A funny thing is happening as the great technology shakeout continues: Washington techies who once shunned federal government contract work as uncool are now embracing it as a vital resource to help the region grow even through tough times.

The government -- dubbed "Fortune One" by those who sell to it -- has long provided money for research and development. It's been a star customer of tech firms such as Oracle, Netscape and DynCorp way before Amazon existed. Before the tech boom, companies had offices in the region for two reasons: to be close to the federal government and to lobby.

But as the Internet revolution began to buzz, there was nothing worse than being known as a government systems integrator, the type of company that sets up complex computer and communications systems. It was so not-Silicon Valley, so sleep-inducing. Some companies couldn't even boast of their accomplishments because their work involved secretive government projects. This was not exactly headline-grabbing, blockbuster IPO material.

So even the companies that did government work started to play it down. No one wanted to be associated with old tech in Washington.

The secret is that old tech is making a lot of money, employing a lot of people and having an impact on the local economy with more staying power than the dot-bombs.

And as technology regions around the country struggle to keep growing through this rough patch, what used to be an embarrassment in tech circles is now a savior.

"The federal government is like a shock absorber for this area," says Fred Bollerer of high-tech think tank, the Morino Institute in Reston. "During a down cycle, business people look to the government to get paid."

In 1999, the federal government's technology spending in the Washington region hit $13.5 billion, according to "Building the New Economy," a new study by a coalition of groups including the D.C. and Maryland governments as well as George Mason University. The study also found a 68 percent increase in total tech employment in the region since 1998.

In fact, total employment in the local tech sector is 60 percent greater than that of the federal government, the study found.

The study broke the region's three main technology industries in three: communications, content and systems integration. Guess which represents the largest chunk of Washington technology? Yes, again, the unglamorous world of systems integration employs the most people and makes the most money of the three. About 325,000 people in the region work in the systems integration field, which generates $71.1 billion in annual sales for the area. And it's growing. These numbers are up from 224,000 employees and $35.9 billion in sales in 1998.

Bollerer also says that Washington successfully developed an ecosystem -- of entrepreneurs, financing sources, research institutions and networking groups -- that helps sustain the region in an economic downturn.

The research institutions, for instance, are still spending. Among the 50 states, Maryland ranked second in the amount of federal research and development spending, at $8.1 billion. Virginia ranked third and Washington 10th.

But beyond all the numbers, it's telling that the study had a page dedicated to comments about the federal government's role in local tech growth, from executives interviewed in the report. Instead of trotting out government officials or integrators, the voices were from new economy people giving credit to old tech.

Internet entrepreneur Reggie Aggarwal gushed about the U.S. government being the largest customer in the world, and venture capitalist Mark Ein noted that government contracting produces a well-trained tech workforce.

If federal contracting is cool again, then we've entered an entirely new phase that may not be as much fun but will make money.

A new group informally calling itself the Iranian-American Tech Council started to meet last week, hoping to become a networking catalyst for technology entrepreneurs of Iranian heritage in the same way the Indian High Tech CEO Council has strengthened its community.

Those attending the first meeting, which was hosted by Reston law firm Cooley Godward, include Shaun Amini, chief executive of Eyecast of Herndon, and Shervin Pishevar, chief executive of WebOS.com in Columbia.

Sharmine Namazi-Narwani, co-founder of Arlington-based Telezoo, says about 35 people attended the event, dining on traditional Persian dishes including lamb kabobs, rice and mint yogurt. She says that Iranian American tech groups are already meeting regularly on the West Coast, and this group intends to become the largest East Coast networking group of its kind.

Sometimes when a big boss leaves a company, he helps his favorite employees find new jobs.

Jim Rutt, who is stepping down on April 1 from his role as chief executive of Network Solutions, now a part of California-based VeriSign, is taking that courtesy a step forward. Rutt ran an ad in Sunday's Washington Post that declared "My tremendous Executive Assistant seeks placement."

He goes on to explain that Jana DiCarlo's skills include travel planning, intelligent phone screening and "general purpose whip-cracking." Rutt also helped DiCarlo set up a Web site at www.killerassistant.com, featuring her re{acute}sume{acute} and references, which include a variety of tech folks, among them VeriSign chief executive Stratton Sclavos, MicroStrategy chief Michael Saylor and Saylor's own executive assistant, Glenda Thomas.

"I wanted Jana to have the widest set of options for her next gig," says Rutt.

Send tips and tales of the digital capital's local people, deals and events to Shannon Henry at henrys@washpost.com.