Millennials and tech: Round pegs in a square cubicle farm

Young developers want more than money and perks. A trip to Thailand shows the problem of retaining talent is global -- and needs real, not superficial, solutions

Millennials are too picky -- focused on lifestyle, not work. You might think this is a complaint unique to American employers. But as I'm discovering in my travels through Thailand, the lament is echoed here.

Talk to anyone here recruiting young folks, and they consider millennials a risky prospect. They're are easily bored. Attracting and retaining them is hard. They're difficult to keep engaged.

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Thailand is an established Asian powerhouse that claims to have 0.7 percent unemployment. It's in the middle of a transition from manufacturing to design and, from what I can see, experiencing unprecedented prosperity, despite huge environmental and political challenges. When I arrived in Bangkok, I expected swarms of autorickshaws like you see in Bangalore; instead I saw fleets of Mercedes, as in Sao Paulo.

Listen to Thai technology leaders, and you'll hear the the same complaints about millennials you hear in the United States. Apinetr Unakul, president of TESA (Thai Embedded Systems Association), said it's a misconception that there aren't enough engineers in Thailand. "They just don't want to work in a factory," he said. Replace "factory" with "cubicle" and you get a similar story on the software side.

The Internet changed everything

I find it interesting that millennials in Thailand seem to identify more with their generation than with their culture. Anyone recruiting young tech workers in any American city could relate similar experiences with youthful recalcitrance.

When I asked Unakul about this, he said: "They grew up with the Internet and the Internet changed everything."  He also talked about the concept of the "new rich" -- where people worked to gain experience -- but work to live rather than live to work. At a certain point they take their cash and travel. (I'm not certain he was referring directly to Tim Ferriss, David Moore, or any of the folks in the "quit your job" movement.)

Tech guys in the older generation didn't land in a cubicle, the cubicle landed on them. Nonetheless, they were invested and vested, and they thought they had a job for life with a pension. Many were disabused of the latter notions in the early '90s.

When I came onto the scene in the latter '90s, I found an "Office Space"-like environment with relatively arbitrary top-down rules and relatively little meaning in what I did. At times I found particular tasks interesting -- like writing a crazy query that did several outer joins and unions to figure out how many products were returned (and to explain how many false positives the query may have returned due to the shoddy data). I switched jobs every six to 12 months to give myself a change of scenery, the chance to learn something new, and the opportunity to earn another $5 to $10 an hour.

Being loyal to a company didn't occur to me. I mean, they irradiated me with fluorescent lights 40 hours per week and stuck me in a cubicle, dreading the thought of another interminable conference call. At any moment they might randomly lay off an entire department. Why would I be loyal to that?

I got my real education when the dot-com boom went bust and the job market became a buyer's instead of a seller's market. Had it not been for the growth of the open source market and a freak decision to go into that at the right time, I'd have been out of luck. But what if I'd never experienced that reality check?

Consider the younger generation today. They think 2009 was a real recession for the tech industry. I mean, there were six months when we couldn't just get any job we wanted, but had to hang on even if we didn't like our jobs. That was tough!

Yet as the economy recovered, few companies around the world upgraded their work environments to make them the kinds of places where people want to work. Now they complain they have trouble recruiting and retaining. Simply throwing money at the problem doesn't solve the problem.

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