Keeping the New Kids

They're smart, savvy, ambitious, eager and determined to have a life. In the second of a two-part series, this younger generation tells IT managers: Here's what you need to do to hang onto us.

They've resisted the dot-com hype and begun their careers in traditional industries. They think such companies can provide a more balanced lifestyle, more integration with business, a broader range of challenges, more stability and a more humanistic culture.

Looking at their careers from vantage points that range from six months to four years, 15 "new kids" in IT talk about what they love and hate about work, what kind of environment brings out the best in them and what their companies must do to keep them.

The new kids say their top sources of job satisfaction are the people, culture, atmosphere and balance that make work enjoyable. "I like the culture of family," says Kevin Kaiser, 24, a business analyst at Kraft Foods Inc. "My friends at work are also my clients. It makes me do a better job because I know they're counting on me."

"It's a nurturing environment with a great support structure," says Amy Younggren, 23, an information technology management associate at Prudential Insurance Company of America Inc. "If I ever have any problems, people are willing to (help) me along."

The young folks love a challenge. "We are dealing with a lot of new technology, so I'm constantly learning," says Sohil Shah, 22, a Java programmer at AutoZone Inc. in Memphis.

Lorraine O'Connor, 24, a senior systems analyst at State Street Bank & Trust Co. in Boston, likes the breadth of her duties. "It's very diverse -- not just programming or just analysis," she says. "I'm exposed to the whole range of the development life cycle. It's the variety I like."

They prefer working on the leading edge, but they're willing to mix it up. "I work on a legacy system with Cobol and a mainframe," says Marc Dugger, 26, a programmer/analyst at Southwest Airlines Co. "I'm also on a project that will provide a Web-to-host solution for customers. So in one day, I can work with a wide variety of technology."

They like options, says Jude Shabry, a 26-year-old systems officer at State Street. "Some things interest me more than others, and I find I can work on projects that interest me, instead of being stuck in the specific role I was hired into," she says.

They appreciate freedom and crave responsibility. "If I have a priority in my personal life, I can work later some days, leave earlier others," says Mike Vannoni, 25, a senior business analyst at Kraft.

"My boss gives me the business problem, and I have to figure out how to solve it using Web technology," says Ingrid Eikinas, 27, an assistant vice president at State Street. "It gives me a chance to be creative."

Responsibility gives them a stake in their work -- and the company. "I've been able to see this project from beginning to end and how the organization has embraced it," says Madeline Morales, 23, a senior business analyst at Kraft. "There's a sense of pride and ownership."

The twentysomethings have a keen interest in business, and many say working in a particular business is an important factor in their career satisfaction. "My job allows me to combine my knowledge of finance and IT," says Omar Lari, 25, an analyst at State Street who's pursuing an advanced degree in finance. "By practicing both finance and information technology, I get the best of both worlds."

When they talk about what they love, they don't mention money, except as a mistaken priority. "I have a lot of friends who chased money and didn't find a lot of happiness," Dugger says.

The Downside

Young IT folks come down hard on cafeteria food and commutes, but what really burns them is when bureaucracy or politics impedes progress. "We spend a lot of time talking about making decisions instead of making the decisions," says O'Connor. "I understand the value of analysis, but I can't stand when we spend all this time talking and talking and never really start working on it."

Policies and procedures often seem counterproductive to these twentysomethings. "I didn't have access to machines I needed, so I had to submit the paperwork and get it signed off by four different people," says Shabry. "I couldn't just make things happen like you can at a smaller place."

They find it particularly irksome to have to wait for authorization when they could fix a problem themselves. "It can get frustrating when you're waiting on some alteration to an application that you don't have authority to do," says Jackie Geraci-Barbanente, 22, an associate systems analyst at Kraft. (CW apologizes for misspelling her name in last week's article.)

