On hiring young Web developers

Written by Adrian Holovaty on July 17, 2003

A response to Steve Outing's latest Editor and Publisher column, ""Attract the College Set With Design, Interaction":

One point I wish you'd mentioned is the importance for news Internet operations to hire young people. Speaking from experience, I'd argue that people of my generation are almost always more computer-savvy, more accepting of new ideas, more capable of learning new technologies quickly, more innovative/creative and just flat-out more likely to "get it." If you're aiming to attract the college crowd, it'd be incredibly beneficial to have a few folks from that generation on your staff.

The cynic in me realizes that maybe bigwigs don't care about any of that. OK, here's something that'll make 'em listen: Younger people have lower salary requirements.

Comments

Posted by Jim on July 17, 2003, at 4:53 a.m.:

I used to work at a small web development place that had a strict policy when it came to hiring: hire anybody who gets an interview, and if they are useless, fire them after three months.

People were coming and going faster than I could keep track of them. It didn't help that the owner was a nightmare boss, but I was the only person working there with a clue about the technical side of things. As a result, I wasn't very productive, as I was always the "go to guy" for anything remotely technical. I also maintained the servers, but wasn't allowed spend any time automating any tasks (because the time wasn't billable to the clients). As a result, whenever anybody needed to set something up on the server, I had to do it for them.

Yes, hiring fresh blood can be good. But make sure you have a solid base first before you drown your other employees in newbies.

Posted by Adrian Howard on July 17, 2003, at 7:40 a.m.:

You should only old hire old people because they have the experience to avoid dead ends. They realise that people actually have to use web sites and avoid design that hides functionality. They have a breadth of experience that matches that of the client. Etc.

This is of course, a stupid stereotype.

As is the young people are more likely to "get it" one.

Hire people. Hire skills. Ignore age.

(and hiring on the basis of age can get you bitten for discrimination :-)

Posted by Jay Small on July 17, 2003, at 9:02 a.m.:

Of course, those of us who are no longer so young might fall back on hiring from our age groups as a form of denial. <g>

You're right, of course -- I'd add that there's nothing quite as exhilarating as giving a talented young journalist or developer his/her first try at a management job. It's not just hiring young people; promoting them gives them a chance to grow and share their enthusiasm and new ideas.

Posted by Wohleber on July 17, 2003, at 12:12 p.m.:

Sigh. I'm only 38 and I feel like a dinosaur. When you whippersnappers were in diapers I was figuring out how to manually set up a TCP/IP stack for a SLIP connection for my 486 laptop running Win3.1 and equipped with a 14.4Kbps serial modem. 80MB hard drive; these days I delete that much from my recycle bin every couple days. We didn't have no stinkin' graphical FTP clients either. And we had to manually perforate those IBM punch cards using dull drill bits. Okay, I made that part up.

Posted by David Ryan on July 17, 2003, at 1:49 p.m.:

I'd seriously resist the thinking that only a younger individual "gets it" in web work. That's just downright sloppy thinking - not to mention age-discriminatory.

That smacks of the simple "i'm immortal; trust no one over 30" thinking that plagues many people who aren't even out of what the Romans termed their adolescence.

So, be careful throwing around age - or gender or skin color - determinations of who's best for web work.

Posted by Paul Scrivens on July 17, 2003, at 1:54 p.m.:

I believe more young people could get hired if they worked more on open source projects and developing web sites free for clients. This provides them with some viable experience that they could show a future employer and therefore hopefully get their feet in the door. If they have the enthusiasm to learn then they should also have the enthusiasm to find ways to gain experience. Too many peers at my school fall back on computers because they think that is where the money is and honestly it pisses me off because they are giving the rest of us a good name who enter the computer industry because we love it. Money is just a plus.

