Let headhunter Kevin Rosenberg help you set your career compass. Kevin is managing director and partner of BridgeGate LLC, a California-based search firm. Kevin, who specializes in IT management searches, shares tips on a host of career issues in this biweekly Q & A format.

Q. I worked for 20 years as a COBOL programmer, and then I was trained in Java. The Java project was dumped at my old company, so I got a job at a dot com. But I am really uncomfortable here. I went from being the person who knows everything, to the guy who knows nothing. Everyone here is so busy, it is hard to ask a question. I have determined that I will stick it out. I know I am intelligent and will learn. So far, the people here are patient with me even if they don’t have time for mentoring. Also, my knowledge of the industry does help me. I am studying everything I can, and I am taking a Java Certification class at the local Java User’s Group. Any advice for my situation? Am I doing what I should?

WK, Utah

Rosenberg: WK, not only are you doing okay, you are very fortunate. The fact that, after such a well-heeled career in COBOL, you were afforded the opportunity to learn Java is a blessing. Many in your position don’t get this chance. Moreover, the fact that you were hired at a dot com, where the average age is typically 22-25, speaks volumes about the company you are with. So, here’s my advice: Embrace this opportunity and, by God, get comfortable. Learn all that you can, become immersed in as much contemporary technology as possible, and do not lose sight of the tremendous positive impact a successful e-business technology job can have on your resume.

I applaud you for the self-investment efforts you’re making. Keep it up. But similarly, don’t discount the value you bring to the table today. More and more, I am seeing the dot coms of the world seek out the “been there, done that” wisdom of IT industry veterans. You may be gaining valuable exposure. You probably bring a level of maturity and systems expertise that many dot coms don’t currently enjoy. Hang in there. You are doing fine!

Q. Kevin, I am 18 and a senior in high school. I have been taking a VO-Tech class for Visual Basic for two years. Should I go to college, or will I be able to go ahead and get a job? I would much rather go ahead and get a job.

SD, location withheld

Rosenberg: SD, patience is a virtue; education is a privilege. Your future depends on both. If you must work, balance work and the pursuit of an education. It may take longer, but at least you will never look back with regret.

Q. I have recently been approached by a dot-com startup that is looking for a VP of e-commerce. The job sounds very interesting, and the company is being backed by some well-known venture capitalists—so I’m pretty confident it will work out. But I don’t know how to structure a salary package. I know what I’d like as a base salary and bonus. What I don’t know is how to determine whether I want cash, stock, or stock options, and how that all works. I also don’t know how I should structure my employment contract. Is there someplace I can go to learn about these types of things? Are there professionals who can help?


Rosenberg: Given just those few details, I would be hard pressed to give you an accurate answer about how to structure a salary package. Instead, I advise you to do some homework because the answers to your other questions are readily available in the public domain.

First, get educated about how ISOPs (Incentive Stock Option Plan) work. You must have a fundamental understanding of the stock options game before coming to the field to play. One book that has received great praise is Consider Your Options: Get the Most from Your Equity Compensation by Kaye A. Thomas. It’s recently become available at www.amazon.com .

Second, investigate the market. CIO, The Industry Standard, Red Herring, Fast Company, and several other publications have all printed reports in the last three years on the equity versus salary phenomenon. Moreover, they have begun to establish a barometer of the standards.

Finally, understand the company you are planning to join. At what stage are they? Are you employee seven or 107? Have they had a series B or series C round of financing, or are they pre-venture? Each time there is a new infusion of capital, the value of shares after that round is diluted. The earlier you join, the better—but the earlier you join, the riskier.

The bottom line is this: If you are joining an early phase, pre-public dot com, expect to take (as they say in Silicon Valley) a haircut. That is to say, expect your base compensation to be reduced dramatically in exchange for an equity stake in the organization. The earlier you join, the more dramatic the haircut, but the more explosive the value of your options could be. Look before you leap. But if you are confident, know and understand the value proposition of the start-up, and see good money flowing in, this could be the real thing!

I can’t help you with contracts, as that discussion is best left to a labor lawyer. Sure, outside experts exist to help coach you through this maze. But trust your instincts. And do some research.
Send your career questions to Kevin . He’ll try to answer them in upcoming columns.