What 'The Old Guy' Brings To IT Teams - InformationWeek

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IT Leadership // Team Building & Staffing
11:06 AM

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.

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"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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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.
Thomas Claburn
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.
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. 
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!

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.
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.
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: 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: 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: 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.
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