Skip to main content

Being or Becoming?: Millennials in Software

Dave Nicolette
Reading: Being or Becoming?: Millennials in Software

As each generation comes of age, they find ways to adapt to the world (or adapt the world to themselves). I’ve been around long enough to see this a few times. But I don’t recall any generation receiving quite as much explicit attention as the Millennials. No one really worried, with respect to previous generations, about the motivations, fears, hopes, dreams, worldview, or thought process of the young people who were merging into adult society in any given decade. Today, it seems both the young and the old are obsessed with figuring out who the Millenials are, what they want from life, and how they can find their way forward in the world.

One Defining Trait?

Millennials are often characterized as impatient. They describe themselvesthat way, as in We Millennials are super impatient about mostly everything, by Kajsa Li Paludan. They are described by older folksthat way, as in 5 Ways to Cure Millennials of Career Impatienceand The Top 8 Millennial Weaknesses and How to Overcome Them, by Ryan Jenkins.

When you listen to Millennials describe their own impatience, you get the sense they feel entitled to have everything handed to them instantly, without their having to invest any effort. Any real or perceived barriers to that are someone else’s fault, by definition. They seem not to understand that you can’t pick up a lifetime of learning by taking some kind of Magic Pillor something.

When you listen to older folks describe the impatience of Millennials, you get the sense they consider anything different from themselves to be “wrong” and in need of a “cure.” They seem to want to force Millennials into a mold that was cast in another era. Somehow, they didn’t notice the era passed. What’s wrong with these kids, anyway? Why can’t they be just like we (think we remember we) were?

As time goes on, I get more and more confused about whether I’m old or young, because both these perspectives strike me as intellectually careless, lopsided, and blaming. I don’t want to be any of those things. I guess I’ll just have to stay alive until a generation comes along that I can fit into. I’m up for it, as long as the world doesn’t run out of pizza while I’m waiting.

Impatience or Ambition?

In Are Millennials too impatient at work?, Adam Bryant laments Millennials “are, by many accounts, an impatient bunch. Give them a new position, and it’s a good bet that well before their one-year anniversary in the job, they’ll be agitating for something new — “What’s next? Why haven’t I been promoted?” I’ve heard many people say they wished these young employees would dig in a bit longer not to just learn the job, but also to master and even transform it before raising their hands for something new.”

There’s an underlying assumption that people ought to stay on the same job for many years. But I have to wonder, who benefits from that? Is it the individual, who is trying to improve and advance in their career, or the employer, who is trying to avoid the cost of turnover, recuitment, hiring, and training? This is not a Millennial issue, and it’s not about “patience.” Throughout my adult lifetime, ambitious people have advanced quickly by changing jobs and by experimenting with contract work and entrepreneurship, sometimes moving back and forth between full-time employment and independent work. It’s not a “weakness” that needs to be “cured.” It’s just one way to play the hand that was dealt you.

On the other hand, in most occupations there is a genuine need for deep learning or some level of “mastery” before advancement is viable. The Peter Principleholds that in a hierarchical organization people rise to their “level of incompetence,” because the signal that they’re ready for promotion is the mastery of their currentjob, and not their level of preparedness for their nextjob. Their career path consists of moving into one position after another for which they aren’t qualified. If Millennials want to accelerate this process, doesn’t it follow logically that they will be even lessable to perform the functions of each new position throughout their careers than the generations before them?

I mean, at some point you actually have to dothe job, as opposed to just winning the “badge”by getting the job title. This may be a difficult concept for someone who was raised on a diet of instant gratificationand self-esteem boosters, with a collection of participation awardsto prove it. And whose fault is it that they were raised that way?

So, I think there’s merit on both sides, here. There’s no need to stick with the same job forever. That’s the definition of career stagnation. On the other hand, no one is automatically entitled to a “fast track” in their career.

Work ethic or life values?

Jenkins lists“Poor work ethic” as Millennial “weakness” Number One. “Millennials report working an average of 38.8 hours per week, much less than Generation X (47.8) or Boomers (47.1).”

If Jenkins thinks 47.8 hours per week reflects dedication and focus on the job, then he wasn’t working in the IT field in the 1980s. Work weeks of 70 to 90 hours were common, on a sustained basis. You might go 6 months without a single day off, and that’s “off” with a pager. There were plenty of divorces and nervous breakdowns, and even a few suicides. It’s the main reason so many good people left the field during those years.

I wouldn’t go back to that, and I wouldn’t recommend it to anyone else, either. But 47.8 doesn’t give you the street cred to complain about anyone else’s work ethic, and 38.8 doesn’t make you lazy. They’re about the same, actually. The real question is: Doesn’t “work ethic” imply something about actually getting things done, as opposed to just punching a clock?

When Henry Ford invented the weekend, wages went up, worker morale went up, quality of life went up, company profitability went up, and employee loyalty went up. Ford realized that if workers never had any time off, they wouldn’t have an opportunty to buy cars or other products. What’s the point of manufacturing lots of products if no one can buy them?

