Hot Button Discussion
Integrating Young Professionals into Production Engineering: The Millennial's Perspective
By Michael Goldman
With the dizzying speed of next-generation technological breakthroughs in the media and entertainment world these days, the focus is frequently, and understandably, on the creative, cultural, and business implications of these developments. However, the next generation of actual humans now joining the production engineering workforce and increasingly influencing how these new technologies can and should be applied to the media food chain on an ever-changing landscape often get overlooked. In truth, there is another ongoing evolution impacting the wider engineering community—a demographic one. Younger engineers—Millennials—are streaming in and, in the process, are fundamentally influencing, and sometimes changing, how engineering work is approached.
As a result, in recent years, initiatives have started percolating about how best to integrate young engineering professionals into an industry that, traditionally, has operated far differently from the way Millennials grew up functioning. For instance, a session called “Millennial Spotlight: The Evolving Workforce” was held during a SMPTE Annual Technical Conference. The session included a panel of 20-something engineers from several major entertainment companies who were asked to speak about their experiences blending into the industry and how their generation “translates,” in the words of Jennifer Zeidan, a media systems engineer at Industrial Light & Magic (Lucasfilm), who led the panel that day.
Zeidan expressed that the strengths of the Millennial generation, their cultural differences from the Gen-X’ers and Baby Boomers they are now joining in the industry workforce, can, and do, cause certain cultural clashes inside companies. However, they also represent an enormous opportunity for the industry to evolve its people in synchronicity with its technologies and workflow methodologies.
“At this point, [the media and entertainment industry] has to try and target a new set of people,” Zeidan says. “Of course, the industry will always need the best creatives, no matter the generation, but we are now in the digital age, and that requires a lot of scripting and networking skills [on the engineering side], people who are more computer-science based, systems-based. So the talent pool they need to attract is a bit different. Media organizations need to make it better known that they are looking for those types of people and want to diversify.”
Additionally, she notes, “As engineers, there will always be the technical issues to solve, but now we are running into [issues] that are not exclusively technical—social engineering problems and collaboration issues, for example.”
Consequently, she says, there can be tension on the front lines between younger industry professionals and seasoned ones—the people companies hope will mentor the next generation of engineers. In her opinion, this is because Millennials are far different from the generations that preceded them in ways that impact how they work, interact, and problem-solve differently from their older colleagues.
“Millennials are the first generation to grow up in the digital age, where Google is the go-to for just about everything, and all information is shareable,” Zeidan relates. She hypothesizes that the older engineering demographic tends to keep a strong hold on information, due to what she calls “fear of letting go. Sharing information is threatening, as it can reduce a person’s impact or importance. But Millennials operate differently, So the industry has a desire on one hand to attract younger entertainment professionals, but on the other hand, they are doing it while a social shift is happening.”
She describes that shift as a situation in which a new generation, just entering the workforce, has a particularly keen understanding of the importance of collaborating in a way that is different from how generations past operated. “That can be hard, when older engineers are worried about losing their jobs, and when the skills are different,” she elaborates. “It’s a situation where the person with the most experience is, in a sense, less agile than the [younger engineer].”
Jaclyn Pytlarz, a senior engineer at Dolby, also participated in that SMPTE panel. She points out that the very nature of Millennials that makes them want to collaborate differently, as Zeidan stated, is due to a lot of specific cultural issues related to how Millennial engineers grew up before entering the industry.
“For one thing, Millennials grew up using [digital] technology, and use it more efficiently as a first instinct, integral to everything we do, than those who grew up before them,” Pytlarz says. “More importantly, my generation tends to want to collaborate through social media, and not just as a side benefit or for purely social reasons, but to collaborate. And not just literally social [platforms], but also within a company. So we use this ability to bounce ideas off people, in the next office or another country.”
Pytlarz also believes that Millennials tend “to feel less competition with each other in the workplace. Because we grew up with social media, connected to everyone else, we tend to view helping each other out as a way for everyone to move ahead, versus just thinking about how we, as individuals, can move ahead. There are things to worry about with the [heavy use of] social media, of course, but it does allow communication to happen for this generation. As an engineer, I’ve learned that feedback is highly beneficial. That is what Millennials [take from] social media—it allows them to connect with each other and certain audiences and get direct feedback. They are eager to share and get feedback. They feel that will make their product, the design, whatever it is, better.”
Zeidan considers such qualities indicative of Millennials being what she calls “open source” collaborators. By that, she emphasizes the importance of collaborating with people not only across her team and company but across other companies and disciplines; peers that have faced similar technical roadblocks as she has had. She says it is “important” for her to be able to pick up her iPhone and Facetime a fellow industry engineer, problem-solving technical issues she knows they are both facing.
“For me, in terms of engineering, a Millennial is someone who is eager to work in a particularly collaborative environment to move the industry forward,” she adds.
