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Laid-off techies take the world by storm

Many laid-off workers are globe-trotting in places like the French Riviera and Peru instead of dusting off their resumes or schmoozing with prospective employers.

Self-declared "start-up junkie" Michael Lin is kicking his dot-com habit--at least temporarily--by hitting the road.

After he lost his job when his most recent employer downsized, the Oracle veteran and founder of three Internet companies began planning a project not centered on broadband access, business development meetings or initial public offerings: a five-week backpacking jaunt in the South of France and North Africa.

"I've become much more aggressive with my freedom. There is a sense that this is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity and I must take proper advantage of it," the 35-year-old San Francisco resident said of the layoff and upcoming voyage, which will take him to Morocco and the French Riviera during the Cannes Film Festival. His travel buddy, another unemployed techie, plans to draw inspiration from Cannes to write a screenplay.

Lin and his friend are likely to bump into plenty of kindred spirits, even in the remotest corners of the Sahara. Call it the dot-com diaspora: An exodus of relatively young, adventure-seeking and newly jobless dot-commers are hiking along an increasingly well-paved techie trail in hot spots such as Peru, North Africa, Russia, Nepal, Vietnam, New Zealand and Australia.

As technology companies lay off legions of workers and the outlook for e-commerce companies sours, a growing number of former dot-commers are deciding against polishing their resumes or schmoozing potential employers at pink slip parties. Instead, they're stuffing backpacks with mosquito nets and "Lonely Planet" guide books to weather the economic slowdown among Sherpas and Bedouin.

Like Lin, many say they've fantasized about extended treks for years but felt anchored to one city out of professional duty. The late 1990s job market was so hot that they were wooed by higher salaries and better prospects. The slowdown has finally given them the chance, albeit involuntarily, to see the world.

"Unlike prior years when I might have been tempted, now and for the next couple quarters there isn't a sense that I will be missing out on hot opportunities," Lin said.

Travel agents benefiting
It's tough to estimate the number of unemployed dot-commers wandering the globe right now, but travel agents--especially those in tech meccas such as California's Silicon Valley, Boston and Seattle--say the layoffs have been an unexpected boon.

Their offices,

Meta Group says that despite the current slackening in demand, the overall message is that there are still too few people and that they still cost too much.

see commentary

decked out in posters and brochures of exotic locales, have become the haunt of 20- and 30-somethings who pocketed cash during the stock market bull run of the late 1990s. That's a sharp contrast to previous economic slowdowns, when the unemployed curbed discretionary spending on luxury items such as travel and instead scrambled to find their next source of income.

"They're going away and they're thrilled to death," said Lorin Kalisky, director of communications for San Francisco-based AirTreks, which specializes in airfare for multi-stop, international leisure travel. "It used to be that most of our customers were the young crowd, the college-age crowd taking a semester or year abroad in their 'gap year' between college and real life...Now suddenly we're getting a lot of older 20s and 30s people who have the time and figure, 'Why not now?'"

AirTreks, established in 1987 as High Adventure Travel, sells products ranging from $1,200 one-way, around-the-world tickets with two or three stops to six-month packages for overland adventures in Nepal's Mount Everest. The company is so eager to capitalize on the dot-com diaspora that it is mulling a marketing promotion in which customers get a $50 discount in exchange for a pink slip. It's also trying to wrangle an advertising agreement with F***edCompany.com, the doomsday gossip site for e-commerce workers.

"We'd love to do some co-branding with F***edCompany--it would be the perfect audience for us right now," AirTreks product manager Matt Radack said. Radack returned last week from an extended trip to Iceland, where he met two San Francisco-based computer programmers who were taking seven months to travel and wait out the meager job market. "In the two months since I've been gone, it's been an even bigger economic slowdown and there are even more laid-off people looking to travel."

No worries
It's easy to see why laid-off techies are hitting the road.

