The age-old question

For a blip in the late ’90s and early 2000s, it appeared that Generations X and Y were the kings and queens of IT. Dot-com mania helped promote teenagers from math class to the boardroom, and preached an aptitude for foosball as a core competency. Now that the dust of the dot-com bust has settled and businesses are run like businesses again – with fiscal responsibility and contingency planning – the shining stars of IT are turning out to be the people who have been there all along: the IT veterans.

According to Faye West, the 50-plus director of information systems for the Alberta Research Council in Edmonton, experience is a good thing.

“IT is ever changing, but many parts of it repeat. The same issues are still there with the latest technology as were there with big old hulking mainframes, and those of us who have been around through a variety of computing technologies have had a lot of experiences that bear on the current technology and changes. I think that we avoid making some mistakes because we’ve already made them in the past,” she said.

Richard Thompson, manager of client relations and information technology for the City of Edmonton’s Corporate Services, began working in IT in 1968. Like West, he stands by the notion that the more things change, the more they stay the same.

“The challenges haven’t changed that much over the years, but keeping up with the rate of change as your body gets older and your eyes get weaker can be a challenge. One of the saving graces is that in IT we’ve always had to cope with change as a way of life,” he said, noting that he has made a constant effort throughout his career to stay on the current edge of technology.

“It’s been my lifestyle from day one.”

Wayne Embree, a 50-plus planner for the Corporate Data Network at SaskTel-ITM in Regina, said that while he has noticed a slowdown in his stamina and physical abilities, he has simultaneously begun to recognize the value of his experience while working on a team with members of varying ages and abilities.

“Each of us brings different strengths to the team,” he said. “I find I am slower to grasp the flow of screens as we wind our way through a configuration of a device for the first time. My experience knows what we need to do without the precise steps and code words to do it. However, when we hit a problem, I am more often able to relate it to a past situation and provide guidance.”

Discrimination happens

Regrettably, for many unemployed IT veterans, this balance of experience over endurance can prove to be a burden when finding a job, particularly if the sought-after position is in something other than management.

Randy Straeten, vice-president of recruiting firm W5 Resources Inc. in Markham, Ont., sees a trend towards hiring older IT workers for higher-end positions, but stressed that anyone looking for a role in development in today’s economy has to be on the bleeding edge.

“It’s not a discrimination of age, but if you don’t have the hot skills you won’t be hired,” he said.

While nobody would readily admit to subscribing to a bias against a qualified candidate based on age, Harold Knopke, the 60-something Edmonton-based founder of consulting company Aspen Computing Solutions, has experienced one case of discrimination.

“Earlier this year, for the first time, a potential new client asked me point blank if I had someone younger backing me up. I got him as a client and found out that he was around my age. He had had a heart attack and is now worried that anyone he deals with who is of his vintage may die before finishing the job. I suppose I will run into that one more often from now on,” he said.

Bob Fabian, a 63-year old IT veteran, says that while there are no absolutes when it comes to age, it is no secret that the younger generation has different strengths and weaknesses than the older generation.

“I believe that the vast majority of people develop through different phases in life. There are certain things you’re very good at in your twenties and certain things you’re very good at in your sixties and they tend not to be the same things,” Fabian said.

For instance, the majority of mathematicians made their great breakthroughs before the age of 35, while most philosophers tend to be over 50 when they write their seminal works. This, he said, also applies to IT.

“If an employer is after technical sharpness, it is justifiable to be biased in favour of a younger candidate. But if an employer is after a broad awareness, a sensitivity and an appreciation for what has worked in the past and what may work in the future, it may be equally valid and acceptable to discriminate in the opposite direction,” he said.

However, there’s no doubt some 60 year olds are technically sharper than some in their twenties and that a 20 year old could be more nuanced than many in their sixties, Fabian said.

“Some biases are justified in the sense that there’s a strong law of averages in your favour. However, none of them should be allowed to overpower all other considerations,” he said.

According to Michael Gauvreau, manager of staffing for IBM Canada Ltd. in Markham, Ont., the value that an older, experienced professional brings to the table is irrefutable. In fact, IBM has developed a program called Retiree On Call, which allows retired employees of Big Blue to return to work on a part-time basis depending on the needs of service.

“These individuals have built up so many years of customer knowledge, are often qualified in project management and have a surplus of skills. This allows us to bridge some skill gaps and allow people to work part time who don’t want to work the long hours they put in throughout their career,” Gauvreau said. “It’s a tremendous program.”

While IBM supports its ageing employees, Gavreau also noted that the company participates in recruiting in what he referred to as the vitality arena.

“We have good relationships with universities through co-op programs and internships, but do we only play in the arena of the Nexus generation? Absolutely not. It’s all about finding the right balance of skills,” he said.

The three Es

Unfortunately, not all organizations measure the value of their older employees in terms of experience and breadth of knowledge.

Len Waddell, a Toronto-based IT professional was downsized out of his job in 2001 and believes that age was a significant factor in the selection process. Waddell is in his forties.

“I have always believed that IT is a younger person’s game, but have been fortunate to be considered young enough that I was unaffected by any issues of age. Of course, that finally caught up to me,” he said.

Waddell recalled a story about a news anchor who was downsized out of his job. This person’s claim was that he had been let go because he fell into the “Three Es” category: experienced, expensive and expendable.

“I think this sums up my feelings about why it is so challenging to remain employed in the IT sector when one starts to advance in years,” Waddell said.

By this age, he said, most people in IT have moved into the ranks of management. When you get there, it seems there is a “circle the wagons” mentality that allows managers to retain their jobs provided they are doing a reasonably competent job. For those IT workers who prefer to remain in the technical stream, it is a challenge to continue to provide value to the company as you move beyond the age of 40, Waddell said. The consequence of not providing this value is grave.

“It seems that companies have decided that it’s cheaper to hire new employees than to re-train existing ones,” Waddell said. “You can probably get one and a half new employees for the price of an existing older employee and you don’t have to incur the training costs.”

Knopke suggested that it is difficult for anyone in a managerial role to stay on the cutting edge of technology.

“Those roles tend to take them away from the trenches and because of time constraints, it is much more difficult to stay current with all the latest developments over a broad range,” he said. “Couple this with a natural tendency for younger people to think of older people as incompetent and the tendency for subordinates to denigrate management, it should come as no surprise that younger people would tend to generalize and group all old people as out of date.”

Knopke said independent consultants and members of small firms must stay current in their specialty or they will soon starve in this unforgiving marketplace, regardless of age.

talent endures

Another difficulty for the IT veteran is that established, older employees often have family commitments and are less willing than new recruits to work overtime.

While West admitted that she is no longer prepared to work 24 hours a day and sleep under her desk as she may have done 30 years ago. Her employers have different expectations of her now than they did then, she said. They realize that she might not put in the long hours, but they understand that she is less likely to leap to quick conclusions in the way that her younger counterparts might, which is, in the long run, a cost savings.

It is the quality of the individual rather than the date on his or her birth certificate that should – and most often does these days – determine the value of the person to an organization. Talent endures as does ineptitude, according to Knopke.

“To paraphrase my 87-year-old father: young grouches grow up to be old grouches, incompetent young IT professionals grow up to be incompetent old IT professionals.”