My Days With the Kids

I work for a company dominated by kids. Not the snot-nosed, diaper-clad variety - though you'd be hard pressed to see the difference sometimes - but the young adult kind with college educations, lots of disposable income, and who are imbued with a sense of their own invincibility. At any one of the 16 million meetings I go to each day I'm invariably the oldest person in the room. My building has a gym, a Starbucks, a soccer field, tennis courts, basketball courts, a putting green and driving range, a cafe with fine dining, and a parking lot full of BMWs, Mercedes, and huge SUVs. Once a week, the company runs movies in the company theatre (this week's feature is An Inconvenient Truth). The CEO of the company - the person closest to my age - is three years younger than me. By contrast, my first workplace was a newspaper city room without air conditioning, lots of flies, and a ear-shattering teletype machine. If there was a tennis court, I'll be damned if I ever found it. In fact, it never occurred to me to look for one.

In truth, the age differences don't usually make much of a difference. We interact the way people in workplaces always interact. We talk things through and people then go off to muck things up. My young coworkers gracefully refrain from pointing out my lack of hair and my ever-expanding paunch. I reciprocate by not calling them "young whippersnappers" or talk about "these damn kids today". When I tell stories about working with first generation typesetting computers - they read data from punched paper tape you know - they listen with more than a degree of skepticism. I'm sure some of them are just humoring me and don't believe a word of it.

However, the most striking difference is how chaotic many of them are. They struggle with huge mountains of work, always staying late and trying to catch up. They disdain even the most rudimentary structured processes as something that simply takes too much time. The idea that you could actually do things in a relatively standard, efficient, and repeatable way is a foreign concept bred from too many all-nighters and too much rising from frat house beds to leave for noon classes. For them, every project is totally new and completely unrelated to any that came before or that will happen in the future.

"Processes? Processes? We don't need no stinkin' processes."

As a new employee trying to learn the ropes, this lack of discipline can be frustrating. When I ask questions, I can predict the answers will be wrong, directly proportional to the number of people I ask, or non-existent. I should point out this isn't unusual in technology companies. One must remember that many of these kids were only high schoolers at the end of the big tech boom and not yet born when I had my first experience with a computer. The "old hands" are mostly 3-year veterans - not at the company, but as working adults. Turnover is high as the youngsters change majors, er, change jobs at the drop of a hat. They're always in search of the new and exciting experiences and haven't yet learned how grinding change for change's sake can be.

There are many who look at these kids and wonder how they're going to steward the world we've handed them. There are so many problems and seemingly so little interest in the problems from them. The people who worry are mostly those who fear change. They're the ones who can only see the solving of problems from within their own experience. "I've had that problem dozens of times and I know just how to fix it," they'll mutter. But as they mutter, they forget that one of the most powerful teaching tools in the world is allowing people to make their own mistakes. The second most powerful is a mind open to other possibilities - even the ones you didn't think up.

So in those ways, these kids aren't any different from kids across the millenia. They are self-absorbed, sometimes dangerously lacking in common sense, and likely to make many a painful mistake before the lessons of those mistakes to sink in. They're also very bright, learn quickly, and are able to adapt to a rapidly changing world. They are the perfect evolution of humans in a machine age. While the old timers like me learned rudimentary technology as older adults, they were born with it. They are the ones who can make the machines do their bidding. They are the ones who will use the technology to solve some of our current problems so there's room for their kids to solve newer, even more perplexing problems in the future.

When I look at them, I neither envy them nor want to be one of them. I wouldn't give up my own experiences even if I could and I don't particularly want to live forever only to be handed yet another new, seemingly unsolvable set of problems. That sort of thing is for the young and we older folks have a much bigger role to play - mentors to them so they can move on with the business of moving on.

Bring it On!

The Poobah appears Tues.
& Thurs. at Bring it On!

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Truth Told by Omnipotent Poobah, Wednesday, July 12, 2006

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