Words of wisdom from IT's young bosses

Darren Greenwood explores the pros and cons of being young in the IT world.

Imagine working for a 15-year-old boy.

Or that you are 15 years old and you own the company.

Maxnet founder Quintin Lake is an old-timer now, and having turned 18 is legally a director of his ISP.

But in IT, Lake is not alone in his youth.

The IT industry employs many youthful individuals and they are becoming ever younger.

Consequently, it is increasingly common in the industry to find yourself with a boss old enough to be your son or daughter, or you are in charge of folk old enough to be your parents.

Hewlett-Packard, for example, has several top bosses aged around 30; so do IBM and Unisys; and Teresa Gattung, head of the country's biggest company, Telecom is not much older.

So if you're a young boss, how do you handle those old timers below you?

Lake is the youngest at his company, which he counts as an advantage, as one grows with the business. And he has turned his youth to further advantage in the marketing of his enterprise.

"A lot of my personal material mentions my age. Many businesses are glad for that because of the business we are in," he says.

For years he only spoke with customers over the phone, and when people met him, "some were amused by my age".

Maxnet's board consists of people Lake has known for a long time and who have range of business experience. He delegates the day-to-day running of the firm while he deals with technical matters.

The teenager says age is not such an issue but he advises other young chieftains to ask for advice when unsure, and work in a team.

"It is a marvellous opportunity to be able to gain from the experience, knowledge and wisdom of my older colleagues," he says.

Pippa Andrews (not her real name) is manager of an international consultancy firm in Auckland.

Andrews rose to management in two years instead of the usual five and is a boss at just 24.

Her co-workers don't mind her success, but some of her clients question the advice of someone so young.

Andrews is grateful she looks older than her years and hides her true age.

But her advice to others in the same position is to ignore the issue, work professionally and earn the respect of clients. If they are professionals, age won't matter to them.

And, she adds, don't overstep your boundaries by trying to profess knowledge in areas you don't have experience in.

Sam Morgan of auction site Trade Me is 25, but says being young is the norm at his firm.

His advice to young bosses is to take advice when it is needed.

"Have access to people who have more experience and learn from their experience," he says.

Morgan is not worried about his youth as he has his own specialist areas, but says you need older people to relate to.

"At times they have experience I don't have. Everyone contributes," he says.

Peter Wogan is a 30-year-old marketer at Compaq. He says respect is less an issue with older colleagues than with younger ones, whose circumstances differ little to his own.

He advises young bosses to gain respect and communicate.

"Make sure you get involved in all areas of the business, understand what people have going on and try and put yourself in their shoes," he says.

Barry Hastings, aged 48, is the managing director of Hewlett-Packard, and has been a boss for 20 years, first in the Middle East with Fletcher Challenge and then at a Canadian portable building company.

Age is not an issue for him or HP, "but business experience and maturity is".

Hastings says younger bosses are bright, more confident, mature and work hard; and they make it at HP based on their ability.

"If they have been good enough to get there, they must have the right attributes for the job. If they do not have the experience in dealing with people, they can learn from older people who have been around the traps," he says.

Phill Dagger, 27, of business process services firm InfoLink agrees with Hastings and earns the last word with this telling comment.

"If you are good enough, you are old enough."

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