The Great Knowledge Worker Flusheroo

First Wave Coder/Data Analyst knowledge worker and culture watcher, I’ve followed the 20th century phenomena known as the Knowledge Worker.  A concept coined by one of the great minds of the 20th Century, Peter Druker.  He rightly foresaw that it would be the growing base of wisdom/knowledge contained within information technologists, professionals professionals, and other related classes which would drive the growth of the new economy.  We saw much gained for Western society and other societies which rightly understood that knowledge itself would become  a treasured process from which great wealth would be produced.

Yet, it is my observation which is shared by others, that some corporate/government management and human resources in general have not understood that much of the knowledge contained within the Knowledge Class of workers is not contained within manuals, policies, or processes. They are contained within the minds of the Knowledge worker class.  One of my touchstones is that, “humans know more than they articulate or can articulate.”  Even in what appear to be highly systematized forms of knowledge, people always know more than they articulate.  It’s not that they are unwilling, it is just the nature of knowledge.

This blog was created to advocate for the older worker, not just for compassionate reasons, but because it is my conviction that we are flushing away the wealth producing capacity of the older Knowledge Class.  Why?  Western society has not adequately grasped that the next generation of Knowledge Workers need to be mentored/apprenticed by the existing Knowledge Worker Base. The most important knowledge is passed through mentorship not manuals. RTFM can not replace WTOF (Watch the Old Fart).

“Establishing a program for transferring knowledge is an essential element for dealing with “brain drain.” Veteran utility workers tend to pass valuable institutional knowledge orally, rather than documenting and updating the information systematically. This intellectual capital is often lost when the worker retires because there is no formal program to capture their know-how.” – Who Will Replace Nuclear Power’s Aging Work Force? – Power Engineering.

I ran across this article which documented the problem of utility workers not documenting or systematizing their knowledge, but rather passing on in orally.  The article, while helpful, does not understand that many workers are unable to systematize their oral knowledge. Not all human beings are able to convert their verbal knowledge into symbolic knowledge. In fact, few can do this effectively. In some forms of knowledge it is impossible or impractical (the manual would be too large).

Writing is a difficult skill.  Margaret Laurence, a feisty and iconic Canadian writer articulated it well. At a party, when Laurence was informed by  a neurosurgeon that he intended to take up writing in retirement, responded, “When I retire, I’m going to be a neurosurgeon.”

Expecting utility workers, even with help, to codify a sufficient sum of their knowledge base into documents for other’s to then acquire is over-confidence at best.  Even if possible, one has to consider how possible it is to acquire technical knowledge through reading, videos, or any other non-human transmitted method.  The problem is two fold in my mind.  Firstly, much knowledge of any craft is unarticulated. As strange as it sounds, people don’t know they know stuff. People know things they only are aware of when their re-encounter them. The knowledge bubbles up and they think, “Hey, I remember dealing with something like this or similar to this 22 years ago). Often the master worker combines earned knowledge into a new synthesis to apply it to a new problem.   My point is that, you can not codify wisdom since it is often inarticulate-able or can not be effectively transferred from the fuzzy logic inherent with the human brain to the structured written word.

Mentoring and intergenerational teams, combined with the codification of key processes in written form, is the most effective method for passing on knowledge from one generation of Knowledge Workers to the next.  Without such processes, critical information is certain to be lost.  More importantly, the Knowledge Worker community is eroded in favour of a highly individualistic transient work culture. A culture of intergenerational relationship and collectively acquired knowledge is squandered … flushed down the drain.

“What seasoned workers have traditionally seen as a step up on the corporate ladder, today’s young employee is more likely to see as a resume builder.” – Who Will Replace Nuclear Power’s Aging Work Force? – Power Engineering.

Want to make young Knowledge Workers laugh?  While having a couple beers, ask them how loyal they are to their company.  Much that could be written on why that is, however it signals the second and more damaging aspect of our business culture. Failing to understand the intergenerational aspect of knowledge transfer from one generation to another, erodes the desire to mentor. By not mentoring, we are fostering a new generation which may have little desire to mentor. Why would they? They, as we all were, are shaped by what we encounter in our human communities.

