"This thing has gone from unbelievable to unbearable to now unforgivable."

-- Ken McGee, an analyst with the Gartner Group Inc., a Stamford, Conn., research firm, commenting on 10 days of service disruptions on a key MCI WorldCom Inc. network

The Magic Number Isn't 3

When local technology CEOs began inviting U.S. senators out to Northern Virginia in May to check out the tech boom firsthand, it was expected to be a mostly meet-and-greet deal that might eventually create some long-term benefits for the tech leaders' agenda.

Now it appears there may be a quicker payoff.

During a third bus tour by senators last month, the business execs zeroed in on a particular problem that is compounding their difficulties in hiring skilled tech workers: a Department of Defense policy that requires contractors to use workers with at least three years' experience in specific software applications.

It's a pointless requirement, complained Bobbie Kilberg, president of the Northern Virginia Technology Council. Let the contractors hire as they please and judge them on how well they deliver the goods, she said.

"I'll take care of that," said Sen. John W. Warner (R-Va.), leader of the Senate delegation. In short order, a few words were inserted into the Defense Department authorization bill, then being written, challenging the Pentagon's practice and urging that it be stopped.

It's not clear why it took this long to put the issue on the table, since contractors have been complaining about the practice for years. But the admonition should be adopted when the defense legislation passes Congress. Whether the Pentagon will heed the senators remains to be seen.

-- Peter Behr

Y Panic

How do you give consumers helpful hints on preparing for the year 2000 without looking as though you think something is going to happen?

If you're Giant Food Inc., you craft a pamphlet showing a "Y2K" computer in a grocery bag. You write cautiously and quote other organizations' suggestions. And then you indicate that you're writing this pamphlet even though there's likely no reason to be writing it.

"With all the excitement surrounding the year 2000, there's one thing most experts are telling us, Y2K is nothing to panic over," the retailer stresses in the pamphlet, now available at its stores.

Government and business leaders fear consumers concerned about possible computer failures linked to the year 2000 may hoard bottled water, medicine and other items (even though few people believe there will be any major problems).

This puts retailers in the sticky position of trying to inform consumers without inciting their fears. Giant tries to achieve a balance by providing few details about its operations but ensuring that its shelves will be stocked. It recommends that customers -- if concerned -- shop early and treat the upcoming new year as they would a winter storm.

And if consumers don't want to do anything, that's fine, too, a Giant spokesman said.

-- Stephanie Stoughton

Growth Spurts

A cluster of area businesses landed on Fortune magazine's newest list of 100 fastest growing companies. To make the roster, a company had to be at least three years old and have revenues and market capitalization of at least $50 million.

Heading the local contingent: No. 18, Arguss Holdings in Rockville, which installs cables, designs networks and otherwise helps connect an increasingly wired world. Annual revenue growth averaged 139 percent over the past three years.

Others on the list: No. 55, Federal Agricultural Mortgage Co. in the District, which securitizes farm loans; No. 74, Hanger Orthopedic Group in Bethesda, manufacturer of specialty orthopedic and prosthetic devices; and No. 79, Sylvan Learning Systems Inc., Baltimore, a for-profit provider of educational services.