Why Multigenerational Teams Are the Future of Tech
After many years at Cisco, David Barry was job hunting. Ideally, he wanted to find a position on the East Coast at a company strongly focused on market innovation. A recruiter contacted him for an opportunity at Infragistics, a Cranbury, New Jersey-based design and UX company.
Barry was excited about the firm’s marketing and technical direction, and a particular office perk sealed the deal for him. Kombucha dispenser? Foosball machine? It was the office pool table and the inclusive company culture it symbolized, said Barry, who joined Infragistics three years ago as a senior content writer.
“It offers a bonding experience for all employees,” he said, noting that pre-pandemic, employees of all ages would congregate around the pool table at lunch to play, talk and get to know each other.
Barry, a 25-year tech veteran, describes himself as a “young Boomer,” which makes him a rarity in the industry. His generation accounts for only 20 percent of the tech workforce, according to research from industry association CompTIA. The bulk — 49 percent — is 35 to 54 years old, and 30 percent range in age from 19 to 34, according to CompTIA.
5 Reasons to Hire Older Workers
- Depth of industry experience
- Knowledge of older products and services still in use
- General workplace competence and savvy
- Ability to mentor younger workers
- Greater loyalty than some younger workers
This is the second story in a three-part series on building a stronger tech workforce. Find the first story here, covering neurodiversity in the workplace.
Why Hire Older?
Companies like Infragistics recognize the benefits of a workforce spanning many generations, from Gen Z (the oldest are 24) to Millennials (25 to 40 years old) to Gen X (41 to 56) and Boomers (57 and older). A multigenerational workforce sports the strength of decades of experience, not to mention insights and workplace competencies.
“Diversity of any kind benefits engineering teams in particular because of the warp speed with which technology has been advancing over the last few decades,” said Gene Linetsky. Linetsky is chief technology officer at Lenexa, Kansas fintech company TrueAccord, where roughly 7 percent of the company’s tech workers are more than 50 years old.
“This means that older workers have experienced a few paradigm shifts while younger employees are more in tune with the bleeding edge,” he said.
“Experienced workers come with scar tissue and wisdom that can only come from making and fixing numerous mistakes across many years and companies,” Linetsky added.
If a product or service’s intended audience is multigenerational, then it’s simply good business to have a multigenerational design and UX team. A 20 or 30-something might, for instance, specify a pale yellow color in a design and think that the product looks and works well with that color.
“You put the same product in front of someone who’s 50, and they say, ‘I can’t see that at all,’” said Danielle Boris, founder of ConnectFor, a New York City-based company that helps companies foster equal opportunity and inclusion on their teams. “Having that person on the inside is invaluable in terms of the creativity and innovation that happens,” Boris said.
The Truth About Older Workers
True or false: Older workers’ experience means they want too much money, and they leave jobs after only a few years.
In fact, more experienced workers are willing to work for less money, so much so that 21.1 percent of Boomers said they’d quit a job if they were underpaid, compared with 35.5 percent for Gen Z employees, according to Ajilon research. And older workers do stay with companies for extended periods, a median of 10.1 years for workers ages 55 to 64, compared with 2.8 years for those ages 25 to 34, according to Bureau of Labor Statistics data.
“There’s no ceiling on a person’s ability to learn or contribute or aptitude to learn.”
Dan Ni, CEO at Messaged.com, an email marketing service for SaaS businesses, agrees with the research. “All my workers who are above 50 greatly outperform their younger peers by a great margin,” Ni said. “They have greater experience and a work ethic lacking in today’s younger people. They are familiar with situations that the younger workforce is unfamiliar with, their critical thinking skills are more advanced, and their networking skills are stronger,” he said.
Ni advocates for an age-balanced workforce. “It opens you up to a more experienced and talented pool of individuals with a variety of skill sets,” he said.
NECI, a solutions and services provider for industrial automation, hires older workers for a practical reason.“The technologies and skills we look for are often hard to find among people early in their career, because they just don’t have the years of experience needed to do what we do,” said Douglas Smiley, director of talent acquisition at the Mansfield, Massachusetts-based company.
One example: Knowledge of Delta V, a control system used by many of NECI’s clients. “We can’t send anybody out (to clients) who doesn’t already have highly established skills in that area,” Smiley said.
Multigenerational Workplace Management Tips from Danielle Boris of ConnectFor
- Offer company-wide training for new technology, no matter how simple it seems.
- Avoid jargon or acronyms unless you’re 100 percent sure that everyone will understand what you’re saying. Clarify communication by spelling out acronyms, defining jargon, or using a more accessible word.
- Be inclusive, literally. Include both generations in gatherings.
- Be mindful of out-of-office activities. An invitation to get drinks after work might infringe on someone’s care for an older parent, just as it might for young parents who need to fetch their toddlers from childcare.
- Be mindful of responsibilities. No kids or an empty nest doesn’t mean no responsibilities. “Everyone’s lives outside of work are important,” Boris said. “Nobody should be expected to work late or be more flexible because they do not have children.”
- Bridge cultural divides. An older worker might not be familiar with Billie Eilish, just as a younger one might not be familiar with Billy Preston. Generations should get to know at least some of each other’s pop-culture references.
At Infragistics, the 150-plus person tech team has 39 people in senior roles, with roughly half over and half under the age of 41. (That’s the age at which federal law protects workers from age discrimination in the workplace.) The team ranges in age from 30 to 65. “There’s no ceiling on a person’s ability to learn or contribute or aptitude to learn,” said Dean Guida, Infragistics founder and CEO. The team includes people who have spent years at Infragistics as well as new hires who are older.
