The Silicon Sandbar

Cape Cod, Mass., a flexed arm of a landmass jutting into the Atlantic 60 miles south of Boston, is having a virtual economic renaissance. Tourism and fishing still reign, but they've been joined by a wave of entrepreneurs trading blue suits for boat shoes, creating a new nickname for the area: the Silicon Sandbar. All this means opportunities for IT professionals who long for a more relaxed pace of life.

To make the jump, though, plan to be flexible on just what an information technology job is.

The high-tech trend on the Cape started nearly 20 years ago, when entrepreneurs like Bob Pemberton, CEO of Infinium Software Inc. in Hyannis, Mass., decided to work where they lived, not live where they worked.

"At one point in time in economic history, you could only form companies in certain places," says Pemberton. "Today, it's very easy to do."

Today, the Cape Cod Technology Council has 360 members. Three-quarters of them are either high-tech research and development companies or businesses that rely on IT, such as hospitals, banks and radio stations.

Some of the companies have seen impressive growth. Infinium has more than 600 employees worldwide and annual revenue of $120 million. Lucent Technologies Inc. in Murray Hill, N.J., recently bought Cape-based Excel Switching Corp. for $1.7 billion. A start-up like Taqua Systems Inc. in Hyannis can receive tens of millions of dollars in investment money.

All this translates into job opportunities. Still, Cape Cod is neither Route 128 (Boston's "Technology Highway") nor Silicon Valley, with densely packed companies. If things don't work out well with one employer, you won't necessarily find your next job across the street.

Employers are also small to medium-size, with no enormous IT departments. To work on Cape Cod, plan on flexibility and consider career shifts, like moving into product development.

"There's not enough people to go around," says Matt Trask, president of Communica Inc., a contract development house in Bourne, Mass. "We're always looking to hire people with the right mix of skills and experience." That mix for many employers can include development and even project management skills.

Experience in a vertical industry or an application-specific area can also be attractive.

Salaries on Cape Cod may have lagged behind other areas in the past, but those days are gone. "Just to get people, you're paying everything they get in Boston," says Dave Michaud, CEO of Taqua, which pays $80,000 to $120,000 for software engineers with 10 years of experience.

Lifestyle Matters

Pemberton warns that shifting career paths can also mean changing attitudes.

There's the need to embrace the Cape Cod way of life, where "quality of life" becomes a key issue that may need other adjustments. Those coming from a city environment will find the pace of life slow in comparison.

"When we transfer someone from Texas to anywhere here," says Pemberton, "their reaction is ‘God, look at the houses! The rooms are so small!'"Choosing the right house takes some research. Cape Cod is a big retirement area, with many neighborhoods devoid of young children, making them unattractive to young families.

Prices on the low end are similar to suburbs of Boston but can rise to astronomical levels.

Those who want more choices in housing can commute to the Cape. Some employers claim to have employees living as far away as Boston and Providence, R.I.

Luckily, the drive goes against traffic, even in tourist season, when highways are jammed with bumper-to-bumper traffic as people look to get away for the weekend.

The Cape is struggling with some issues. An exploding population, especially during the summer tourist season, has caused concerns about fresh water supplies. And building is restricted to two stories, making it more difficult for firms to grow.

Public schools are also a concern to many because of undistinguished average student performance on statewide achievement tests and a perceived lack of educational emphasis on preparation for technology. Yet Pemberton stresses that such issues shouldn't put blinders on your eyes. "Those are more tactical issues," he says. "We don't have strategic problems."

Sherman is a freelance writer in Marshfield, Mass.

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