Moving to a start-up? Fasten your seat belt

Four managers who left corporate IT for start-ups tell you what to expect.

Remember the late '90s, when tech managers left corporate IT in droves to join Internet start-ups? Some people got rich, and others got burned, but everyone agreed -- working for a start-up is a unique experience.

Flash forward a decade: In today's economic climate, few start-ups are actually starting up. But companies that did manage to launch in the past couple of years still need IT managers. And tech professionals -- particularly those who've already been laid off or are in shaky positions -- still need jobs.

Thus, a whole new class of technology leaders might find themselves for the first time seriously contemplating employment at a start-up.

busy start-up guy

If you're in that group, get ready for an exhilarating -- if bumpy -- ride, say four IT managers who have made the jump from corporate IT to a start-up.

The managers we interviewed warn that you'll have to leave behind some benefits of the corporate world you may not have fully appreciated: predictability, proven procedures, vendors willing and waiting to talk with you, and the knowledge that the company you're working for will still be there when you wake up in the morning.

Even so, for every start-up negative, these veterans say, there's a matching benefit: You'll be working more, but you'll be more invested in your company's success. Procedures may be haphazard or nonexistent, but decisions will be made quickly. Top management may be inexperienced but more likely to give you free rein over IT. That free rein, however, will nearly always be held in check by money concerns.

Corporate IT people who switch to start-up life can expect "more chaos and dysfunction," says Peter Sharer, a corporate IT veteran who's made the start-up move not once, but twice -- moving first from a 14-year stint in software development at NASA to Oblix Inc., a small personal-identity software firm later bought by Oracle Corp., before eventually taking his current position as CEO at Agilewaves, a Menlo Park, Calif.-based firm that helps companies monitor energy and water expenditures for high-performance buildings.

"Start-ups often don't have defined processes, which can mean a lot of wasted effort and energy," Sharer points out. "But the positive is that because you're in a small company, you can make decisions more quickly. And you work harder. I've never worked so hard in my life."

If that hard work sounds like something you'd be willing to consider, read what our survivors say to expect at a start-up:

You'll be starting from scratch

"From an IT perspective, being at a start-up is a lot more interesting," says John Wegis, who worked at Sun Microsystems Inc. and Ziff Davis Media Inc. before taking a position as chief technology officer in 2007 at What They Like Inc., a San Francisco start-up geared to helping parents evaluate video games and other child-targeted entertainment. "There are no legacy issues to deal with. There is an opportunity to evaluate new technologies and solutions."

David Street, who left Compaq for a start-up in 1999, concurs. "You get to implement the technology you want -- the latest hardware, your choice of software standards. You pick all of your own tools without having to worrying about a bunch of data being locked up in an incompatible legacy database," says Street, who was chief operating officer and head of IT at now-defunct network computer maker The NIC Co. (which -- full disclosure -- was co-founded by this reporter).

Launching IT from scratch "isn't really very hard if you have enough money to hire a company to do the work," says Street, who now runs the online store "We set the specs, picked the equipment and software, and they set it up as we directed."

It's not always that easy, he acknowledges. "At a big corporation, there are often a lot of resources available for IT, particularly for primary initiatives," Street says. "At a start-up, usually not."

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