Does IT eat its young?

Sometimes IT is less than welcoming to new blood. Is your IT department willing to destroy its future in order to maintain its current all-stars?

In nature, several species routinely eat their young for various reasons, ranging from scarcity of food resources to eliminating future competition for mates. While this behavior has been recorded in humans in various cultures, it's currently manifested metaphorically in several fields where senior personnel obstruct, sabotage, or make life generally difficult for new entrants to the field. In response to one of my recent articles about IT's "woman problem," several readers emailed that whether they agreed or not with IT having a problem with the fairer sex, there was obstructionist behavior toward new entrants.

The not-so-beautiful arts and IT

The field in which I've witnessed this behavior at its worst is in the arts. While my artistic abilities are generally limited to a stick figure or two, I come from a family of artists who have worked in fine art, film, and crafts. When my sister was in film, she'd recount tales of maniacal directors and bosses with inane demands, short tempers, and little more than strings of expletives directed at junior staff.

My own experience with publishing was similar, where literary agents made petty demands and snide remarks until my book was commercially published, when suddenly my calls would be returned and I was no longer treated as a life form slightly lower than pond scum.

When confronted on this behavior, I'm usually given some variation of a "survival of the fittest" explanation-that senior staff in the field exhibit unreasonable behavior to "weed out" those who can't make it in the field, and that engendering "eating of the young" makes the field as a whole stronger.

While less prevalent than in the arts, I've seen similar behavior in IT. A rock star developer or technician is given a pass on poor behavior, and managers and junior staff shrink back in awe when this person enters a room. In other cases, there might be a grizzled veteran who possesses specific knowledge of a complex legacy system and avoids sharing any knowledge or specifications in order to protect his turf and build job security.

In cases where these types of behavior are tolerated, "eating of the young" routinely occurs as those with superior longevity, and hence superior knowledge, use this knowledge as a means to bully new staff. Management is generally complicit in this activity and is willing to destroy its future in order to maintain its current all-stars.

An alternative approach

I've spent most of my working years as a consultant within IT organizations and have always been intrigued by how consultant organizations treat their new staff. Like fields that eat their young, the big consulting companies will identify high-potential talent, even if their experience lies outside the content area in which they'll be consulting. When I started at a large consulting firm, more of my peers had history or marketing degrees rather than degrees in information systems or computer science.

Almost to a fault, these organizations invest heavily in training and early staff development, and then throw the new folks onto a consulting project in a menial role. During the first six months of my career I did everything from mind-numbing massaging of spreadsheets to running errands for office supplies.

While similar to the role of a new staffer on a film, I was never insulted or belittled, and was explicitly told that the goal of this role was to get used to the consulting environment and essentially be "tested" before being given more responsibility. When I was assigned to my next project, "trial period" over, I was expected to perform alongside more senior developers, and soon after was leading my own teams of developers and business analysts.

While the "trial by fire" aspect was similar to the arts, I learned in a supportive environment, and insults, poor behavior, and bullying by more senior staff were simply not tolerated. Those who couldn't do the work were naturally weeded out, and senior staff actively encouraged development and advancement for those who were capable.

There's no harm in breaking in new staff through more menial tasks, and coddling staff doesn't do anyone any favors, especially as terms like "bullying" have become overused to the point that they lack any meaning.

However, there's a difference between "testing" staff through challenging work and subjecting new staff to rudeness, poor behavior, and active harassment in some misguided attempt to toughen them up. Either of the above approaches results in competent senior staff; however, the fine arts-style approach generates cynical, mean-spirited staff that actively eats the young of their industry. Which would you rather have in your organization?