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IT Leadership // CIO Insights & Innovation
09:07 AM

IT Millennials: CEO Or Bust

Young IT professionals have more C-suite ambitions than their older colleagues -- but don't necessarily covet the CIO role.

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The millennial generation suffers the occasional media beat-down, especially when it comes to the workplace. But say this about young IT pros: They're an ambitious lot.

According to a recent survey conducted by staffing firm Modis, two out of three millennial IT staffers want to be CEO -- not of their current company, mind you, but of one they start themselves. Compare that with 50% of IT pros ages 35-50 and 46% of those ages 51-60 who share a similar goal. Call it the Zuckerberg Effect.

Perhaps the poll's most eye-opening stat? Just 32% of IT pros of any age said they aspire to be the senior-most IT executive -- CIO, CTO or comparable -- of a company.

Surveys aren't infallible, and plenty of digital ink has already been spilled over the millennial generation in the workplace and out of it. (There's no etched-in-stone age range defining "millennial generation," but the phrase usually refers to young adults born after 1980. The Modis survey used an age range of 18-34.)

[ Want more on how millennials affect your business? Read Millennials Reshape Companies' Social Media Policies. ]

The Pew Research Center, for one, has an entire project devoted to the age group.

Yet Modis president Jack Cullen notes that millennials occupy a particularly interesting place in the IT landscape. Among other reasons: They're hard-wired for IT. Another: Cullen points out that young workers grew up in a more-managed, scheduled environment compared with many of their older peers.

"They're programmed a little differently," Cullen said in an interview. That comes with some recruiting, management, and cultural considerations that CIOs and other senior-level IT folks will be hard-pressed to ignore. "They're very entrepreneurial. They're very smart. The toughest thing is how you cross-pollinate particularly the [Baby] Boomer generation with the millennial."

"It's indoctrination on both sides," Cullen said of managing generation gaps in the IT workplace; those gaps can be quite wide, he added. "[Older generations] can't expect [millennials] to be like we are."

Cullen gave as an example of an age-related difference: "A Baby Boomer wants privacy; the millennial wants to tell everyone where they're at and what they're doing right now." Understanding, rather than rejecting, natural differences is a key to productive technology teams across different age groups. Cullen believes the mutual learning curve is already underway, at least in organizations that embrace a diverse workforce.

The younger generation might also provoke at least a perceived shift in IT's relationship with "the business" -- that abstract and often counter-productive us-versus-them mindset that has sometimes characterized the IT department's place in an organization.

Although the majority (70%) of IT pros included in the Modis survey said employer-sponsored education is important to their career advancement, it's not just advanced computer-science degrees or IT certifications they're interested in. Millennials, in particular, have a different path in mind -- 72% said they're interested in pursuing a MBA degree at some point in their career. Cullen said he's on the fence as to whether the MBA will become a common career move for IT pros or just a flavor of the month. But it's indicative of a changing mentality, one where technology functions more as a means than an end.

"Technology is a great door-opener," Cullen said, noting that the startup community in particular tends to follow a modern chicken-or-egg model: the technology comes first, the business follows. "Technology being so important, it can open that door [for IT pros] to move into the business realm."

Back to that Zuckerberg Effect: Could those entrepreneurial CEO dreams drive a disproportionate amount of young IT talent into the technology industry itself -- and therefore make it more difficult for IT leaders to attract the next generation of workers to industries such as manufacturing or consumer goods?

The answer varies, according to Cullen: "It goes both ways." In fact, Cullen said some blue-chip companies might whisper into a recruiter's ear that "I don't want a young, techie Silicon Valley type." Meanwhile, that same company might actively seek that employee profile for a different project or product if it's looking for fresh perspective or to shake up organizational stasis. "I think in some of these companies you're seeing both worlds, but you're not seeing them entirely mixed," Cullen said.

Cullen said there's truth in the notion that young technology experts find Silicon Valley, New York's Silicon Alley, and other tech-centric cities more attractive than IT jobs in some other industries and regions. Another subset of young tech talent sees Wall Street as the place to make their mark -- and their money. The well-publicized success stories of Facebook and others fuel the appeal.

