Spanning the ages: Page 2

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Suelzer has been polishing his own skills regularly. As a result, he has enjoyed a successful working life. He's witnessed and participated in many shifts in the corporate landscape. "I haven't worn a tie to work for a year," Suelzer says with glee. "I got accustomed to 'dress-down Fridays' at Colgate. But today the standard software development environment is jeans and gym shoes every day."

These days, he often works on projects with teams of programmers from various generations. Most of the time, it works smoothly. Still, he says, every once in a while he'll get teamed with a freshly minted 24-year-old programmer, "a baby," Suelzer says, and the generation gap becomes apparent.

"Some kids just don't have the standard social skills required," says Suelzer. He recalls one UNIX whiz with great technical skills "who didn't know how to talk on the telephone. And God, he never brushed his teeth! I've heard about middle-aged CEOs getting screamed at by these brash young techies for some technical error," he continues. "The CEOs don't like it, and I don't blame them. These young guys seem to have no patience with users."

Question: Michael Suelzer has no plans to retire anytime soon. That means he's likely to interact with the ever-increasing number of kids filing into the workplace. What can an IT manager do to maximize harmony between older engineers like Suelzer and the legion of younger workers?

Claire Raines
Claire Raines' answer: First, it's admirable that Suelzer has been conscientious about polishing his own skills. Sometimes that's not the case with older engineers, but continuing education is critical to not only his personal success but also to the success of future teams he may be a part of.

Suelzer has noticed that some younger programmers don't have the necessary social skills. We get better at the "people stuff" as we get older, but Boomers characteristically have always had better social skills than Xers.

Boomers grew up with the new psychology and self-help movement, and they learned to get what they want through good people skills and the language of connection. It's also typical to have young programmers speaking up to the CEO--Xers are unfazed by authority and impatient with those who are slow to understand technology.

Here are some strategies an IT manager might try:
  • Encourage older programmers to stay current technically the way Suelzer has. Xers and Nexters tend to be naturals with technology because they grew up with it as one of the givens in their lives. Boomers and Veterans, though, came to it later in life, and although many have approached it with delight, it takes a more conscious effort on their part to stay abreast of the latest and greatest.
  • Get the Boomers and Xers to speak each other's language. Suelzer or his manager might talk to young programmers about what's in it for them to develop their communication skills.
  • Help Suelzer and others like him to understand that Xers have a different mindset about work, that they think treating the CEO different than the summer intern is gratuitous and insincere. Show them why Xers see things from this perspective: they watched Nixon and other authority figures go down in disgrace, so they don't just automatically respect someone just because of their title.
  • Get programmers of different ages to talk good-naturedly and lightheartedly about their generational differences, so that their perspectives are out in the open. Then, when issues crop up, the topic is open for further discussion.
  • Scenario two
    Motivating Gen X: Since graduating from Dartmouth College in Hanover, N.H., in 1984 with a degree in philosophy, Dave Wells has already held more jobs than his father did in an entire career. He has worked for large and small corporations, for start-ups, and for himself. He's been a full-time, in-house employee and a contract consultant. He has worked 100-hour weeks at times; he's also taken three months off to drive his Porsche cross-country.

    After seven years cutting his programming teeth at his first job, Wells and three co-workers left to start their own business in 1992. Infighting among the partners quickly put that venture on the skids, but Wells and a friend immediately dusted themselves off to start a new company, Subtle Software.

    Subtle had a great product, an innovative C++ compiler, and a ready market. But, like most start-ups, the company had severe cash-flow problems. Wells and his partner worked in overdrive, meeting with venture capitalists, pitching their products to potential customers, and slaving over code. Along the way, Wells married, began a family, and took out a mortgage. By the time a venture capitalist offered the company a healthy chunk of money, Wells felt "pooped out." He says, "Suddenly, I could see what the next five years would be like: low take-home pay, insane hours, and no time to be with my family. I didn't want it."

    Wells and his partner agreed to mothball the company and downsize their ambitions. Each became a brain-for-hire, a contract programmer, and they eventually sold the company in 1998. For the last three years, Wells has worked as an independent consultant to a large New England insurance company. He works with a team of engineers building an AS/400-based claims entry system. The hours are manageable, the stress is minimal, and the pay is good.

    His problem now is motivation. After heady years as an entrepreneur, Wells finds himself stifling in a corporate bureaucracy. "The project itself is fine," he says, "but the amount of time spent in meetings versus the amount actually working is insane. It's impossible to get people to agree on what should be done and how. There's just not a lot of common sense in the corporate IT world. I don't blame this company in particular. It's just another 'Dilbert' wasteland. I'm an entrepreneur at heart, but right now, I want a life."

    Question: Given David Wells' obvious skills and equally obvious cynicism about his job, how can his manager motivate him?

    Claire Raines' answer: This scenario illustrates some of the characteristic traits of Gen X programmers. I wasn't surprised to read that Dave and three colleagues left to start their own company in 1992. And Dave's search for balance in his life is very typical of Gen Xers. Unfortunately, most Boomers wouldn't have made the choice he did when he felt pooped out and could see that the next five years meant long hours and little contact with his young family.

    If I were Dave's manager, I might try these things:
  • Coach Dave about how to work with the client to decide which meetings he will participate in. Gen Xers often see meetings as "schmoozing time," when older people see meetings as critical to building relationships and processing the issues that contribute to a successful result and product. Dave's work will be far more satisfying, though, if he can avoid some of the time he's spending in meetings.
  • Consider giving Dave a broader range of tasks. At one time, Dave was excited about programming and really enjoyed the work he was doing. Currently, it sounds like he's spending most of his time in the depths of one major project. Perhaps someone else could handle some of the aspects of this project Dave doesn't enjoy, like getting people to agree on what should be done and how, so that Dave can work on some other projects that might offer him more variety.


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