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”.



Older IT workers Bring “The Long View” and “Emotional Maturity”

Hiring in the IT industry suffers from a lack of appreciation of “The Long View”.   Often, since the timelines are project driven, the primary goal is to hire people with correct technical skills who can do the work as quickly as possible in as short a time as possible.  Start Ups companies are particularly vulnerable to the “Short View” since they need to produce a viable product before the money burn ends.

What is “The Long View”?  It’s judgment based on industry and personal experience.  Its the ability to apply one’s long view of an industry to new tasks with judgment that can “cut through the crap” and get to the hear of the matter.

Older workers bring the long view to their jobs | Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

I love reading stories like this since the quotes are widely applicable and resonate with my experience.

“I can get down to the substance very quickly and see what the likelihood of success can be or will be,” agreed Fred Colen, a 67-year-old intellectual property attorney from Shadyside.

I’ve written before that for the Older IT worker, knowing, keeping, and communicating performance metrics is critical to communicate your value.  Young workers often will put in long hours, work late into the night, and appear to be working twice as hard as the old Geezer Geek who leaves regularly at 5:00pm.  I’ve heard of executives blown away when they realize the fat balding old “grey hair” is producing three times the code that the young “all nighters” are producing.

“The Long View” that comes from experience also teaches one to value relationships.  Consistently, I read that industry values soft skills, emotional maturity and “people come first”, however in practice many companies look purely at certs, skills, and hard skills.  While “soft skills” might sound “airy fairy” to a hard nosed executive, the do in the long term produce solid value through the production of internal and external good will.

“What she lacked in depth of knowledge about sewer systems and EPA regulations pertaining to sewerage, she made up in the years of being able to take complex environmental topics and translate them to the public.”

Internal goodwill is a phrase I use to describe how much employees value being part of a company as members of its community.  Companies with little internal goodwill either have a very transient workforce, or the relationship between the company and its employees is not valued.  In companies where the environment is described as “toxic” the good will balance sheet has descended into the red.

Companies in East Asian cultures will easily understand the concept of internal goodwill.  Some of these companies instill such a fierce loyalty that being part the companies function as a second family to the employees.  Leaving for another company, which many North Americans will consider without thought, is akin to a divorce.  The relationship to the community is not something employees will easily cast aside for a 10% or even 25% increase in money.  Consequently, these companies tend to be more solid, have excellent retention rates (you are not educating someone in order to be poached), and employees are able to pass on valuable skills to the next generation.

Anyone with business experience understand that commerce is not primarily about earning money, but earning good will.  In sales there is a saying, “You can make a sale, but lose the customer”.  You might have scored big money, but the customer will later realize what happened and never come back and any future sales lost.  Making an extra $1000, might mean the loss to the company of hundreds of thousands of dollars over the next couple decades.  Older workers with experience have “the long view” and recognize the truth in my point, since the horizon of their perspective is beyond getting one big score.

Within the Tech Industry, “The Long View” means taking a longer perspective with projects so short term gains do not produce long term pain or death for the organization.  Even within a Start-Up, if the system architecture is shoddy, and/or the code of poor quality, and/or best practices cast aside in order “to get produce out”, the common issues of being “unable to scale”.  I’ve heard of some Start Ups having to attempt a complete re-write in the middle of expanding acceptance of their product.  Those with “the long view” know that when constructing a building, laying the foundations usually is 50% of the task.  It’s wisdom born of experience.


Zen and the Art of Perpetual Failure in Information Technology

One of Canada’s best national paper ran an interesting article on the struggles some women IT professionals face in dealing with what the author calls a fear of failure or the impostor syndrome.  Fail Forward CEO Ashley Good shares some good insights into how not just women, but also men in IT have difficulty in dealing with failure.  The complexity of software architecture make failure an inevitable part of coding.  Sure, test driven design has helped removed huge bug-removing jags, but code still breaks.  Learning what to do with failure is part and parcel to life as a geek.

The precious fear of failure: How successful people can learn to value the fact they don’t know it all | National Post.

