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Thinking of a mid-career switch? Not afraid of a little risk? A leap into high tech could be just the ticket

What could be more different than motor oil and the Internet? Yet last October, Jan Horsfall, 37, made the move from Valvoline, the billion-dollar maker of auto lubricants, to vice-president for marketing at Lycos, an Internet search-engine company. Although Lycos has less than $25 million in revenues and no profits, its share price has tripled over the past year, and Horsfall is sanguine about the future: ''I get a minimum of two job offers a week for senior-level positions at all kinds of high-tech companies.''

Is it time for you to take the big leap into high tech? Incredible fortunes are being made in Silicon Valley and other high-tech meccas, forcing even successful managers and professionals from other industries to seriously consider making the switch. What you stand to gain is an opportunity to participate in the most vibrant sector of the economy, work in a more creative and entrepreneurial environment, and perhaps, if you're lucky, strike it rich. But then the worries come, all too real for many people: You're too old, too settled, and can barely use a word processing program. Besides, high tech is just for programming wizards and young hotshots out of college, not for an ordinary person already climbing the ladder in a big company.

But think again: There's a new career calculus that makes a shift into high tech the right move for many executives and professionals in their 30s, 40s, and 50s. The booming tech sector is creating 40% of all new managerial and professional positions outside of health and education, according to a new analysis by BUSINESS WEEK. If current trends hold, high tech is going to be the single biggest source of new managerial and professional jobs over the next few years (chart). And while you might have to take a cut in your base salary to get into high tech, awards of options and stocks can more than make up the difference. Moreover, even base pay is rising more quickly than in other industries. A report by human resources consultants William M. Mercer Inc. shows that high-tech execs are getting pay increases of about 5% annually, compared with 4.1% for other industries.

A stint in the tech sector can give a major boost to your long-term career prospects, even if you don't stay in high tech. Tech companies are shaping up to be the prime training ground for the next generation of CEOs and senior executives for the rest of the economy, just as Procter & Gamble Co. and General Electric Co. were in the 1980s. What gives people with tech experience an edge is not simply their knowledge of new technologies, but also their exposure to a culture of rapid change and growth that Corporate America is trying to emulate. All across the economy, ''boards and investors are seeking leadership with a strong understanding of technology,'' says Michael T. Christy, a managing partner at Heidrick & Struggles, the executive recruiting firm.

Moreover, it's not necessary to be a computer sophisticate to take advantage of the new career opportunities. Only about half of these new positions will be classical tech jobs, such as computer programmers or electrical engineers. Instead, as high-tech companies become more consumer-oriented, demand is soaring for a wide range of skills, ranging from marketing to product development to human resources to finance. ''Technology businesses with a consumer or business-to-business bent need to go outside the technology arena to find managers,'' notes John R. Ferneborg, head of Ferneborg & Associates, an executive search firm based in San Mateo, Calif.

That's certainly true at Cisco Systems Inc., the giant maker of networking equipment and software. The company's main problem is still finding enough technically skilled workers to fuel its voracious growth. But as Cisco gets bigger, it's increasingly hiring non-tech people as well. ''It's very common for us to go outside the industry in areas such as marketing, finance, and human resources,'' says Michael McNeal, director of employment for Cisco. ''We like to bring in a different perspective.'' In fact, a recent scan of help-wanted ads listed on several career-oriented Web sites (table, page 68) showed a slew of ads from Cisco and other tech companies seeking everything from finance and marketing execs to editors.

CULTURAL LEAP. Despite the arguments in favor of taking a job in high tech, making a move may force you to make huge adjustments. The problem is not acquiring technological skills, though a measure of comfort with computers is essential. Rather, the biggest hurdle is cultural. You may find yourself unable to keep up with the incredible pace of innovation or feel uncomfortable in a less hierarchical environment (box). And the innate uncertainty of the tech sector can quickly render a ''dream'' job obsolete.

The high-tech career imperative is a new phenomenon. In the 1980s, the career-makers were consumer marketing and finance. With consumer spending propelling economic growth, marketing experts from consumer-goods companies were in wide demand. The financial revolution of the 1980s opened up huge opportunities for finance pros all over Corporate America. By comparison, the tech sector in the 1980s was too small and too specialized to be a viable option for most career-switchers.

But technology is now driving economic growth. High-tech industries, from Web-site design to software and systems integration, are growing at an annual rate of over 5%, far faster than the rest of the economy. Meanwhile, the hot industries of the 1980s have slowed down. The continuing consolidation in banking and on Wall Street is dampening job growth in finance. The recent acquisition of Salomon Inc. by Travelers Group Inc., for example, will almost certainly result in layoffs. The same is true in retailing, consumer goods, and health care.

