Ray J. Oleson started his career in government contracting as an assistant programming manager in 1966, the days "when real men programmed," he says.

The computers were gargantuan, the work laborious.

Much has changed in his more than three decades in the business. The technology is smaller, faster, cheaper; the industry is bigger, meatier and more lucrative than ever.

Oleson founded Reston-based SI International Inc. in 1998, just as the federal information technology sector started to explode, and in seven years the company grew from four employees to nearly 4,000. Along the way, he became one of the most prominent executives in Washington's government contracting industry.

Now the 61-year-old Oleson is handing over the reins to his successor, Brad Antle. Next week he will spend his last five days as SI's chief executive.

Oleson spent his first stint in the industry with Sperry Univac, a predecessor to Unisys Corp., working on computer programs that helped the military detect enemy submarines. When he moved to Computer Sciences Corp. in 1977, the firm's revenue totaled $120 million. When he left nine years later, the company had grown to nearly $1 billion in annual sales.

In 1987, Oleson joined Arlington-based CACI International Inc., and he eventually became president of the firm as it morphed into a technology-focused government contractor. Nine years later he decided to "try retirement."

But the lifestyle change didn't work out, so in 1998, as the Internet frenzy was starting to boil, Oleson decided to start a company doing what he's always done: building computer systems for the government.

"Everybody was asking me why I would do something as complicated as start a federal contractor," Oleson recalled. "But I could not figure out how to make money at a dot-com."

Building SI, the way he tells it, wasn't all that complicated. He recruited Walter J. Culver, a colleague from both CACI and CSC, and landed a $31 million investment from Chicago-based Frontenac Co. to launch the firm.

The next four years saw four acquisitions -- all companies that came ready-made with rosters of high-tech engineers and existing relationships with government clients -- and in 2002 SI raised $75 million through an initial public offering. The company's three subsequent acquisitions pushed its head count to 3,800, and the firm expects to post at least $390 million in revenue for fiscal 2005.

"It's not much fun to take a $20 million company and make it a $22 million company," Oleson said. "Now, taking a $20 million company and turning it into a $300 million company -- that's interesting."

The torch-passing at SI has sparked speculation that the company may be prepping itself for an acquisition by a larger contractor, and Antle, who joined the firm in 1999, admits the firm regularly gets nibbles from potential buyers. He insists, though, that SI's focus is still on growth and that it has its eye on a few possible purchases of its own.

As for Oleson, who "failed at retirement" the first time around, he'll remain on as chairman of the board. He does, however, plan to cut back to "40 to 50 hours a week."

U-Md. Finals

Finals of the University of Maryland's latest business plan competition take place Sept. 23, and a few local entrepreneurs -- such as Tien Wong, of Opus 8, John LaPides, of Snow Valley Inc., and Dan Goodman, chief executive of Zernike USA Inc. -- will be among the judges. The hitch? The competition is in China and is limited to businesses based in that country.

"This is a way to create brand recognition for the Smith School [of Business] in China," said Asher Epstein, managing director of the school's Dingman Center for Entrepreneurship, which is sponsoring the competition.

More than 50 companies, ranging from biotech firms to start-ups developing new water purification technology, are competing for the $25,000 top prize.

The university already has executive MBA programs set up in Beijing and Shanghai but is exploring the potential for even more growth in the world's most populous country.

We recognize "that China is going to be one of the significant economic powers of the 21st century -- we want to make sure that we are positioned to be one of the [education] providers in that market."

Overheard

"As a former member of the Department of Homeland Security, I wanted to enhance the federal role. As a potential governor of Arkansas, I want to enhance the state role," Asa Hutchinson, former undersecretary of DHS, said jokingly of his view on the division of responsibility between state and national governments in times of crisis. About 80 people showed up at the Northern Virginia Technology Council event yesterday morning to hear Hutchinson's assessment of the agency.

Ellen McCarthy writes about the local tech scene every Thursday. Her e-mail is mccarthye@washpost.com.