Older generations learned tech; the younger generation lives it. Organisations that want to succeed need the skills of both
IT pros who grew up in the Baby Boom are dinosaurs who just don't get it. Generation Y is full of Facebook-happy slackers with an exaggerated sense of entitlement. But beyond these broad generalisations lie some real differences between the generations of geeks who do tech for a living, from Boomers to Generations X, Y, and the Millennials.
"Today's generation was born into a world where technology is about interaction, whether it's playing video games or using social media," says Larry Johnson, age 62, co-author with daughter Meagan (age 40) of "Generations, Inc.: From Boomers to Linksters - Managing the Friction Between Generations at Work" (Amacom, 2010). "They spent hours at it, the way I spent hours watching 'Rin Tin Tin.' So their brains are structured to interact with technology in an entirely different way."
That in turn affects everything from how and where each group works to what motivates them to the way they approach and implement new technologies. Whether you cut your teeth on Cobol or were raised on a steady diet of open source software, there's plenty you can learn about the folks on the other side of the age divide.
IT generation gap: The death of 9-to-5
Memo to the old farts: It's OK to update your Facebook status if the job's getting done.
News flash for young punks:Try not 2 text your BFFs during company meetings, K?
The biggest conflict along the generation divide is the notion of work itself - what it means, where it happens, why it's done, and how it integrates into one's life.
For boomers and the generation that followed, work almost always happened in a particular location during certain hours of the day, and it usually ended when they shut off their computers and went home. For today's generation of tech workers, it's all about flex time, says Dries Buytaert, the 32-year-old co-founder of Acquia and the creator of Drupal, the popular open source content management system.
"The definition of work is changing," says Buytaert. "For the younger generations work is more fluid. The notion of coming into an office disappears for some; they work wherever they are and are more flexible in terms of hours. The older generation tends to be more stuck on the idea you have to come to an office and be there from X to Y."
Because the boundaries between work and play have blurred, conflicts can arise when a 40-something manager catches a 20-something cube rat tweeting out status updates during working hours.
"For boomers, a big part of who they are is what they do at work," says Meagan Johnson. "For Generation X, a big part of their identity is what they do outside work. With Gen Y their personal and work lives are interwoven. That's why they might be on Facebook at 10am in the office but working on a big project on Wednesday evening at Starbucks or answering work emails at the movies on a Sunday afternoon."
Another big difference: Unlike their older colleagues, Gen X and Gen Y are less motivated by money or the desire to climb the corporate latter, and more by the opportunity to work for the hippest companies on the coolest technologies. That means they often don't stay in one place for very long.
"A lot of my friends are not driven by money," says Buytaert. "They're driven by other rewards, like doing interesting work or being part of something bigger. So many people are attracted to Drupal and open source because they're fighting a bigger fight. They want to be involved in something that changes an industry, versus doing just what they're being told to do."
In the end, though, what counts are effort and results, says Norman Nie, the 67-year-old co-inventor of SPSS and now CEO of Revolution Analytics, which offers expanded software, services, and support for R predictive analytics.
"In the long run it's excellence that really matters, and sweat matters as much as brilliance," he says. "Those who rise to top have that work ethic. Others get pruned out to do less demanding jobs. That's something that hasn't really changed a lot over my lifetime."
IT generation gap: When workstyles collide
Memo to the old farts: Learn how to fail early and often
News flash for young punks: Don't move fast if you don't know where you're going
For serious IT pros, keeping up with changes in technology is a given. So you're unlikely to find major differences in knowledge bases or skill sets between young and old, says Dan Cobb, 44, vice president of enterprise solutions for tech staffing firm Yoh.
"If you're an IT professional, you accept the challenge early on to continue to train all the time or you'll get left behind," says Cobb. "Whether you're 20 or 50, the difference isn't in knowledge of technologies, it's how you apply it. There are different mindsets."
In short: One generation is methodical and deliberate, the other is fast and experimental. While experienced IT managers are making sure to cross their t's and dot their i's, their younger colleagues are busy trying to create a new alphabet.
"At Acquia we're trying to create a culture of experimentation," says Buytaert. "It's our mantra: Fail quick, fail cheap. Do things quickly. If they don't work, abort quickly and try something else."
It's what Chip Buck, the 48-year-old co-founder of cloud-based tech services provider Independence IT, calls "the ADD gap."
"The younger generation has learned to use attention deficit disorder to its advantage," he says. "They multitask very well. Older developers are more likely to poke through things in a very methodical way. Younger guys are more fluid -- they're bouncing around the Net, cobbling together code from different places without a thought about who put what together. And if it doesn't work they're perfectly content to discard it and try something else. This drives their older, more disciplined colleagues absolutely batty."
The key is having someone with big-picture skills to oversee projects and keep everything on track, he adds.
