Fortego is one of many Maryland-based cybersecurity firms thriving in an era when hacking is regularly in the headlines and warfare often takes place beyond the battlefield.
“We are doing very important work for the safety and success of the country,” said Jen Rothenberger, director of human resources for the company in Columbia, a short drive from Fort Meade and the National Security Agency, and not too far removed from Washington.
Fortego’s employees, like those elsewhere, are well-rewarded for the significance of their jobs and their specialized skills. Salaries are competitive and benefits generous. Company executives are quite aware that other firms can say the same, though. So what Fortego seeks to do is stand out in other ways, most notably by giving each employee $10,000 each year for training.
“They expect you to keep your skills up to date. Things are constantly changing, even by the day. I always have the resources to go out and get current with trends and technology,” said Amy Stone, a mission director who joined Fortego in 2013. “It’s not just sitting down with $10,000 and having to pick what would be best for you. Our mission leads sit down with their employees and discuss the goals for the next year and beyond and come up with a plan to spend that money.”
Another drawing point is that Fortego sticks to its niche — focusing on the tools, techniques, and technologies used to perform cyberwarfare.
“Many companies try to do all of cybersecurity. It’s hard to be an expert in everything,” Rothenberger said. “Our employees are driven by technical excellence. We spend our careers becoming experts in this. We build the tools. We break the tools. We fix the tools. We don’t do help desk. We don’t have network administrators. We provide a very specialized subset.”
The company’s philosophy is to train its people so that they can work anywhere, but go above and beyond for them so that they won't want to leave.
“A lot of times when you work for a contractor, you can forget that you work for a company and have friends there,” Rothenberger said.
That’s not the case at Fortego, whose leadership puts forth a concerted effort to bring employees together.
Several times a year, the company serves dinner at The Baltimore Station, a residential treatment center for homeless men, many of whom are veterans.
“A lot of our employees are either veterans as well or are sitting next to a veteran or an active service member,” Rothenberger said.
Beyond that, Fortego’s offices include an internal research and development lab where employees can submit projects and spend time experimenting and learning more. That lab hosts an event called Maker Thursdays, with subjects such as learning more about a programming language or building fidget spinners.
There are tech talks, happy hours, brewing contests, chili cookoffs, and a fantasy football league, too. These organized social gatherings build camaraderie, often while having fun. They also can wind up benefiting employees professionally.
“When you talk with most people about mastering algorithms and computing languages, you can see their eyes glaze over,” said Matthew Barber, a computer network operations engineer who joined Fortego in 2016. “When we get together at Fortego and talk about how I just learned about a vulnerability, people ask me intuitive questions. I can bounce ideas and problems off them and come up with a new way of thinking about things.”