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Several weeks back, I wrote a column noting that refugees from the Internet world were finding their way back to more mainstream companies in search of stability. Based on the feedback I got from that column, the pace of that transition seems to be quickening in an increasingly unsettled world.

But, readers told me, that column focused largely on how dot-commers could thrive in mainstream companies. Left unanswered was a critical question: How do they get those jobs in the first place?

Certainly, mainline companies are eager to annex candidates with Internet-related skills, the better to push their giant corporate bodies into Web spaces vacated by all those departed dot-coms.

But after listening to Internet acolytes for years promising to remake the economy and kill off the old fuddy-duddy companies and their spirit-stifling bureaucracy and politics, many hiring managers at old-guard companies are naturally suspicious of those seeking to re-enter the fold. They want some assurance that former Web execs won't be huge pains in their behinds and that they aren't just marking time until the next wave of start-ups emerges.

"We've had people who have come back from dot-coms and been successful," says Don Cooper, staffing manager for Intel Corp. "We take them back, but we'll only do it once or twice."

Robin Ryan, a Seattle, Wash., career counselor, advises clients to demonstrate to employers that they're team players and not free spirits who would work well only in an entrepreneurial environment. "You've got to show that you can adapt to protocol and chains of command, that you can blend in," she says.

Ex-dot-commers aren't the only ones facing this dilemma. So are the legions of so-called free agents and small-business entrepreneurs who streamed out of corporate America over the past decade, vowing never to return. Now, many of them are in need of some stability and a job as their businesses dry up.

And with the economy continuing to slump amid eroding consumer confidence and a rising tide of layoffs, job search in general has become more difficult.

Several managers have come back, however, and lived to tell the tale.

After abandoning a 16-year career and a partnership at Andersen Consulting to sell mustard online with his brother, James Adamczyk returned this year after selling the start-up's assets. Wade Vesey, a former marketing manager for Nextel Communications, also returned after a stint as vice president of sales and marketing for aeris.net, a wireless start-up. Kevin Pratesa gave up a promising career with Deloitte Consulting to pursue Internet fame and fortune. Two troubled start-ups later, he has sought shelter at Oracle Corp.

Here, they say, are some of the key questions they heard during their job searches, and how they handled them:

Q: So, tell me, what have you been doing lately?

A seemingly harmless icebreaker, this question is fraught with peril for ex-dot-commers. Resist the temptation to rhapsodize about the good old dot-com days. Mainstream employers don't want to hear about how you took your dog to work and played foosball in the employee lounge. "It'll just make you depressed and your corporate listener jealous and annoyed," says the 40-year-old Mr. Vesey, currently executive vice president of Ceon Corp., a privately owned telecommunications software company in Redwood City, Calif. "It's definitely not endearing."

Intel's Mr. Cooper is leery of ex-dot-commers who seem focused primarily on salary and stock options. Those people, he fears, are just looking for a safe haven until the next big start-up opportunity comes along. "People coming back to Intel aren't getting the same money they got at dot-coms," he says. "The dot-coms overpaid people because of the uncertainty."

Q: What have you really done?

At most start-ups, everybody does a bit of everything, making it difficult for interviewers to determine what someone's duties were. Plus, they're skeptical of the titles that some dot-coms handed out like party favors. "A lot of people were vice president of nothing," says Ms. Ryan.

Both in your resume and during interviews, she says, it's more important to focus on those skills and experiences that relate directly to the needs of the prospective employer.

But Mr. Vesey contends that the wearing-of-many-hats experience, common at start-ups, can be an advantage if positioned properly. For example, he notes, you can point out that the broader perspective you've gained will help you work seamlessly with other departments. "Getting a project through in a corporate environment," he explains, "you have to position it so it looks like a win-win for other areas of the company. Being able to relate to those other functional areas can help you."

Candidates who are obsessed with particular projects or technologies tend to raise a red flag for Mr. Cooper. At a company like Intel, with many product irons in the fire, employees have to be flexible, willing to work on a variety of things, he says.

Q: Why did your start-up fail?