Most older workers in my generation still have a strong mentoring ethic with studies showing that somewhere around 80% of older workers will mentor.  I would predict that within a decade or two this number will fall to about 50% and continue its decline.  The outcomes of that decline may not be readily obvious because cultural stagnation rarely is until its too late.

The largest penalty for our folly, is in lost opportunities. As each subsequent generation has to relearn the lost experience/knowledge of the past, they fail to acquire as much new knowledge and insights, improvements … breakthroughs are not achieved.  Energies spent on the future are used relearning the mistakes of the past. These insights, improvements and breakthroughs are what spur productivity benefits, new products and even whole new industries.  We miss seeing this loss, since something not conceived of will not be missed. We flush a greater future by flushing the past.

Mr. Spock Was Once a Teenage Outcast

220908_originalI volunteer as a community mentor at the Vernon Community School which is an experimental stength-based education program run through our local public school system.

My gifted son will be going to the school and entering grade 7 this Fall. I’ve been supporting the program for him, but also since I believe the method is more human that the institutionalized approach currently serving children.

We currently are deconstructing minecraft in order to help the boys understand how the data is structured and how it is coded. Something more important is happening however and it has to do with identity.

I let men’s groups in the 90’s where we sat around in circles talking about our lives, feelings and identity. I did a lot of reading on masculinity and how we develop our identities as males. It might seem flaky to some, but that was the 90’s. It was the decade when nerds started to become cool since there were role models and archetypes for boys to model.

Spock (and Leonard Nimoy himself) were archetypes from which young nerds since the 1960’s drew courage and purpose in dealing with life.

Mr. Spock Was Once a Teenage Outcast: Here’s His Advice to a Troubled Young .

Being smart and loving smart things in a system which is often focused on meeting a common core (for the system) or becoming popular (for typical kids), can be a real challenge.  Without mentors showing kids that a future as a smart nerdy person is possible and even delightful is what Star Trek was all about.

The group I mentor are all boys, and that is no surprise.  There are some nerdy girls too and they gravitate to the female tech mentor.  Why?  They are seeking out a positive expression and validation of their intelligence.  They are seeing in the mentors that an affirming life is possible for them as future smart women.

I would encourage more older geeks to look into mentoring type programs and I sincerely hope that the Hackschooling method used at the Vernon Community School is adopted in every school system in North America.  It’s not for everyone but it certainly is for geeks.  What a gift these young geeks have in avoiding much of the angst that our generations experienced and instead be able to focus their energies on their dreams … and the futures that geeks are building for society.


Most Old Geeks Naturally Mentor if Given Chance

Much is being written about the need to quickly deal with the shortage of skilled workers in North American society, yet the solution is right in front of us, if we choose to implement it. Over 80% of older skilled workers will mentor if given a chance. This is why I was surprised to read in this article that we need to encourage older workers to mentor.

“On the other hand, they need to encourage older workers to take on the role of mentors.” –Building training strategy that bridges the generational divide.

Older workers will mentor if companies and institutions make the time and space for them to do it. It’s as simple as that. Within the IT sector, creative companies wanted creativity, so they said, “For one day a weeks you can work on whatever you want.” People did and lots of cool ideas at Google and other organizations developed.

Governments can’t train enough instructors to catch up with the shortage of skilled workers industry, government and academia need. Only an army of mentors can do that, however in the next decade, tens of millions of older skilled workers are going to retire, hit the golf course, and never look back. If given the chance to pass on their knowledge and wisdom, they will. As I’ve said before, “Only about 20% of what you need to know is in the manuals, the other 80% you either learn from someone else or by yourself.

I volunteer mentor 12-14 year olds at an innovative learning program called Vernon Community School. I think its the future of education in the Middle and Highschool setting, since it encourages people to learn how to learn. Last week, I was going to teach the kids how a computer boots up … we did that but mostly ended up with a wonderful conversation about server farms, raid setups, and the concept of “failing gracefully”; whereby systems should fail in such a way as to not create a crisis for the end user. At 12, many of them got it. We also talked about the cost of not spending money when it comes to buying hardware for a company. A couple of them got that idea … at 12. It was great sharing my experience with them and afterwards we played with a gyro powerball.

