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Chuck Townsend builds bridges. Not the steel-and-cable kind–he builds software tools that unite legacy COBOL applications with new Java technology. To get his product launched, Townsend faces a challenge that’s bound to confront more and more IT managers in the coming decades: he needs to hire both old and young techies, and he must find a way to get them to work together smoothly.
“We have programmers in their 20s, 30s, and some well into their 50s,” says Townsend, president of LegacyJ Corp., in Pleasanton, Calif. “No one person has all the knowledge we need. Our business relies on getting past the generation gap, getting the old guy to share his expertise with the young guy.”
In many ways, the workplace at LegacyJ is a microcosm of the future, experts say. The reasons have to do with the shift in American demographics, combined with the growing shortage of high-tech workers (see “Here comes the gray boom”). “In 2002, there will be 850,000 job openings in IT in the U.S. alone,” says H. Michael Boyd, manager of the Resourcing Strategies research program at International Data Corp., the IT consulting and research firm in Framingham, Mass. In addition, a recent poll by the Wall Street Journal shows that most Baby Boomers plan to work well beyond age 65. Clearly, IT managers will need to look beyond the new graduates and the mid-career technologists to staff their organizations.
“The population is aging, the workforce is aging, and the new generation coming along is much smaller than the last,” says Bill Payson, president of The Senior Staff Job Information Exchange Inc., in Campbell, Calif., which runs SeniorTechs (www.seniortechs.com), an online database of IT professionals over age 35. “All that adds up to a shortage of workers in the IT sphere. The day is coming when employers are going to start panicking, and they’ll realize there’s a huge untapped resource in older workers.”
In the past, rigid hierarchies kept older and younger workers apart, even when they worked in the same company, claims a new book, Generations at Work: Managing the Clash of Veterans, Boomers, Xers and Nexters in Your Workplace. “At no previous time in our history have so many and such different generations … been asked to work together shoulder to shoulder, side by side, cubicle to cubicle,” according to authors Ron Zemke, Claire Raines, and Bob Filipczak “The gulf of misunderstanding and resentment between older, not so old, and younger employees in the workplace is growing.”
The first step in bridging that gulf, says Claire Raines, is to recognize the cultural differences between the generations. “Workers of different ages have different frames of reference, different attitudes toward authority, or toward socializing in the workplace, or even toward how they dress and talk,” says Raines, who also works as a management consultant in Denver, Colo. (see “The Generations”). “The Generation X kid who has been asked to manage a group of Baby Boomers, for instance, complains that the Boomers aren’t keeping up with the hottest technology. Or the veteran feels that the younger folks only care about their lattes and their Beemers, and don’t have enough respect.”
Handling the conflicts that arise between workers of different generations may start with learning to be sensitive to what each worker needs from his or her workplace, experts say. For instance, it’s wise to “recognize that older workers are less comfortable with classroom-style training,” says Beverly Goldberg, vice president of The Century Foundation Inc., a think tank based in New York City, and author of Age Works: What Corporate America Must Do to Survive the Graying of the Workforce, due to be published in January 2000. “Find ways to do preliminary one-on-one training between an older worker and a younger worker before you set them all together in a classroom.”
LegacyJ’s Townsend has found that successfully integrating multi-age teams begins during the hiring process. “If we’re hiring an older worker, we’ll bring in the younger ones to the interview too,” he says. “That way, the older worker gets a feel for the culture of the place, and the younger workers get a sense of the qualities and expertise being brought in by the older guy. It gives both sides credibility.”
Finally, he says, keep an eye out for ways to demonstrate the value each age group brings to the workplace. “Have lunch together,” Townsend says. “You wouldn’t believe how little stories passed between workers over a sandwich–stories about their lives, about their work–can help subtly solve problems.”
Solving some real-life problems
To meet the needs of your diverse workforce, you need to understand how older and younger workers interact. Below are three real-life scenarios of workers of different generations and the challenges they present to IT managers. Datamation has asked Claire Raines to take a crack at providing solutions to the questions presented by each scenario.
Bridging the gap between generations: Michael Suelzer is a 52-year-old software engineer with an advanced degree in mathematics. He lives in Lawrence, Kan., and has worked for several employers over the years, most recently at Colgate-Palmolive Co. and Sprint PCS Group, a division of Sprint Corp. based in Kansas City, Mo. He’s comfortable knowing that as far as careers go, he will always be different from his father, who worked for the same company for 45 years.
Suelzer began working as a FORTRAN programmer. He admits that, once upon a time, he believed that “FORTRAN would be the last language anybody would have to learn.” When it became clear that the programming world would move beyond FORTRAN, he quickly set about learning new skills. “I hear all the time about age discrimination in the workplace,” Suelzer says. “But it’s really up to the worker to keep his skills up to snuff.”
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’ 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:
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:
Attracting generation next: Charlie Crews and Elliot Grunewald are juniors in high school in a small town in Virginia. They share many interests and courses, including an advanced elective in computing. In that class, they’re learning to program in C++. Later in the school year, they’ll be working with teams of student programmers from other schools in the area to build an application together.
These kids grew up with computers. Neither can remember a time when there wasn’t a computer in his home. The Internet became a cultural phenomenon when they were only in middle school. Both Charlie’s dad, a doctor, and Elliot’s dad, a law professor, spend significant amounts of time online, but there remains a knowledge gap between the generations. As Charlie puts it: “My dad knows how to work the computer, but I know how the computer works.”
Charlie and Elliot’s attitude toward computing is typically laid-back, even blasé, as is to be expected from people whose birthright has been whizzy technology like 3-D graphics and downloadable pop music. Several times a week, Elliot drives over to the local elementary school after his classes are through to help out the teachers there with simple computing questions. He’s puzzled and frustrated by some of the older teachers’ attitudes toward technology. “When a program crashes, they’re practically happy about it,” he says. “They’re like, ‘See? This stuff is terrible.'” His time as a roving tech guru has pretty much turned him off from a career in computing–or at least as a help desk staffer.
“I don’t want to be a desk slave. I don’t want to work in a cubicle,” says Elliot. “But I don’t think I’d like to work from home, either. I don’t think I’ll work in computers, but I’m sure they’ll be part of whatever job I do. I know I’d like to make some money.”
Charlie, on the other hand, thinks high tech is precisely where he’ll land after college. Last summer, he took a job with the school system, helping relocate and upgrade desktop systems. “I think there will be lots of jobs in computing when I’m out of school,” says Charlie, “and that’s where the money will be. I’m not looking forward to the long hours, though.”
Question: In five or six years, kids like Charlie and Elliot will be out of college and into the workforce. What will hiring managers need to do to attract “Generation Next” to an IT department?
Claire Raines’ answer: Charlie and Elliot are a stitch–here they are high school juniors who already have a wealth of marketable job skills and expertise, and who have come to conclusions, based on personal experience, about how they want to spend their working years. They’ve come face-to-face with the distrust older generations feel toward a technology they’ve learned later in life. And, typical of Nexters, they have high expectations of the workplace.
Here are some things to keep in mind about attracting Nexters:
Stephanie Wilkinson is a freelance writer based in Lexington, Va. She can be reached at email@example.com.