close up of young woman, looking skeptical
PHOTO: freestocks.org

The fall conference season is drawing to an end. After AWS re:Invent closes this week, we are done for the year. On display this season was a lot of new and exciting technology and some old and not so exciting technology. Also on display was a generational shift in the expectations of the up and coming technologists and future technology buyers. More than once I heard a 20-something developer mutter “OK Boomer” under their breath.

A Rejection of the Growth-at-all-Cost Approach

“OK Boomer” isn't just a rebellion against the current older and more entrenched generation of IT vendors and managers. Statistically speaking, the chances they are talking to a Baby Boomer is small, since the majority have already left the market or are very high up the food chain. Instead, that bit of snark reflects a change in values and expectations.

In fact, “OK Boomer” in this context is a rejection of the way the IT industry operates, especially the VC-fueled, growth-at-all-cost revenue model that has dominated the IT scene since the early 1990s and the top-down management style still so prevalent in IT organizations. Across a host of conversations, this cultural distance became very obvious.

Executives in their 40s and 50s might walk around in a t-shirt instead of a blue blazer, but still speak about high growth, backed by series A, B and C. Boomer and Gen X IT managers shared time and again stories of the classic growing business value (in other words growth in stock price) that's been the norm for the past 25 years. 

The message was different from younger IT professionals. They wanted their labor to matter not just for their company but for their community and the world. The classic white male “computer geek” culture whose only interest was in the technology itself is being replaced by a more diverse crowd with a bigger picture.

Related Article: DevOps and the Culture of Inclusion

What to Expect From the Next Generation in IT

It was apparent, to me at least, that managers from previous generations were struggling to understand these changes. So below is a cheat sheet of changes you can expect as the next generation take hold of IT:

Meaningful Work

It used to be that the work was a goal in and of itself. Technical challenges, hitting sales goals, becoming a millionaire at 30 were usual career goals for the Boomer set. Now? Not so much. Younger IT workers want work to matter more. For many, what they do should have an impact on the community or even the world. At the very least, it should make customers very happy. Sure, it’s nice to make money — everyone’s got to eat — and tackle tough technical problems but not at the expense of the greater good.

Ethics

Bias, discrimination, injustice. None of that is acceptable. You can make fun of “woke” millennials, but they are on the right side of the ethics debate. The old excuses like, “We’ve always done things this way” or “We have a responsibility to our shareholders” or (my favorite) “it’s OK as long as it’s legal” don’t hold water anymore. Both consumers and workers favor an ethical and just environment over one that overly enriches some people, including themselves. If you doubt this, just ask Google. It continues to have labor unrest because it seems to have forgotten what “Don’t be Evil” actually means.

Cooperative Consensus-Driven Culture

Top-down management culture is dying. The idea that you can order workers around and expect them to comply is greatly diminished from where it was 20 years ago. We see this in buying decisions, where goals are set at the top but decisions about products to purchase are made much further down the food chain. Young IT workers are self-organizing, eschewing even traditional unions, to push companies to adopt policies that affirm them as professionals and give them a say in the big decisions, including major sales. The culture is one that respects expertise over position but always respects the person.

Related Article: It's Time to Change our Thinking About Diversity and Inclusion in the Workplace

Change Is Coming to the Workplace, Like it or Not

These new expectations will have ramifications. Organizations will change. DevOps culture is an example of the consensus-driven ideal. IT purchases are already shifting, even if sales practices haven't caught up. Pandering to the CIO doesn’t get a sales professional very far, whereas community engagement might.

Overall, these are good changes. Everyone has grown tired of the scandals involving labor justice and sexual harassment and assault. No one should place sales over ethics, even when it is a fat government contract such as JEDI or with ICE. The use of technology to invade our privacy and enable policies that are odious to a majority of people can no longer be justified as being good for growth or business.

Let’s face it, the young IT workers are right about this stuff. It’s about time Gen X and Boomers stopped fighting what is right.

Author’s Note: Demographically, I’m at the dividing line between the Boomers and Gen X. If this is clear to me, how much more evident does it need to get?