X-er Geezers and Generation Wuss

As the oldest of Generation-X, I related to Bret Easton on not understanding the hyper-sensitivity of some in the younger generations.  It’s not that I don’t appreciate younger generations, but sometimes when someone says, “Did what I say, offend you?”.  I reply, “No, it did not.  I don’t like what you said, but it does not offend me.”  You can see the disconnect bouncing around in their young minds.  What I mean by “offend”, and what they mean by “offend”, are two different things. It’s the Gen-X Generation Gap.  In truth is, I come from a generation where very little offends us.  It’s not that I don’t have things that I hold dear, sacred or important, it’s just that why would I care that someone else doesn’t value what I think is dear, sacred or important.  To this old Gen-Xer, that would be weird indeed!  Someone doesn’t like me or my beliefs … well as the quintessential cliche of my generation goes … whatever.  I am from the “Whatever Generation”.

“You have to understand,” he said, “that I’m coming to these things as a member of the most pessimistic and ironic generation that has ever roamed the earth. When I hear millennials getting hurt by ‘cyber bullying’, or it being a gateway to suicide, it’s difficult for me to process.” – Bret Easton at 50: ‘I Would Rather Be An X-er than Generation Wuss’.

I bring this up on my Geezer Geek blog because most of the First-Wave of computer programmers are now in management.  We are the old farts who sometimes don’t get the next generation.  Some of us, just don’t get the hyper-sensitivity around criticism and identity.  In a real sense, our culture didn’t give a damn about Gen-X since we grew up in the shadow of the Boomers and entered adulthood in one one of the worst recessions until 2011.  If anyone in my generation was hyper-sensitive and identity focused, no one would give a damn. It was their personal problem.  We’d call these kinds of people the “high needs girlfriend” or “high needs boyfriend” or in the words of Easton … “a wuss”.

My readers know I like to “toot the horn” of older Geeks.  So from a productivity point of view, Gen-X Geezer Geeks are generally what you’d call “low needs employees”.  I think this is generally true for Baby Boomer Geezer Geeks as well, since as we age, many of us “get over ourselves”.  Life becomes less about working out our insecurities and more about feeling satisfied with delivering good value to organizations and clients.  And for those of us Gen-Xers who still have the “whatever”-cynic attitude, its something organizations can deal with easily by laying out expected metrics.  Either you perform to these levels or you will be “whatever”. Performance bonuses work really well with Gen-Xers too!

How shall companies deals with the more difficult problem of  the the hyper-sensitive younger generation?  What is the cost to teamwork and company culture if some of our younger workers are, what my generation would call, “high-needs employees?”  First, I think we need to be careful not to exaggerate the issue – Gen-X was not near as cynical as people thought, nor was the Baby Boomers as me-centered as people thought, nor are younger generations as wussy as Easton thinks.  Yes, Gen-Xers tend to be cynical, Boomers me-centered, and younger types … well … wussy.

This is where mentoring comes in.  We can’t change how generations have developed, except perhaps for our own kids, but we can bring our experience to bear on our teams.  Instead of lamenting the young wusses on your team, Gen-X managers can use the lovely sardonic wit of our generation to help younger geeks to become a bit more jaded.  Not as much as we are, of course. :)  

On that note, let me end with a video from Billy Idol … who first sang this with his band, “Generation-X”.