Posted by Wilson Miner on July 17, 2003, at 2:28 p.m.:

I'm a young gun (22) web developer at a miniscule design and ad firm in a college town. The only way we get anything done is with kids even younger than me. Every semester, we have a standing ad in the student paper offering unpaid internships to experience-hungry design and journalism students. I was one once. I got thrown in on a real ad project, followed it through from start to finish and got the kind of hands-on experience I needed (and never would have had if I had gone all the way to Kansas City and one of the monster agencies like most of my friends). Even if it meant doing the "grunt work" like file prep and copyedits, I still sat next to the creative director and across the room from the agency president every day. It works both ways. Young designers need experience, small agencies need help.

Posted by François on July 17, 2003, at 2:42 p.m.:

While I agree that "younger people" are often more computer-savvy than the current breed of corporate top management, I would be cautious about attributing the other qualities you cite to age or generations. "Getting it" means also having field experience, notably on things such as knowing your audience or all the aspects of producing and running a site, which is rarely found in young people. I've seen highly talented and enthusiast 20-something young professionals who still can't understand why everybody doesn't have the latest technologies to "enjoy the web at its fullest." Sure, they get the latest trends pretty quickly, but cannot recognize hype that easily.

To Wholeber "I'm only 38 and I feel like a dinosaur": I'm 37 and, as a webmaster, I'm already older than the max-range in my profession. But hopefully I have a cure to your feeling: get surrounded by corporate dinosaurs and you suddenly feel much younger. Works like a charm ;-)

Posted by Sencer on July 17, 2003, at 3:52 p.m.:

Funny thing, just yesterday I learned that 'ageism' is a real english word (english is a foreign language for me). <g>

Posted by Adrian Holovaty on July 17, 2003, at 4:26 p.m.:

Looking back at this entry and the comments, I should clarify -- I certainly didn't mean to be ageist, and I apologize with all sincerity if I offended anyone. I was just suggesting, in the context of the Editor and Publisher article, that one surefire way to "attract the college set" to a Web site is to make sure you have members of the "college set" on your Web staff. I've added a sentence, marked-up with the <ins> tag, which, I hope, clarifies this a bit more.

Posted by Nathan Ashby-Kuhlman on July 17, 2003, at 5:17 p.m.:

As I see it, there are two issues here:

1) Having people who are "more computer-savvy" and "more accepting of new ideas" because those skills are incredibly valuable in the fast-paced frontier of online news. In this sense, just hire people who are more computer-savvy and more accepting of new ideas, regardless of their age.

2) Having a diverse staff that reflects the diversity of your audience. The goal here is just to hire a variety of people of different races, ethnicities, ages, backgrounds, etc. In this sense, it's not about any specific qualities young people might have that are superior to older people's (or vice versa), but about what intangible qualities are missing from the sum of your staff's parts if your staff isn't very diverse.

Adrian, I don't want to put words in your mouth but perhaps what you meant to say is not "news sites should be composed of ALL young people or mostly young people" but rather "news sites need SOME young people, and if your site has NONE, give that a little thought."

Posted by kpaul on July 18, 2003, at 3:16 a.m.:

heh. i'm somewhere in between punch-cards and a laptop in the crib (ok, we haven't gone that far yet ;)

anyway, i agree with those who say a mix is needed. also, i wonder if 'computer savvy' (geeky, whatever) young people are 'typical' of the demographic the corps are trying to attract?

i had a client ask today if he should use 'american fries' or 'french fries' in one of his ads. at 30, i didn't think he was asking me because i was younger, but who knows. with a big local university, i recommended he stick with french fries. i think it would've turned some of the people he was trying to attract by using it.

what about a focus group? or a group of 20-somethings from different departments in the company? not my idea, but i heard someone lecture on having a 'youth culture committee' at their news org. old and young were immersed in so-called pop culture so they could somewhat relate more to the target demographic - 18-34 yr olds.

finally, i find it interesting that a lot of companies say they are targetting this age group, yet their online components are severely lacking. it's like knowing railroads are going to be important and sending 2 or 3 people out to rail the land. ;)

Posted by Gina on July 18, 2003, at 12:20 p.m.:

I'm an oldster - 37 sounds young to me. But I'm in pretty good company. I think of Howard Finberg, for one. Youth is a wonderful thing, but once a visionary, always a visionary. Youthful minds are a beautiful thing and well-worth nourishing. Experience and maturity are never something we want to discard. I think Nathan has it right. Hire a range of terrifically talented people that mirror your audience. A sharp knife made of tempered steel isn't one I'd toss out of MY drawer - unless I was, say, 22. The value of experience isn't always immediately apparent.