But the numbers were arbitrary. Why 40 hours a week? Why five days? In todays’ high-tech world, there’s no need for people to spend that much of their time on the job. Why not a five-day weekend? And if we actually appliedlean thinkinginstead of just talking about it, we’d have the same level of productivity working two efficient days as we have now, working five inefficient days. And no, there’s no pay cut; you’re paying for properly-completed work, not for burning up hours. The work gets done and the people have ample time and money on their hands to buy the products and services. Maybe they could pursue quality of life, too, rather than operating as machine parts.

After all, effective job performance isn’t about hanging around an office for an arbitrary amount of time. In this connected world, knowledge workers can contribute from anywhere. Ideas and solutions can come into our minds at any time of the day or night. Millennials’ approach to work isn’t a weakness, it’s a natural evolution. If you ask me, it’s a change that’s long overdue. The Millennials are clearly right on this score. Rather than trying to “cure” it, let’s embrace it and evolve alongside them.

Education or Training?

Kajsa Li Paludan writes, “In the United States alone Millennials owe more than $1 trillion dollars in student debt (Bloomberg). Millennials is the most educated generation with the highest share of unemployed people. And most university graduates have jobs that do not require a four-year degree. No wonder it paralyzes us and awakes impatience.”

I have some bad news. Generally, as a demographic group, Millennials aren’t “more educated” than previous generations. They have credentials from universities. Badges for completing levels in the school game. That’s not the same thing as an education.

Almost no Millennials I’ve encountered or worked with have demonstrated any significant knowledge of history, literature, philosophy, ethics, critical thinking, scientific method, sociology, economics, politics, or a host of other concepts necessary to form a well-rounded, educated human. What they got in exchange for all that school debt is superficial exposure to a few mundane topics, sufficient to land them an entry-level job somewhere. They’re missing a lot of context about the world, despite their almost continuous connection to networks of global extent. That lack of context is the reason Millennials believe themselves to be the first generation that ever faced challenges in life.

It isn’t their fault. The higher education business has been increasing the “demand” for degrees artificially for decades. They established more and more universities, while simultaneously changing the mandate of a university from scholarship to job preparation. They have succeeded in getting people to believe you can’t do much of anything unless you have university credentials.

Take my own field, for instance. Do you need a four-year degree to perform on the job as an entry-level programmer? In a sense you do, because few companies will hire you without one. But what I mean to ask is, do you needfour years of formal schooling to performon the job as an entry-levelprogrammer?

The answer is no, you don’t. Very few entry-level programming jobs in large corporations require people to know very much about computer science, information systems, or business. And in the startup arena, if you’re energetic and determined you can get your code to work (sort of) by hacking on it through the night; it doesn’t have to be written to a high engineering standard. Most code written for startups isn’t.

You could learn enough to be effective on the job with six months of vocational training. Maybe less. While there are some solid four-year curricula that really do help people gain a strong foundation, most undergraduate curricula provide less practical content than a good vocational program.

That thing about impatience plays here, too. A young colleague with a degree in a field other than computer science was recently asking me about how to ramp up his knowledge and skills in certain technical areas. When I pointed him to learning resources, he seemed to stand still, as if waiting for something more. As far as I could tell, there was nothing missing except for him to raise one finger to a height of 2 millimeters and bring it down smartly on a hypertext link to initiate a tutorial. So, what was he waiting for?

After a couple of rounds of this, I began to wonder if he expected me to do the learning for him. It turned out that he did, in a way. He asked how he could “short-circuit” the learning that had occurred over the past 40 years of my career, and be in the same place where I am in, like, a few minutes, maybe, and without breaking a sweat.

I reminded him of the well-known Ray Bradburyquote: If you want to learn to fly, you have to “jump off the cliff and learn how to make wings on the way down.”

He replied, “Ray who?”

Being or Becoming?

I think the question of impatience isn’t necessarily generational. I’m pretty impatient myself, in many of the same ways as Millennials.

When I was young I used to play ping-pong. There was a time when I coached a group of kids at a community center. They ranged in age from 9 to 14. I noticed a pattern. It’s dangerous to generalize, but a certain difference between the boys and girls was pretty consistent.

The boys wanted to begood players. They got angry at themselves when they couldn’t duplicate the feats of the top players in the world. They yelled, cursed, broke their rackets, and stomped around. They didn’t seem to understand that it took practice to reach that level. When they lost, it was “unfair” by definition.

The girls wanted to becomegood players. They got inspired when they watched top players, and they set out to practice the skills necessary to rise to that level. They were ready to put in the time and effort to get there.

Maybe Millennials want to beeverything they dream of, right now, without paying the dues to becomewhat they aspire to.

Those boys were Millennials well before their time, but they were also every generation before and since. There’s nothing unique about Millennials.

What has been is what will be,
and what has been done is what will be done,
and there is nothing new under the sun.
— Ecclesiastes 1:9

Next Raise No More Devils: Improving Organizational Capacity

Dave Nicolette has been an IT professional since 1977. He has served in a variety of technical and managerial roles. He has worked mainly as a consultant since 1984, keeping one foot in the technical camp and one in the management camp.

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.