the issue," she said, and be as friendly as possible when confronting someone. "Honey gets a lot more flies than vinegar."

Is it all right to listen to an iPod at work, asked Jaime Lizama of Reston-based accounting firm Ryan, Sharkey & Crutchfield.

"Sure, if your company allows it," Post said. But she advised to always take both earphone buds out of your ears when someone comes up to talk to you. "And be aware that you essentially have a 'Do Not Disturb' sign on your back if you have headphones in your ears," which could signal that you are unapproachable.

Kim Hart writes about the Washington technology scene every Monday. Contact her at hartk@washpost.com.

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