Guida points out one difference between older and younger tech workers: Older designers are accustomed to Waterfall, a linear, methodical approach to projects, while younger ones tend toward Agile, a more flexible, less linear approach. That comes in handy for Infragistics’ work in Asia, where Waterfall is more prevalent, Guida said.
David Barry, the content writer, knows what his experience offers Infragistics. “I bring a deep understanding of how to communicate about technology,” he said. He re-orients white papers, blogs and other content around narratives that speak to customers’ pain points or industry trends and uses visuals to make content easy to grasp; both strategies have increased audience engagement and retention, he said. He also helps other writers and marketing specialists hone their skills.
Barry feels his age now and then, due to what he called the “phenomenal changes” in marketing and tech at Infragistics and industrywide.
“We constantly innovate at Infragistics and some of my younger colleagues fly through like it’s nothing,” he said. “I chug a bit, but I get there, too. It just requires a bit more time and focus.”
The Learning Curve
Another myth about older workers: They can’t or won’t keep up with current technologies. Research indicates this is both true and untrue. Older people do learn more slowly than younger, but “older” means 25, the age at which the brain becomes less flexible, according to some research. Another subtlety: Older people can take longer to learn — if they neglect learning throughout their lifetime and allow those skills to stagnate. Adults who continue to learn new skills throughout their lives can acquire new skills reasonably quickly.
Others point out that the industry self-selects people who embrace learning. “If you go into tech, you are inherently not afraid of new technology,” said Barry Waldbaum, a staff software engineer at TrueAccord who identifies as a mid-Gen Xer. “If you become afraid of it, you should do something else,” he said.
Still, at least one tech company has altered its hiring process to accommodate older workers. “They are the most qualified of all because they have the advantage of experience,” said Tim Perry, vice president of engineering at Rockville, Maryland-based CloudBolt, which provides cloud-management systems.
CloudBolt used to require candidates to complete a four-to-eight-hour homework assignment to prove technical proficiency. “We noticed we were losing candidates and the culprit was this ‘friction’ that this approach introduced,” Perry said. CloudBolt now uses the interview to present a live test case to candidates, to see how they arrive at the answer to the problem.
“A candidate’s thought process and ability to resourcefully get to the answer is most important,” Perry said.
“Our new approach seems to get at that faster and more accurately,” he said, and all candidates, not just older ones, seem more comfortable with the approach.
“There’s no replacement for practical experience,” said Eric Miquelon, president of Avanade North America, a professional-services provider and a joint venture between Microsoft and Accenture. Just under half of Avanade’s 4,000-person North American workforce is older than 41, he said.
Hiring people with functional business expertise and then cross-training them on Avanade-specific technology also helps fill open roles (as does upskilling current Avanade employees). “The experienced workforce, certainly those 41 plus, plays an important role,” Miquelon said.
Professionals who have witnessed the evolution of technology — for instance seeing shopping move from in store to online — bring special value to projects, Miquelon said. “The perspective that evolves over time is valuable both for context-setting as well as understanding continued patterns of success that can be repeated,” he said.
For instance, someone who’s worked with enterprise resource planning (ERP) for 20 years has “residual knowledge that can be really beneficial in terms of setting up a project for success and challenging our clients in a productive way to help them learn from past experiences,” Miquelon said. “There’s tremendous value in that kind of activity.”
To support a multigenerational workforce, Avanade is piloting a multigenerational employee network in its Brazil office. Ages range from under 21 to over 50 in the group of 20 employees. Combining the much younger and somewhat older employees in one network “promotes inclusion of diversity of ideas and experience to add value to our company and clients,” said an Avanade spokesperson.
In its U.S. offices, Avanade has a cross-generational mentoring program that allows older and younger workers to learn from each other.
Dave Medd, 49, a senior vice president, and DeAnna Tipton, 30, a senior consultant, started mentoring each other in March of 2021. Both have gleaned insights as well as practical information from talking with each other.
Medd, for instance, no longer thinks “fickle” when viewing a resume listing short stints at different companies. “My generation tended to go to a big company and do whatever the company told them to,” Medd said. “Younger people like to engineer their careers specifically in an area they’re passionate about.” He now looks for a common thread of a skill set, not necessarily years of experience at one company.
“My generation tended to go to a big company and do whatever the company told them to. Younger people like to engineer their careers specifically in an area they’re passionate about.”
Tipton gained understanding into the life of a high-level executive, and also learned to focus her extracurricular workplace energy on activities that will help propel her career. For instance, she was one of the first people in North America to receive Databricks certification. “I hone my skill sets to this emerging technology,” she said. “I seek out opportunities to learn it, and then I’m able to teach others.”
The two have also picked up life skills from each other. Both are trained pianists, with Medd sitting down at the keyboard to play away the stress of the day. Now Tipton does too, rather than scroll through social media to forget the worries of the day.
Medd has more productive conversations with his teen daughter — and people he mentors outside the workplace — about the future. “I have a little more open mindedness about what she wants to do, her passions and where she wants to go,” he said. “I recognize in DeAnna that following a passion is absolutely a career path that will work.”
Both “absolutely” recommend seeking out a mentor of a different generation, even if it’s not via a formal workplace program. “In this industry, you can’t be inclusive unless you understand where others are coming from,” said Tipton. “Without the mentoring, our paths wouldn’t have crossed.”