Ping pong, paradoxes and priorities — millennials and Australia's IT channel

Ping pong, paradoxes and priorities — millennials and Australia's IT channel

What happens when a generation of kids raised on technology are disinterested in working in the industry that delivers the core of their lifestyles?

Emerging Leaders Panel - James Walters (NextGen); Sharlie Raymond (Outcomex) and Nicole Freeman (Microsoft)

Emerging Leaders Panel - James Walters (NextGen); Sharlie Raymond (Outcomex) and Nicole Freeman (Microsoft)

Credit: Christine Wong

Millennial-mockery has become something of a media pastime of late, whether it’s their social media habits, preference for craft beer and, of course, avocado on toast. But these seemingly harmless stereotypes betray a more concerning attitude towards the generation aged between 18 and 35. 

“We just hear about how we are lazy and change jobs all the time,” Outcomex channel manager, Sharlie Raymond, said. “We have received a lot of bad press during the last 10 years.” However, this generation is the one IT channel needs.

 According to Tech Research Asia executive consultant and industry analyst, Mark Iles, only about seven per cent of millennials work in the current IT tech workforce. Meanwhile, according to one of Australia’s largest job sites, Seek, there are 17,000 IT jobs up for grabs. Over the next five years, Australia will need 100,000 technology workers to meet the needs of a rapidly changing industry. According to research by the World Economic Forum, millennials are expected to make up 75 per cent of the workforce by 2025. 

It’s a perplexing problem which Raymond acknowledged during the panel discussion at the ARN Emerging Leaders Forum, particularly as this is a generation whose early lives were immersed in technology from Walkmans and iPods to Nintendo 64s. But while younger technology talent may be drawn to the world of start-ups and social media giants such as Facebook and Google, the traditional IT industry is battling to bridge the age gaps within its workforce. 

“It’s a bit of a paradox considering that we grow up with IT and it’s important to have an iPhone in our hands these days,” Nextgen business manager, James Walters, said. “But then you get into the IT industry and it is seen as a bit of an old man’s club.” The overall picture is even worse. According to Tech Research Asia, only eight per cent of the IT and telecommunications workforce is under 24 years old, the age of recent graduates.

 “We need that talent in our industry or they are going to go elsewhere,” Microsoft A/NZ Dell EMC lead and channel executive, Nicole Freeman, said. “It’s becoming harder to become profitable in our businesses. If we’re not attracting that sort of talent, we’re going to fall behind and we risk not being change agents. “A millennial could be your boss tomorrow, they could be running the show. If you don’t know how to work with that person and engage with them, how can you be successful? How do you get the most out of them and how do they get the most out of you?”

Making millennials tick 

Attracting younger talent to technology companies is often reduced to simple Silicon Valley-style gimmicks like pool and ping pong tables. And, admittedly, Nextgen does have a beer tap, Walters said, but, of course, employee attraction and retention goes much deeper. “We put culture first – collaborative culture and the opportunities that we create for our staff. But that has to be very genuine. If you’re putting a beer tap in or a yoga class, and you’re genuine about it, I think that really appeals to them.”

For Freeman, whose office has a kombucha tap, an open, driven environment is paramount. “We’re used to social media,” she said. “We like Instagram. So I think an environment where millennials thrive and are drawn to has to have open communication, real-time responses and real-time results.” 

“We don’t want to sit there and have meetings that take forever to get an outcome. Millennials love and are attracted to environments that create change, instant responses and let them run and thrive.” Such environments are not necessarily exclusive to start-ups. For Raymond, whose career already spans a small start-up, a Canadian national bank and  80-person Outcomex in Sydney, the best companies are those where you can have meaningful impact.

 “I’ve been very lucky in my career because I’ve chosen bosses over companies. There is one piece of advice I can give. In your early 20s, do not choose the shiny company. Go for a boss who is going to believe in you and give you responsibilities and the chance to fail and to try again.” 

Managing down - or up? 

Now, as the next wave of young graduates prepares to leave Australia’s universities, and as millennials morph into Generation Z, it is obvious relationships with their older peers will become even more critical. A gap, both generational and in experience, can sometimes lead to conflict – especially as people under 35 years old are increasingly taking on senior positions. It is hardly surprising, given the legacy left by so-called Baby Boomer generation. 

These were the suited pioneers who built the likes of Microsoft, Dell, IBM, and Dimension Data and Data#3 in Australia; IT giants that have weathered multiple technology revolutions in the space of a few decades, yet still endure and thrive today. And then when a Fitbit-wearing 28-year-old in chinos becomes a potential threat, working in harmony becomes a test for both parties.

According to Walters, millennials need to learn how to “manage up” when it comes to working with Baby Boomer bosses for the benefit of all parties and business growth. To do this, “it is key to understand what motivates them and their goals,” he said. “It can be how to change a new process, how to involve new tech in business. So if you can do that, you can successfully manage a Baby Boomer.”

Freeman said if this was the case it required a different approach to management and a level of give-and-take from both parties. “To manage up for Baby Boomers and to manage down is about listening. It’s the patience factor. I’m terribly impatient. I want everything done now because I move so fast because my mind moves so fast. “So it’s about listening, breaking it down for me, keeping me at a steady pace and pulling out those little nuggets and keeping me accountable and tasked on those few particular elements that will help drive your business.”

On the challenges of career progression, the panel also discussed whether millennials are being held back by a preference to grow as a team as opposed to standing out as an individual – something Walters disagreed with. For him, the millennial generation is “very ambitious”. 

“If we want to be ambitious and be change agents then we need to take on a solution not a problem,” he said. According to Raymond, while it was important for the younger generation to make their voices heard, it was always worth taking account of a boss’s priorities. “What he wants to know is how much it costs, how easy it is to do and how much he doesn’t have to do?,” she said. “What is the return-on investment? If he actually doesn’t have to do anything about it, you know you get a yes answer.” 

Meanwhile, Freeman, who describes herself as being on the edge of the millennial generation, believes career progression stems from staying relevant and attuned to the changing industry in order to achieve growth. 

“There are a lot of millennials how are thriving at the moment. They are going to create their own start-ups and I find, sitting in a big corporation, that I don’t know how to go after that business,” she said. “If I’m not relevant to them, they will go somewhere else. Again, if I can’t talk their language and know where their motivation buttons are, and how to give them that quick response, I’m going to fall behind. I’m going to become a dinosaur and they won’t want to deal with me.”

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