Know Where the Water Is: Communicating across Generations


In the tech industry especially, you have people of many ages who need to work together. Young people are joining all the time with new ideas and ways of doing things, and this can create barriers with established employees who have more experience. Both sides need to think about where the other's coming from and focus on demonstrating value.

I was in New York recently, working for a client and using my own equipment. Their workplace has more than a little bit of creative chaos; open-space desks are moving on a daily basis. Their Wi-Fi is up and down, but mostly down—especially the guest Wi-Fi—and my MacBook Pro is one of the new ones with no ethernet cable.

I’m trying to find someone in accounting to deal with some contractual stuff, one of the downsides of running a real business. Because of the moves, we have no idea where he is, but the company has HipChat, so I can ping him … if I’m signed into HipChat. My sponsor walks me over to IT, and they send me a HipChat invite—but I can’t get into it, because I have no Wi-Fi. So they sign me up for the Wi-Fi, which doesn’t work, so they ask me to reboot, but I have a bunch of tabs open, some of which need saving. Eventually I get into the Wi-Fi, and the sponsor exclaims, “You’ve got to get this guy on the desktop client; he is using the web interface like some eighty-year-old man.”

I explain that my contract ends the next week. He looks at me funny and says, “What’s that supposed to mean?”

It means I haven’t had to use HipChat yet for the whole contract, which now ends in six days, two of which are over a weekend, so I’m unlikely to install another app on my personal machine. Because I come from a time when installing a desktop app was a thing. Hey, wait …

When did I become old?

I started my first job at the age of twenty, with my nearly earned bachelor’s degree in math with a computer science concentration in one hand and the briefcase my father bought for me in another. Yes, I had a briefcase. It was a different century.

Gosh, I was young.

My nickname at that first job was “Young Howitzer.” I stayed young for a long, long time, so long that it took me awhile to realize I wasn’t young anymore. You see, something has been happening to the tech industry. As my friend Tim Ottinger recently pointed out to me, the technology industry has been doubling every five years—meaning half the people in technology have less than five years of experience.

Until that growth curve slows down, technology will continue to have a bit of a Peter Pan complex, with teams making the same mistakes over and over again. This is especially true in roles that tend to be transient, like testing, and fields that tend to be a “young person’s game,” like startup technology and advertising.

The Generational Gap

For whatever reason, perhaps a lack of sleep the night before, I think I failed to give off certain signals to my IT staffer. I didn’t act like he expected: I didn’t bring an ethernet converter, and I had too many tabs open at one time. Perhaps it was the gray hair or the haircut. Mostly likely he was just trying to be funny and I was out of step with his humor.

But that’s kind of the problem: I was out of step. This injects a sort of friction into the workplace, a kind of tribalism. It’s not a big deal for one time contacting the help desk, but I wouldn’t want to work on a team where this sort of thing was common; it adds a “productivity tax” every time anyone needs to ask for help, or even collaborate with those outside their tribe.

Comedian Chris Rock talks about the need to change to connect with a changing audience. On an episode of Saturday Night Live, instead of saying “taxi” he changed it to “Uber.” As the language and people change, he wants to change to fit in with it.

When Feeling the Burn

It’s easy to have a conversation like the one I outlined above and say, “Man, what a jerk. What’s his problem?” But one thing I know for certain is that I can’t change him. In a work setting, all I can do is take a step back and look at my clothing, how I approach responsibilities, and how I express boundaries, and try to improve myself.

Another idea I’ll mention is to demonstrate value. That IT guy didn’t know who I was or what I did, nor did he have much expectation to keep working with me. On software projects, we have much more implied permanence. Imagine being marginalized, for whatever reason, by people who, on average, have less than five years of experience. When things get weird on the project, you are likely get a “feeling.” That isn’t magic; it is your subconscious recognizing that you’ve experienced something like this before. Pay attention to that feeling. Figure it out. Make predictions.

When you start to hear questions like “Hey, how did you know that?” you can stop worrying about fitting in. If you demonstrate enough value, fitting in doesn’t matter.

Today’s hipsters derive from the creative types. Creative types weren’t cool; they were weird. They wore berets, walked around barefoot, and didn’t care what people thought. Creative types demonstrated so much value that they got special exception and made weird cool—something hipsters imitate by investing energy in looking like they don’t pay attention to how they look.

Think about that.

If You’re the Young One

Math would tell us that half the people reading this are new to technology, or at least new to testing. That’s okay. You can pay attention to what is going on in order to develop that subconscious faster than your peers. Try to figure out where things are going. Make predictions, and see if they come true—then think about what to adjust when you are wrong.

You might know that elephants are known for their memory. You might not know that elephants will protect the older members of their communities, giving them food and keeping them alive, when the elders cannot provide for themselves. This behavior is both instinctual and cultural, established for the survival of the tribe.

You see, in the wild, when there is the first drought in fifty years, the seventy-year-old elephant knows where the water is.

So listen to your elders. Pay attention and take notes. Stick around long enough and one day, the elder of the tribe might just be you. And when that happens, you’ll be the one who knows where the water is.

User Comments

russ barnes's picture

Well done and very truthful.   Remember age is only a number and we can all learn and should collaborate with each other in the workplace.   Russ

April 5, 2016 - 12:41pm
Tim Schulz's picture

Great article. Being in the older set of IT and no looking for employment there is a big delta between the younger set and the experienced set, or at least, there is from my perspective.  One thing I might add would be professionalism is something that needs to be present. A culture in a company can be fun and engaging, but when it comes to the presentation of a company, professional still rules.  I have seen some job postings that just leave me asking "what". I realize they are trying to attract the young but non-professional advertising on a job board is not going to help companies.  Maybe HR should start to take up some of the tenants of testing.

April 5, 2016 - 1:09pm
Peter Varhol's picture

Matt, as you know, I lap you by almost 20 years.  My hair is gray, yours is blond.

If I can offer another bit of advice from my pinnacle of age, it is to know your history.  All too often I come across people who think they have encountered an original situation, because they simply don't know and never cared about what came before them.  A part of this is a cultural interpretation of Joel Spolsky's Law of Leaky Abstractions; we all build on what was established earlier in history, but sometimes the lessons leak out, leaving us with the abstraction but not an appreciation of what happened under it.

And if you don't know Joel's Law of Leaky Abstractions, you need to learn it and internalize it.

May 30, 2017 - 2:18pm

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