If the stereotype of people who work at Internet start-ups - Gen-X techies wearing ratty T-shirts, fluent in HTML, only dimly aware of turning the big 3-0, nose rings optional - is outdated, it still is sometimes jarring to see who else has gone to these garage companies.

Today the average Internet executive may well be a middle-aged former banker whose closet brims with pinstriped suits.

It seems that barely a week goes by without a high-profile bank executive making a splashy jump to a dot-com company. Though people from other professions - including journalism - are also defecting en masse to Internet ventures, it seems somehow more dissonant for bankers, who are generally considered stodgy, not hip, and who already - generally speaking - earn respectable salaries.

Many bankers who have made the switch were working in e-commerce to begin with or have moved to Internet ventures in the financial services realm. Richard W. Vague, the former chairman and chief executive officer of Bank One Corp.'s First USA unit, was in charge of Internet operations before he left and founded Dryrock Corp., an Internet payments company, with former subordinates.

Michael DeVico, 39, was head of Bank of America Corp.'s electronic commerce division before he quit to become chief operating officer at Xpede Inc., a comparatively obscure mortgage lender. Mr. DeVico said he does not regret leaving one of the nation's largest commercial banks for a company whose name is hard to pronounce.

He says he saw "a fundamental shift in the economy, a shift from traditional technology and processing to this New Economy driven by the Internet and its technology. You can have a significant impact on the market at this level, while at the bank you are really just leveraging those changes."

Other top bankers apparently feel the same way. Heidi Miller, who had been chief financial officer at Citigroup Inc., jumped ship to join Priceline.com. Mary Alice Taylor, who had been Citigroup's executive vice president of global operations and technologies, now runs the show at HomeGrocer.com, which went public this month.

In a more curious career shift, Philip Diehl, director of the U.S. Mint, this month became president of Zale.com, the online jewelry-sales arm of Zale Corp.

Headhunters say the cherry-picking is taking place at all levels, from banks' training programs to their boardrooms. "It is almost a frenzy," said Susan Allard, a San Francisco recruiter whose firm, Allard Associates, specializes in placing people in financial services and e-commerce companies. In 1996 it fielded one call from an Internet start-up looking for a financial services executive; last year it got 22.

Two years ago, when merger mania and downsizing were watchwords in the banking industry, people who lost jobs were grateful to land new ones in traditional companies. Now, headhunters say, bankers are getting picky: Most would rather join an Internet company - and one poised to go public rather than one that already is.

Most executives sniff indignantly at the suggestion they're in it for the money. Though the generous salaries and stock options are "attractive," said Charles K. Huebner, managing director at vcapital.com, "you need a belief and a passion for what you do to create a great product and franchise."

Mr. Huebner, 38, used to be executive vice president of capital markets at Heller Financial Inc. in Chicago. This month he joined vcapital, an Internet marketplace that tries to match start-ups with venture capitalists. He said anyone who leaves banking to find "a quick fix to get rich" will be disappointed. "If you are driven by what you do, the money and excitement will follow," he said.

Mr. Huebner and other career-changers cite similar reasons for their decisions. They say new-media jobs give them a better outlet for creativity than traditional banking did. Some say they welcome the opportunity to build a new company and corporate culture from scratch. And though many acknowledge that they are working longer hours, they say their dot-com companies offer a better quality of life.

Kathy Donovan's 25-year career in banking included posts at Citibank, Chase Manhattan Corp., and Wells Fargo & Co. But she says she is happier at X.com, an Internet bank in Palo Alto, Calif., that acknowledges on its Web site that its name is kind of weird.

Ms. Donovan, 52, was credit director for small-business lending at Citibank in 1998 when Citicorp's merger with Travelers Group prompted her to flee. She said her new job as chief credit officer at X.com requires the same skills but that working in a small company is more satisfying.

"Anything is possible here," she said. "I can come up with a solution that is totally out of the box, and it becomes a reality."

Feeling like a small cog in a big corporate wheel also nagged at John MacIlwaine, a former executive vice president at Morgan Stanley Dean Witter & Co. Though he was chief technology officer and oversaw 125 employees in the firm's online unit, Mr. MacIlwaine said, he felt far from the action.

Mr. MacIlwaine left Morgan Stanley in February to start MyHomeKey.com, whose Web site boasts that it will "change the world of home management forever." MyHomeLink, the site says, will give people "one-stop convenience to manage their homes, including online scheduling of quality household repairs and maintenance" and a place to shop for appliances and utilities.

"I am more interested in trying to change the world from the ground up," Mr. MacIlwaine said.

It's hard to quantify the exodus from banks to dot-com companies, but anecdotal evidence suggests a sizable migration. Steven Popper, executive director of the Christian & Timbers recruitment firm in New York, says he knows 15 senior bankers from top companies who have jumped to Internet companies in the last six months. A year ago, he said, the number may have been five.

The American Bankers Association says there is no cause for alarm. Employment in the industry has remained steady at 1.5 million, said Janet Eissenstat, an ABA spokeswoman.

"This is a vibrant industry," Ms. Eissenstat said. Financial services firms are themselves creating online divisions that attract many people, she noted.

Some bankers say there may actually be less job security in banking than in the giddy world of Internet start-ups, and the latter is perceived as more adventurous and fun.

"If you are going to take a career risk, it might as well have excitement and an opportunity for growth and reward," said Dale Chapman, 37, a former operations manager at NationsBank Corp. (now Bank of America Corp.). In August he joined Xpedian, an Internet estate-planning and trust company.

Dot-coms are "an accepted part of the marketplace," said Robert Shelly, 42, director of database marketing at Bigfoot Interactive, a Web marketing firm. He spent 13 years at Republic New York Corp., most recently as associate managing director of data warehousing, and feared he would lose his job as Republic was absorbed by HSBC Holdings PLC.

For younger people with technology expertise, the lure of Internet jobs is especially powerful. Ryan C. Brown, 27, said he was frustrated by the "red tape and bureaucracy" he encountered as a systems engineer at Bank of America. This month he became chief technology officer at MoneyZone, whose Web site matches companies and entrepreneurs with funding sources. Mr. Brown says his workday is about 25% longer but he is happier. He acknowledged that his old job had certain perks his new one lacks. "Yesterday," he said, "we bought a coffee machine."

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