Staying Old in a Young Business

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“Youth can not know how age thinks and feels. But old men (and women) are guilty if they forget what it was to be young.” ― J.K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix
Robin Raskin

I’ve thought about writing this piece for the last two decades which means I am not getting younger. But now that no amount of hair dye, gym time, or makeup does the trick, it’s time for me (and many of you) to fess up. For those of you who were pioneers in the world of technology, congratulations, you are now old people in a young person’s business. Can you survive in a world where a cloud is no longer a cumulus in the sky and an incubator isn’t just for chickens and babies?

Understanding age and ageism in a young person’s world is going to take some effort, some humility, and some crafty thinking. Here’s my to do list for growing old after forty years in the tech business.

1. Try new tech, even if you screw it up: When I began writing about tech, you could screw up in the comfort of your home; no one was the wiser. Today, social networking (a likely place to screw up) makes your errors totally transparent. Get over it. If you haven’t used Instagram or SnapChat, you need to try it. If you haven’t tried to navigate VR, you must. And you must summon the same child-like sense of wonder you did when you first typed Ctrl+Alt+Del.

My thirty-something kids call me out when I mix up my messaging systems, my photos show up upside down, or my voice to speech texts are laden with the word PERIOD spelled out. I accidentally stick lines of thumbs up emoji into every chat, and my touch typing is a lot faster than my texting. But I do it and am deprecating about my often very public screw ups.

2. Humor ‘em: They take life very seriously, as you did when you needed to prove yourself to the world. Remind them that to screw up is human (and probably machine-like, too).

3. Laugh about the culture divide: I love my young assistant to death, but when I give her a list of “to dos” and she tackles them in the order she sees fit, I’m apoplectic. “When I give you a to do list, it is not a pick list,” I tell her. We laugh and move on. We also have honest discourses about everything from corporate dress to politics. I love every minute of it.

4. Dole out a complement: Would it kill you to say something like “that’s such a novel idea” or “I love your thinking” to a twentysomething? At least complement them on their rapid fire texting or their ability to divvy a Venmo tab. You may be wiser, but chances are they’ve got more mobile dexterity.

5. Don’t bring up the good ole days more than once a week: Seriously, they weren’t so great (okay, the pay and benefits were better). But files got lost on hard disk drives, user interfaces were inscrutable. In contrast, new technology is more inclusive for many more people. If you survived the early days of technology, you’ve earned your badge to tell your story. Just not too often.

6. Don’t be afraid to ask: What is an ICO? Or what’s the difference between an incubator and an accelerator? I’m not familiar with that acronym. Asking questions is not a sign of idiocy; it’s a sign of interest. Asking for help is a skill that takes a while to develop in young employees, and you need a refresher course as you get older.

7. You are what you wear: I’m not saying you need to be a walking advertisement for the connected lifestyle, but you won’t be taken seriously if you don’t cart around the tools of your trade. Think of it like your business card, only more expensive. Super lightweight notebook, late model cell phone, appropriate looking laptop bag, etc. Start weaning yourself from quaint practices like paper business cards.

8. Collaborate: No one in the tech business toils in an ivory tower anymore. There are so many group project trackers, calendar add-ons, voting systems, video conference tools, shared documents and collaborative tools that you’ll probably want to enter a nunnery, but get proficient. Dropbox, GoogleDrive, Trello, MS One Drive, Zoom… just to name a few. If you’re going to do business in the tech world, you’re going to have to be fluent in collaborating with them on the platform of their choice.

9. Cultivate your persona: You have earned the right not to wear khakis and black t-shirts. You cultivated a look from a different era. To my older friends: Think Iris Apfel or Donna Karen —two icons who’ve kept their status in a young person’s industry. Guys, I’m afraid you’ll still be stuck with the khakis, but lose the suit (unless you’re Vint Cerf or Graydon Carter).

10. Add to your diversity checklist: The world has changed since I was the only woman in the tech room, and there’s room for lots more. Seek out diversity and you’ll expand the rather limiting world you knew in the early days of tech.

11. Never be complacent: Survivor badges are a reality show myth. You need to earn the respect of your industry every day. Riding on your laurels? It’s not part of the the new DNA.

Robin Raskin is founder of Living in Digital Times (LIDT), a team of technophiles who bring together top experts and the latest innovations that intersect lifestyle and technology. LIDT produces conferences and expos at CES and throughout the year focusing on how technology enhances every aspect of our lives through the eyes of today’s digital consumer.

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