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?