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Geekdom Is Awash in Perks

With stock options no longer doing the trick, desperate 'dot-coms' are luring programmers with big salaries, free trips and on-the-job luxuries.

May 23, 2000|DENISE GELLENE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Three years ago, Brian Pink made $20,000 a year designing concert posters and business cards for a small graphics shop. Today, the self-taught programmer earns five times that as technology chief of an Internet start-up in Encinitas, Calif.

Forget picking Internet stocks. If you want to make money in the new economy, pick up the computer languages that make the World Wide Web go.

"Dot-coms" are dangling Fortune 500-level salaries and generous perks in a tug-of-war for technical talent. Brainy teenagers who know software codes are landing $40,000-a-year jobs straight from high school at start-ups desperate to get their Web sites running.

A full-time concierge handles dry-cleaning and other chores for time-pressed employees at a Santa Monica e-commerce company. A Malibu dot-com treated its entire staff to a vacation in Hawaii. Catered Friday afternoon parties and game rooms with Foosball tables are de rigueur at new-media companies, recruiters say.

Some Internet companies are raising the ante with signing bonuses and other goodies commonly used by large corporations. A Pasadena start-up recently lured database management expert Chris Kelly away from Bank of America by matching his six-figure salary and giving him an office in San Francisco so he wouldn't have to move.

The rapid growth of new-media companies in Southern California has exacerbated an existing shortage of technical workers, headhunters say. And there is no sign that the recent slump in Internet stock prices is cooling the competition for talent. Recruiters in Los Angeles say salaries are up 25% since last spring and are expected to jump 20% more during the next 12 months. And programmers, like many dot-com employees, receive stock options that could make them rich should their companies take off.

Some venture capital firms that ultimately fund the payroll at dot-coms believe that salaries and perks will level off as investor interest in the Internet cools. They say dot-coms are using up cash received before investors retreated from Internet stocks in April, causing the tech-heavy Nasdaq to plummet 25% in a week.

"We may be at a peak," said Jonathan Funk of Santa Monica-based Media Technology Ventures.

But other venture capital firms note that the Internet economy is expected to grow as technology develops and more people and companies use the new medium. New-media companies are in a race to get their businesses to market first, and to do so they need smart programmers.

What's more, the scattered failure of dot-coms isn't likely to ease the overall shortage of programmers. Many large tech companies are recruiting foreign workers, and the Commerce Department is planning an advertising campaign in the fall to promote technology careers with an eye toward reducing the shortage in coming years.

"You will always need good engineers," said G. Bradford Jones of Los Angeles-based Redpoint Ventures.

Three Job Offers in Just Four Days

Veteran programmers typically juggle multiple offers. Kevin Dorris said he received three offers in four days during a brief job search last month. He accepted a $90,000 programming post with Web design firm Razorfish, which boasts an on-site basketball court.

"I've never seen the market this good," said Dorris, 39.

Some start-ups are paying bounties to current employees who help them snag new talent. At ArsDigita in Pasadena, employees who attract 10 programmers to the company get a free Ferrari. The Cambridge, Mass.-based firm, which offers the same deal at its seven locations, pays starting programmers between $70,000 and $100,000 a year.

Programmers, long dissed as geeks and nerds, say they are finally getting some respect. On organization charts, technology chiefs are rising from department heads to corporate officers--from management information system directors to chief technology officers. CTOs at Internet companies earn as much as marketing and sales chiefs, recruiters say.

Geekdom is losing its stigma on college campuses. Graduates with plenty of options are grabbing programming jobs. At USC, English majors are teaching themselves computer languages, said career planning executive director Eileen B. Kohan.

For C.J. Brown, a senior chemistry major at Caltech, the choice between graduate school and a dot-com is a no-brainer: "I can make 15K as a lab rat or 60K plus stock."

Employers grumble that all this pampering has gone to some programmers' heads. In a tight market, programmers have less incentive to resolve disagreements or push to get work done, they say.

"A programmer can throw a handkerchief in the air and have three job offers," said William J. Curtis, CEO of SmallOffice.com, which has lost several programmers. "They come in like gods."

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