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Vendor ventures

The smell of serious money and freshly swept corporate floors can shake the faith of many a reseller. But would you want to work for a vendor?

When it comes to images of the IT workplace, that old saying "the grass is greener on the other side" seems to apply almost as a general rule. In Australia, it is the US companies that seem to get the glory. In the channel, the love-hate relationship with vendors seems to end when the perks associated with the sleek corporate style of the enemy become an object of resellers' desire. But IT professionals pondering a job change might wonder what it's actually like to work at these places. Everyone knows US companies, who also happen to be those "desirable" vendor companies, expect long hours. But do they chew up staff and spit them out like toothpicks? Or do they offer an atmosphere so exciting that you can't wait to go to work in the morning?

The answer often depends on the workplace culture, because it is culture that determines the behaviour of the people you work with - and it affects your life far more deeply than a shiny new BMW can.

Here's a look at the workplace cultures of four US vendors competing in four of today's hottest technology segments. Who knows? One might be just what the career doctor ordered for you.

Inktomi

Inktomi's 400-person workforce boasts so many graduate degrees that it almost feels like a university. Contributing to that feeling: Inktomi is staffed primarily by twentysomethings prone to erupt in spontaneous (and legendary) water battles.

You may not have heard of Inktomi, but the San Mateo, California company works on projects as big as the Internet itself. Literally.

The reason: all of Inktomi's products - its search engine, Internet-caching, comparison-shopping and concept-matching software - are based on homegrown technology that essentially strings together inexpensive workstations to form a true massively parallel processing system. Keeping up with the Internet is a simple matter of adding more processors. The technology behind it, though, is complex.

"What Inktomi delivers is very rocket-scientific," says Kris Tuttle, an analyst at Soundview Technology Group. "Your average smart-guy programmer won't be able to do this."

But life at Inktomi isn't all nose-to-the-grindstone. The employees there know how to have fun, too.

One mark of Inktomi's work hard/play hard culture: an informal confab, dubbed "Year of Pain", which promotes rock climbs, endurance bike rides, outdoor ropes courses and other high-energy doings. Whatever the activity, the goal is to provide employees with an outlet to relieve the stress of days and nights in front of their computer monitors.

"I've done several all-nighters since graduating last year from Cal Tech - not because I was asked to, but because I find my work so intriguing," says Sean Suchter, a software developer and scientist in Inktomi's directory engine group. Suchter estimates he puts in an average of 60 to 70 hours per week.

Blame it on the enthusiasm of youth, which prompts many of Inktomi's staff to lose sight of the hours as releases approach. And given the product cycles of software these days, it seems there's always a new release.

"As a manager, I try to keep people from doing those all-nighters because we want to keep them from burning out," says Matthew Hall, 43, who is Suchter's manager. "We are in this for the long haul, and want to keep people fresh and productive. More often than not, I tell people to take time off."

Inktomi also has an unspoken, but inviolate, code of behaviour. "We have zero tolerance for prima donnas," Hall says.

So what type of personality fits in at Inktomi? Someone who's drawn to solving The Big Question, according to Suchter and Hall, because of the breadth of Inktomi's products. And someone who has accomplished big things, but doesn't have a swelled head.

"We have an almost complete lack of political intrigue, since no one talks about who screwed up or who can't handle a task. You have no idea what that means in your life - not worrying about how others perceive you or having to watch your back," Hall says.

Trilogy Software

Trilogy wants young, talented overachievers with entrepreneurial ambition. And oh yes, it also wants people who will willingly dedicate their lives to make the company succeed. Only the vigorous need apply.

It's quite possible that no one works as hard as the staff at Trilogy Software. Forget about 60-hour weeks. The 1000 employees at Trilogy - which now competes in one of the most hotly contested spaces in the e-commerce market - often put in 100 hours per week. Frankly, it's the sort of schedule that requires the stamina of youth.

That's one reason the developer of sales, marketing and other front-office software actively recruits most of its high-octane staff from the nation's top universities. And the emphasis is on high-octane.

"It's awesome working here," says four-year veteran Danielle Rios, 28, her enthusiasm coming through at 45rpm. "Everyone's excited here, everyone feels we're contributing to the company's success, and everyone wants to spend time together."

At this Austin, Texas, firm, life is Trilogy and Trilogy is life. "My family thinks I'm psycho since my life is integrated with work. I live and breathe Trilogy, all my friends are here, and I don't care," Rios says.

