How Tysons Corner, Virginia Became The Promised Land For Corporate America

On February 21, I had the opportunity to give a talk about the defense budget and cyber security at the stunning new collaborative research center Northrop Grumman Information Systems is completing in Tysons Corner, Virginia. To say it is state-of-the-art is an understatement; the company has carefully thought through every facet of human interaction and ergonomics in an effort to fashion the kind of environment where smart people can accomplish great things. The location is nearly perfect too, only a stone’s throw from a soon-to-be-completed stop on Washington’s new Metro line between the Pentagon and Dulles Airport. You can get to the CIA by car in five minutes, and NSA or the National Reconnaissance Office in less than 30.

However, the first thing I noticed about the location — before I had even walked through the front door — was how many other big companies had picked the same neighborhood to set up shop. From the hilltop entrance to Northrop’s center, you can see the corporate headquarters of Hilton Worldwide, Gannett, Capitol One, Sunrise Senior Living, SAIC and Exelis (formerly ITT Defense). Freddie Mac is within walking distance too, and if you travel two exits down the Capital Beltway’s outer loop, you will arrive at the office park where Northrop Grumman, General Dynamics, Computer Sciences and DynCorp all have their corporate headquaerters.

That’s an amazing concentration of corporate wealth and power for a place that was little more than rolling farmland 50 years ago. If you ever wondered why the Beltway has so many curves in Maryland’s Montgomery County and so few in Virginia’s Fairfax County, it’s because when the road was built in Fairfax in the early 1960s, there was nothing in the way that it had to go around — unlike in the built-up suburbs of Maryland. The place was so rural that some of the farmhouses scattered around Tysons Corner, a mere country crossroads at the time, didn’t even have indoor plumbing. Much of the land between what is now the Tysons Mall and the American Legion Bridge where the Beltway enters Virginia was a big swamp. Nobody, and I really mean nobody, would have believed back then that within two generations, Tysons Corner would host one of the biggest concentrations of corporate headquarters in America.

How the area was transformed is the subject of an engaging book by Paul Ceruzzi entitled, Internet Alley:High Technology in Tysons Corner, 1945-2005 (MIT Press, 2008). Ceruzzi explains how the confluence of local transportation and land-use policies with the rise of the national-security state produced a hothouse of innovation and entrepreneurship around Tysons Corner that eventually made it the cradle of the Internet in the 1980s. Although the global information grid has now proliferated like digital kudzu, there was a time when half of all the commercial traffic on the Internet passed through a battery of servers in the parking garage of an office building near the intersection of Routes 7 and 123 — the original “Tysons Corner.” Half of the domestic root servers for the Internet ended up housed in nondescript low-rises along the Dulles Airport access road, with the fiber-optic conduits buried under the right-of-way of the defunct Washington & Old Dominion Railroad.

Ceruzzi explores why Tysons Corner became a mecca for defense contractors and high-tech companies in a way that other stops on the Beltway did not. It’s a complicated story, but it begins with the fact that the road to the area’s main international airport, Dulles, crosses the Beltway at that point. Other roads made it easy to get to the federal agencies where money was being passed out for tech projects, including the Pentagon and the National Science Foundation. The part that’s a bit more magical is how momentum just kept building once the first contractors moved to the area — companies like BDM and SAIC that were more in the business of providing analytic services than assembling hardware. If you care about the evolution of the technology sector around Washington, it really is an enlightening tale.

Ceruzzi doesn’t have much to say about the commercial-services companies now flocking to the area, because most of them started showing up after he finished his book. By that time, though, federal spending and a business-friendly state government had made Tysons Corner a magnet for all sorts of enterprises. When Hilton Worldwide decides to move its global headquarters from Beverly Hills to a place that was only farmland a few decades ago, you know something really special must be happening there.