"You have to let each side run with its own skill set," says Buck. "There are times when disciplined process is necessary to keep a project on task. But you can still let people experiment, create solutions on the fly, discard them when they don't work, and create others. You just need someone with maturity and vision to keep the big picture on point."
What older IT pros should not do is try to beat the young Turks at their own game, warns Ilya Talman, president of Chicago-based recruiting firm Roy Talman & Associates, Inc.
"Their edge is in having experience dealing with people and companies, not in knowing the latest and greatest," says Talman. "They can apply wisdom to problem solving -- such as knowing which people or companies you can and can't rely on. That's not the kind of knowledge a fresh graduate or someone with one or two years of experience is likely to possess."
IT generation gap: Re-inventing the wheel
Memo to the old farts: Modernise or get left behind
News flash for young punks: There's more to software than a pretty interface
Older techs know this well: It doesn't matter how well a system works if no one uses it. And the older and more dated the technology is, the less likely anyone will bother.
"Recently I was visiting with the CIO for Asia Pacific for Sunglass Hut," says Colleen Smith, 46-year-old vice president of SaaS for Progress Software, a $500 million maker of development tools for independent software vendors. "She told me, 'Colleen, our point-of-sale app does everything we need it to do, but we can't keep 17-year-old employees in the store because they think it's clunky and hard to use'."
Smith says organisations need to modernise their apps to attract new generations of users, but without sacrificing the internal business logic that gives those apps value. This, she says, marks a key difference between the generations. Young geeks raised on iTunes and Facebook are much better at building easily accessible, Web-friendly front ends, but they often have no interest in the messy details of what those apps need to accomplish and how they tie in with a company's larger IT infrastructure.
"When we work with a new startup software vendor, they immediately jump into what the app should look like," says Smith. "They don't think about the business logic or how the app will pass data to all the other systems it needs to integrate with. The older guys know the business and what needs to happen on the back end to make it work."
It's not just the people with IT in their job titles. Gen Y is so steeped in technology that many non-tech employees think nothing of solving problems themselves, whether it's signing up with Salesforce.com or deploying infrastructure in the cloud, says Aaron Levie, 25-year-old CEO of cloud content management provider Box.net.
"What might have been an IT-driven initiative in the past isn't any more," says Levie. "A lot of our customers deploy Box.net at the group level, then their IT department comes to us later and says, 'Our employees love this, how can we use this through the entire organization?' We also run into situations where individuals say, 'Please don't tell IT about our deployment, we don't want them to shut it down'."
As with software development, companies need to combine the creative approach of younger geeks with the more sober guidance of their elders, says Levie.
"Recent grads are often better able to redefine and reinvent," he says. "People with more experience tend to have a more thoughtful and consistent approach. They've seen failures in the past. When you've never seen what the downside looks like, it's hard to anticipate how things could go wrong."
IT generation gap: Mastering social media
Memo to the old farts: Don't fear the Facebook, dude
News flash for young punks: Think twice before you post something we'll all regret
For Gen Y, social networking is the new golf, says Dries Buytaert. Instead of making deals on the back nine, young geeks are more likely to do it on Facebook and Twitter.
"I get a lot of work accomplished through my blog and Twitter," says Buytaert. "As a younger person, I work, make connections, build relationships, and do business within blogging and social media. The older generation does a lot of business on the golf course. This is something the older generation can learn from the younger."
Of course, older generations are also flocking to Facebook -- the largest group of Facebook users are 35 or older, according to iStrategy Labs, with ageing boomers representing the fastest-growing bloc. But they're using it differently than their younger peers, says Taylor Mingos, the 25-year-old CEO of Shoeboxed, a web service that helps users organize receipts and business card information.
"Younger people are still using Facebook the way it was originally intended," says Mingos. "Older people treat it more like LinkedIn."
Geeks of a certain age are more likely to draw clear boundaries between private and public information on these networks. For Gen Y, almost anything goes, and that casual approach to tools like Facebook and Twitter could lead to serious problems down the road, says Yoh's Dan Cobb.
"I see younger friends on Facebook trashing their own companies," he says. "They don't seem to realize their boss can also see what they're posting, or that a certain amount of decorum is required in a professional environment."
As social media seeps into the business world, Cobb says companies may be shocked to find out what their young employees are casually disclosing.
"In a social networking environment where people from different industries can talk about their problems on a real-time basis, people may not understand the value of what they're talking about," he says. "I think it's going to lead to breaches in non-disclosure agreements, industrial espionage, and the leaking of trade secrets."
Sites like Social Media Governance or Social Media Today can offer companies guidance in how to create workplace policies for social media, says "Generation Inc." co-author Larry Johnson. Whether that will do any good is another question. According to surveys by Accenture, 45 percent of millennials use social media sites at work whether banned or not, while 66 percent routinely ignore corporate policies.
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 organisational 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."