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What 'The Old Guy' Brings To IT Teams

IT pros report that hiring managers often favor young hires in the name of "culture" or "fit." But this may throw your team's balance off.

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The latest SIM IT Trends Survey points to rising salaries, increasing investments in on-the-job training, and higher turnover IT roles. The latter is a particularly promising omen for jobseekers.

"All of those things tell me it's a good time to be in the IT job market," the study's lead researcher told InformationWeek.

Sure, as long as you're in your 20s or 30s.

Older IT pros on the job hunt might find their age is an unwelcome factor in employment decisions, even when market conditions are favorable. There's little hard data on age bias in the IT field, but professionals and recruiters say it's an industry reality.

It's also stupid.

Most ageism is subtle, often lurking in disguise as a "culture fit" issue. Sometimes, though, it's right out there in the open. A reader tipped us onto a story comment to a Denver-area online forum where, in 2012, an IT recruiter posted a call looking for two "young, up and coming mobile developers." I'll leave the names of the recruiter and company out of it; the point isn't to assign blame. Suffice it to say the recruiter works for a national IT staffing firm that was recently highlighted in Gartner's IT Workforce Practices report. When another forum poster suggested deleting the word "young" so as to not run afoul of the federal Age Discrimination in Employment Act, the recruiter responded in candid fashion.

[ Which IT fields need people? Read Data Scientist: The Sexiest Job No One Has. ]

"I apologized [sic] for the way I phrased the posting but it's the truth. This company wants a young, passionate team to grow with the company. If I present anyone more than 6-7 years out of college, they will not schedule an interview," the recruiter wrote. He didn't stop there: "There are tons of federal acts trying to make everyone equal, but at the end of the day companies know exactly what they want and will say 'their personality doesn't fit the culture' or 'their experience isn't a match' when in reality the individual is too old."

Another finding in the 2013 SIM report: 20% of IT leaders say a skills shortage keeps them up at night. What's wrong with this picture? How can one in five IT decision-makers bite their nails about a skills shortage while veteran IT pros -- especially those 50 and older -- contend with age bias?

To be fair, individuals have to hold up their end of the bargain. Keep your skills sharp. Don't be the office grouch. Stay in touch with your professional network, even if you're not looking for a job. Good advice for any age, but especially if you're a so-called "old guy," a term I use here for male and female IT pros. (Gender bias in IT? That's a whole other story.) Gary Huckabone, one of the 50-something IT pros I spoke with recently, even said "some ageism is warranted." But if you're not doing your job well, that's not age bias, it's poor performance.

What about the dedicated IT pros who do stay current, deliver value to their employers, and offer the wide-angle perspective that comes with experience?

Smart CIOs and other decision-makers embrace the veteran workforce; dumb ones misappropriate terms such as "culture" and "fit" to build an exclusively young staff. It does a disservice to culture and fit, both real things -- not everyone's cut out to be a triage nurse or a derivatives trader or an elementary school teacher. For that matter, not everyone's cut out for IT. But age should have nothing to do with it.

Let's set aside social and moral concerns and just consider the bottom line. Ageism is bad business. If IT is ultimately about solving problems and innovating, what good is a homogenous team? As InformationWeek reader and IT exec Adam Blackie noted in a comment: "Any organization that overtly ignores any section of the workforce, either because of gender, age, religion, disability, etc, will be a much weaker competitor in the long run."

Tom Hart, a former IT executive who is now CMO of the recruiting firm Eliassen, told me in a recent interview that age comes up regularly with clients, though usually in an indirect manner. Although the client ultimately signs the checks, Hart and his colleagues try to emphasize the benefits of balance in a team.

"We'll talk about having a balanced organization that allows you great flexibility in terms of the direction you may be taking a product or service offering," Hart said. "Having some seasoned folks on the team -- who have been there, they've done that, they're battle-weary, they know how to avoid making the same mistakes over and over, they know how to work with more difficult business counterparts -- it's good to have that balance in play. Just to have a bunch of young guns who are willing to work really hard and long hours may not be good enough for the ultimate success of the endeavor."       

And those employers griping about a skills shortage?

"They need to broaden their perspective in terms of what they're looking for," Hart said. "There's plenty of talent out there."

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David F. Carr
David F. Carr,
User Rank: Author
12/6/2013 | 11:52:22 AM
Thanks for sticking up for old guys
The old guy brings the voice of experience, even when the young guy or gal doesn't want to hear it.

