DC area pops onto tech radar as Calif. alternative

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ALEXANDRIA, Va. (AP) - In 2011, the executives of Savi Technology faced a classic business problem. To cut costs, they needed to close one of their three offices and consolidate their workers in another. Their choices were Mountain View, Calif., home to their hardware engineers; Lexington, Ky., where officials were dangling a wide array of tax breaks if Savi expanded there; and Alexandria, in an office park a stone’s throw from the Capital Beltway.

The company’s engineers warned executives that they would have trouble finding enough similarly skilled employees outside Silicon Valley, especially in the Washington area. The executives decided to ditch California anyway and move their headquarters to Virginia.

Turns out, Savi’s employees were wrong. Not only did Savi executives find enough engineers who they say are fully capable of designing the company’s wireless tracking devices, which are used to monitor equipment all over the world, but they also found a better fit in the Washington area’s more stable workforce.

Savi’s success suggests that the Washington region is beginning to find a way to compete with Silicon Valley, carving out a niche that turns a traditional drawback - a work culture more like the federal government’s than Google’s - into a strength.

Silicon Valley remains a powerhouse in the technology world, and some in the industry are skeptical of the Washington region’s ability to unseat it.

“Silicon Valley is the hub of the tech industry. I would say you ignore it at your peril,” said Joe Payne, who sold Eloqua, his Tysons Corner-based software company, to Oracle last year.

But the Washington region is creating a selling point in stability and predictability.

Take Tim Sullivan, who in 2004 was seeking West Coast investors for cybersecurity company Fidelis Security Systems. Venture capitalists in California insisted that he move there, but he declined and found East Coast investors for the company, which has since been sold to contracting giant General Dynamics.

Sullivan, who now heads a cybersecurity company with a Chantilly office, said he’s never had trouble finding qualified engineers in the Washington area, and he thought turnover would drive his costs higher on the West Coast.

“If people feel like the venture’s not working out, they may not stick it out and they may look to the next hotter venture,” he said.

Savi abandoned its campus-style office a few miles from the San Francisco Bay in favor of an Alexandria headquarters in a nondescript building west of Old Town, sandwiched between a townhouse development and an extended-stay hotel with a view of the Beltway.

The office keeps Savi’s Silicon Valley ingenuity front and center, displaying rows of framed patents in the entryway. It’s in the company’s culture that you find the decidedly Washington spin on the tech world that lured the company from California.

Silicon Valley is known for punishing hours, a young and sleep-deprived workforce, and near-constant job-hopping among tech firms that ruthlessly recruit top talent. Washington, on the other hand, is viewed as a company town - the company is, more often than not, the government - with a buttoned-down crowd and predictable workdays.

When Savi decided to relocate, its executives figured that the California employees wouldn’t want to move - and that was fine by its chief executive, William Clark, a four-year Valley veteran. What makes this relocation all the more unlikely is that Clark is seeking to shift Savi from its traditional stronghold of selling tracking devices to the military to pursue more commercial business.

“People in Silicon Valley are always on the lookout for the next hot thing, so employee turnover - unless you’re one of the hottest companies - can be very high,” Clark said. “We made an assumption that the talent would be available in the D.C. region, and it turned out that it was.”

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