How We Work Now                                    Newsweek February 1, 1999  
  The Nomad  


Skill: She knows how to spot the next trend and find a job at a company poised to exploit it. She's attuned to the world of start-ups and venture capital, too.

Payoff: Her mobility gives her great contacts and broad skills. She works hard today, but stays equally focused on preparing for new challenges tomorrow.

It's tempting to view Michelle Breiner as a cliché of the New Economy. Yes, she has her own Web site; no, she probably won't take a job unless the pay includes stock options. At 30, she's already worked in five industries, from CD-ROM development to Web page design to e-commerce. Today she's creative director at the Internet Shopping Network, an online auction site. But don't bet on finding her there in five years. Talent migrates quickly today, drawn by bigger challenges.

Many of the pejorative stereotypes about her generation-as ruthless, disloyal job-hoppers–are wildly overblown. But it's clear that folks under 30 are leading the wave of Americans who are changing their notions of what constitutes a career. Skill building is in; ladder climbing through the ranks at a company is out. Says Bo Rinaldi, an agent for programmers: "Modern-day workers want to contribute, they want to deliver something rather than simply building [seniority]."

In Breiner's case, the roots of her restlessness are clear. She was raised in Silicon Valley by an entrepreneur father whose career advice was simple: "You have to be prepared to look for opportunities, to keep your eyes open," says Sheldon Breiner. Opportunities took Michelle from Virgin Records in London to game-maker 3DO and then, after a stint as a freelance Web designer, to her current post six months ago. In each case she jumped ship when she saw a new technology (like the Internet) ready to bloom. "[Older people] might find it insulting that we move around so much." She says. "But every company benefits from my being there-whether I'm there three years or 20-and I leave no challenge unmet."

Navigating this terrain takes a new code of ethics. Breiner has never left a job in less than a year. When she needs a new challenge, she attempts to find it with her current employer, and she leaves only when that's not possible. And pay raises aren't a prime motivation to jump: it's better to seek big challenges, she says, and let big payoffs follow naturally. Above all, she won't patronize her bosses by pretending all her dreams lie in the bigger office down the hall. Where will Breiner be in five years? "Possibly running or starting a company," she says. "I'm guessing it will involve a technology that's not here yet." Her eyes are open. She'll know it when she sees it.