IT professionals are defined by talent, not their generation

A couple of weeks ago I was having a dinner party which included an acquaintance who is new to the IT industry. He’s in his mid to late 20s and started out in with a major retailer before moving on to a small but interesting startup about a year ago. I asked him how it’s going and he sounded bored.

It wasn’t that he disliked the people (especially compared to his first job, where the IT departments were full of lifers who didn’t really have much interest in their jobs, or in him). But after a year of developing a product he was hungry to work with new tools, more interesting technologies. You got it: he sounded exactly like the kind of next-generation IT professionals that employers don’t know how to handle.

Since I published a feature report in ComputerWorld Canada called “Close the IT Generation Gap” we’ve had more than 2,000 page views and about 15 comments, some of which are worth highlighting for the insight they provide on this issue.

A guy named Tyler from Barrie, Ont., for example, suggested that newer recruits might be better at understanding the needs of a business than their predecessors, if companies could engage them properly. “With a grad you are getting play-doh – mold them however you like, and along the way they will do the most important thing for your organization…ask questions!” he wrote, adding that most firms are only paying lip service to work/life balance issues. “I believe IT departments are extremely hypocritical when it comes to telecommuting. We are the sector that develops and deploys telecommuting solutions, and VPNs, etc, yet managers in IT still fear them. Don’t abuse them! Treat them well and the loyalty will be there.”

Karen L. from Toronto saw things a little differently. “It’s not that these generations are disloyal – they are more practical about the role hiring organizations play in their lives,” she said. “They won’t be getting married at 23, arranging a huge mortgage, and having kids by 25. They are waiting longer to move out of their parents’ homes, they are waiting longer to get married, and they are waiting longer to have kids — most into their 30s to even start down those paths. So what sort of job security do you think a 20-30 year old IT pro making a good technical salary needs without those obligations? None.”

Chris from Verdun was the bleakest of the bunch: “I’ve been in the trade in one form or another for 20 years and I’m looking for an out,” he said. “Frankly right now driving a forklift is looking like an option – that’s a transferable skill set.”

Ouch. In the article, I suggested that social software might be a way of bridging the two kinds of workers and capturing important knowledge for the benefit of the enterprise. Beyond that, the IT department generation gap might simply be something we have to endure. All I can tell you is that both the “veteran” I interviewed and the young graduate shared a couple of key characteristics. Both were really interested in the industry, and were eager to make contributions. They wanted to be challenged and to work with other talented people. And as much as they were hesitant to generalize, they understood the defining characteristics of each other’s demographic group surprisingly well. Those ingredients might be enough to prove there’s room for more than one generation in the enterprise after all.

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