I have yet to meet any geezer geek, male or female, who does not have a story to tell of some huge “snafu” which has occurred.  As a young coder in the oil industry towers of Calgary, Canada, I recall the first time I bought the mainframe down with an overlooked “divide by zero” error.  For you young geeks, we now live in an age where bringing a system to its knees, for everyone, right across the company with one line of code is a rare thing.  Years later I comforted a distraught new coder who’d done the same thing. “Everyone is down”, he said with a shocked look on his face. “Yup … they have to reboot the mainframe … don’t worry man … everyone has done it.”

Female IT workers likely struggle more with impostor syndrome given the societal crap they have to put up with, but I also I wonder if women are also more articulate in expressing their emotional states than men.  I’ve learned a lot from women, who’ve articulated problems which have not occurred to me as a male.  I therefore believe that many older IT females likely have much to teach everyone about the universal experience of dealing with the psychological aspects of information technology work.

I will ask some what their thoughts are on this post, so rather than hearing the female-experience-through-male-brain we can explore the wisdom of the older female IT worker.  I suspect one of the first gifts they bring is that by expressing the fear of failure and the impostor syndrome, we can overcome it.  I have observed that some males deal with it by  being the overcompensating “know it all” lest someone discover their secret.  I’ve also seen others hide some failures, only to cause bigger problems down the road for the team.

“The pencil is mightier than the pen.” – Robert M. Pirsig

It’s been 25 years since “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance” by Robert M. Pirsig was published.  It is a metaphysical exploration of the nature of quality explored around the story of a computer manual writer who has a mental breakdown and later goes on a motorcycle road trip.  It is considered an icon of American literature, and includes some themes relating to failure, but also explores some amazing insights into the human condition.  Hey, I love stuff like that.  I just one clicked a kindle copy and am going to read it again.  I last read it in the mid-80’s when I was 19, and taking Ed Thompson III’s philosophy 110 class.  Reading it at 49, with a lifetime of success and failures should be a deeper experience.



Time to Programming Language Fluency

We call computer code “languages” because they have many of the components of spoken language. Syntax, grammar, and even the best way to express for clarity, understand, and creativity.  Verbal languages construct thoughts, which give way to communication.  Programming languages construct logic which gives way to function, interaction, and a kind of communication I’d call the interaction between the code and user-experience.

This blog advocates for the older IT worker, because the data and community experience suggests that most older computer programmer (and other IT workers) skills and experience are extremely under-valued.  Often this is most apparent in the hiring process, where fresh out of school coders are chosen over seasoned older coders.  Yet, HR departments are not understanding an often missed determiner of long term coding success.  That would be “Time-to-Fluency”.

While the younger brain has a higher level of fluid intelligence (see: http://www.geezergeeksrock.com/?p=34), and the older brain a higher level of crystallized intelligence,  one might think that the time a young brain can gain fluency in a coding language would be quicker.  Yet, often learning one language, with the help of instructors and fellow classmates, is not a real work indication of a coders time-to-fluency capacity.  Many young coders internal capacity to self-teach is generally unknown, and likely to be lower than older coders.  Ask any college who knows how to learn better, and they will tell you “older students” tend to perform better as students.

The skill of Learning-How-to-Learn is so important that Coursera even has a program you can take. You can often look at the resume of an older IT worker and see numerous times where they have demonstrated a high capacity to learn and re-learn.  That is true value for companies looking for a new hire.  Sure, that young coder might know Java really well, but what happens if your company moves to something different like Ruby on Rails.  Can that young coder retrain, or will you see them quickly bail for another Java job, thereby necessitating training a new hire in company processes, culture, and business practices?

More insights as Chris Leary, explains his Thoughts on programming language fluency and the importance in the hiring process.

BTW, I’ve learned 11+ computer language in my time (Basic, PL1, Pascal, Assembly, Cobol, Fortran, dBase, VB, PHP, HTML, Javascript … and a couple more … while not a language but a framework … I learned Laravel in the last couple months. :)  A couple I’d forgotten about … here is a comprehensive list.