A High Tech Job: Should You Take The Plunge?

The time may be right to consider the big move

Tom Butta had the kind of career managers strive for. After climbing the ranks at such established advertising agencies as Young & Rubicam and handling such clients as Frito-Lay and Johnson & Johnson, he became chief executive of his own firm, FGI, in 1995. The Chapel Hill (N.C.) firm grew to $100 million in billings this year.

Then, last July, Butta, 44, sold out to his partners, left his CEO title behind, and without ever having written a line of computer code, became the marketing chief of Red Hat, a Durham (N.C.) technology startup that distributes and provides tech support for the Linux computer operating system. Did the ad world prepare Butta for the hurly-burly of a tech startup? "The risks [of making a switch] are not as great as one might think," he says.

Are you considering a career switch into high tech? Given technology's role in the vibrant U.S. economy, no one would fault you if you were. For one thing, changing careers in midlife no longer bears the stigma it once did, thanks to the corporate upheavals early this decade. Downsizing put plenty of talented people on the street through no fault of their own. And having seen a growing number of high-profile outsiders succeed, many companies are more open to what transplants can contribute. Outsiders "are thought to bring a new approach to things," says Karen Russo, president of K. Russo Associates, a Greenwich (Conn.) executive placement firm. Managers, too, have developed a free-agent mentality. Moreover, by their 40s, managers "have 15 or 20 years in the business world and instead of coasting on it, they want to do something new," says Cara Erickson, head of interactive media recruiting for Bishop Partners, a New York headhunter.

BEYOND TECH. Nowhere is career-switching more acceptable than in the technology field, where the need for talented, experienced executives is most acute. David Kixmiller, a managing partner in the Menlo Park (Calif.) office of the search firm Heidrick & Struggles International, says hiring for

e-commerce is his fastest-growing business. Money, of course, is a major attraction. When Butta joined Red Hat, he bought into its initial public offering at 14. The stock is now hovering around 100.

Despite the tech-job gold rush, many managers think they can't make the jump because they don't know HTML from a hole in the ground. But there is more to dot.coms than technology. "Management is the most seriously lacking skill in technology companies," says John Putzier, head of the tech group at the Society of Human Resource Managers. So if you're looking to make a jump to a Net company, make a list of your skills. Do you have a strong background in sales and marketing? Have you honed your skills in your company's finance and accounting departments? Dot.com companies may need you. "Everything is relevant," says Guy Kawasaki, a founder of Garage.com, which consults with and funds startups in need of venture capital. "I can't think of a single business function that isn't going to turn digital."

Jeff Taylor, founder and CEO of Monster.com, an Internet job search service, regularly goes outside the Internet world for his hires. "I think my whole marketing team comes from traditional business. I have a 170 sales people, and almost none had dot.com experience but almost all had sales experience," he says. Even a door-to-door salesperson has dot.com potential, according to Kawasaki. Web sites are beginning to offer live, online, one-on-one sales help (such as 1-800 flowers.com, where a click on "EQ&A" brings human assistance). "Well, the door-to-door salesman has one-on-one experience," which could be useful to the designer of such a site, he says.

The easiest way to make the switch at any level of experience, headhunters say, is to find a company that does online what you do off line. Drugstore.com got its CEO, Peter Neupert, 43, from Microsoft, says Kixmiller, managing partner, "but they might just as well have gotten someone from a drugstore chain."

Another way to develop Internet savvy is to go the consulting route. "I see people who will go out and consult to get the experience to make the transition to dot.coms," says Erickson, who took that very route into technology headhunting. Consultants can look for small companies that have a Net component--a great many do--and offer business perspective while learning from the client's operation as well.

Venture-capital firms do executive recruiting for the startups that they fund. Garage.com, for instance, maintains an online job search board for its clients. But getting a VC firm's attention directly is difficult. Although VC firms that provide very early-stage funding--such as Garage.com--may accept a direct approach, most find potential executives through the hundreds of deals they evaluate each year. They may not want to finance a particular venture, but they might like the CFO and try to hire him or her away from another team.

Joining a dot.com company will take some getting used to, particularly if you're coming from a hierarchical, old-line company. "It's not just a casual dress code, it's the way people interact, with open doors and open areas," says Kixmiller. He tells managers with Net company potential to call others who have made the jump to get the real low-down on the trials of the culture. And he encourages them to stay in touch, as sort of a support group. In the meantime, fewer hurdles than you think stand in the way of a bricks-to-clicks transition. Certainly not demand. And certainly, in this young industry, not experience. Says Kawasaki: "If you work for a company with any kind of brand name for two years--you're a veteran, baby! You're proven!"

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.