Bridge the IT generation gap: Get bent on mentoring

Memo to the old farts: Find someone to teach
News flash for young punks: Listen to their war stories. You might actually learn something

Five years ago, Kristine Harper was a 22-year-old software developer fresh out of college who realized there were gaps in her mainframe knowledge. So she helped launch zNextGen, a group within the SHARE organization where young enterprise techs could call on more experienced geeks for guidance. Now the group boasts more than 700 members in 24 countries, with about 70 percent of them relative newcomers.

“Older techs know where to find the answers,” she says. “They can index a reference on the Web or in a book where I can find the solution to a problem. That is absolutely fabulous.”

At IBM, this kind of mentoring is baked into every employee’s job description. Everyone has a mentor, and most people ultimately become a mentor, says Sheila Forte, a senior HR consultant for IBM who declines to give her age.

“We call it the knowledge transfer cycle,” she says. “First you acquire a skill, then you practice it. As you become comfortable to the point of mastery, you begin to apply it in creative ways. Then you give that knowledge back by teaching others. That’s how you build individual and organizational capability.”

The process works in reverse too, says Meagan Johnson. Older techs who feel lost navigating the treacherous waters of social media, for example, should call on their younger peers for guidance.

“Sometimes you have to swallow your pride and ask for help,” she says. “When I first started using Facebook I had to ask my young assistant about what to do. She said, ‘You’re writing the wrong kinds of things on your wall.’ I looked at the wall of my office. ‘No, no,’ she said, ‘on your Facebook wall.'”

Dries Buytaert says talking with his older peers gives him a broader perspective about where technology has been and where it’s headed.

“What’s always interesting is the history they bring about the technologies they used to use,” he says. “Their stories help me understand the evolution of technology and make predictions about where the market is going.”

Perhaps most important, building a bridge between generations can help capture knowledge that might otherwise be lost, notes Larry Johnson.

“There’s a lot of concern about the boomers leaving the workforce and creating a big hole in the knowledge base,” he says. “[MIT researcher] Dave Delong said it best: If we wanted to put a man on the moon in six months we wouldn’t be able to do it. All the people with that knowledge are now retired or dead.”

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