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12/6/2013
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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
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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)?

 
Laurianne
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Laurianne,
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.
cbabcock
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cbabcock,
User Rank: Author
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
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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.
RobPreston
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RobPreston,
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.
WKash
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WKash,
User Rank: Author
12/6/2013 | 6:20:55 PM
Re: Workforces need diversity
Diversity in age, backgrounds and experience almost always distinguishes healthy organizations from those that ar just plodding along. 
liverdonor
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liverdonor,
User Rank: Apprentice
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.
TerryB
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TerryB,
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?
KevinRCasey
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KevinRCasey,
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.
TerryB
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TerryB,
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?
Thomas Claburn
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Thomas Claburn,
User Rank: Author
12/6/2013 | 7:06:30 PM
Re: Only an IT issue?
If the employer cares about retaining employees, it won't try to make them work absurd hours, the sort only a young worker would put up with. Such companies are invariably more stable and more likely to thrive over time.
bking307
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bking307,
User Rank: Apprentice
12/9/2013 | 1:31:26 PM
Re: Only an IT issue?
Younger "executives" or managers have difficulty even communicating with older personnel. It's not doing budgets that's the issue, it's managing people. That goes beyond being "task master" or traffic control. Understanding and managing people is the most overlooked experience qualification in today's IT department.
Harold_the_Wolf
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Harold_the_Wolf,
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:

http://adtmag.com/articles/2001/05/29/greenhorns-and-warhorses.aspx

 
proberts551
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proberts551,
User Rank: Strategist
12/6/2013 | 4:37:28 PM
White and over 50 +
With Afirmative Action, White males have it even tougher.  We are the disadvantaged not only because of age, but race.
Gideon
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Gideon,
User Rank: Apprentice
12/9/2013 | 4:45:52 PM
Re: White and over 50 +
I disagree. In IT field, if you do not your stuff, you are tossed out. If you are 50 and white, and another person is black looking for the same job, the white person is likely to be favored. However, during the interview, if both of them are the same, white will get hired. It is that simple. However, if black is better and posseses the right skill, he will likely to be hired over that white guy.
danstermeister
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danstermeister,
User Rank: Apprentice
12/9/2013 | 7:21:13 PM
Re: White and over 50 +
If your skillset is indistuinguishable from the rest of the pack you can go ahead and simply blame yourself, and leave the latent racism at home.
Somedude8
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Somedude8,
User Rank: Ninja
12/6/2013 | 5:03:27 PM
About that young team...
I have bit my tongue about this aspect during the recent articles involving ageism (good articles by the way), because I don't want to be that grumpy old dude. But...

Having been brought in as a consultant, or even as leade developer or architect, to that young team. Here is what I have found, without fail, every single time: A group of quite likeable, enthusiastic and intelligent young developers, and mountains of horrifying code full of anti patterns and worst practices, and so much technical debt that even Obama would blush.

Ignore the experienced old dude at your peril!

 
JayOza
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JayOza,
User Rank: Apprentice
12/7/2013 | 3:52:40 PM
Experience may not matter much today
 

Age discrimination is going to be a big issue in the private sector since you can get rid of employees in private sector that you can't in the government.

This is a very emotional issue but there is one factor that does not get mentioned as the biggest reason: machine.  Machines can do most of the work and you do not need lots of expereince to work with manchines, thus, experience is not that important today like it was in the past.  

My dad, and accountant, got laid off when he was 55 and started his own tax services company since he could not find a corporate job.  I got laid off from a business development position at the age of 45 and could not find a corporate job so I had to start my own company.  And I did programming for 15 years and I am very current with the technology and business knowledge. It does not matter.

I would not be surprised if the age is below 40 today where it is hard to find a corporate job if you get laid off. 

The only solution is to start planning your exit from a corporate job before it is forced on you so you have options.
gjones495
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gjones495,
User Rank: Apprentice
12/8/2013 | 2:06:40 AM
Re: Experience may not matter much today
I beg to differ that experience may not matter much today. In fact I would say the lack of experience is very evident in the management of organizations today as evidenced by the constant loss of data. When companies decide it's cheaper to bring on younger talent, they underestimate the intrinsic costs of training and gaining experience on the fly, and this manifiests into impacting the world as seen with the hiring of Edward Snowden, who had a top secret clearence. 

In my opinion, most of the problem is in the lack of these management and HR decision-makers ability to understand their requirements well enough to be able to evaluate the talent needed to accomplish the task. It won't take long for this to really effect organizations of all sizes as the "Internet-of-things" becomes more pervalent into businesses processes that will result in these 'talent' agents wishing they had wisdom from experienced resources.

 
UberGoober
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UberGoober,
User Rank: Strategist
12/9/2013 | 3:34:22 PM
I blame HR
In corporateland nowadays, way too much of the screening is done by HR and/or automated systems that have almost no idea of what IT is all about, and frankly a different set of victory conditions from the IT folks.  I expect that in most shops, there's a desire to have some folks around with a few scars and wrinkles, but that kind of warhorse has trouble making it onto the list.

 

Not to say that there aren't teams of Millennials that have little or no respect for what came before and no respect for experience; those folks are definitely out there, and I smile as they flounder and try to reinvent the wheel.  Schadenfreude is just another way of saying "I told you so!"
pantech18
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pantech18,
User Rank: Apprentice
12/10/2013 | 9:05:17 AM
Nothing?
Kevin,

I thought your question was rhetoric at first, or at least you would have answered "What the Old Guy brings to IT Teams" -- Nothing

Technology evolves at such a fast pace that even a 10 year veteran becomes obsolete because of new technology. If you don't keep up with the times you won't know how to implement the latest technologies.

