Converted, but not true believers

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The Independent Online

You read it here first: the Internet industry is under threat. I am not talking about the stock valuation crisis, but about death by full employment. We have simply run out of people.

You read it here first: the Internet industry is under threat. I am not talking about the stock valuation crisis, but about death by full employment. We have simply run out of people.

Have you tried to build an Internet team recently? It's an impossible task. Using headhunters, or calling old mates from previous projects does not do the trick anymore. Even for the so-called pre-IPO (read "riches-to-be-had-when-the-company-floats") businesses, it is difficult to recruit quality staff.

One of the reasons is that the stock options mania, introduced a year ago, has taken a lot of good people out of the market. Typically the stock options vest for three to five years. Therefore, the true aces - the digital old hands of the Internet, who were in great demand last year - are now locked into their options. They will have to wait till the end of their vesting period to get their millions out. People with four to five years of Internet experience are out of the game till at least 2002 - and no amount of money for a "competitive offer" can tempt them out of their options schemes.

Around six months ago, the reluctance of the aces to move created space for team B (less experienced but at least Internet-passionate people).Now they, too, are locked into options. By around December 1999, desperate Internet start-ups were happy to employ even the most humble junior HTML designer and offer him or her a job with options and a travel allowance to boot.

What is the reason for this sudden explosion of job offers? Clearly, the amount of investment hitting the Internet industry in the UK has outstripped the number of skilled people.

Having run out of both true Internet aces and lesser people who really understand the medium, live the digital life and feel the technology, the industry has had to turn to the so-called "converts". These are the people who already had established careers in traditional media, retail or IT. Seeing big businesses going belly up, these people, trained in the ways of large companies, jumped ship. Under normal circumstances they would not be able to find jobs in the new area, as they are not skilled digital people. They rarely live online, occasionally use e-mail and have only a second- or third-hand experience of the Internet as a new lifestyle medium.

They are typically experienced project managers, skilled in big company politics, and capable diplomats. The downside is that they are not schooled in the paradigm of dramatic growth, often unable to take risks, unwilling to work Internet hours or take a global view. Converts dislike ambiguity and have a habit of spending most of their time looking inwards, on meetings with internal people and on refining the business models until the Excel spreadsheets give up on them. They are linear rather than lateral thinkers, and are unaware of the undercurrents and waves affecting the great ocean of digital life and the Internet.

Notice how long since Yahoo! has introduced something new or innovative? Maybe the Yahoo! Mail a few years ago? Since then not a byte of innovation has left their servers, and the reason becomes clear when you look at its staff. There are a few remaining pioneers hidden in deepest California, but its European staff are mostly converts. The same goes for all of the other, once-innovative, today "too-busy-having-meetings" brands such as Excite and AOL. I will not mention Freeserve or other local brands, as they have been staffed with converts from their conception, and thus never stood much chance in the Internet innovation stakes.

One solution to the crisis is to avoid converts, as they pretty much guarantee that the growth of your beloved Internet start-up will stop at zero.

I would prefer to follow the Californian way, and tempt second- and third-year university students to park the traditional education and join the great academy of life - in the shape of the new Internet companies. To them I would say that universities are not where the action is today, and if you miss it, the adventure may never come your way again. Take a break from your degree and experience the time of your life.

This way the industry could get back on the innovation track, as the digital generation will be able to build applications and Web sites that are truly new. Otherwise, the Internet companies will die, starved of new thoughts.

So students: Internet users are getting bored. You have a chance to rescue them from the converts. Don't miss it, or after graduation you will end up working for Shell, IBM or, God forbid, Andersen Consulting. Now that would be a real waste of your digital talents.

Eva@never.com

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