High tech increasingly dominates the labor market for managers and professionals. Computer programmers and analysts now outnumber lawyers almost 2 to 1. The software industry employs more people than Wall Street--and is growing twice as fast. The result of this rapid growth is that technology companies are gasping for people to fill their positions. Moreover, the nature of their needs has changed.

The Internet boom is creating new opportunities for marketing, advertising, and design experts. In the age of deregulation, telecommunications companies facing small competitors have suddenly discovered they need much more extensive marketing and product development to survive. Personal-computer makers, trying to reach the large number of households that still do not have PCs, are recruiting especially large numbers of marketing experts. ''They are finally waking up to the fact that these machines need to be marketed and consumers need to be taught how to use them,'' says Ellen Reid Smith, 37, who joined IBM last year as director of relationship marketing. She came from Brierley & Partners, a direct-marketing agency. Her task: to set up consumer loyalty programs for IBM's PC buyers, similar to the ones she helped design for department stores and restaurants.

The tech sector is even attracting lawyers. Kristin Coel, 32, who worked for several years as an attorney, is now director of project management for Gold Systems Inc. in Boulder, Colo. It produces telecom software for customer service centers. Coel took the job even though remaining in the field of law could have been more lucrative. ''Lots of friends are becoming partners in law firms, making good money,'' says Coel ''But this is more interesting work.''

To be sure, it's hard to make the jump into high tech at the CEO level unless you've already had extensive experience in the tech sector. ''Most technology companies are reluctant to hire nontech CEOs because knowledge is very important in leadership,'' says Heidrick & Struggles' Christy. For example, there was enormous internal resistance within AT&T when John R. Walter was hired in November, 1996, from printer R.R. Donnelly & Sons to be AT&T's president and CEO-in-waiting, in part because of his lack of technical experience. The deal fell through in less than a year, and Walter was out of a job.

MARKETABILITY MOVE. Nevertheless, some tech companies--especially Internet startups--have been reaching outside of technology for CEOs. ''Those companies already have a solid tech foundation and now need the senior business management as a complement,'' says Christy. Consider Ken Swanton, 52, who in September, 1996, left his job as executive vice-president and general manager of the leisure division of Carlson Wagonlit Travel, the $13 billion Minneapolis-based travel company. His destination: Palo Alto, Calif., where he became president and CEO of Internet Travel Network, a major supplier of online travel-reservation services. ''It has been a great move,'' says Swanton. ''The company has doubled the number of employees and customers since I got here.''

Even if you don't make the move into the corner office, by crossing over into high tech the way Swanton has done, you can dramatically improve your marketability for the rest of your career. The combination of tech and nontech experience is extremely valuable, both within the high-tech industry and in other parts of the economy. ''I have never seen such a disparity between demand and supply across all industries as there is now for tech-savvy executives,'' says John T. Thompson, vice-chairman at Heidrick & Struggles. Thompson recently helped recruit Ronald T. LeMay from Sprint Corp., where he was president, to be chairman and CEO of Waste Management Inc., a $9 billion company.

It's not just at the CEO level that tech experience pays off. Consider Kevin Sullivan, 56. He was hired by Wells Fargo & Co. in August as executive vice-president and head of human resources after 21 years in human resources at Digital Equipment Corp. and Apple Computer Inc. ''Wells Fargo wanted help from somebody who had a track record and experience in what it takes to move very quickly,'' says Sullivan. ''I've seen a lot of that, working in the high-tech field.''

WHIZZES ONLY? What's universally valued is not simply technological knowledge, but experience in the tech culture of speed and innovation. ''Getting an idea to market takes seven weeks, compared with two years at a traditional corporate job,'' says Lycos executive Horsfall. As companies across the economy try to emulate that short turnaround time, they are looking for people who are used to the pace.

Other career paths for managers and professionals do not produce the same boost to future success in a wide range of fields. Fast-growing fields such as health and education may offer lots of well-paying jobs, but the skills acquired there are not in heavy demand in other sectors. Indeed, even taking an information systems position at a nontech company offers only a partial advantage on the job market. Such experience vouches for your knowledge of technology, but not the inclination to speed and innovation that comes from working at a tech company.

Of course, not everyone is able or willing to make such a mid-career switch. The first hurdle is simple: Are you excited by technology? It's not required to be a computer whiz, but some basic ease with computers is essential. ''You have to have an innate interest in technology or else you won't do well,'' says Coel.