Posted by Vin Crosbie (48 in October) on July 18, 2003, at 10:08 p.m.:

Hiring the young is OK. But if you really want to change the industry, force the fiftysomething to sixtysomething guys who run the newspaper industry to spend a week reading the news only the way that their sons and daughters do -- online.

I believe that communications historians of the future will look upon the senior executives of the newspaper industry of 2003 the same way that today's transportation historians look at the livery stable executives of 1903.

Those business owners and managers earned their spurs on a venerable form of conveyence. They'd be the first to remind you that civilization for centuries (if not millennia) has depended upon that venerable form of conveyence and that most homeowners and executives in their towns still consider prefer to use it and not the newfangled conveyances that technology recently invented.

What these geezers don't yet understand is how rapidly even time-honored transportation or communications media can ceased to be used. Within 20 years after 1903, conveyance by horse was a thing of the past. The same is happening today with the printed newspaper as a news conveyence, the transition has begun. Just as few of those fiftysomething to sixtysomething owners & managers of livery stables put sizeable share of their capital into automobile sales in the first decade of the 20th Century and thereby allowed their business survive, few of today's fiftysomething to sixtysomething owners & managers of newspaper companies are properly funding their online and wireless ventures. Few of their albeit healthy businesses today will survive.

The only real difference in this analogy between horse and newsprint is that usage of the horse wasn't declining in 1903. Newsprint edition readership today has been declining for nearly 40 years! What newspaper industry managers today are really managing is DECLINE -- a dubious accomplishment that gives them even less excuse for not properly supporting the new electronic forms of news conveyance.

Can a declining industry make the transition in time when its senior management is so enamored with riding a waning conveyance into the sunset? Crank up the Model A and run them down.

Posted by Gina on July 19, 2003, at 2:24 a.m.:

Vin - I've been reading your comments for years. They're always interesting and informative. I have to say I'd love to see some of those 'fiftysomething to sixtysomething GUYS (my emphasis) who run the newspaper industry' spend a week or two getting all their news online. I do think it would make a difference. At the very least they'd begin to appreciate how annoying popups and blinking ads are - not to mention illegible (small) typography. Alas, today, I think those that do read much online go directly to Factiva.

As someone who moved from magazines to newspapers some 20 years ago, I was initially stunned at how hidebound newspapers are. It continues to amaze me. I actually thought they were poised to change back then. I was sooooo wrong. I now believe the Web could save the news biz from itself. At least now SOMETHING has drawn them out of that decades-long stupor.

What can I say. I'm a hopeless optimist. I have enormous faith that bright young people like Adrian, as well as some of those 'tempered steel' visionaries (like yourself), can pull a rabbit out of the hat. I find it absolutely awesome that a little paper in Lawrence, Kan. can so thoroughly smack the Big Boys upside the head.

What I'm trying to say here is, if the big papers don't step up, well, LJworld will be happy to reap their revenues.

Posted by Vin Crosbie on July 19, 2003, at 3:23 p.m.:

Gina, my public comments generally are candid, but there's a few things that even I won't publicly say (except maybe here). Among these is my belief that the American newspaper business has already lost its future.

The turning point came in 1998. Before then, the industry was cooperating within itself and bubbling with endeavors to use New Media as a means to attack other media's markets and to create entirely new forms of media that would have entirely new markets.