Like Wine, Geeks Get Better With Age … and the Mentoring

Geezer Geek and Uber-Coder, Robert C. Martin of Clean Coder Blog shared some amazing statistics from StackOverflow. Peter Knego gleaned the information and originally posted it on his blog.   Here’s what we can understand from the data:

  1. Older programmers have higher reputations because they answer more questions than young ones.
  2. Robert doesn’t include this, but a higher reputation on StackOverFlow is also earned by getting the right answer more often, not just frequency.
  3. Most of the coders using StackOverFlow (and its widely used by most coders) are very young (under 6 years experience).
  4. Older coders have more time to answer questions … speculation … they are more efficient at their jobs and can make time.
  5. Older coders are not dropping out, but rather there are just more coders in the workforce.  The pie is expanding.
  6. Since the pie is expanding and getting younger, few teams have access to the experience of older coders. I think this is why they are hitting StackOverFlow for advice from older coders, who freely give it.
  7. There is a 1/16 ratio of Geezer Geeks (over 40) to Young Geeks.  We are a valuable resource since Robert, and experienced mentor named the ideal ratio of juniors to seniors at about 1/5.  That would reflect my experience too.

Here’s Robert’s most important insight and something the IT industry should take note of:

As a leader, that programmer can teach the team about principles, patterns, practices, and ethics. That leader can temper and curb the youthful enthusiasm that leads to premature decisions about frameworks and architectures. That leader can help to instill the value of refactoring and clean code, as a counterweight to the youthful thrill of gettingittowork

The great dopamine-rush and even high, which we coders experience is gettingittowork, however be in this industry for more than a decade and you’ll understand that maintenance-kills.  You can get crap code to work, but then find it blowing up several pushes down the road.  How many of us have been passed a system only to discover there is not even any comments, let alone a rational structure to the code.  Code produced at 4:00am after seven red-bulls is often crap code!  Well, not mine. 😉

Experience teaches that following QA standards, writing friendly code, learning how to create a logical maintainable architecture is worth it in the long run.  One of the most expensive decisions that the software industry makes is to hire a Young-Geek only team.  Hiring seniors, who’ve demonstrated a design to mentor, will pay off with much higher value code.  It will also, in most cases, allow juniors to advance along more quickly as coders.  While StackOverFlow is a useful tool, nothing beats one-on-one mentorship.

Send me more stories like this one, since my goal is to become a Geezer Geek Evangelist.  Who knows, maybe there is even a master’s thesis somewhere in all this.

Have you ever been mentored? Or have you mentored?  What was your experience.  Is there any training in IT mentorship?  What are the best practices which would be included in a certification?  Are there any IT companies you know which have grasped the value of multigenerational mentoring?

Intergenerational Co-Mentoring in Information Technology

In September 1984, it was literally standing room only in Computer Science 110 at the University of Saskatchewan.   (Before you laugh: UofS was kicking MIT butt at competitions in the 80’s and its grads were programming satellites at SED systems in Saskatoon! 😛 ) In the early 80’s, PC’s labs filled with TSR80’s, Apple 2E’s and Commodor Pet’s, combined with the media plugging computer science as a great career choice, created the first surge in demand for computer science grads right across North America.  I was part of that first surge of computer science grads who cut their teeth on early PC’s and on hardware like the DEC-20 mainframe connected to a lab of green screen monitors in the photo below.  Thirty-plus years later, as a seasoned IT professional, its interesting to read the history of the U of S computer science program which documents the ground breaking work of a generation whom I’ve dubbed, The PunchCard Pioneers.

University Saskatchewan Computer Lab 1980's.

University Saskatchewan Computer Lab 1980’s.

That was the first surge of computer science grads, which integrated PC’s, LANs, and redamentary networks into industry.  This was followed by a dip in the sexiness of information technology work until the world wide web was developed for the internet.  In the early 1990’s, awareness of the internet was hitting the public’s consciousness.  I’d been using the internet since 1983 {Old-Fart Bragging Moment} but it was ten years later, in 1993 when its importance dawned on wider society.  Check out this story from Canada’s national TV where Peter Mansbridge explains “This thing called ‘Internet‘”.  I love where John Allan calls the internet Modulated Anarchy and his sweet naivety (Hey, we’re Canadian) regarding how the Internet “doesn’t have much swearing”.  I think his insight on how the Internet is about the human need for connection and community is timeless.

