The better hire: the 50-year-old IT veteran or the fresh grad?

Age vs. experience?  The argument dates back years and will likely never be resolved, but in the world of high tech, where firms are clamoring for IT skills and yet there are displaced workers looking for jobs, the debate rages on.  Do you go with the veteran whose wisdom has been refined by years of experience, or the young hot shot that has the latest tech chops?

The Experts
Bennett Smith
Bennett Smith

CTO of Dice Holdings says the veteran’s varied set of experiences add up to a sturdy foundation of wisdom that can’t be beat. View debate

Shawn Bohner
Shawn Bohner

Professor of Software Engineering and Computer Science and Director of the Software Engineering Undergraduate and Graduate Programs at Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology says the way the IT stars are aligned today the fresh grad has a better shot. View debate

Bennett Smith

Bet on the vet

Early in my career, a San Francisco-based company had a credo posted on a sign that has remained with me for the nearly 20 years since: “From mistakes come experience, and from experience comes wisdom.”

That basic proposition – more experience equals more wisdom – explains why, in the technical world we inhabit in 2012, it makes financial, social and technological sense to hire veteran workers whenever possible.

I’ll tick off the whys behind this statement in a moment, but first let me be blunt about one absolutely critical aspect of this debate: To my way of thinking, the word “veteran” has nothing to do with birthdays, nor a thing to do with “youth vs. age.” To me, “veteran” has to do with years in tech, with experiences amassed, trials and errors negotiated and with personal networks assembled.

In a two-decade career that has taken me from startups to the Fortune 500 to my current role as CTO for Dice Holdings, I’ve hired scores of both types of technology applicants, raw graduates and pros with limb-length resumes. Far more often than not, making an investment in years of experience (which generally equates to higher salary and benefits packages) has accrued better ROI than a comparably steeper investment in training someone standing at his career’s beginning.

How so, you ask?

With veteran IT hires, you gain the benefit of all their mistakes along the way – and all the associated wisdom they’ve gained across time. Those who have “been there, done that” working for years at the edge of their IT skills generally have developed an approach to work that allows them to quickly disregard unworkable options in favor of best possible solutions and more direct paths to success.

Of course, that isn’t always the case. Veterans too deeply rooted in one workplace view or one problem-solving pattern can fail to have the flexibility necessary to prosper in a world that changes at a rapid pace. And internally, some hard cases can fail to “play well with others.” Communications breakdowns like that not only create social conflict, but they lessen one of the greatest value of having a veteran on the team: The possibility of being a knowledge hub for colleagues, pushing thoughts and solutions across workspaces and up and down the organizational chart.

The key here: An interview process that sifts out potentially intransigent new hires – unless you’re in search of a “rock star” who puts on the headphones and cranks out the work heads down and in solitude – in favor of those who may thrive in a more outward role balancing the right set of skills with the right flexible, adaptable approach to teamwork.

You’re likely wondering exactly where the “experience sweet spot” resides – where IT workers transition from quality professional to veteran? I believe it happens for most tech pros – if it ever happens for them – as they approach the 10-year mark in their career. That’s when enough experiences amass to become wisdom, and when a worker’s professional connections blossom into the perfect database to find the right answers quickly.

Interestingly, the latest Dice.com survey into companies’ hiring habits underscores how valuable these veterans are perceived in the hiring marketplace: While 24% of corporate hiring managers surveyed say they’re looking to fill entry-level positions, some 62% are looking for new hires with six to 10 years’ experience. And 28% reported that they want to hire tech pros employed in the business for more than a decade.

At the end of the day, hiring the right tech professional – like solving a complex problem – is as much art as it is science. For sure, green recruits will have their place in the mix. The best tech hires offer experience and wisdom, flexibility and team skills. If you can find a newbie who offers that package, count yourself fortunate.  Otherwise, I say count on veteran talent to get the job done.

Dice Holdings, Inc. (NYSE: DHX) is a leading provider of specialized websites for professional communities, including technology and engineering, financial services, energy, healthcare, and security clearance.