My favorite among these endeavors was the New Century Network, in which NYT, Gannett, KR, Cox, Hearst, Advance, Time Mirror, Tribune, and the Washington Post teamed up to create a common interchange, so that the Web site of any of the local newspapers involved would access to all of the news stories and classifieds of all the other newspapers, plus there would be a common news search engine for all major daily American newspapers.

But such efforts ended when the owners of those chains started to see some revenues being generated through New Media, plus saw some pure-play New Media ventures cash in big time through IPOs. The chains no longer wanted to cooperate with each other and instead wanted to get rich from their own digital subsidiaries. They tried to do that into 2000, when the Internet IPO bubble burst and burnt their fingers.

Ever since, the American newspaper industry has been on the defensive, not the attack. They're main concern with New Media is to protect the industry's classified advertising legacy and to downsize New Media subsidiaries to the point where expenses equal or are less than revenues. The problem with that is you can't win a war by fighting only defensive battles.

Moreover, ten years now after newspapers first began publishing on the Web, almost all (though probably not those whose staff is savvy enough to read Holovaty.com) American newspaper Web sites are still shovelware.

Meanwhile, print newspaper readership is dying off. MORI Research's president presented figures at the Berkeley J-School's recent Youth & The Internet conference that showed daily newspaper readership among 18-24 year-olds had dropped from 33% in 1997 to 26% in 2000 and that readership among this cadre doesn't increase as they age. Carry those declining percentages forward until they hit zero and you'll see it won't be long until newspaper readership evaporates. Consider too newspapers' plummeting shares of real estate, employment, and automotive classified advertising (newspapers' core revenues). As readership evaporates and core revenues drop, sometime in the next 10 to 15 years the American newspaper industry will cease to exist or become a niche communications vehicle.

Faced with similar problems, the senior executives in other industries would be fervishly doing R&D, launching new products, trying to satisfy that younger audience, and reverse those plunging trends. Instead, the American newspaper industry is complacently proceeding on blind faith that it will always be in fine fettle. They're spending nothing (less than 1% of revenues, less than even the railroad industry) on R&D; are starving their New Media efforts because these aren't instantly breakeven; and are in denial that they face any jeopardy. As International Newspaper Marketing Association Executive Director Earl Wilkinson told an APME meeting two years ago, "… a strategic problem facing the media in 2001 is that staff are locked in a dream state circa 1970, and we call it the norm."

So, call me alarmist, some people do. But I unfortunately believe that the war has already been lost unless we can radically change the industry in these next few years. Like you, I hope we "can pull a rabbit out of the hat." But I fear that we'll first need to pull it out of senior executives' throats if we're to save this industry.

Posted by kpaul on July 20, 2003, at 4:03 p.m.:

The industry will be saved, Vin, but not by 'those people' ;)

Small teams are starting up local news operations right now, moving into the local news battlefield. Sure, there aren't a lot yet, but more will come. Being more agile and more in-tune with what online is about, I'm betting they come out ahead. Economy of scale doesn't solve every problem. And as you said, playing defensive is not smart during a large shift like this.

We (as professionals) need to help make sure these replacements to the old media guard are as trustworthy as old media - if not moreso.

What makes it a little ironic to me, is that I bet a lot of the big companies have their fair share of visionary 20-30 year olds who 'get it,' but they're laughed at instead of listened to when they say online is vitally important to survival.

Posted by Gina on July 21, 2003, at 1:47 p.m.:

Vin: I so fear you are right.

My cynical side believes that arrogance deserves what it gets. The optimist in me hopes there are positive solutions standing in the wings waiting for their chance. The realist in me knows there are many snakes hanging around waiting to strike.

I remember well the New Century Network experiment.

<<<< My favorite among these endeavors was the New Century Network, in which NYT, Gannett, KR, Cox, Hearst, Advance, Time Mirror, Tribune, and the Washington Post teamed up to create a common interchange . . . >>>>>

We were all so hopeful then, weren't we?

