Mark Amtower


D.C. or Silicon Valley? Where do entreprenuers flourish?

Much has been made about whether or not the hot place for tech start-ups is Silicon Valley or Washington, D.C. and whether or not the District is becoming the next Silicon Valley. Which area has the most and best engineers?

From my perspective, these are the wrong questions.

The D.C. area has a great start-up environment, but it has a more mature "using tech" environment – Uncle Sam. Maryland, Virginia and D.C. welcome, encourage and fund start-up companies. Silicon Valley has tech entrepreneurs with deep pockets, venture capitalists who graduated from the tech front lines, many of whom reinvest.

Actually, D.C. has that too.

Both of these cultures serve start-ups and serve them well.

But there are differences.

Younger engineers seem more likely to “go west” to seek early fame and fortune. If they hitch their wagon to the right start-up, put in the obligatory 100 hour weeks, it could happen. And we read about when it does, but perhaps, not when it doesn’t.

Engineers with families tend to look for more stable environments, like working for contractors. Admittedly it is a little less stable now than before, but overall D.C. is a good place to be an engineer.

There are other differences, but one example may illustrate. A few years back (before Google had a federal sales office), Sergey Brin flew to D.C. on his plane unannounced. He apparently thought that by simply showing up, meetings would occur. If so, he was disappointed. He left unannounced and relatively quickly.

His appearance anywhere in Silicon Valley would have stopped traffic, gotten him the best tables at restaurants and the like. Silicon Valley, like Hollywood, has stars.

We don’t. In the government contracting arena most know it is the market that is the star, not the transient inhabitants. Those here who think they are the stars find out sooner or later that they are not.

Another thing we lack is the San Jose Mercury News. We do have the Washington Post, but the tech and business coverage leaves much to be desired. The San Jose Mercury News has been providing great coverage to tech giants and start-ups in the Bay area for years. SJMN has had more than their fair share of “star” reporters, but again, once the Kool-Aid is swallowed, many of those same reporters started thinking of themselves as stars.

Witness also the debacle that was the dot-bomb era. Shiny rocks abounded, with VCs on both coasts throwing money like confetti. The government contracting community had more than a few start-ups go belly up, but far fewer I think than Silicon Valley. The government contracting tech community suffered very little as a result. As many of the start-ups found out, feds don’t fund fads.

Silicon Valley has its roots in PARC, Stanford and other significant research and development shops, including who knows how many garages. It attracts a much younger workforce willing to do anything to go after the brass ring/golden fleece, to be the next Google or Gates.

But who is the largest buyer of all things IT? Uncle Sam. D.C. has NIST, DISA, NGA, DARPA – and garages.  Remember Brin’s trip - when they want to make real money and reduce that P/E, they come to Mecca.

For those seeking to be the next Carahsoft, Salient or CACI, there is ample room for the entrepreneurial spirit in D.C.


About the Author

Mark Amtower advises government contractors on all facets of business-to-government (B2G) marketing and leveraging LinkedIn. Find Mark on LinkedIn at

Reader Comments

Tue, Feb 4, 2014 james cape san jose

As son of an engineer born and raised in Silicon Valley I think the article is missing a lot about the differences between DC tech and SiValley. While DC has it's share of innovation it tends to follow not lead -- this goes back to the mid-60's when Robert Noyce and Gordon Moore founded Intel a company I worked at for 18 years until 2001. Also, the government contractors we have partnered with for state/local and federal projects seem to be more expert in the procurement process and not technology innovation. One need only look at CGI Federal and debacle.

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