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Reviving the 'Peter Principle': Firms Paying More for Less-Qualified Workers

Such practices are bad for the company and the candidate, Mitchell insists. A veteran personnel director, Mitchell says she knows how these situations can end. She has approached perhaps 50 employees over the course of her career to tell them they simply couldn't hack it.

"You usually know when you are not doing a good job, and it can be really hard to deal with," she says. "Obviously, the worst-case scenario is having to let them go, but sometimes in a smaller organization, that's the only thing to do."

R. Stuart Burch, a Washington-based recruiter who heads the software services practice at Russell Reynolds Associates, says the naysayers may be giving too little credit to young workers who have the ability to develop big concepts and to improvise.

"While they haven't been there, done that, they have the genetic makeup to be successful," says Burch, who urges his clients to take a chance on candidates who have the right "Web DNA."

When a technology company fails, another firm might well give its employees a chance, Burch explains. He says he is impressed when a candidate can talk persuasively about what he learned from the downfall of a previous company, so long as the job seeker can convince recruiters that he was not the cause of the firm's crash.

Burch says what he really looks for in a candidate is a mix of intangibles such as leadership, flexibility and vision: "Can they get us to where we want to go? If the answer is 'yes,' I don't care if they were a toll collector."

For Patrick Sweeney, the Olympics is more than something to watch on television when he's worn out from a long day at ServerVault, his Springfield technology company.

Sweeney, a former rower, placed second in the single scull at the 1996 Olympic trials. In solo rowing, however, just one American athlete is selected to compete in each Olympic event. There went six years of training--three workouts a day--with a coach who made new recruits prove themselves by holding their breath until they lost consciousness.

After enduring all that, starting a technology company can seem like pretty smooth sailing. In fact, Sweeney says, those years he spent alone in a boat are serving him well as he races to catch up with Beltsville's Digex Inc. and other large companies that offer Web-hosting services.

Among the parallels, according to Sweeney:

* "All the credit, all the blame, is yours. The entrepreneur's world is exactly the same. Those first few months, everything is on your shoulders. It becomes what you can do to prove yourself."

* "In rowing, the only thing that mattered was where you finished. The tech world is all about


* "Rowing is one of the most demanding sports in the world. You can't stop and take a timeout. If you let up for even one or two strokes, somebody's going to eat your lunch."

Is the Peter Principle alive and well? Send your experiences at technology companies to Carrie Johnson, johnsonca@washpost.com.

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