Dear Career Adviser

FRAMINGHAM (07/31/2000) - I'm a 35-year-old with a Ph.D. earned in Russia. I'm a skilled programmer with experience in C, Java, Web technologies and various databases, plus project leadership experience. I dream about a position that uses my abilities as a team manager and computer technology specialist, particularly in the field of e-commerce. I'm ambitious and used to hard work.

Being from outside the U.S., would I have to start out as a programmer? What's the best plan?

-- Ambitious Ivan

Dear Ambitious:

The answer depends in part on how a potential U.S. employer evaluates your foreign-earned credentials and on what you need to learn to be really skilled in a specific product or architecture.

Depending on the complexities of the projects you've done and the Web technologies you've worked with, you should have no problem finding good opportunities, says Jeremy Barnaby, a technical talent scout at Webridge Inc., an e-commerce infrastructure company in Beaverton, Ore.

If you were to work at a consulting company where application solutions are built from scratch every time, the technology ramp could be shorter if your Java and Web technology skills are strong.

However, "if Ambitious were to join a company like Webridge, which has built its own proprietary [object-oriented] framework in Java, he would start temporarily in an individual contributor role - that is, rolling up his sleeves and learning the product by slinging code as a programmer," says Barnaby.

If you have your heart set on a company, architecture or product set, learn as much as you can before you start interviewing. Doors open when companies see that you don't need training.

"Dear Career Adviser:

I left college with a 4.0 GPA and started working at a start-up two months ago at a salary of $40,000, but with no bonuses, stock or other perks. I even have to pay for parking and part of my health insurance.

This job gives me great experience. I work with Active Server Pages and SQL Server as a Web developer, have installed two firewalls and written some C++ and Java. In fact, I'm responsible for the company's most important Web projects. This small company has fewer than 20 people and no formal guidelines for reviews. When should I try to negotiate a better deal?

-- Just Asking

Dear Asking:

Companies with fewer than 20 people are under no legal obligation to provide the same benefits as larger companies. In fact, if the company goes belly-up you might not even be entitled to COBRA coverage, which lets you continue your health benefits for 18 months.

However, you can immediately ask to be treated the same as employees joining the company now if they're getting stock and other benefits that you aren't.

Also, based on your superior performance, you should request a review after just six months. If your strategy flips to "more money or else," you might gain clout in the negotiation but alienate your manager entirely.

"Dear Career Adviser:

I'm a lead architect with in-depth knowledge of Unified Modeling Language, Java, C++, XML, Common Object Request Broker Architecture, Distributed Component Object Model technology, Remote Method Invocation technology, Java 2 Enterprise Edition, Oracle, messaging technologies, Object Transaction Services and Jini. I pick up technologies easily, and I've shipped a lot of products that have created more than $100 million in yearly sales, yet my salary has stayed in the low $100,000s. I detest politics, but I like mentoring, giving demonstrations and shipping products on time. I want to earn more and stay strong technically and as a teacher. Are my only options the Big Five or consulting?

-- Technical Guru

Dear Guru:

Eric Sigurdson, an executive recruiter at New York-based Russell Reynolds Associates Inc., says that if you're smart, aggressive and a good communicator, several paths are open to you. You can move toward a chief technology officer or vice president of engineering role at a small technology company, where you would build and manage a large organization and bank on an upside from your stock.

You can also join a Web consulting company like Boston-based Circles or Chicago-based MarchFirst Inc.; become a solutions architect at a firm where your compensation includes a variable component based on revenue from sales to clients; or go to a Big Five firm. Some of them have incubators and new-company "accelerators," where you can have the excitment of a start-up within a more mature organization.

Even if you hate politics, you need to groom yourself politically to get an upper-management spot. To do this without endangering your job, start serving on technical organization boards and speaking at major conferences.

Fran Quittel is an expert in high-tech careers and recruitment. Send questions to her at www.computerworld.com/career_adviser.

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