Much of the tech boom of the late 1990s was fueled by caffeinated, post-college Generation Xers who postponed getting married or having children to work long hours at start-ups. Their lack of financial obligations and tender age means that they don't have to worry as much about their cash kitty or the physical rigors of budget adventure travel--including hiking at high altitudes, lugging around a heavy pack, and sleeping in hammocks or cots.

Others say they can't shake the frenetic pace of dot-coms, even after they've been laid off. Adventure travel is just another way to stay stimulated, they say.

Earlier this week, Kerry Murphy quit her job as an Internet consultant after her company went through a third round of layoffs and job security reached a new low. The 26-year-old New Yorker leaves in 17 days for a two-month trek to South America, including a four-day hike along the Inca trail to Macchu Picchu.

Murphy said planning the trip has given her courage to try new things upon her return, including relocating to the West Coast. When asked to give advice to other dot-commers contemplating an extended trip, Murphy didn't hesitate:

"If you've got the resources, I say go for it. Even if you can only afford to disappear for a week or two, it's worth it," she said. "The planning alone will challenge you and make you feel strong. You picked this industry, so you must like a challenge."

The U.S. technology industry is also a diverse place, with disproportionately high numbers of ethnic Indians, Taiwanese, Russians and others. Many laid-off techies say they plan to travel back to their roots, reunite with family, and then look for a job if the economy perks up later this year.

Nam LaMore, a 31-year-old Santa Clara, Calif., resident who was one of 1,700 Hewlett-Packard employees who received pink slips in January, will leave April 17 for a two-month excursion through southeast Asia. The Vietnamese native, who grew up in Singapore, Java and Guam before coming to Los Angeles, used part of his severance package to purchase a $1,300 "All Asia Pass" on Cathay Pacific. He plans to land in Hong Kong, then vacation in Java, Bali, Malaysia, Taiwan, Bangkok and rural Thailand.

"We got to this country in 1981, and I haven't been back since then. I just never had the time or the money," said LaMore, who plans to write a weekly newsletter and e-mail it to friends and contacts via cybercafes along the way. He hopes he can squeeze in a bit of networking and work-related research into his vacation.

"Most of us in the working world pick up the phone and talk to people overseas, but most of us don't have the inclination to travel there and get under the skin," he said. "This is my opportunity to look overseas and establish some relationships. I'm going to take notes on the marketing, the buildings, city planning, everything."

Some explaining to do
But LaMore might have a tough time passing off his trip as a business mission to future employers. Some may look down on laid-off workers who cut out of the work force to roam, said career strategy expert John Challenger, founder of Chicago-based outplacement firm Challenger, Gray & Christmas.

Challenger said post-trek job seekers in the tech sector will have to persuade prospective employers that they have kept up with cutting-edge computing languages and other technical changes. And even then, established companies that hire people from traditional career paths may still frown on the vagabonds.

"They might say, 'This person is more interested in playing. They've run out of money and can't go back to their parents anymore so now they want a job,'" Challenger said. "Part of me wants to say there's no problem with that. But the reality is that most of the people in their 40s or 50s might look at these folks and not like the idea that they're on a long vacation. Maybe the older people are just resentful, but it could come back to haunt you."

Many dot-commers say they're willing to take the risk. And some don't care how corporate America perceives their jobless stints.

Elizabeth Cross, a 31-year-old Atlanta resident, quit her job as interim president of ChangeAddress.com in December because she "saw the writing on the wall." The company folded in February, while she was taking a Spanish immersion course in Costa Rica.

The former strategy and operations consultant at McKinsey & Co. is planning what to do next, and her recent trip inspired her to do something dramatically different, possibly start an adventure travel company or move overseas. She is not in a hurry to nail her next job.

"If I made any mistake, it would be that I didn't stay long enough," Cross said of her nine weeks in Panama and Costa Rica. "I'm still far from fluent...and I've thought about going back and mastering the language. It had been a dream to do it for years. I've always been one to seize opportunities, and I shouldn't let this one go."