There are quite a few consultants in the over-40 category, and that they tend to be well paid. In this post, I want to speak to some of my older compatriots about what their role is, other than just banking those big bucks. And then I’ll conclude with a few words to my younger colleagues about how to deal with us old fogies.
One thing that we old folks can do is tell stories that the young ‘uns can’t match—about such things as paper tape, relays, mercury delay lines, and sauerkraut. Sauerkraut?
Well, it’s this way. Back in the Summer of ‘49, I was on the picnic/softball circuit in Omaha, and during a game against the Tigers, I ate some sauerkraut in the bottom of the fourth inning. In the bottom of the eighth, I stretched a single into a double, sliding head first into second base—and throwing up all over the second base bag.
It was a summer to remember. The good part was that we beat the Tigers three times and won the championship. The bad? I had sauerkraut twice more and threw up both times—once behind the bench and once, as I gained more experience, under the bleachers.
Recently, I was telling some young software maintainers and their boss, Ted, about that Summer of ‘49, and Thurman asked, “Does sauerkraut still make you sick?”
“I don’t rightly know, young feller,” I honestly replied. “I haven’t et any in 50 years.”
“Oh,” Thurman said. “You should try some again. Maybe now it wouldn’t make you sick.”
“Could be,” I opined, “but I don’t see the benefit in trying. As I recall, I didn’t fancy sauerkraut all that much to begin with.”
I told a few more scintillating stories, and then we got back to work, trying to get a thorny maintenance bramble under control. At a certain point, Thurman suggested that Ted offer the maintenance programmers to opportunity to try what I call “worst-first” preventive maintenance. The maintainers would identify one component of the system that caused the most maintenance headaches, and it would be rewritten, to reduce maintenance problems.
Ted, who was showing small touches of gray around the temples, said, “I’ve seen that technique tried, and it didn’t work. The new component was just as buggy as the original, so the development effort was wasted. Since it was my idea, the management decided they would let me go. No, I’m not going to try that again.”
“So,” Thurman pitched in, “to you it’s like sauerkraut.”
“What do you mean,” Ted asked, a befuddled look on his wrinkled face.
“Well, Jerry tried sauerkraut a long time ago and it didn’t sit very well, so he’s never tried it again. Just like you and worst-first maintenance.”
Can you see now why we old guys hate you young whipper-snappers? Nobody likes to hear the truth about how they’ve aged and changed from innovators to arch-conservatives, victims of the Sauerkraut Syndrome, which works inside our heads like this:
“I’ve tried that before and gotten punished. The potential payoff for me in trying again isn’t big enough compared with the possibilities for punishment. So, I’m not going to try it again.”
The Sauerkraut Syndrome is a perfectly reasonable attitude for the older contractor. What’s not reasonable is for us old geezers to stand in the way of younger people who want to try something different. For one thing, some things do change in fifty years, or twenty, or even two. For another, the payoffs are different. Thurman has a long career ahead of him—a lot of time to recover—and a great need to get some experiences under his belt.
So, you ask, what are we old folks supposed to do when one of our younger colleagues comes up with ideas they think are new, but we’ve tried before and regurgitated? How do we break the Sauerkraut Syndrome? Here are some suggestions:
- We can keep our mouths sealed against the temptation to say, “That’s not new. I tried that back in the Depression.”
- We can keep out of the way, letting them learn from their own mistakes, or their own triumphs. For learning, nothing beats doing it your own way so you have nobody to blame if your idea doesn’t work out.
- We can be emotionally supportive. In case you’ve forgotten, youth is a highly volatile time, and sometimes it helps to have someone around who lets you know that the world isn’t about to end, regardless of how it seems.
- We can refrain from saying “I told you so” if the idea fails this time. This doesn’t help anybody, and it doesn’t make friends.
- We can admit our fears and suggest slight modifications to the idea that will help reduce them or increase our own payoff. Ted might have said to Thurman, “I’d like to try that, but we all know that the worst component right now is also the most critical, and I’m afraid that modifying it will make it worse. How about testing your idea first with a component that’s not quite so critical, to show that we really know how to rewrite a component and actually improve it? Maybe we can try that Scrum business you're always bleating about.”
- We can refrain from giving advice, especially if it’s not asked for. Advice can undermine the confidence of the receiver—if it works, it can make the receiver feel inadequate for not knowing without advice; if it fails, it can make the receiver feel stupid for listening to you. If you must give advice, give it to your fellow old folks, the way I’m doing now.
- We can move in and grasp the young colleague’s new idea if it starts to work. Ideas need time to work out their glitches, and there’s nothing quite like an older, supposedly wiser, person saying, “Oh, now I see what you’re doing. Cool!”
As for you young folks, if you’ve gotten this far, you can return our support by being a little forgiving when we forget your name, or our own telephone number, or seem frightened by your perfectly innocent and reasonable idea.
And, you can politely ignore us if we offer a little unsolicited advice that you don’t care to hear.
And, finally, you can remember this advice that was once given to me by someone even older than I am:
When an old engineer tells you something is possible, believe it.
When an old engineer tells you something is impossible, disregard it.
p.s. If you'd like to learn more about inventions and how old and young engineers kick them around, take a look at the first couple of books in my Aremac series of novels. They can be purchased as eBooks for only $4..99 each, The Aremac Project and Aremac Power. You can even get one for free (Jigglers) at http://www.smashwords.com/books/view/22171. Or, buy the paperback versions on Amazon.com or other retailers.