The Traditionalist: Cross-Generational Q&A Series Part 2

Previous entries in the series:
Cross-Generational Q&A Series- Part 1


Michael Stack, former member of SHARE’s Board of Directors and a retired instructor with the Computer Science Faculty at Northern Illinois University, is what best-selling author and Gen Y expert Jason Dorsey would likely define as a “Traditionalist”— i.e., a member of the generation born before 1946.   I called Mike for his unique perspective on the crisscrossing generations in today’s mainframe workforce for the second in our 5-part series of Q&As.

Mike, in his keynote address at SHARE in Anaheim, Jason Dorsey stressed that today there are 4 generations in the workplace, which is unprecedented in our society. But is this multigenerational context new to you?

Working in a university as I did, you find yourself working in a multigenerational environment all the time. We were always bringing young people into the department to work alongside staff my age or a decade younger. From the day I started in 1971 to the day I retired 30 years later, I always could look out the window see the faces of multiple generations – students, new staff, tenured faculty, retired instructors – regardless of my own stage in life.

Given that no single factor defines any one person or any one generation, what do you consider to be the greatest strength of your peer group?

We were the generation who first encountered computers in the workplace.  By the time I became involved in the late 1960s, the world of people who knew anything about computers was very small. When I attended my first SHARE conference in the early ‘70s, knowledge about computers still wasn’t very widespread.  We were coping by sharing information with each other. 

If we had a distinguishing characteristic it was that in order to survive, we had to understand  machine language, which we programmed in what is called assembler language.  Nearly everyone now working with computers is protected from that architecture by a sort of virtual shell, like Java.  And with each successive generation of programmers, the shells become bigger, removing the programmer farther from the internal operation of the computer.

What strengths do you see in those successive generations? 

The technical strengths needed now by Gen X and Gen Y are so different from the skills we have because of the width of knowledge required. In order to become successful in the computing workplace today you must understand how business works overall as well as the context of technology within your own enterprise. There’s so much more to know in terms of breadth, whereas what we needed was depth about the machine’s functions, like disks, memory and processors

Still, each generation in this computing world has “secret knowledge” in specialized areas. Call them incantations. We each know something highly technical which others may have no idea exists, don't know how to do and don't even want to know how to do. 

So, every generation in business needs a generation of computer sorcerers armed with incantations? 

I think so, yes. Because many of today’s programming languages are not designed for humans to understand easily.

But if, as you mentioned earlier, more and more shells are being layered between programmers and what you called the “guts of the computer,” is the number of sorcerers and their incantations growing or shrinking with each generation?

I think there are fewer today, not in terms of absolute number but fewer in proportion to the numbers of people using computers.

Is this decreasing proportion a problem?I don't think so. Because the underlying computing infrastructure will always be there and that means there will always need to be some number of specialists who understand how it works from the ground up. Think of it like elevators in high-rise buildings. Skyscrapers get taller and sleeker as time goes by, but mostly what you notice are really just the shells. The architecture – what holds up the building – hasn’t really changed.  You need elevators to navigate it, and you will for the foreseeable future.  At one time, we had elevator operators in each elevator. Today, riders push buttons. But someone somewhere has to understand what makes elevators go up and down. Same goes for computers.

Communications strategist Bob Dirkes attended SHARE in Anaheim and San Francisco on special assignment. Follow him on Twitter @RCDirkes. Follow SHARE on Twitter @SHAREhq.

Continue on to Part 3.

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