Grey-haired techies: Are you a dinosaur or a guru?

CIO Jury: Tech chiefs weigh up whether age is still an issue in IT...

Faced with a desperate shortage of technology workers with business savvy - and a dearth of new graduates entering the profession - is the IT industry finally being forced to rethink ageist attitudes?

According to CIOs, retaining enthusiasm, making a virtue of experience, keeping skills up to date and at least one "toe in the future" should all be on the checklist of older IT professionals who want to challenge the perception that a job in IT is for the young.

The ageism debate was reignited on when a columnist recently claimed that a lack of "world-class" IT executives means ageism is a thing of the past in the IT industry.

"Clearly everyone who is looking for a new position needs to demonstrate pace, enthusiasm, passion for their subject and the energy that can give an employer confidence they will deliver. What is not wanted, at any age, is cynicism, apathy, bitterness or just plain mediocrity," said Vicky Maxwell Davies in her column, arguing that older IT pros should use their grey hair to their advantage, promoting their experience and gravitas.

Grey-haired techies: Are you a dinosaur or a guru?

Older IT professionals should use their grey hair to their advantage to avoid becoming the dinosaurs of the tech industryPhoto: Shutterstock

Some readers of the column were in agreement, arguing that it is necessary for IT professionals to remain up to date with their skills regardless of their age. "I know older staff who are very much the gurus to whom everyone turns - but also there are far more who have allowed themselves to become dinosaurs," one reader commented. But not all were convinced, with another arguing that the prevailing assumption among recruiters is "once you are over 40, you are a fossil".

The last time the wider audience was asked whether ageism was a problem in IT, 51 per cent of respondents to the skills survey agreed, or strongly agreed, that the IT industry discriminates against older workers.

Members of the CIO Jury were also split when asked, 'Is ageism still an issue in the IT industry?'.

Graham Yellowley, director, technology leads at LCH Clearnet, said: "There is still a perception that IT is a young person's industry but there is no substitute for knowledge and experience. Finding the blend and balance between the two is the key to a firm's success. We need organisations to start thinking about utilising senior personnel to provide more coaching and mentoring to junior staff to help their development."

The lack of skilled staff coming into the industry is also forcing companies to think again about older workers, said Alan Bawden, IT and operations director at the JM Group.

"Things have improved over the past couple of years, with less focus on the age of the candidate and more on the skill sets and experience that the candidate can bring to the organisation," Bawden said. "However, I think the lack of graduates coming through higher education with technical qualifications will force companies to reconsider their attitude to the older, skilled candidates and I think we will also see businesses having to invest in training for their existing IT staff to give them the ability to create and support the new technologies out there."

Gavin Megnauth, director of operations and group IT at Morgan Hunt, said ageism is less of an issue than it was a decade ago: "A combination of a skills shortage and staff recognising the need for retraining and reskilling has seen the maturing IT professionals find work in the contracting market."

Nicholas Bellenberg, IT director at Hachette Filipacchi, said: "I have hired staff with a great range of ages in the past and can vouch for the good effects of having some experience and gravitas around a younger team. The key thing is getting that skills-match right."

He added: "Where I have seen older IT professionals go wrong is when they stay 'stuck' dealing with one particular system or technology and don't keep their experience of other systems up to date. The problem with getting 'stuck' is that other related skills can often ossify. So you not only have to stay up to date with new systems and technologies, but also make sure your problem-solving, team-working and project-management abilities stay current.

"And for managers, there is actually nothing worse than not using new technologies and simply being out of touch. Or maintaining odd prejudices - like being rabidly anti-Apple for instance. The world constantly changes: you can't be in IT and not be in the present with at least a toe in the future."

Meanwhile, Mike Roberts, IT director at The London Clinic added: "The older I get, the more I recognise that an IT degree or MBA is something that makes you think you know what and how to deliver. It's experience that is needed."

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By Steve Ranger

Steve Ranger is the UK editor-in-chief of ZDNet and TechRepublic. An award-winning journalist, Steve writes about the intersection of technology, business and culture, and regularly appears on TV and radio discussing tech issues. Previously he was th...