Should You Heed a Vendor's Call?

FRAMINGHAM (07/24/2000) - Tom Thomas paid his way through college in the 1960s by programming computers. With such initiative as his hallmark, he landed an IS job after graduation and rose steadily through the ranks, ultimately landing chief information officer spots at technology-savvy companies including Dell Computer Corp. and 3Com Corp.

By anyone's account, Thomas has had a successful IS career. Nonetheless, he abandoned that career track a few years back. A software vendor sought him out as CEO, and he answered the call.

Thomas is not unusual for following this path. Armed with first-hand knowledge of the environments vendors are trying to sell into, some network executives are landing jobs with vendors in marketing, sales and even in the executive suite. Others turn their ideas into products and services by starting their own companies.

Thomas' master plan took him from the grass roots of the data processing industry - complete with punch cards and magnetic tape - to high-profile CIO positions and finally to the corner office.

"As IT has evolved, I've evolved with it," he says. "Because my formal education was in business and commerce, I always had an eye toward how I could use technology to improve the business."

That pursuit served him well, whether working in IS in the health care industry in the late 1960s through the mid-1970s, as CIO for Kraft Foods Inc. into the 1980s or as Dell CIO in the early 1990s.

Thomas' first taste of vendor life came with his move to 3Com, where his CIO title was topped off with that of senior vice president of the e-business unit.

That job enabled him to run 3Com's internal IS organization as well as to shape its burgeoning commercial effort.

While at 3Com, Thomas joined the board of directors of Vantive Corp., a customer relationship management software vendor. A few months later, Vantive's board pegged him as CEO. "It was a good opportunity for me to run a company as opposed to running large business units inside an enterprise," he says.

Thomas left that CEO spot when PeopleSoft acquired Vantive late last year. Not missing a beat, in February he joined Scriptics, a start-up business-to-business e-commerce software maker in Mountain View, Calif., as CEO.

Thomas argues that IT professionals are ideally positioned to learn about all facets of a company and, as such, are well-suited to take on larger leadership roles. He says if you compare a company to your hand, thinking of each finger as a different business unit or function, then your palm is the IT group, which touches all others. An IT executive has to be knowledgeable about each corporate function while being an expert in his own. "After you've been at it for a while, you develop a fairly deep level of understanding about how the business works," Thomas says.

A matter of contacts

Michael Surkan is another former IS professional who understands that dynamic and is now working for a vendor. In his case, the vendor is Contact Networks Inc., a Redwood Shores, Calif., start-up that runs contact.com. This Web site offers an Internet-enabled address book.

Surkan got out of IS largely to escape job stress. As MIS manager for electronics manufacturer Flextronics International, he was often paged at 2 a.m. or interrupted during vacations to deal with work problems. "That was fine for a decade, but that was enough," he says.

Stress is part of his new job, too, but Surkan says the level doesn't compare to his IS days. "It's a whole different ball game from when a server fails and an 800-person assembly line shuts down," he says. "Nobody here is going to page me at 2 a.m. because a report didn't get done."

Besides being less stressful, his new position affords Surkan the opportunity to gain experience that he hopes will help him someday run a start-up of his own.

However, he cautions against expectations of quick riches from making the jump to the vendor side. While searching in January for the marketing position he now holds, Surkan was getting lots of IS job offers. "The truth is I was getting considerably better offers for IS positions, even with start-ups," he says.

A start-up born at the Pentagon

Another IS pro turned vendor is Amit Yoran, who caught the start-up bug while working at the Department of Defense. After three years there, he joined the Defense Information Systems Agency in 1996. He directed DISA's Computer Emergency Response Team, leading penetration testing of intelligence networks.

At the time, DISA deployed the world's largest intrusion-detection infrastructure. "We were doing some leading work in how you correlate data across different sensors, look for and do trend analysis, and look for sophisticated attacks," he says.

That technology was one of Yoran's two main motivations for embarking on the start-up route in 1998. His new company, RIPTech Inc., of Alexandria, Va., is in the process of commercializing this technology - with Yoran as CEO. The company monitors security devices on your network, collects data and examines it for suspicious activity.

The second motivator was the attraction of working at a fast-paced small company rather than a slow-moving government agency, he says.

Yoran says that you need an outgoing personality to jump to a vendor. "On the technical side, while there needs to be customer focus, it's really you interacting with the technology more than anything else. At RIPTech, everything we do is customer-oriented. It's different," he says.

Know yourself

Scriptics' Thomas advises those thinking about the jump to consider what they get out of work. "The most rewarding job and the one I had the most fun at was CIO. You could see where your ideas and approaches were transforming a business," he says.

Desmond is vice president of King Content, a strategic publishing company in Framingham, Mass. He can be reached at paul_desmond@king-content.com.

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