The Ex-Files

Alumni networks are helping former colleagues stay connected.

"You are your network" is a defining principle of the new economy. In a world where smart people move at lightning speed from one company to the next, keeping in touch with your former colleagues may be one of your most important jobs. That's why thousands of one-time coworkers from Netscape, Oracle, Microsoft, and other companies have created the ex-files -- alumni networks that help former colleagues stay connected and share ideas.

More than 2,500 Microsoft alums pay a $100 annual fee to join the Microsoft Alumni Network. The nonprofit group offers a current directory of members' whereabouts and activities. It sponsors live events on everything from raising money for startups to serving on nonprofit boards. Thanks to the network, teams that worked together at Microsoft have formed virtual teams to work on new projects.

The typical alumni network is less formal and more digital than Microsoft's. Take "CNot," an electronic list of onetime CNet employees, most of whom are designers. In 1998, soon after leaving the company, Lucie Soublin, 26, started the list because, she says, "I missed my friends." Today, about 50 ex-CNeters trade insights about the Net and recruit job candidates for their new employers. "There's an impressive pool of talent on the list," boasts Soublin.

Networks are breaking out all over. More than 300 members of the "ex-Next" list (former employees of NeXT Computer) use their alumni list to do everything from selling hardware to debating the merits of DSL technology. Last year, 250 former Prodigy employees crowded into a bar in White Plains, New York to network and to swap war stories at their annual reunion. "Prodigy might not have been the best of the online services, but our experience was a great education for the marketplace," says Carol Wallace, 37, now vice president of public relations at the Gartner Group, a technology consulting firm. Other Prodigy alums have gone on to work for such top Web companies as priceline.com, About.com, and DoubleClick.

Techies aren't the only ones to form such networks. About 200 former staffers of Vice President Al Gore have an email list called "Sundance" (after the veep's Secret Service code name), which they use to update one another on Gore's presidential bid.

Most new alumni networks are riveted by gossip about their members' former employer. Over time, though, discussions move on to bigger things. Duncan Carling, 28, who belongs to two networks and who is now a manager of online development at Inktomi, describes the experience this way: "There's less talk about former companies than you might imagine. It's as if everyone you'd ever dated formed a mailing list. Pretty soon, they'd get tired of talking about you and start discussing what's going on in their lives."

That's what has happened with ex-Oraclers, 320 of whom -- including more than 15 VCs and 45 CEOs of startups -- participate in an alumni network formed in February. Sure, members speculate about company developments, such as whether president and coo Ray Lane will leave. They even conduct email polls on where the company's stock price will be one quarter out. But recently, the group held its first live chat -- featuring two former Oracle execs who are now venture capitalists -- on how to win at the startup game.

Alumni networks can be especially worthwhile for free agents. Tim Smith, 36, who became a free agent after leaving Niehaus Ryan Wong, a Silicon Valley PR firm, says that virtually all of his clients are fellow "NR-exers." He keeps in touch with them through an alumni mailing list on which he posts a semiweekly humorous newsletter, complete with inside jokes.

Sometimes, though, the real value of an alumni network lies in the memories that it captures. A Web site created by "Netscapees" (www.ex-mozilla.org) collects stories about working at Netscape Communications. Alums identify themselves by using their old Netscape email address, they describe what they're doing, and they reflect on having been part of the startup that launched the Web boom. Their entries rival the most misty-eyed yearbook scrawl.

Writes one Netscapee: "Netscape was a shooting star -- it burned very bright for a short period in time and left a trail of pixie dust everywhere. We changed the world and Netscape will live on long after it becomes AOL. Keep in touch."

Sidebar: People! People!

Okay, so you're no Muffy Tepperman on "Square Pegs" -- the sort of person who edited the high-school yearbook and ran the senior prom. Fortunately, plenty of Web tools are available that can make short work of organizing an alumni network.

eGroups (www.egroups.com)

Not only does eGroups help you set up an email list, but it also offers live chat, a shared calendar, bulletin boards, and a database of contacts. A polling function lets you survey fellow alums on any topics that you choose. Currently, eGroups hosts networks for alumni of Oracle and NetObjects.

Topica (www.topica.com)
Onelist (www.onelist.com)

If you're interested in just an email list, then consider either Topica or Onelist. Both let you create private lists or register on a public directory. Onelist allows several moderators to share list-management duties. Both services host alumni groups from Be and from I/PRO, as well as a group for former and current members of the LAPD.

Corporate Alumni
(www.corporatealumni.com)

The simple solution. Corporate Alumni provides an online community that lets members contribute personal profiles, which can include everything from their current job to their favorite hobbies. Members can also post news items -- similar to the class notes in a university alumni magazine -- as well as share job listings. The community includes about 1,500 Lotus alums and nearly 300 former employees of Compaq.

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