Shawn Bohner

The new grad has the edge

Hire the seasoned veteran or the recent college graduate? This dilemma draws sharp opinions at both ends of the spectrum. Well, like most complex decisions, it depends.

Let’s start with some generalizations. The veteran often offers considerable experience on numerous IT projects, but frequently at a premium cost. They make fewer costly mistakes and are often more conservative in their application of new technology. They tend to be close technical followers, and somewhat risk averse.

In contrast, the recent college graduate offers fresh ideas, new technology perspectives, and project energy at a more affordable price. They are more prone to take on projects with newer technologies and make sophomoric mistakes that can slow new projects, costing valuable time. They are eager to test their skills and gain experience on newer technologies, and are often willing to take more risks for innovation that serve the company.

So, triangulating on these observations, if an organization is hiring project managers or software architects to support a large initiative using more traditional development (e.g., information retrieval/management, real-time systems), the nod would probably go to the person with more experience.

However, if the organization is hiring for smaller projects that use a more agile approach for new software technology delivery (e.g., mobile applications, or hadoop-based applications), then the nod goes to the younger person who may be more adaptable, more willing to take risks in the interest of learning.

But …

Let’s dispense with the passionate pleas about supporting lay off victims and putting promising new graduates to work. Firms do not give people jobs so much as they hire IT professionals to solve problems. The question is, “who will they hire to solve their problems?” So let’s examine the “long poles in the IT problem tent” that dominate today’s IT hiring decisions. One of the first problems is money.

Demand for IT is, for the most part, governed by the economy. The current economy is languishing with enormous debt holding down discretionary spending. While IT spending has shown growth, it reflects some pent up demand for modernization (i.e., emerging technologies) and the need to stretch the value of existing IT assets.

In the late-1990s, the IT labor shortage (prior to the Year 2000 crisis) had driven the demand for software professionals to an all-time high, driving IT turnover to 11+%. The veteran professional had the edge with valued experience on legacy systems. However, the demand so outstripped supply that many freshly minted software professionals (and recent transfers from other disciplines) found employment in IT. By 2000, the IT job market was saturated and the demand abated.

As the economy recovered, IT jobs opened up again, only to be governed by the economy downturn starting in 2006. According to Gartner, in 2010 there was nearly 6% growth in IT spending followed by nearly 8% growth in 2011, spurring the hiring frenzy we saw last year. However, companies have taken a conservative stance this year and projections show growth dropping to about 3% this year and steadying at 4% to 5% for the next few years.

This suggests IT spending is still going to be risk averse and largely tactical. Therefore, nondiscretionary spending on maintenance and support will continue, and tactical investments will be made in technology (e.g., cloud, mobile, smartphone, tablets, laptops) that serves to modernize infrastructure. Who then, do they want to hire to solve these types of problems?

On the maintenance side of things, the budgets are tight. Therefore, unless the organization can hire someone who has considerable background that aligns well with the organization’s application domain, they will probably hire recent graduates who are cheaper and eager to learn new skills.

On the new technology side, there is a similar pattern – investments will have strong business cases with clear exit strategies. Unless the veteran has significant experience as a software project manager or deep understanding of the newer technologies used in the initiatives, they will be subject to competition from fresh graduates who are cheaper and have recent exposure to new technologies.

Bottom line, let’s assume that for purposes of hiring, the element of application domain expertise is the same for the veteran and the recent graduate. Since the number of architects and project managers is only about 15% of the rest of the typical project team, 85% of the hiring would be for IT professionals who are not so specialized. Therefore, the combination of lower cost, faster assimilation of new technologies, and eagerness to make their mark in the organization leads one to believe that for 85% of IT hires, the new graduate would be more suitable.

Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology (www.rose-hulman.edu) is private college specializing in engineering, mathematics and science higher education. US News and World Reports has ranked RHIT the No. 1 engineering school in the United States where a doctorate degree is not offered for the past 14 years.

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