by Tom Kaneshige

What Kind of CIOs Will Millennials Make?

News Analysis
Sep 03, 20143 mins
CareersCIOIT Leadership

Remember the adage, ‘No one ever got fired for buying IBM’? You can bet millennials don't. In fact, they like the energy of startups run by young people like themselves, according to a recent survey. Expect the CIO of the future to take a much different approach to tech decisions.

millennial cio
Credit: Thinkstock

As millennials flood the workplace, climb corporate ladders and spread throughout the four corners of a company, they will eventually take on positions of leadership in marketing, human resources, finance, sales and IT. They’ll gain more influence inside an organization, along with purchasing power over technology.

What kinds of decisions will they make?

In generations past, brands mattered most of all. The old adage, “No one ever got fired for buying IBM,” saved many CIOs’ careers. Pity the CIO who put his faith in a fly-by-night startup and got burned when the startup could no longer deliver on its promises. But millennials don’t give a hoot about tired brands or the risk that comes with startups. In fact, they like the energy of startups run by young people like themselves, according to IT industry association CompTIA, which has been tracking millennial behavior in the workplace.

Treat ‘em Right

“They’ll probably look at different vendors if they think somebody is getting stale, if they feel like they’re not getting creative ideas,” says Todd Thibodeaux, president and CEO of CompTIA. “If something is not working out, if they’re not being treated the way they want to be treated, then they’ll move. That’s not just for the products they buy, but the jobs they’re in.”

Millennials – born between the early 1980s and the early 2000s – are 80 million strong in the United States, according to CompTIA. By 2025, millennials will make up as much as 75 percent of the U.S. IT workforce, as some 40 percent of IT workers retire in the next 10 to 12 years.

[Related: Millennials Rule the Valley: Enjoy It While It Lasts]

In order to understand millennial techies’ future buying habits and how they view brands, just look at their approach to consumer goods. Millennials have been bombarded with brands in email advertisements, Web-based marketing, social networks and mobile apps, as well as traditional radio and television, whereas Gen Xers learned about brands mostly from a few vendors that could afford television commercials.

“This may have caused millennials to be distrustful of larger brands, because they sense those companies have nothing but an ulterior motive,” Thibodeaux says. “Or maybe it plays into their innate sense of wanting to try new stuff and see what kind of great things they can find… They’re going to continue to seek out things that are being run by people who they think have their best interests at heart.”

Crowdsourcing IT Decisions?

Given the social networking impact on millennials’ lives, it’s a good bet that millennials will lean on peer recommendations, referrals and reviews when weighing both personal and professional purchasing decisions.

“They might see a crowd forming around something and will want to jump in there and see what it looks like,” Thibodeaux says.

[Related: How to Manage Millennials: Let Them Do Whatever They Want]

Older brands can learn a thing or two from Red Bull, which Thibodeaux says has done a good job of tapping into the millennial mindset and keeping its attention. For instance, Red Bull sponsors extreme sports activities that millennials enjoy and supports spinal cord research, giving the impression that it’s giving back.  Companies should advertise their philanthropic activities more, Thibodeaux advises.

Extreme sports aside, millennials tend to be risk takers in their jobs, which underscores their willingness to at least look closely at startup tech over legacy brands. Consequently, companies will need to change their risk tolerance and learn to deal with inevitable missteps with technology purchases.

“This is a generation that’s going to beg for forgiveness when something goes wrong but won’t ask for permission,” Thibodeaux says.