What else does the old guy bring to the table? What about the old broad (not to leave her out)?

User Rank: Strategist
12/6/2013 | 12:07:30 PM
Team with mix of skills, ages is more adaptable
Nature often punishes monocultures, and an all-young person team may be a kind of monoculture. The mature person knows where the pitfalls in the trail lie, having traversed it before. Language skills in particular can weigh in when an older language that's good for a particular function isn't found in the skill set of the Python, Ruby, Node.js crowd.
Kristin Burnham
Kristin Burnham,
User Rank: Author
12/6/2013 | 12:26:01 PM
Workforces need diversity
A mix is a necessary in the workforce: Younger ones bring a fresh sense of enthusiasm and ideas; older workers bring experience to execute, all of which are invaluable and keys to business success.
User Rank: Strategist
12/6/2013 | 12:49:12 PM
It's easy to categorize people...
...when you're looking for a reason to do so.

Most often (as a professed "old guy" myself), I've found the reasoning is financial. It's always easier to justfiy adding people to your team when they don't cost as much to hire.

Conversely, as this past five years has amply demonstrated, it's also easiest to cut whoever has the largest salary first whenever there's financial concern.

One of the strange fallouts of our "information economy" and society is that the managers of said information, the IT folks, engineers and technicians, are now seen in much the same light as factory workers were in the 20th century - as replaceable cogs in the greater machinery.

No wonder they're "hiring young." The hiring managers in these companies see us as outdated cogs who are increasingly expensive to maintain. I.e., if information is a commodity, then those who manipulate it are like assembly-line workers.

It's just kind of sad. And I don't really have a solution.
User Rank: Ninja
12/6/2013 | 1:14:40 PM
Only an IT issue?
I know this is an IT oriented website but I don't see how this only a problem for IT jobs? Does HR, when trying to fill a position of any relevance, really want someone with only 10 or less years of time left?

The only exception I see is in management positions, where experience is a requirement. And, for the most part, these jobs don't require creative work using tools and technology, just managing people and doing budgets. You can be 90 and do that.

I'm sure that offends quite a few people in management ranks who don't feel they are the Pointy Haired Boss in Dilbert. But as the Peter Principle talked about many years ago, that is where people try to go as they age. For evidence, why do so many upper management positions get filled by people who were let go from those positions at another company? Because you are most qualified if you have done it before, age is irrelevant. Let's face it, has the art of managing people and doing budgets really changed in 30 years? 40 years?
User Rank: Author
12/6/2013 | 1:29:01 PM
Re: Thanks for sticking up for old guys
I did not mean to leave the women out of this discussion. The reality is age pops up in hiring for both men and women. I heard a female CIO make an argument for diversity (including gender diversity) on her team once by describing the need for "texture" during group discussions and group decisions. I liked how she put that. Age adds texture and perspective, whether you are male or female.
User Rank: Moderator
12/6/2013 | 2:02:18 PM
Re: Only an IT issue?
It's definitely not only an IT issue. That said, some of the folks I've spoken to on this topic, including an employment lawyer, suggest it's more prevalent in IT -- and especially in the developer/programmer community -- than in other fields.
User Rank: Apprentice
12/6/2013 | 2:35:00 PM
Grrenhorns and Warhorses
I wrote about a similar subject in an article for Application Development Trends in 2001.

It was called Greenhorns and Warhorses and you can read it here:

User Rank: Ninja
12/6/2013 | 2:58:33 PM
Re: Only an IT issue?
And that does make sense, Kevin. I can't think of anything that has changed as radically as programming. Old timers like me actually used punch cards in college and thought green screen interactive sessions with text editors were the pinnacle of modern creation.

Then you had the Object Oriented Programming and Client/Server days, bringing GUI into play. Then you had the first wave of internet web applications with CGI, now known as Web 1.0. Then you had the creation of Java type languages which work with web application servers, eliminating CGI. During that time, you got this explosion of server side scripting languages like PHP. Microsoft was moving from COM to ASP .NET.

Then you got the Web 2.0 movement with AJAX, XML, JSON, etc.

And now it is mobile small Touch screen development, which is a development paradigm all it's own.

What other profession has seen anything like that, in one employee's professional lifetime?
User Rank: Author
12/6/2013 | 3:30:33 PM
Re: Workforces need diversity
I agree with Kristin. Plus, work is much less fun when everyone's pretty much cut from the same cloth.
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