Because their companies are technology users, not vendors, IT isn't the top priority, and that's frustrating, too. "We're not what makes money; we're overhead," says Chris Meyerpeter, IT communications coordinator at Monsanto Co. "If cuts come, new initiatives are put to the side. It's frustrating how that restricts what you can do."

Though they love business strategy, dealing with businesspeople can sometimes be discouraging. "You have to compromise," says Lari. "The business area might have a different idea, (and) you have to live with that. You don't have carte blanche."

And sometimes the sheer size of these companies can be daunting. "It's such a large organization," says Keith Brummel, 23, a programmer/analyst at Caterpillar Inc. "It's hard to know how everything fits together."

"Some days you just feel like it's too big to put your arms around," Younggren says. "You think, 'How can I ever make a difference in a company with 60,000 people?' "

The Best Way to Work

To bring out their best, the new kids say, place them in small, informal teams with continuous challenges, lots of autonomy, easy access to resources and interesting, important work.

"I like to partner with people and have a positive support structure," says Younggren. "I like to have fun when I'm working; if it's very serious, it's not for me."

"I (need) a new problem every day," adds Shah. "Something I've never seen before and (that I can) figure out."

The physical environment can nurture teamwork. "I like the ability to focus but still have easy access to team resources to work together, too," Shabry says. "I like yelling questions across the room. It helps us work as a team."

Having the proper tools cuts stress. "I want an environment where information is readily available, where all the technology is working correctly, where software's not crashing," O'Connor says.

Ultimately, they have to know their work matters. "It's important to know (that) anything I do contributes to the team effort," says Geraci-Barbanente.

Although young IT folks are often viewed as job-hoppers, most of these young people chose large companies with an eye toward staying for the long term. But that doesn't mean they won't leave if their employers don't meet their standards.

"You can have an amazing career and even change careers and stay within this one company," Younggren says. "But to stay, I'll need increased exposure to diversity in people, products, everything; continuing exposure to upper-level management; and continued support for career development."

"I need a career path that guarantees a future," says Shah. "I'll be looking for an opportunity to move up."

"The biggest thing for me is to have opportunities on the edge of technology," Meyerpeter says. "If I get to (the) point where I'm stagnant with nowhere else to go, that would be the biggest reason to leave."

Eikinas says she's determined to be where the action is in IT, and the action may or may not be at State Street. "If we can be comfortable with the changes that are happening and not be afraid to take some risks, I'll be involved in what's going on, and I'll be happy here," she says.

Beyond these factors, long-term work/life balance is a concern. "I talked with all the women, and I'm confident that I can have a family and stay at Prudential," Younggren says.

How that balance will play out over time is clearly on their minds. "They need to think about the way the concept of work has changed for us," Eikinas says. "My parents would come home and do something else, but for my husband (who also works in IT) and me, work is so entwined with play.

"Sometimes it seems silly that we put on the suits, commute an hour, sit at a PC, then commute home an hour, change our clothes and sit at the PC," she says. "It's all one to us. Most of the work I do is virtual anyway. (Companies) should be thinking about more flexible arrangements."

Advice to Managers

The new kids aren't reticent about expressing their needs. First and foremost, they say, keep them growing. "The focus of young IT folks usually is not money," says Meyerpeter. "Training is the key to keeping people."

Next: Challenge them and have faith in them. "Don't be afraid to give us things you don't think we can handle," says Kaiser. "We want to grow into that. Let us know your goals and the company's goals, and we can help you get there."

Give them freedom and responsibility. "Let them know what the job is, and let them do it," says Meyerpeter.

Don't promise what you can't deliver. "Be straight," Shabry says. "I know people who have had bait-and-switch tactics pulled on them, and they leave."

Pay attention. "If we come up with an idea, listen to us," says O'Connor. "We have a different perspective. It may take a fresh look to see what's been there all the time."

Finally, let them loose. "We don't know any of the old rules, so we do things differently," Younggren says. "We may make mistakes, but give us the freedom to go wild with our ideas. They might be refreshing."

Copyright © 2000 IDG Communications, Inc.

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