Generation Cloud: How Online Gaming is Shaping New Tech Leaders

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Business advisor Brad Szollose remembers the career-changing moment he became fascinated in the Millennial generation. He and his wife were headed out to dinner and trying to get their 17-year-old nephew, Sebastian, to pull himself away from an online Rock Band game so he could join them.

In the verbal tug-of-war that ensued, Szollose kept insisting Sebastian simply quit the game already. Sebastian, who was pounding wooden drumsticks on a drum kit of color-coded plastic sensors, kept making what initially sounded like excuses. He couldn’t quit. Why? Because he was in the middle of a song (“Tom Sawyer” by Rush; he was playing the part of drummer Neil Peart). Finally, Sebastian blurted out: “You don’t understand—the guitar player is some guy in France, and the bass player is this girl in Japan.”

A light went on in Szollose’s mind. For the first time in his life, he caught a glimpse into the brave new world of the Millennial gamer. Trained in virtualization and hyper-connected with collaborators around the globe, these digital natives inhabit a radically different world from boomers. And, Szollose says, the thousands of hours they spend immersed in games lead them to approach work, technology, business decisions and business relationships in profoundly different ways.

“Video games are a core developmental experience for digital natives,” says Szollose, at 51 a digital immigrant and author of the book Liquid Leadership, which aims to help companies bridge this generational and cultural divide. “And we’re not talking Ms. Pac-Man. We’re talking about deeply complex, rich storytelling and task-driven games that rely on worldwide player communities working together on a single mission. Leaders in the Cloud Generation don’t just know this environment; they excel in it. They are the next generation of technology decision makers.”

4 Myths About Digital Natives

The United States is home to 174 million gamers, and the average young person in a country with a strong gamer culture will spend 10,000 hours playing online games by age 21, according to game designer and researcher Jane McGonigal. That’s roughly the same amount of time a U.S. student spends in school from 5th grade through high school graduation. According to Szollose and fellow tech geek/occasional co-blogger Rob Hirschfeld, gaming prowess can translate to tremendous workplace effectiveness. But this can be hindered by myths about gamers.

Myth #1: Digital natives don’t respect authority.

Not true, but they do reject top-down business hierarchy. Szollose says digital natives respect informational authority, not positional authority. For them, authority is flexible and leadership roles rotate—a result of years of gaming experience forming and dissolving teams to accomplish a mission. Missions and quests are equivalent to workplace tasks to be accomplished and benchmarks to be achieved. The mission leader is the one with the right knowledge and skills for the situation, not the most senior or highest scoring.

“The Millennial culture is, if I show up with a shovel and I can dig faster than you, then I’m in charge of digging,” says Hirschfeld, 46, founder and CEO of Austin, Texas-based RackN, which specializes in automating data center infrastructure.

Digital natives thrive in a workplace that allows them to advance in experience and skills. To adapt the workplace to these expectations, Szollose and Hirschfeld encourage more collaboration and an open source style of communication. “Open source is the Millennial culture,” Hirschfeld says. “Think jazz versus a conducted symphony. The open source community expects you to be more collaborative, less polished and to understand that being an expert doesn’t make you right—it just entitles you to an opinion.”

Myth #2: Digital natives are lazy.

A corner office is probably not part of a digital native’s plans, but don’t mistake that for laziness. They are hard workers who enjoy the flow of learning and solving problems, but they don’t expect to solve problems alone or in a single way.

“Digital natives have been trained to learn the rules of the game by leaping in and trying,” says Szollose, who co-founded the first Internet agency to go public in the mid-’90s. “They seek out mentors, learn the politics at each level and fail as many times as possible in order to learn how not to do something. They learn by playing, failing fast and embracing risk.”

“Millennials really care about getting stuff done,” Hirschfeld says. “There’s a huge work ethic, but they don’t have a waste-time ethic. They would rather call a buddy or query their social networks for answers than wait in line outside a manager’s office.”

Myth #3: Digital natives are arrogant and entitled.

It may feel like that if you approach them the wrong way, but Szollose says it’s not an accurate assessment. Digital natives are smart, computer savvy, educated and resourceful independent thinkers. In a technology sales environment, for instance, the old tricks won’t work.

“They’ll discredit everything you say if you ‘go all marketing on them’ and try to ‘sell them,'” Szollose says. “You don’t sell to them; you collaborate with them to help solve their problems.”

“They want to be involved and invested in what you build,” Hirschfeld says. “They are not just consumers; they have opinions. You have to have much less ego, to let go of your expertise a little bit and be more ready to get people’s feedback. You must learn how to be much more fluid in how you interact. It’s scary—it feels like free fall.”

Myth #4: Digital natives have all the answers.

For all the speed, adaptability and collaborative skills they’ve honed through gaming, digital natives don’t have a monopoly on best work habits or business practices. For example, an over-emphasis on teamwork and collaboration can create a work environment where no one knows how to make an executive decision—something Hirschfeld says boomer employees seem better able to do.

“There are critical skills that boomers are really good at,” Hirschfeld says. “The broader takeaway here is that both cultures have strengths and we need to leverage the strengths of each.”

Szollose concurs: “The challenge for the entire industry is to embrace a new paradigm that redefines how we interact and innovate,” he says. “We may as well embrace it, because it is the paradigm that we’ve already trained the rising generation or workers to intuitively understand.”

About the author


Laurence Cruz

Laurence Cruz is a freelance writer based in Los Angeles. A U.K. transplant, he has worked as a reporter with The Associated Press in Seattle and as an environmental reporter for The Statesman Journal in Salem, Oregon. He has a BA in English from Oxford and an MA in Communications from Washington State University. Used with the permission of

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