Equally important: the ability to thrive in a fast-changing, even chaotic environment. ''Many classically trained consumer marketers don't cut it in high tech because of the fast pace,'' says Dana Plotkin, who exemplifies the new career paths. Plotkin, 45, worked as a marketing executive for P&G, Playtex, and Citicorp after getting his MBA in 1977. Now, he is the Chicago-based vice-president for business development and marketing at an Israeli tech startup, Super Dimension. ''Because it's so quick, you don't have time to do research,'' says Plotkin, who has been defining marketing segments for the company. ''You go more with intuition and instincts.''

People who make the shift into high tech often start working with computers in their original businesses and get frustrated with the slow pace of change. ''A light goes off that says, 'it's time,''' says Horsfall. ''Aggressive, innovative people, a little uncomfortable in a slow environment, put their suits away and get into a new setting.''

The third important point for people thinking about switching into high tech is the ability to deal with risk. Jobs in the tech sector are far more ephemeral than in any other part of the economy. Small tech companies are always in danger of failing, either because of competition or because they put a bet on the wrong technology. Even the largest company can melt away, as the current crisis at Apple shows. ''This is a very unforgiving environment,'' says Plotkin.

Facing these risks, it's best to take an incremental approach (table, page 67). The essential first step is to get more involved with technology--both to learn something and to see if you like it. That may mean spending time on the Internet at home to track your stock portfolio or to research your passion for gardening. Or it could mean taking on projects at work that are connected with technology. You also might pursue continuing education: Northwestern University, for example, has a short program in tech management for nontechnical executives.

Paul Vizza, 38, came to high tech after 12 years of marketing and promotion experience at magazines. On the way, he helped The New Republic go online and set up one of the earliest electronic kiosks for selling subscriptions on the Internet for a wide range of magazines. That helped him make the jump to his current job as a marketing director for InteliData, a company specializing in applications such as stock quotes and sports scores for pagers and other small-screen devices. ''Retaining the customer base for these services,'' says Vizza, ''is like keeping up the circulation of a magazine.''

It's also important to build on existing expertise. Journalists can find a home at online publications, while graphic designers can become Web designers. Travel executive Swanton's advantage was industry savvy and contacts, though it didn't hurt that he had done graduate work in engineering at the University of Waterloo in Ontario. Attorney Coel got into high tech by working for JuriSystems, a company that develops legal software. ''They had programmers, but they needed a lawyer to know what applications to do,'' she says.

Coel notes that managing a software project is much like managing a case, including the need to translate technical language for a lay client. At the same time, the tremendous boom in tech startups is creating a new market for legal advice. For example, after practicing law for six years, Adam Wegner, 32, has just taken a job as general counsel with one of his clients, Exodus Communications Inc., in Santa Clara, Calif., which hosts and manages Web sites for corporations.

WEB ALERT. You can also get into high tech via consulting. From giants such as Andersen Consulting and Ernst & Young down to single-person shops, consultants are an essential part of the high-tech industry, serving as a bridge to help customers adopt new technologies. Consulting employment is increasing at a 5% annual rate, with top firms growing far faster. Ernst & Young, for example, is adding consultants at a rate of 30% per year, notes Michael Wilk, national director of recruiting, with most new consulting hires going into tech-related assignments.

If you want to make a direct jump into high tech, however, it's easier than ever to research what kind of jobs are available. A wide range of positions at high-tech companies--some at quite senior levels--are posted on corporate and career Web sites. Some companies explicitly use their sites as recruitment tools. Cisco, for example, has a Web page where interested people can find out more about the company from someone who works in the same sort of position. ''We'll find them someone to talk to,'' says McNeal.

Don't be scared off by a list of qualifications that you apparently don't fit. Remember that there is a tremendous mismatch between supply and demand, and companies are willing to make allowances to find workers, such as Jan Horsfall, who can thrive in the high-tech culture. ''People willing to hustle and maneuver and talk into opportunities can get into jobs without a traditional background,'' says Charley A. Polachi Jr., managing director at Fenwick Partners, a Boston-based executive recruiting firm.

What happens if you don't switch into high tech? Certainly, there are still a lot of high-paying jobs in the rest of the economy. But for the foreseeable future, most of the growth will be in high tech. Your flight is leaving the gate, and it's time to get on board.

By Michael J. Mandel and Toddi Gutner in New York


TABLE: Are You Ready to Switch?

TABLE: How to Make the Jump into High Tech

TABLE: High-Tech Job Sites on the Web

CHART: Where the Good Jobs Are


Updated Oct. 2, 1997 by bwwebmaster
Copyright 1997, Bloomberg L.P.
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