Twenty Years Ago

©2000 Steven M. Smith

I’m forty-five, with a mainframe background. I often hear complaints from colleagues — associates who are my contemporaries — that younger workers with experience in hot, new technologies are getting paid as much or more then them. They are certain that twenty years of experience in the industry entitles them to higher pay. Surveying my contemporaries, I am certain that some of them do have wisdom that is worth more pay. But I am just as certain that some of my contemporaries aren’t worth any more pay than a younger or less experienced worker.

I reached my conclusion after amusing myself with a comparison between me today and me in my early twenties. To simplify this written comparison I’m going to refer to me twenty years ago as “Young-Steve.”

Young-Steve was a monomaniac on a mission. He was fanatically dedicated to his work; twelve or more work hours per day was normal. He intuitively understood that his most marketable asset was his thirst for knowledge and relentless drive. So Young-Steve worked and worked and worked. He thought older colleagues who seemed less dedicated than he were less valuable. For instance, Ed — one of Young-Steve’s older colleagues — told him that, at night and weekends, he would put his telephone in the refrigerator to avoid after-hour questions about his System from the Operations staff. Although the quality of Ed’s System was excellent, he seemed lazy and unprofessional to Young-Steve. It would take some years for Young-Steve to understand that Old-Ed had other relationships that were more important to him than work. Young-Steve couldn’t understand how anything could be more important than work. But he would learn.

Young-Steve saw a world where everyone in computing played the “waiting game” for pay increases. Young-Steve was a computing whiz kid, so Management was happy to give him three jobs — and happy to pay him less than someone with ten years of experience who was only doing one job. Young-Steve thought those kind of pay decisions were weird, but learning about computing gave him so much joy that he didn’t care. Now it’s clear to me that Young-Steve deserved higher pay than someone with just “experience.” Today’s job market is more competitive, and if a younger person can do more they can get paid more. I applaud this outcome — it’s long overdue.

How would I stand up in a competition between me versus Young-Steve? Because of Young-Steve’s thirst and dedication, he would positively outdo me when it came to learning and exploiting new technology. The quality of his products would be, given his understanding of the requirements, excellent. Of course, Young-Steve would work to his own requirements, rather than the customer’s, and his decisions would sacrifice economy and delivery speed for quality every time. Young-Steve lived for his work, so delivery delays and extra hours seemed more than a fair tradeoff for a quality product. Hell, for Young-Steve the extra hours were fun.

I would positively outdo Young-Steve at understanding the customer, exploring their requirements, making explicit tradeoffs, and delivering a product tailored to the customer. I would also outdo him if the product required a group effort. I know how to tap into the power of a group. Young-Steve had the potential to work with groups, but he preferred being a hero.

It’s tempting for me to say now that Young-Steve didn’t have a life, but I believe that statement is false. Young-Steve was very happy twenty years ago. He just measured his value almost exclusively from work. And with so much emphasis on work, Young-Steve neglected relationships away from work. That choice cost him dearly.

Who is more valuable, me or Young-Steve, depends on the type of work, and the customer. Young-Steve gets the check mark if the work is more than 80% technical. I get the check mark if the work is more than 20% about influencing other people. When the customer acts erratically, Young-Steve gets the check mark because he would do almost anything in his power to satisfy the customer. I get the check mark if the customers need help understanding what they already know and adding to that knowledge. Young-Steve gets the check mark for sacrificing his life away from the job for work to meet customer demands. I get the check mark if the work requires setting boundaries and pushing back.

I’ve tried to compare us, but it’s hard because there really wouldn’t be a competition. I’ve changed. The work that interests me wouldn’t interest Young-Steve. He would want a narrow focus on technology, and I now want to focus on helping organizations improve their productivity. Although Young-Steve would outdo me technically, I could compete in that arena: Young-Steve couldn’t compete with me in my new mission. He doesn’t have the skills yet.

Let’s look at me now. I no longer inflict my opinions on people. When asked by Management for my opinion, I try to be practical and realistic, rather than optimistic. I haven’t forgotten the hard lessons I’ve learned over twenty years. I work to get the job done, rather than working for the pure fun of learning. Token management awards for working long hours that would have excited Young-Steve now turn me off. A project schedule with months of long days no longer fits me and I won’t put up with that kind of workload for very long. I want a project that is under control and doesn’t squander my time.

Everyone doesn’t share that priority. In my experience, managers in many organizations believe their very survival depends on increasing delivery speed. Those managers sacrifice — many times unknowingly — quality and economy to satisfy their desire for speed. And if delivery speed is the principal force behind management decisions, then young people with raw, adaptable technical skills are more likely to accept that force more easily than older workers. Younger and less experienced workers, like Young-Steve, are optimistic and want to please. They are more willing to march to the beat of a project that other workers — people who know how to detect unhealthy projects — would avoid because they would diagnose it as a deathmarch.

The world isn’t fair and it never will be. Someone with five to twenty years of experience isn’t necessarily any better than someone with no experience. What we do isn’t union work, so seniority is a meaningless idea. I know people with twenty years of experience that haven’t learned a new thing in nineteen years. If you have gained wisdom — and it can’t be scheduled or guaranteed — then you’re worth a whole lot more than either the young technical whiz or the person with twenty years of not learning. One sign of wisdom is knowing how to sell the value of your wisdom to a customer or employer. If, on the other hand, you can’t figure out how to articulate your wisdom and how to do sell it, then you don’t deserve better pay than the young whiz kid working next to you.

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