Old Stubborn versus Inexperienced Youth

At Factora, we hire on potential. Typically, right out of university. Why? Because we’ve found that it’s virtually the only way to develop the senior employees we need.

This means that Factora team leaders regularly come into work on a Monday morning to find a fresh-faced, experience-free, keen-as-mustard new member on their team.

How does it work out? Does it work out? Why or why not?

Get out of the way pappy

You are 24 years old. You’re just out of school, where you learned everything you need to know about the newest possibilities and the latest technology. Anything you don’t know, you can find out in a heartbeat, online. You’re going to rule the world!

Starting soon, because your good marks at school earned you an interview with an excellent employer. You managed to win the job, against tough competition. Now you’ll be able to show your full potential!

But. You soon realize you are not part of the decisions at your job ­– you execute activities that have been planned by other senior team members. And every time you come up with a great new idea, there is always some 55-year-old guy (one who probably still has his HP-35 with Reverse Polish, somewhere) telling you: “That isn’t how we do things here. Just do it the way it has always been done.”

Wait a minute kid

You are 52 years old. You’ve been with the same excellent company for over 20 years. You are a senior team member, with wide experience in a range of areas. So much so, that you helped put into place many company standards, ones that everyone adheres to daily.

Essentially, you have been doing this your entire career. So there is one right way to do things, your way. You learned it through experience, and from others, over time.

One Monday morning, you find a new hire on your project. Fresh out of school, he asks a lot of questions, always wanting to propose new ways of doing things. He doesn’t know how little interest you have, he doesn’t know his place, and he doesn’t respect your experience.

In particular, the ‘why’ questions make you crazy. Why do we do it that way? Because we’ve worked out, over time, the best way to do it!

And why do I have to daily repeat things that are so obvious?

Melding junior & senior is delicate – like making a martini for James Bond

There are many reasons why organizations do not successfully manage the mix of senior employees and new hires:

  • The two types don’t mesh naturally in the workplace. You need a culture that encourages and supports. Without that culture, there’s no hope.
  • You need a balance of employees in your organization, developed seniors and an ongoing influx of juniors.
  • In addition to general cultural encouragement, you need to actively support knowledge transfer between senior employees and juniors, to allow time for it.

It’s one of our greatest strengths at Factora, that we do have those seniors, that we regularly bring in juniors, and that we have a culture of the former mentoring the latter. Many who now mentor were mentored when younger, and still maintain the relationship.

Before digging into the reasons why it works at Factora, let’s first have a look at the strengths of both sides.

Strengths of youth

Young employees possess something that older employees no longer have: an external view. They look at every process, every way of doing things, without a set filter. They’ll question many processes, small and large, that have been set in stone for years.

Young employees force you to re-think, to question what is taken as for granted. To make you realize that you are taking things for granted that you didn’t know you were. They can propose technologies and ideas that were not available several years ago, when the original process was established. They bring fresh ideas. And a ton of energy!

A few years ago, I had the opportunity to be the tech lead of a group of younger developers. I remember explaining how we calculated engineering unit conversions using a SQL function.

One spoke up right away: “That’s not the best way to do this at all!”

I replied that we had been doing it this way for several years, and it worked perfectly for our customers.

He agreed that yes, it was the right way to do it … ten years ago!

But that today, there were much better ways to do it. His killer question? “Yes, you’re doing it this way, but why?”

All I could come up with was: “Because we always did it like that.” Ouch – worst answer ever!

What happened next? I’ll come back to that in a bit.

Strengths of the old

Senior employees have negotiated many challenges, dealt with many issues. We know which traps to avoid when we start a new project, which means that we are less prone to wasting time going in a direction that we know will not be scalable, or will be difficult to maintain.

We tend to have a better grasp of customer needs. We’re typically better listeners, and we’re more patient.

We’ve seen many different type of industries, so we are able to quickly spot gaps in any given solution. We are also better at evaluating scope and time. This is a skill that people tend to acquire through many years of underestimating, because we are not aware of everything that was involved!

And ideally, we are able to mentor younger people.

How do you make the connection work?

Strong company values build trust.

Factora has a listening culture, a belief in listening to customers and listening to each other. At Factora, new hires enter as part of a team that is accustomed to trusting each other and their leader. That feeling rubs off.

Senior employees are strongly encouraged to take the time to answer all questions a junior employee may have – or any employee may have – and listen to suggestions. That’s the informal part of our onboarding process; the formal part is a 4-month boot camp. See this excellent article on the subject by Santosha Spickard. Again, this allows many people in the company to be involved with the newly hired. Lots of discussions and knowledge transfer!

Transparency makes a real difference here. Example: a new employee has an excellent idea, one that would deliver better results. But their tech lead may decide not to implement the idea in this instance because he knows that we cannot deploy this type of technology on this specific customer’s server, for a range of reasons. The important part is transparency! When the senior employee takes the time to explain the reasons and the time to listen, instead of arguing or trying to make a point, it all works out to everyone’s benefit. It builds respect and trust on both sides.

Bonus: respect and trust don’t just build strong, capable employees – they build productivity. People who respect each other accomplish more, in less time. Because there’s less ‘noise’ in the system.

So we aim to encourage the young ones to challenge as much as they want – whether or not we put the new ideas into practice, there will be a benefit. And we try to share our experience with the juniors as much as we can – so they learn more, faster. And we always assume that each one of us is doing this for the right reasons.

While it sounds simple, it requires effort and practice! But from twenty years of seeing it in action, I know that it works. We end up with smart strong teams that blend experience with new ideas to get more done for the customer, sooner.

What happened with the SQL discussion?

Back to my story above. After taking the time to hear him out, I gave my developer a chance to prove his point by putting his idea into action. What was the result?

The existing SQL function was able to process 60,000 conversions in about 15 minutes. The new CLR function with cache is now able to process 60,000 conversions in … 150 milliseconds!

It’s now been in production for several years, without any issue.

Oh, to be young again!