Had lunch with the work guys last week, and we got into a discussion about jobs, co-op placements, how interviewing works these days, especially with devs, etc. And pretty much from the get go there was a gap apparent. Age? Experience? Demographic? Job type? Maybe a bit of all of those. (For the record I’m between 8 and 15 years older than the guys who were there.)
I’d made some comment relating to the realities of working at a job you don’t like, and one of the guys utterly failed to grok the concept. Now, there are plenty of explanatory points about where his view comes from — parents who don’t do the corporate grind, still in uni, limited corporate experience, not necessarily responsible for his own rent/car payments/clothing/food/etc. But I found the perspective fascinating.
I dated a guy once who, though my age, shared that viewpoint. “So you quit and you’re broke for a month and you find something else.” Riiiiight. Sorry, I’m not one of those people who will live on milk and peanut butter sandwiches (he did), or who is comfortable avoiding paying the rent for months by spinning yarns and excuses and doling out sweet talk (he did). Granted, he also left a good-paying job to go back to school to study film, and I left theatre school after two years in part because I wasn’t interested in the very high probability of poverty a life in the arts brings.
One of the other work guys, though still a fair bit younger than I am, knew where I was coming from. He’s lived/worked on his own, and knows that sometimes you just gotta pay the bills. And dream jobs are… sometimes inconveniently nowhere to be found.
It was really interesting to listen to, because each perspective was so utterly foreign to the other. And yes, experience has something to do with it, but so does culture, I think. Both in that we’re talking about developers and in that these guys represent a generational shift.
If you’re a developer (i.e. you write code to build software), unless you’re a complete liability — both in terms of productivity and workplace relations — you can find work. Even archaic mainframe dudes are still needed at banks and insurance companies and the like. If you know your stuff in any of the fairly common/current languages, you can be hired. If you have experience in hot languages and/or platforms, people will find you, negating the need for job hunting effort on your part. If you know the hot stuff and are the hot stuff (i.e. rock star), you’ll get to cherry pick where you want to go and what you want to do to a large degree.
But even mere mortal devs (of course there are always completely clueless and/or sociopathic exceptions, I guess) have some degree of luxury in being picky. They can turn down offers, they can base their acceptance criteria on things like “fun”, and if they don’t like a job’s duties/manager/hardware/projects/culture/cafeteria, they can go elsewhere.
Not everyone has this advantage. Especially people with few skills, or, in tech, with high-end, specialized skills, and who happen to live in a limited opportunity market (relocation may not be possible or desirable). We can’t all live in the Valley, and many of us don’t want to.
Regarding the generational shift, these guys represent the much-discussed (and oft-maligned) Millennials. And the dev’s attitude of “why would you stay somewhere you didn’t like?” is a lot more common among them, or so the op-ed articles would have us believe. They’ve always been well taken care of, and many haven’t had to have jobs at all yet, let alone ones they didn’t like. For geek Millennials, exploring/building tech is as much who/what they are as what they do, so the very idea of not doing that does not compute.
In the last year or two, I’ve been hearing stories from all kinds of people about co-op students they’ve been getting, and the tales are as mind-boggling and maddening as they are hilarious. The combination of hubris and entitlement leads to some… interesting situations. And these kids, unfortunately, don’t seem to realize how thoroughly they’re torpedoing their future placements with the reports that get logged about their behaviour and performance early on. Will they get a clue before graduating and hitting the workforce? Who knows.
That said, the guys I work with are great. They’re smart, passionate (they work with these languages/apps/and platforms on their own time, too), and know how to get the job done. They are also masters of collaboration, and could provide lessons to many an enterprise. Amazing — you can complete a project without a million meetings, emails, phone calls, and multiple levels of management review? Who knew? Sort out what it is you have to do, get to work, and if you need help, just ask. Voila.
The collaborative angle is one characteristic of the Millennials that I heartily endorse. I hated group work in school, because not everyone put forth equal effort, communication didn’t tend to flow well (one person automatically tried to take over, and a couple people inevitably barely contributed verbally at all), and often what other people did wasn’t up to my standards. Yeah, yeah, gifted child, control freak legacy. However, things seem to work a lot more evenly when collaboration is second nature. And in a lot of ways the young ‘uns simply don’t do politics. They accept and respect hierachy, but are thoroughly meritocratic. I can get behind that any day.
The irony of the whole lunch time conversation was that these days I — who switched universities to get into one of the aforementioned co-op programs to get more work and better experience, and was then denied admittance — am as close to sharing that utopian viewpoint of work as I have ever been. I do not, for once, have a job I actively dislike, or am even utterly ambivalent about. I do not have a job that causes me stress and emotional trauma and anxiety. I do not have a job where my best skills are being wasted. For once.
At the same time, I think my awareness of how the other half lives is an asset. It makes me strive to do better at my job so they’ll keep me around. (Thanks to my background, it could be a legal requirement that I have to work there for the company to exist, and I still wouldn’t feel 100% secure.)
It makes me cognizant that everyone has their own story and circumstances and that someone who’s randomly bitchy might just be having a bad day. I recall how one unproductive or unpleasant team member can torpedo an entire team’s morale and efforts, and I try to make sure I’m not that team member. Or that someone who seems to be a nuisance — constantly reporting issues, offering up ideas, etc. — is just passionate and wants to help. It reminds me that there is a helluva lot that I don’t know, but fortunately, there are many people who do know, and usually they are happy to help if you just ask. (And that there are environments in which collaboration is not the mortal enemy of rampant politics.)
The future of work, spearheaded as it will be by guys like those I work with, is a bit scary, but fascinating. Will business be forced to deal with entitled, unproductive dilettantes, simply due to a lack of bodies? Will companies be forced to evolve to cater ever more to passionate though headstrong geeks whose only loyalty is to fun and challenge? Are the pre-Millennial generations still in the workplace doomed to be at eternal cultural loggerheads with those who will, inevitably, replace them?
Ultimately, to make it work, it comes down to respect. Respect for the fact that everyone is there for a reason, and knows their shit, because if they didn’t they wouldn’t last. Respect for the fact that just because you don’t know or understand what someone else does, doesn’t mean it’s less important than what you do. Respect for the fact that everyone has something to teach you, and you them. But most importantly, as was in evidence among myself and my pizza-eating colleagues, respect for the fact that some things just work, even if you totally don’t get it.
(That said, I refuse to stop making fun of them from time to time for being a bunch of wet behind the ears whippersnappers who completely missed all the finest 20th century culture.) I mean, honestly, one of them was almost born in the 90s.