What the influx of 'digital natives' will mean for IT

Flexibility, open doors and multitasking are among the most important priorities for the Millennial Generation

In about 15 years, the Millennial Generation -- the "digital natives" who began entering the workforce in 2000 -- will be, more or less, in charge of their workplaces, with those who have leadership potential having moved up the corporate rungs by then.

Those who track hiring trends and offer advice to recruiters and companies looking to hire skilled IT workers say now is the time to better understand what makes that generation tick and what their presence and influence means for organizations now and in the future.

"These individuals have a different set of priorities. They value different things in the workplace," says Scot Melland, chairman, president and CEO of Dice Holdings, which operates Dice.com, the technology and engineering careers website. He echoes the findings of the Pew Research Center whose seminal report on Millennials found, among other things: "They are the first generation in human history who regard behaviors like tweeting and texting, along with websites like Facebook, YouTube, Google and Wikipedia, not as astonishing innovations of the digital era, but as everyday parts of their social lives and their search for understanding."

The report opens by noting: "Generations, like people, have personalities, and Millennials -- the American teens and twenty-somethings who are making the passage into adulthood at the start of a new millennium -- have begun to forge theirs: confident, self-expressive, liberal, upbeat and open to change." Their confidence as a group means that while their entry into the workforce has been hampered by the recession, they remain more upbeat about their prospects than are older workers, Pew found.

Generally, Millennials in IT who work at their computers much of the time will assume that it's OK for them to be logged on to Facebook, to be instant messaging and texting with friends and family throughout the workday, according to Pew and others who have studied Millennials. They also work best in flexible environments, in cultures where the specific hours someone works, as well as whether they work in the office or at home, are less important than getting the work done. As a group, they tend to feel the need to express their opinions and to know that those are valued and that their voices are heard. They need to feel they are part of the success of the overall organization rather than just another small cog in a big wheel. A sense of accomplishment and making a difference matter more to them than a big paycheck. They are less hierarchical and expect to have access to company leaders.

"They're used to constant and immediate feedback, so whether it's someone that they report to or someone their boss reports to, they believe, 'I should have access to that person and be able to learn from that person,'" says Matthew Ripaldi, a senior vice president at the IT staffing and recruiting services company Modis and Ajilon Consulting. "If you put too much structure in place, that turns them away."

Chris Nordman is in all of those respects a typical Millennial. A 28-year-old product manager of the ad operations group at Focus.com, which offers a network for businesses to share expertise with each other, Nordman speaks highly of the open culture at the San Francisco-based company he has worked for almost four years since graduating from the University of California, Davis. "If you were to come to our office you don't see the CEO, the vice presidents, sitting in offices. We have a super open floor plan. My position would be sitting three or four desks from the CEO," he says, adding that casual attire is also acceptable. The day before he was interviewed he wore a T-shirt to the office. The lack of suits and ties "provides an environment that is easier for us to be involved in and easier for us to feel that we're making a difference," he says of the many Millennials who work at Focus.com.

Nordman typically starts his workday around 8 a.m. and when he works in the office he's around until 5:30 or 6 p.m. Usually, he runs out to grab lunch and brings it back to eat at his desk. Nordman doesn't feel he needs to get away from his desk for an extended period because he interacts with the world outside of his office -- albeit via the Internet from his desk -- all through his day. To him, Facebook is also a marketing tool to spread the word about what's going on at Focus.com and where he can get immediate feedback from friends.

"Information businesses are great businesses for Millennials," says Scott Albro, the CEO of Focus.com. "They tend to be more creative, more agile and more able to move quickly. That sort of development environment is good for them. They're not afraid of failing and throwing stuff away. They actually like change and so they want to work on new projects."

He finds that Millennials are not as interested in running data centers or systems and application management. They like development, building apps and websites. "They much prefer to be in these much more creative development roles," he says. "The cloud is allowing for that."

Nordman confirms that, also saying that he appreciates the easy access he has to Albro, that he doesn't need to make an appointment to have a chat with the CEO and that he likes being able to offer his opinions, knowing those are heard and respected.

"We've grown up with technology, we've grown up with these social aspects," he says of his generation. "Inherently, I know what a good site looks like. I know what good design is. I've grown up with media in front of me. I know what works, I know what features would be good."

That sort of attitude is part of why IT companies that want to recruit Millennials have to approach them differently than other generations, say those involved in jobs recruiting. A strong online presence is a must for companies that want to attract Millennials, who like to see a company's technology savvy in action. So is using social-networking sites to mine for potential candidates rather than depending solely on finding resumes and having them submitted via job postings at the mainstay career sites such as Monster.com, Hotjobs.com or CareerBuilder.com.

As anyone who has spent any time at Facebook knows, Millennials have plenty to say about all manner of things that earlier generations might find untoward. One possible issue is that to many Millennials providing all manner of personal details seems so natural a thing to do that it wouldn't occur to them that what they've posted could be red flags to prospective employers. "They are fine with everything they post and they don't see why an employer would have a problem with anything they see on their Facebook page," Ripaldi says, adding that it will be interesting to see if that openness changes as Millennials progress in their careers.

On the flip side, companies that help connect businesses with prospective employees such as at Dice.com warn clients to be cautious about using social-networking sites to obtain information about job candidates. "We counsel them to be very careful because they may be exposed to information early in the process that may be inappropriate for them to know," such as religious beliefs and sexual orientation, says Melland.

While that openness, or boundary issues in the view of some, can lead to pitfalls, Albro has also found in his experience hiring and working with Millennials that while their creative skills are a big plus their work ethic can be a bit lacking, a characteristic of the generation that has also been borne out in Pew research.

"The first thing seems a little bit easier to find than that second thing right now," he says, referring to creativity and hard work, respectively. He suggests that is something companies should be mindful of. However, avoidance of hard work may be more a function of youth so that a penchant for working harder "will come with maturity, it will come with experience," he says.

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