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.



9 Tips To Avoid IT Midcareer Slump
9 Tips To Avoid IT Midcareer Slump
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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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