In other words, are you a mindless, arrogant Internet acolyte, or do you have any real business sense? Here's where you demonstrate your understanding of why the Internet revolution went awry. "They want to hear what you would have done differently," says Mr. Pratesa, who left one dot-com, NextOffice.com, for another, Loudcloud, only to be ushered out in a wave of layoffs a day after he paid cash for a new BMW. Deciding he wanted more stability, the 25-year-old landed a position at Oracle as a product manager. To show that he wasn't just an Internet flash-in-the-pan, he stressed the fundamental skills he developed at Deloitte.

It's important to show that you possess solid business fundamentals, Mr. Vesey says. The dot-com era was filled with "vaporous revenue models and out-of-control expenses; you need to prove that through your career, you know better."

Q: You come from a start-up environment, which is very unstructured. Are you going to be able to adjust to a larger company?

That may be the biggest issue you have to deal with. Will you be comfortable with the slower pace of decision-making, the protocols and the chain of command? "It's like taking someone from a small Midwest town and dropping them into Ohio State [University], with 50,000 other freshmen," Mr. Cooper says. He wants to hear anecdotes that demonstrate an applicant's ability to thrive in different environments. Mr. Pratesa pointed to his Deloitte background as proof that he could succeed in both environments.

Ms. Ryan says you must deal with that question, even if it isn't asked. "Even if they don't ask it, they're thinking about it," she says. Of course, she adds, you must first convince yourself. If you aren't mentally ready for a big-company culture, she says, don't force it, or you'll be "running from the building, screaming, in six months."

Q: What do you want?

This is an important query both from the interviewer's perspective and from yours.

For you, the question is, after your dot-com roller-coaster ride, are you really clear on what you want to do next, or are you just grasping for a job?

Companies like Intel don't want to hear candidates say that the bubble burst and they need a job. Such employers want more, Mr. Cooper says. Companies want to see signs of maturity, an indication that having taken a gamble, they're now looking for a long-term career move.

The 41-year-old Mr. Adamczyk went through testing and career counseling to figure out what he really wanted before making his next move. He decided that what mattered most to him wasn't a job title or salary -- he was relatively secure financially -- but the content of the job. He wanted to be involved in the application of technology and innovation. So he returned to Accenture, the former Andersen Consulting, in a consulting role. "I liked the technology content, I was good at that," he says. "So I listed the types of jobs that would fit."

For the employer, it's a question of expectations. Mr. Vesey says you should be willing to take a step back in terms of title, authority and salary.

Mr. Adamcyzk, for example, returned as an associate partner. "I said I'd rather trade off money for flexibility in the job," he says. Had he attempted to return at his former lofty level, he believes there would have been resentment. "I have found amongst some of my partners the feeling of, 'Well, we stuck it out and you went off and did this,' " he says. "That would have been a big issue if I'd tried to come back as a partner."

Q: How can I be assured that you won't leave for the next hot start-up opportunity?

When Mr. Adamczyk interviewed with an insurance company looking for a chief technology officer, he says the hiring managers were very frank about their concern. "They say, 'We think you're very qualified, but we don't think you'll do this for the long term,' " he recalls.

This question is usually paired with a related one for those who left an established company to jump on the Internet bandwagon: You had a great job with a great company. Why did you leave?

It's a concern any manager will have, given the job-hopping environment of recent years. What are your true career motivations?

Mr. Pratesa says he pre-empted the question by explaining that he had learned from his dot-com experience that he didn't want a six-month or a two-year gig. "I said I was looking for a career," he says.

Mr. Adamczyk says you have to explain your motives for pursuing the Internet dream. "If they're concerned that you went into the dot-com world to get rich quick, you've got an issue," he says. "If you did it for other reasons, you have to convince them of that."

Ms. Ryan suggests responding with humility and humor: "What it comes down to is, they sold you a bill of goods and didn't deliver. You were one of the bo*bs who bought that. But it taught you a valuable lesson. People like to hear that. You've learned that hard work is the only way to an easy life, that you want to be in a company that's stable, that will promote you and that's going to be here tomorrow."
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