WORLDBEAT: Rags to Riches, Irish Style

SAN FRANCISCO (04/05/2000) - So I'm in a bar with some friends on 16th Street in San Francisco's trendy Mission district last week and my roommate is gloating over his stock options and how his company is about to file for its IPO and we're all thinking, could this be the same guy who 10 months ago was loading boxes off the back of a truck behind The Gap?

And it is, of course, because this is San Francisco, where thousands of people who moved here because they thought it would be hot and sunny (which it isn't) are instead finding it crammed with high-tech jobs that they are falling backwards into in the way that people fall into vats of hot liquid chocolate when they are dreaming.

So it was no surprise last summer when my roommate, who we'll call Dermott, rousing from a deep slumber on the living room couch one afternoon, announced a plan to quit his gig as a trucker's aide and sidle on up to the high-tech trough for a feed.

Dermott is six foot two, Irish, and came to San Francisco six years ago after winning a green card in the lottery (like many other Irish here). The green card allows him to work legally here for any U.S. company. He has a weakness for Guinness and cigarettes, and has been known to buy seven new pairs of socks in order to avoid doing his laundry for another week. Dermott was recently granted U.S. citizenship, although only after we taught him that the correct answer on the immigration test to the question, "Why do you want to become a U.S. citizen" is, "Because I want to participate in your democracy," and not, "Because then you can't deport me if I commit a felony."

With a minimum of relevant experience, Dermott wrangled his way into a sales team with an e-marketing firm in October. E-marketing is hot because it promises to make unprofitable Internet companies profitable, but it could have been networking equipment, business-to-business software, communications chips or any of the other boomtown IT markets in these parts.

In October, his e-marketing firm decided it was time to expand and made Dermott, who talks fast and happens to be as sharp as a pin (even though he can't boil an egg), a manager in charge of hiring 12 new staff. In November he came home to announce he'd been awarded a US$20,000 pay rise.

Dermott's company was due to file for a public offering last week, although apparently they are so busy signing new partners that they don't have time to fill out the paperwork. Dermott isn't vested yet, but it's clear to us all that he won't be doing his laundry any time soon.

If this tale of heady ascent makes you want to throw in your job as a line manager and hop a Greyhound to Silicon Valley, consider the cautionary tale of Seamus (as we'll call him), who came to stay with Dermott from Dublin a few weeks ago with dreams of setting up a dot-com startup of his own.

Seamus had been a consultant building wireless networks for European manufacturing companies. Fancying himself a bit of an Internet whizz, he relocated here, set up his old Toshiba in our front room and set about writing a business plan. Next to his computer he put a scale replica of a red convertible Mercedes, which was to serve as a muse, if you will, for the good life ahead.

The last I heard of Seamus, he was living in a small hotel in San Francisco's Tenderloin district, which may become gentrified one day like the Mission, but only when people are no longer afraid to go there. We didn't want to kick Seamus out, but after a while his hubris had started to keep us up at night.

This town is dripping with opportunities, but going it alone is a tough one to crack -- there's lot of competition out there.

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