Why This Dog Won't Hunt

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For the traditional IBM iSeries platform, application modernization often means more than simply buying new development tools to modernize existing applications. It also means training and skills modernization. And no matter how you cut it, the learning curve for a skilled RPG programmer is steep when moving to newer OOP methodologies like Java.

Yes, significant tools are available to help organizations move to the new programming methodologies, but sooner or later somebody will need to touch the new code, if only to verify that the old business rules are actually being performed by the newer, modernized applications.

But will that somebody be your old RPG programmer?

This question raises a number of important issues for IT management: Who should be trained to the new tools? Who should get trained first? How much investment should the organization put aside for such training? What kind of employee will do best? Where will the investment in training be best utilized over the long run?

Or are you already set on your decision? When it comes to retraining your staff, maybe you've already decided that--as they say in Alabama--"that old dog won't hunt!"

Conventional Wisdom

We all know what conventional wisdom within IT will tell you to do: Give the modernization projects to the young hotshots! After all, they have less to unlearn, are closer to the "leading edge" in development technologies, and are the ones the organization will invest in for the future of its IT development projects.

This same conventional wisdom tells us that they will be able to grasp the newer technologies faster, will come up with the most creative means of implementing them, and will probably work longer hours to make certain that the new applications actually work.

That's what conventional wisdom teaches us, but is it a true and accurate depiction of what will really happen? A recent study by the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) has a different take on exactly this kind of subtle and nefarious age discrimination.

Age Discrimination and Training

According to the authors of "America's Real Workforce Problem: The Age Discrimination Epidemic," there are a number of myths about where an organization should be investing its training resources. These mistaken ideas include the following:

  • Older workers cost more, so training them is not cost-effective.
  • Older workers are sick more often, so relying upon them will slow the process of modernization.
  • Older workers can't learn new skills, so they're a waste of training resource.
  • Older workers are less productive, so training them doesn't make sense.

The credentials of the authors of this report are not negligible: Dr. James E. Gover is a Professor of Electrical Engineering at Kettering University, Dr. Paul G. Huray is a Professor of Electrical Engineering at University of South Carolina, and Dr. Norm Matloff is a Professor of Computer Science at University of California, Davis. These are educators who, in the training and re-training of professionals, see the issue of technology education from a unique perspective. In their university settings, they teach all age levels--both novitiates and hardened professionals--in the advanced technologies that are shaping our industry. Their conclusions are enlightening and refreshing.

Maturity Wins--Always!

According to the IEEE report, older workers bring a maturity or "wisdom" to the technical tasks at hand that are often missing from younger workers. This maturity may be expressed in how they approach a technical task or how they frame the business issues that are being automated.

The authors cite studies that show that, contrary to common wisdom, older workers in fact take fewer work days off for illness than younger workers under the age of 40. In addition, they point to anecdotal evidence that shows that performance on the job actually increases as the population of an organization ages. For instance, "When Grumman Corporation made lay-off decisions based strictly on worker performance, they found out after the downsizing that the average age of their employees had increased by 10 years."

No Free Lunches, But a Wise Investment Policy

The trade-offs for re-training older professionals are not all one way, however. The authors acknowledge that often it does in fact take longer for older workers to learn new technologies. However, they cite government statistics that indicate that older workers stay at their jobs longer than younger workers. This simple fact substantially lowers the training costs over the life of the technology, because--though an older worker may require more time to negotiate that steep learning curve in learning something like J2EE--the employer doesn't have to worry as much about losing that employee to another firm after his skills have been enhanced.

Age Discrimination as a National Issue

The focus of the report is that age discrimination is severely impacting the resources available within this country in the high tech industry. Here are some of their findings:

  • Salary curves as a function of age routinely show salary decline after age 45.
  • Most companies view older employees who have not been promoted to management positions or who have remained at the same management level for several years as inferior and deserving of termination.
  • Many companies view an engineer or technologist who hasn't been promoted into a management position to be inferior to those in management.

Many companies have de facto upper limits for the age at which an employee may be promoted.

Does Age Discrimination Impact Your Training Decisions?

Now, we may or may not acknowledge that age discrimination exists within our organizations or perhaps even within our own departments. But as IT managers, we often find it difficult to combat the myths that perpetrate de facto age discrimination. But consider the following demographic carefully.

In the United States and many other areas of the western world, the aging population of baby-boomers represents 50-60% of today's IT workforce. These workers will soon reach the so-called retirement age, and if retirements are forced by corporate policies or cultural norms, the pool of knowledgeable workers will be drained at this critical time when their knowledge is most needed.

The skills of these IT workers are in many cases complex and highly evolved, often in the use of so-called "legacy programming technologies" (like RPG) that built the applications that run the business.

At the same time that we need to modernize our applications, we need to ask ourselves some questions: Are we moving the individuals who know the most about the current business rules of our organizations away from their most important jobs? Are we providing the individuals with the greatest skills with the fewest resources to help transfer their knowledge to the latest technologies?

Things to Consider

This raises the final questions that we, as managers and executives, need to address. And we need to address them soon.

  • Are we using our best resources? As we modernize our applications, are we using our personnel resources to their best purposes to get the job of modernization finished?
  • Is outsourcing an excuse for perpetuating inaccurate, age-based cultural bias? How much of the outsourcing that we are doing is based upon our lack of faith in our current staff to handle the educational transition to new technologies? If we have this fear, how much of it is based upon an inaccurate view of their real potential?
  • Are we using productivity and performance as the measurement for advanced training? Do we have the mistaken idea that training inexperienced programmers in new technologies will make them more efficient? Is providing advanced training in new technologies a reward for an employee's past performance? Or are we filling training slots by age-based criteria?

As your company invests tens of thousands of dollars in the tools for application modernization, the success or failure of your IT efforts can't be predicated upon replacing the IT workforce with younger programmers. Too often, the training classes that come with new modernization tools are assigned to those with the fewest responsibilities within IT. But deciding who are the best candidates to train on the new technology should be the most important part of your modernization strategy.

Don't get me wrong! Certainly, choosing the first attendees should not be based purely upon seniority. Nor should it be based upon outmoded ideas of age-related bias. It takes careful planning to make certain that the individuals you invest in will lead the company through the entire process of converting and modernizing the applications. But don't make the mistake of filling the training slots with the names of those workers who have the least on their plates.

Mixed Teams Work Best

The solution that provides the most value to the overall IT effort is to train a mixed group of older and younger staff together. This practice is the ultimate opportunity for the company to transfer the greatest amount of knowledge about older systems while it's modernizing the business logic underpinnings. Building such a team gets the best from both generations of technologists, spurring the process of learning by providing a sense of camaraderie, support, and often-friendly professional competition.

So, what is the best criterion for choosing who you should train? Any efficiency expert will tell you that on-the-job experience is a priceless commodity. The person who has done the most for any organization is usually the person who has the most experience doing the work itself. Make certain you include that priceless experience in the training processes of every application modernization project.

Putting the Bite Back into the Bark

Today, in this age of rapid technological change, IT too often gives training opportunities for new tools to its youngest, least-experienced staff members in the hope that it will turn them into more productive employees. Meanwhile, too often, the older individuals who helped shape the IT infrastructure are shuffled off into the land of legacy application maintenance. It's then, after years of neglecting their skills, that management is surprised to learn that "that old dog won't hunt."

IT has an opportunity, through its normal processes of application modernization and training, to redress this costly and inefficient trend. New training to new tools is the bridge that can span the generations of technologists in your shop, motivate the team as a whole, and put the bite back into the process of modernization itself.

Thomas M. Stockwell is Editor in Chief of MC Press, LP.