The second wave of computer science grads was driven by the gold mine of the early internet.  Literally untold levels of wealth catapulted 20 year olds into the stratosphere and millions wanted a piece of that cosmic pie.   Zuckerberg was 9 when the internet became mainstream and it was his generation which was flooding the schools to get a piece of that internet action.  Of course, the dotcom bubble burst in early 2000, but by then at lot of his generation were already in school and had caught the Geek-Bug.  You can see on the chart that its about 3-4 years later that degrees start to drop off, however those who stuck with it were prepared to take advantage of the App-Bubble.

We are currently at the beginning of a third wave of demand for computer science education, which is being driven by the sexiness of mobile devices, apps (what kid wouldn’t want to create another Angry Birds and become a billionaire!).   It will be mildly amusing when some wiz-kid  from this fourth IT generation calls Zuckerberg a “Geezer”, which of course some will. :)  I will find it even more amusing when these same wiz-kids look at First-Wavers and ask, “You had internet back then!”


Source: Ed Lazowska, UW.

I think the Third Surge in computer training will not show such a pronounced academic bump since we are moving into a post-university world where generations are getting their education outside of universities.  I often counsel young IT people to skip university, or if they want formal education to get a two year diploma at a good community college while networking to get into some 24-7 start up where the most important learning happens.  It’s been my experience that most young IT workers thrive as they learn in groups; especially co-mentoring.

And this is where we get to the point of this post.  Co-Mentoring in Information Technology.  Here is a good general definition of Co-Mentoring.

Recognizes that the benefits of mentoring, whereby an experienced individual provides guidance and advice to a less experienced individual, can be of benefit to both individuals. The term also refers to the provision of mutual support – the co reconstructs the relationship as non-hierarchical and suggests reciprocity and mutuality – in learning through a co-mentoring group of peers, possibly facilitated by a tutor.Mondofacto

Previously I’ve advocated multi-generational teams and this is one of the primary reasons.  About 80% of older IT workers (First Surge) are willing to mentor third wave young Millennials (the youngest are 18 in 2014) and Generation Z.  Yet what do us “gray beards” have to share?  Aren’t we out of touch and out to pasture?  If we are still active in the industry we likely are not and most importantly we’ve learned how to learn … and re-learn and re-learn …  No one is in this industry for 30,40 or 50 years without knowing how to learn.  Of course, the corollary is that no Millennial will survive 30,40 or 50 years if they are unable to re-learn continually.  Unless of course they take the Geezer Geek Legacy Stream (example: Being a COBOL programmer in 2014) which is a fine choice for those tired of the new and the next.  I’m an intensely curious person and love the new/next thing on the horizon.  When a Droid is spooning broth into my 90 year old chops, I’ll be asking it to turn up the video volume so I can learn about the next best thing in IT.

One of the latest programming trends is Pair Programming and it lends itself to multi-generational mentoring.  For a new coder, it would be an opportunity to learn excellent design quality, and for the older an opportunity to pass on what we’ve learned.  Often when we are young, we want to get from point A to point B to the detriment of coding friendliness and especially issues of maintenance.  Experienced coders know that “Maintenance kills” and of course that is why things like OOP, frameworks, and other goodies were created.   The experienced know that short cuts in coding are often paid for in applications which continually break and clients who rightly think you are a putz.  Good code takes skill, time and care for those who will maintain it.

This is where my pitch for companies to intentionally create intergenerational mentoring relationships.  I’m not just talking about just Pair Programming, but broader IT mentoring.  There are numerous opportunities, in my experience, where pairing the right “Gray Beard” with the right “Wiz Kid” could produce high value for clients while expanding the skill of both Mentor and Protege.   Of course, there is always the 20% who are not interested in mentoring and likely another 20% who would mentor but fall into the OAP (Arrogant Old Prick), just as on the Protege side you’ll find the YAP (Young Arrogant Pricks).  The value however comes with willing mentors and proteges humble enough to learn from each other and, of course, the passing on of experiential learning to the next generation.  The mentors, in turn, derive meaning through the development of the professional development of the next generations.

What is your experience and thoughts on mentoring between generations?