There are still "IT Professionals" in their 40s and 50s that refuse to install Windows 7 / 8 because of stability, etc. I call Bull on that. They just don't want to make the jump and learn because getting older makes you lazy. It's a fact of life. It also makes them incredibly grouchy because navigating new software becomes more and more challenging.

The "Old" IT crowd should work hard to land management/leadership positions and let the young bucks handle the front lines. Otherwise they get pushed to the side lines.

I'll take a whiz straight out of college that programs amazing stuff for fun over the aged gentleman that still talks about the "good old days" of IT.

The older generation grew up different and had to learn computing. The new generation of kids consider technology a part of their life from infancy to adulthood and as such, embrace it much better.
SaneIT
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SaneIT,
User Rank: Ninja
12/10/2013 | 9:28:03 AM
Re: Nothing?
I'm not that old yet but this kind of surprised me.  Having been there, done that I feel like having close to two decades of making magic happen through IT does bring some value.  It also brings the ability to steer technology rather than just lob cool ideas at a problem and hope that one sticks.  I can't say that I've met too many IT guys who refuse to install Win 7 on anything but yes some are holding back on Win 8 for very good reasons.  Now maybe the "young bucks" are excited to do new things but the older techs who have lived through rolling out company wide OS upgrades and know the pitfalls will save those "young bucks" from shooting themselves.  Age doesn't mean out of touch either, maybe they prefer some older ways of doing things but any good techie keeps up with what is happening in the industry and looks for ways to leverage everything available. 
pantech18
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pantech18,
User Rank: Apprentice
12/10/2013 | 10:12:32 AM
Re: Nothing?
Fair enough, but you and I both know the "older" crowd is usually resistant to change and often unwilling to compromise on evolving trends.

Their experience becomes their own worst enemy as they flaunt it as a means to quiet the younger generation of IT people. I've seen it far too often.

It's as bad as a doctor that loves to cut his patients open because he has 30 years experience in kidney stone removal. If only he accepted the latest advancements with ultrasound and precision fiber optics his patients would not fall under the knife and recovery would be swift.

Even I, in about 5-10 years will be that same person I describe above. At least I own my own IT company so I can make sure I stay in management and not give the wrong impression of our company.
SaneIT
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SaneIT,
User Rank: Ninja
12/11/2013 | 7:36:06 AM
Re: Nothing?
I agree that at times you run into the "I have a hammer, everything is now a nail" mentality but I see that far less often than I see new techies running head on into what is going to end in a tragic failure and a very rough learning opportunity.  Sometimes the voice of experience mixed in with those who are excited to show off their new skills keeps us from doing really dumb things.  No IT department wants to be seen as the slow moving draconian masters of technology but they don't want to be seen as cowboys who are constantly running around looking for gunfights either.
rickhubbard
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rickhubbard,
User Rank: Apprentice
12/10/2013 | 11:47:42 AM
Gray Matters and Experience Counts

"I will not make age an issue of this campaign. I am not going to exploit, for political purposes, my opponent's youth and inexperience."

—Ronald Reagan

This life-long—and quite obviously gray techie—holds steadfast to an unequivocal focus on thinking about problems...without rushing to solution...and it pays off.

Just one illustration from four decades of experience: Recently, a media-savvy client—replete with 20-something hipsters—engaged me to diagnose why the IT re-write of a core business process was approaching its one-year anniversary...on an initial three-month schedule. (And...approaching 500% of original budget.)

The dozen members of the IT team were working "Standard Hipster Hours" (60-70 hours/week...nights & weekends)—and were "too busy" to meet with me (read: "don't waste time with talking with the old guy...we have work to do!").

So, I observed what they were doing...for a single day.

To me, the problem was obvious: although reflective of well-intentioned, conventional hipster "lore" regarding the way IT projects were done...the project's approach and technical architecture were fundamentally, irreversibly, flawed.

At the end of the day, for about an hour, I met with the CIO and explained my observations, analysis and recommendations...including my professional opinion there was a negligible likelihood the project would be completed within six months...and the deliverables would materially fall-short of expectations.

  • Why...you're right...I wasn't the most popular person in the room. How did you know?

One has to ask, what is the value of a well-intentioned group of high-energy 20-somethings squandering nearly 50,000 staff hours of work?

  • It isn't zero...it's negative. Just think of the opportunity cost.

Long story shortened: the next afternoon, I proposed a fundamentally different approach...including a new way of thinking about the technical architecture (as well as the software development environment ("processes & tools")).

In spite of the IT team's enormous resistance, the "re-start" was completed by a team of 3-4 developers in a touch over 2 months.

If you were the CIO, which outcome would you prefer?


Since my 50th birthday...this case is one of a couple of dozen with similar outcomes.

Evidence that Gray Matters and Experience Counts.

What this means is: While most of us over 50 don't work insane hipster hours—we don't need to. 


As for the stereotyped comments in this thread suggesting "old guys don't keep up with developments," like many of my age group, I invest ~2-3 hours a day with tech & industry journals & publications. In addition to continually completing advanced tech courses, I teach graduates & undergraduates current technologies (e.g., C/C++, PHP, HTML5, CSS3, JSON, MySQL, Apache)...and write Mobile Web Apps. To this day, I relish the intellectual & artistic challenge of crafting well-designed, understandable, minimalistic & functional code.

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