Older IT workers may be viewed as not being current on the latest technologies. Younger IT workers may know the trends but not know older systems. Either way, don't make the mistake of dating yourself.
There's a common stereotype when it comes to age and IT workers. Because the IT industry moves so fast, it's hard to keep current on the latest trends and technologies. This is especially true when you're mired in your day-to-day chores and don't have time to fiddle with the newest piece of hardware or software. Therefore, older IT workers are sometimes judged as being not on the cutting edge enough to move IT forward.
The stereotype continues with the Old Guard clinging to creaky old equipment while sneering at young IT workers who look dumbfounded when faced with a DOS prompt. The young whippersnapper drags, drops, and clicks furiously with the mouse, while the more experienced IT guy types one or two lines of commands and goes off to do something else.
The young lion exacts revenge by installing a Linux server that essentially does the same thing that twelve of the old systems used to do. The old guy scratches his head and wonders what a concrete cleaner is doing in the server room. The youngster snickers and downloads another 10GB of music to his iPod.
Like most stereotypes, there's usually some basis in reality, however distorted, at the bottom of it. The trick is to make sure you don't allow yourself to be trapped into it. Don't do anything that will allow you to date yourself either one way or the other.
The challenge of the older IT pro
Let's face it. There is always too much work to be done. There are too many calls to answer. Too many systems to patch, update, and maintain. By the end of the day, you're too tired of dealing with machines and just want to unwind.
After a while, it's understandable that a bit of near-burnout would settle in. You can find yourself mixed up in a combination of overwork and settling into a comfortable routine. Once you have things working well enough, why upset the apple cart by, say, installing a bunch of Macintoshes?
On top of that, we know as seasoned IT pros that the budget is almost never there. Even if we were inclined to want to install some new technology or at least try things out, there's no money to do it.
Before you know it, you're in the year 2008 maintaining Windows NT and NetWare 4 servers. What's an old IT pro to do?
First of all, you must make an effort to stay current. It will probably mean going out of your way to make time to do it, which means maybe even taking some family time away from home. Scott Lowe recently had some ideas about how you keep up to date on technologies.
Second, you must remain open minded about doing things differently. It's not called a Comfort Zone for nothing. The knee-jerk reaction to change is to go on the attack sometimes when someone proposes a new way of doing things. Jason Hiner pointed out how we sometimes cling to out-of-date technologies out of habit. Don't let that happen.
It may sound like a lot of effort, but if you don't keep current and remain open minded, some 20-something-year-old kid will wind up taking your job for half your pay at some point. Or worse you could wind up reporting to him.
The challenge of the younger IT pro
The young IT pro has almost the exact opposite problem of the older IT pro. Like all young people, they're fresh out of school, in their first or second job, and out to conquer the world. They've been indoctrinated with all the new technologies and ideas in school and can't wait to try them out. The up-and-coming generation hasn't known a world without easy-to-use personal computers and know them in and out. At the same time, they haven't been beaten down by budget battles and the same endless questions over and over.
It's tempting as a young IT pro to go into a situation and start identifying and wanting to fix problems right away. It's easy to become frustrated and irritated because things move so slowly. It's as if nobody seems to notice or care that there are better ways of doing things.
Plus there's all this ancient equipment and software to deal with. Your system at home is running the overnight builds of almost everything, and yet here you are dealing with software four revisions back and hardware built while you were in middle school. It's just too hard to run and use.
As a young IT pro, the first thing you need to learn is patience. Most businesses have a tendency to move very slowly in deploying technologies. Businesses focus on investing in things that are tied directly to revenue first, and often IT is viewed as a cost center. As such, it's often overlooked budgetarily.
Plus, things move slowly because there are reasons why they are being done the way they are. Policies and procedures have grown up over time to deal with problems that have popped up. It's tempting to shortcut the process sometimes, but it's there for a reason — usually because of a previous lawsuit or to prevent a future one.
Second, you need to learn how the older systems work and respect them as well as the people who have been using them. It's easy to dismiss them as antiquated, but in doing so, you're also disrespecting the decisions of the people who implemented and chose to maintain the systems. Not a wise career move, especially if you're vocal about it.
Instead, learn the older systems. You can find tons of old computer books very cheap in most bookstores. Sites like TechRepublic have years of content online to help. You can even try to buy old stuff on eBay and work with it in your spare time.
The bottom line for IT leaders
Like the rest of life, there is a generation gap when it comes to the IT profession. As an IT leader, you need to make sure that you don't fall into it. If you're an older IT worker, be open to change and keep up to date. If you're a younger IT worker, learn patience and respect and be open to understanding how and why things are done the way they are.
Doing so, you can help to break the age stereotypes in IT and keep from dating yourself.