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Netconn Solutions: The electronic mortar designed to bind today's high-tech 'bricks'

May 28, 2000|by BOB MAGINNIS

Last month I attended my first meeting of the Hagerstown/Washington County Chamber of Commerce's task force on new technology. Given my level of technical expertise, me joining this group was a little bit like a manicurist going to a seminar on brain surgery.

But I'm learning (slowly) with the help of some nice people like Linda Frakes and John McCune, of Netconn Solutions, a high-tech company located on Franklin Street in downtown Hagerstown.

Frakes, the director of program management and McCune, the vice president and technical director, spent some time explaining to me this week how they're going to double the number of employees in their 16-member firm in the next year.

According to a Quad State Business Journal article displayed on their Website (netscs.com), the core members of the company worked for the Defense Department Information Systems Engineering Command/CONUS at Fort Ritchie, but returned to the area in 1997 to incorporate as Netconn Solutions.

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Its bread-and-butter clients are government agencies, according to McCune and Frakes, but they're branching out now, helping a manufacturer in nearby Pennsylvania coordinate production among a number of sites.

"We're looking for an opportunity to provide high-technology jobs in Hagerstown," McCune said, adding that "some are here already."

They hope to recruit more by playing on what McCune calls the 270 angle - the desire to spend less time commuting down a crowded interstate highway.

With the lower overhead that Hagerstown offers as compared to the metropolitan areas, Frakes says Netconn can use what it saves in the cost of facilities to improve employees' pay.

And though McCune says it requires a bit of a sales job, because like it or not, Hagerstown doesn't have a reputation as a high-tech town, Frakes says that once people get the opportunity to see the area, they like it.

So what exactly does Netconn do?

"We make various diverse systems work with each other," McCune said.

For example, McCune said, they work with the federal payroll system. On each employee's pay stub, now provided via a Website for new hires, there's lots of information, including everything from how many sick days the employee has left to how much income tax has been withheld.

"The data bases where all this information resides are all over the country," McCune said, and because every agency can't do what he calls a "forklift upgrade" and just throw out its old computers, Netconn has to help equipment produced by different makers work together.

The firm also provides security for those Websites where employee financial information is stored and puts together programs that make it possible for those bidding on government contracts to submit their proposals electronically, he said.

And while it may look simple, McCune said, "there's a lot of 'plumbing' that has to happen behind the scenes."

He compared the challenge facing companies today to the one facing a plumber who only knows how to work with copper pipe. Sooner or later, that plumber will encounter a plastic pipe. McCune said. For Netconn, the challenge isn't types of pipes, but hundreds of different programs and brands of equipment, including older systems companies can't afford to throw out.

In the case of the Pennsylvania manufacturer he mentioned, McCune said the challenge there is to help a manufacturer who uses the "just in time" delivery system (designed so that parts and raw material arrive just as they're needed so there's no need for costly storage).

The challenge is compounded because the work is done at several sites, but has to be routed through one system, so workers who can't see what their colleagues are doing can still coordinate with them.

Other aspects of Netconn's business include writing software for custom installations so that companies can use off-the-shelf programs together, programs that might otherwise be incompatible.

"We make our money by making everybody's stuff work with everybody else's stuff. Our programs are the 'mortar' that holds those 'bricks' together," he said.

The firm also does a variety of things I don't begin to understand, like wide area networks, local area networks, Oracle database design and computer security.

But one the simplest and yet most amazing things about this business (or any similar company, for that matter) is that according to McCune and Frakes, location doesn't matter that much.

"The kind of business our particular company does could be done anywhere," Frakes said.

What that means is that the quality of life in Hagerstown and Washington County becomes a key factor in getting people to work here, although McCune says there are some employees who do telecommute.

"We're looking for mid- to senior-level network engineers, or Oracle and Unix developers," McCune said, adding that resumes can be e-mailed to info@netcsc.com.

Don't try to visit in person, because the company is getting ready to move from their downtown space at 100 W. Franklin to a building next to the sheriff's department off Western Maryland Parkway.

"The only limitation on our growth is attracting the right people up here," McCune said.

Bob Maginnis is editorial page editor of The Herald-Mail newspapers.

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