Honestly, I'm amazed it got as far as it did before greed kicked in. I was in Albuqueque, N.M. then where, believe it or not, our editor had just shut down the first in-the-black newspaper BBS in the country: The Albuquerque Tribune's E-Trib. Just wasn't a priority, you know. Some of us back then we're throwing our Web site proposals on deaf corporate ears and wringing our hands over what we could clearly see was a looming loss of classifieds. But I digress.

Your comments are stunning, terrifying and, I fear, prescient:

<<<<< Meanwhile, print newspaper readership is dying off. MORI Research's president presented figures at the Berkeley J-School's recent Youth & The Internet conference that showed daily newspaper readership among 18-24 year-olds had dropped from 33% in 1997 to 26% in 2000 and that readership among this cadre doesn't increase as they age. Carry those declining percentages forward until they hit zero and you'll see it won't be long until newspaper readership evaporates. Consider too newspapers' plummeting shares of real estate, employment, and automotive classified advertising (newspapers' core revenues). As readership evaporates and core revenues drop, sometime in the next 10 to 15 years the American newspaper industry will cease to exist or become a niche communications vehicle. >>>>

And I am so, so aware of the poor numbers on support for R&D. An old Web friend left the newspaper industry to work for GE for that reason - and so he could support his family. And now we are all so busily installing content management software so that "ANYBODY" can post that shovelware. ;)

On a positive note, my supervisor believes our cms will free we Web people up to do some Web-only original work. And I think he knows that that isn't really enough. But do the people that hold the purse strings know that? We'll see, won't we.

My hope is that the survivors (presuming there will be a few) will morph into a news media that better serves the needs of their communities - and helps some grass-roots democracy survive, maybe even thrive. (LOL at my sanctimonious self)

Besides praying that the young will rescue our sorry asses, where - if you had to choose one place online - do you think media moguls should put their vastly diminishing resources?

Posted by Janice on August 4, 2003, at 8:59 p.m.:

Interesting discussion, lots of good thought. I agree with Adrian's original advice: hire young people. And yes of course use good judgment and hire only great people and make exceptions of any age when they present themselves. But unless you're willing to bring on people under 30 or so, you'll be hard-pressed to speak to people their age on the Web.

Posted by Jwoz on August 6, 2003, at 11:08 a.m.:

Yes, you should give young people a chance, but balance out your staff with young and old. Young people have their strenghts, but so does age and experience.

Jen

Posted by Not Siegfried not Roy on October 24, 2003, at 11:10 a.m.:

Well in my part of the world, we are lagging about 2-3 years behind any new "trend" in webdesign. You can imagine what that means. Flash is still been looked upon as the "only" solution for corporate websites and also most other websites, even down to personal "look - mom is on the internet too" pages. The internet is still "this cool new thing that will change the world", and I'll have an elaborate guess that 70% of all web designers here are in their 20s, with a good percentage even under 20. These people do not have any training in design and what's worse, they don't seem to be interested in it anyway. They just want to be designers because it's cool and it's possible to earn a lot of money with very little knowledge (as long as you can make pretty buttons). There is zero discussion about usability issues, and if you mention the name Jakob Nielsen, all you get is shrugs. Why am I writing about this?

Because I think the current state of the internet, with all these unusable websites is mostly due to the young age of people who create these websites. Naturally, they learn the necessary techniques faster than older people, but that's all they learn - technique. There is not a lot of thinking going into the "why" of making things, just into the "how". Most clients have even less clue what they need, so they happily pay for what they are being told is "cool to have". Don't get me wrong please - I know about the benefits of having the "young wild crowd" taking part in a design project, but history shows that it's not very wise to try to reinvent the wheel all the time, and that's what most websites (and definitely 99% of flash websites) are trying to do.

I think this miserable situation is changing in the US, with an increasing consciousness for functional and user-friendly webdesign - and hopefully this "trend" will reach my part of the world too. Well if not I might still try to get a green card :)

Cheers,

B

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