Most big US technology companies have their share of options millionaires, maybe even billionaires. However rich, they usually keep turning up at the office, because most of them enjoy what they do.
But that can change when morale takes a dive. If you have more money than you are ever likely to spend, why bother with the day job unless you really get a buzz out of it?
So what's behind the recent rash of defections from Microsoft? In the past few months a string of top-ranking executives have resigned or taken extended leave. Nathan Myrhvold, chief technology officer, has gone on a year's sabbatical and his brother Cameron has resigned.
Most recently, John Ludwig, head of the MSN Access division, has departed.
The past few months must have been tough for the people at Microsoft, who are accustomed to winning. Although Microsoft remains triumphant in the marketplace, it has taken a severe beating from the press and in the courts. A succession of executives have been made to look foolish, and the company has been ridiculed for its incompetent defence.
Why go to work under such circumstances if you don't need to?
The microsoft crowd are lucky. The stock market has largely ignored the court case and the company's shares have remained strong. Compare that to PeopleSoft, another software firm that has seen a lot of departures recently. These follow a slump in sales matched by a slump in the shares from $52 a year ago to a low of $16 in June. Many of those who have worked at the company have seen their options turn from gold into ashes.
Share price collapses tend to hit the rank and file hardest. Senior executives, who may have a few millions in options, usually cash in enough to balance out risks. But those in the middle are reluctant to cash in options that are likely to be their best investment ever. So what do you do when the shares fall? As one ex-PeopleSoft person put it: 'First you think 'It will soon come back again,' then you think 'I can't sell at this price,' and then it doesn't matter any more because you have lost it all.'
But peoplesoft pales in comparison to Pointcast. Once hyped as a potential $500-million company and spoken of as the successor to Yahoo!, Pointcast was sold in May for just $10 million, or 10 cents a share. At that price the vast majority of people who worked for the company saw their options - a key part of Valley remuneration - give a final value of zilch. It goes to prove that there wouldn't have been an upside if there wasn't a downside.