It all starts with Trilogy University, the three-month boot camp that all new recruits attend. During those three months, people work together, eat together and bond. And as they bond, these overachievers begin to compete for the company's highest accolades.

"You don't get rewarded here for trying hard, but for producing results," says Rios, who was recently promoted from software developer to director of Trilogy University. "Everyone wants to be considered a star."

And it's no wonder: star status brings extraordinary rewards, from cars to trips to cash bonuses that can equal one's annual salary. Rios was declared a star in 1998, the year the entire company went to Hawaii.

The benefits at Trilogy are extraordinary, but so are the demands.

Vignette

Where its Austin neighbour, Trilogy, seeks out college graduates willing to devote themselves to all things corporate, Vignette deliberately goes after an older, more experienced crew.

Two words describe Vignette: funky and intense.

"Funky, because anything goes around here," says Mike Strong, a senior software engineer at the developer of content-management software for the Web. "We have people with rings in every possible part of their body, we have square-looking people and people in between. But there's a real sense that it doesn't matter at all. Our culture isn't one big testosterone fix where everyone likes the same rock band or the same sport."

But don't get the impression that life at Vignette is as slow as a Texas drawl. The pace of work at this 250-person company is nearly as frenetic as Trilogy's.

"We look for people who are confident, articulate, mature - and who aren't bozos," says Kenneth Hilbig, Vignette's director of human resources. "A bozo is someone who can't deliver what they've promised or who built themselves up to be more than they are or who can't handle the atmosphere of intensity and accountability here. People here are always held accountable. Bozos are tolerated by no one."

The result is an atmosphere that appeals to those who aren't, well, bozos. "What I like here is it has all the vitality of a startup, but the ambient maturity level is an order of magnitude higher than at other technology companies," Strong says.

"There's a lot of zeal, enthusiasm and energy, but there's also wisdom. It takes the negativity off the intensity without losing the edge."

Vignette also encourages its staff to spend evenings at home - even if some of those hours are in front of the home computer. "I tend to work 10- to 14-hour days, but some of those hours I may be hugging my kids and giving them noogies," Strong says. "We are here to win, but we found a place where we can do that and have our families, too."

Vignette's employees say being able to telecommute really appeals to them. But so do other Vignette touches. Its office space, for example, was designed to invite smiles with spacey-looking furniture and brightly coloured walls that thrust out at odd angles. Spouses are sent flowers to thank them for being understanding during particularly frantic periods. And every Friday, Vignette hosts beer busts and yoga classes, providing a weird buffet of techniques for unwinding.

Perhaps most important to those who work there is that the company treats people with respect.

"Unlike a lot of technology companies, there's none of the haves and have-nots, with engineers putting themselves above IS," says Charles Hajovsky, an application developer in Vignette's IT group. "We're all working for a common goal, and that goal is the company's success. But I'm not working for the president to get a new yacht. I'm working for me to get a new yacht."

J.D. Edwards & Co

This is a culture that esteems a code of conduct that seems almost old-fashioned - a legacy of co-founder and CEO Ed McVaney.

After 22 years in business, J.D. Edwards & Co has surprised the world by becoming one of the leading makers of enterprise resource planning (ERP) software. The Denver company employs nearly 5000 people dedicated to the development and sales of systems that require more than 1 million lines of code. Think "big" when you think of J.D. Edwards.

Despite its size, J.D. Edwards isn't a place to coast. The ERP market is fiercely competitive even though it's currently in the doldrums. But don't expect the same hard edge at J.D. Edwards as at younger companies.

For proof, look to the company's "Culture" document, originally drafted by McVaney and handed out to each employee. It contains headings such as "Impeccable character", "Tolerance and forgiveness" and "Office politics".

The exhortations are specific. Under that last heading, for example, it explicitly states that "backbiting, manipulating . . . and other divisive activities are causes for termination". Like all strong cultures, people have to buy the vision to fit in.

So who fits in at J.D. Edwards and who doesn't? "The personalities that do not do well are those with large egos," says Kurt Kellner, a technical architect in the company's kernel team. "If someone tries to act like a know-it-all, they get shot down pretty quickly."

People who do jibe well are those "with a driving desire to be up to date with technologies," Kellner says. "This place is a challenge, constantly keeping me engaged. If you don't have that interest, you're probably better off some place else."


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