Zeidan recalls a discussion she had with Renu Thomas, former executive VP of media operations, engineering, and IT at Disney/ABC Television Group, arguing that media companies need to aggressively pursue Millennials for engineering positions. Thomas, she recalls, said the way Millennials work is, according to Zeidan, “much more collegial—open workspaces, social platforms, group think … They bring a different energy to the organization, which helps with culture, collaboration, and [interacting with] management.”
These traits even trickle into specific areas of the technical process, Pytlarz suggests. She points, for instance, to the standardization process. Culturally and procedurally, she says, Millennials tend to look at such things differently.
Pytlarz states, more importantly, that the speed of the standards process, for Millennials, is sometimes an issue. She believes the process can be perceived as slow, with due process—reaching consensus among varying interests and entities. But the industry moves quickly and services such as OTT can incorporate emerging architectures and new structures all the time. “My generation wants to keep evolving, with the idea of being more fast-paced. We aren't as concerned with [ideas] set in stone. From our perspective, standards should be developed more quickly and then molded as people learn from them.”
“This also applies to [product development]. My generation tends to rapid-prototype, to [decide] if it is not perfect, keep going, and we will determine how it works later. Earlier generations prefer to put more thought in the beginning. That means the initial version will be more ‘correct,’ but it takes longer to get there. We prefer a bit of a different process.”
All of which begs various related questions. How to get Millennials properly trained on processes and procedures in the industry? How to incorporate them into infrastructures that typically put them to work alongside engineers who tend to be 40 years and older? How to get both sides used to each other, melding the best characteristics of each for maximum efficiency?
Zeidan emphasizes a series of formal and informal initiatives are ramping up across the industry designed to attract, incorporate, and mentor young professionals. One such initiative is the new Hollywood Professional Association’s (HPA) Young Entertainment Professional’s Group (YEP). YEP, she says, was launched in 2016 as an HPA sub-group, sponsored by the HPA’s Women in Post committee. Its mission is to mentor and build a community of young people between the ages of 21 and 35 in the media and entertainment industry. Zeidan is one of YEP’s co-chairs.
“We have three pillars—education, mentorship, and collaboration and community,” she says. “Sometimes, organizations like SMPTE, while incredibly resourceful, can be extremely technical. But focusing on people who are much earlier in their careers, we need to start by scratching the surface to help them understand what we do. We are trying to take the approach of ‘rock, pebble, sand,’ meaning we start out with, say, a workflow webinar, and take an episodic approach to workflow, walking them through from stage to distribution, and what it all entails on a general level. And then, from there, we start digging deeper.”
Indeed, at press-time, YEP was in the process of finalizing a slate of at least four webinars on various workflow topics, explicitly designed to educate young and incoming professionals.
Key to all this is the issue of recruitment, Zeidan adds. For one thing, “we need to target people who are not yet in the industry, or even know much about it, such as computer-science majors or computer engineers,” she says. “We are trying to bring them into the fold and let them see what kind of community we have, and then encourage them to be part of organizations [like HPA and SMPTE and others]—something not enough young engineers are doing right now.”
Zeidan promotes the notion of “reverse mentoring” as the method by which Millennials and more seasoned engineers can mix-and-match successfully for the industry’s greater good. This is the concept by which “mentees” give back to their mentors with feedback on their interests and methods of collaborating, among other things.
“One of the things I love about the YEP program is that we are using mentorships to build relationships,” she says. “Not only are the mentors helping to shape young professionals through career goals and growth, but the mentors are also getting something out of it. They are learning how Millennials consume media and collaborate and build our careers. In that sense, mentees are also mentors to our older, more seasoned counterparts. The mentors we work with emphasize that they want to understand us better so that not only can they help us grow, but also so they can understand the people who are ultimately seeing the content we put forward. It’s a very collaborative way of looking at mentorship.”
Ultimately, both engineers suggest a unification of skills and strengths will happen across the industry as Millennials join the ranks. Cooperation and interaction are crucial inside the evolving new media ecosystem.
“Person A might be the stronger engineer, might have been around longer, but doesn’t necessarily know how to collaborate [in the modern media landscape] or communicate as well as person B,” she explains. “Person B is a good engineer, wants to get better, but already has all the soft skills necessary to understand [the market] and where the industry is going. Person A had a chance to be trained, take classes, have a mentor, and thus their technical skills, or hard skills, are great. But what you can’t teach a person is the soft skills. On the flip side, Person B, who already has the innate soft skills, has not yet been mentored. The idea is to invest in that person by providing a mentor, sending them to train, and getting them involved in SMPTE and other organizations to help them learn the hard skills, which benefits everyone. I want to see companies invest more in people with soft skills, and be willing to train them for the hard skills. I view that as yet another important social change.”
From a business point of view, Pytlarz agrees this ongoing transition is good for the industry, because in today’s landscape, “different perspectives” are crucial, in her words.
“On any team, diversity, in general, is good,” she says. “To have people from other age groups, and countries, and genders—that is how you will get different perspectives, not only on the particular problem at hand but how you think about it. The more perspective you have, the more opportunity for out-of-box thinking. And obviously, it helps speed ingenuity when you have people approaching problems from different angles.”
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