"We probably have to do a little more selling to a millennial to get them to take a look at a company that has a less [trendy] IT environment," Cullen said. Although there are plenty of variables in a job decision -- money, cost of living, lifestyle, benefits -- millennial IT pros need some convincing to work at companies or industries that don't pack the star power of, say, Google.

"In almost all cases, they've got to be sold and they've really got to take a good look at [whether] this is something they see themselves doing and want to do," Cullen said. "[That's] another thing about the millennials. They're quick to say: 'This isn't what I like, this isn't what I want to do, I'm moving on.'"

Kevin Casey is based in North Carolina and writes about technology for small and mid-sized businesses.

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User Rank: Author
12/14/2013 | 9:58:12 AM
Location, location ...
Interesting take on techies flocking to Silicon Valley and NY. While some non-tech companies have set up shop inSilicon Valley looking for that talent -- GE, Walmart, Ford -- others have avoided Silicon Valley as they look for tech talent, such as General Motors (setting up new tech centers in Austin, Phoenix, and Atlanta areas) and Union Pacific (Austin). 
User Rank: Author
12/14/2013 | 9:32:24 AM
Re: Wise to steer clear of CIO role?
One possible way to read that 32% figure is that it shows IT pros see themselves as having options -- they can advance in lots of ways, not just inside the IT organization. IT is a base, like engineering, that a person can use to do marketing, operations, logistics, sales ...  
Michael Endler
Michael Endler,
User Rank: Author
12/13/2013 | 2:13:51 PM
Re: Are they ignoring youth in general?
I think you make a lot of interesting points, including the notion that young, ambitious people only gradually realize that most companies don't end up as disruptive, innovative or lucrative as their founders hope. I get the sense that some people recognize that being CEO is a challenge-- but I also get the sense that a subset of this group still thinks of failure as something that happens to other people.

But perhaps the entrenpreneurial swagger makes sense, given that young techies are doing pretty well relative to other segments of the economy (particularly among recent grads). A Stanford professor wrote a book a few years back (don't remember the title, unfortunately) that basically argued it's good to fail early and often, since if you become too conditioned to success, you won't know what to do when trouble inevitable arises. I think this might apply to some of the young tech types. If you're a high achiever who rolls straight from a good college into an $80,000 job, there's a decent chance it's going to shape your relationship with success, failure and risk-taking. Likewise, if you're one of these young techies tasting legitimate failure (i.e. not just a temporary setback or a disappointing grade) for the first time, that experience is likely to reverse a lot of your attitudes too.

But even though some of these aspiring CEOs won't pan out, I think there's a good chance that the "next big thing" is being cooked up in an apartment somewhere, rather than in the board room or research lab of a major company. So if people want to shoot for the stars, that's not such a bad thing. I have mixed feelings about MBAs becoming the norm for young, ambitious IT pros, though. I mean, yeah, if your start-up grows, you'll need people with management skills, and you'll need a team of smart, highly-trained people to handle the increasing complexity, which rapidly becomes about more than just the product. But I feel like some companies have succeeded precisely because their founders didn't go to business school. Yes, all of those companies have tons of MBAs now, but at the start, many were motivated by a different set of ideals than many b-school culture encourage.
User Rank: Author
12/13/2013 | 12:29:59 PM
Moving Up the IT Ranks
I wonder if the notion of "moving up the ranks" even rings true with Millennials. Gen X'ers were taught to believe in working up the ranks as a path to success, in IT and in other fields. But millennials watched as their parents in those ranks got laid off.

What I hear from CIOs is that IT millennials are more eager to hop between companies as a faster path to success. 
David F. Carr
David F. Carr,
User Rank: Author
12/13/2013 | 9:47:11 AM
Wise to steer clear of CIO role?
Maybe they're wise to steer clear of the CIO role, which noted hospital CIO John Halamka recently referred to as an increasingly impossible job. See:

Healthcare IT Leadership: Boiling The Frog
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