It’s Not Easy Being a Millennial

At a recent San Francisco tech conference, I was what statisticians call an outlier. Most of the Opticon 2015 attendees were in their 20s and 30s and many were guys. I’m 47 with three kids, including one already in college.

Though they were certainly equal or beyond me in smarts and skills, I couldn’t help seeing these Millennials like a mother would. I had to stop myself from offering one of them a sip of my orange juice when he said it looked so good and would be healthier than drinking one of the provided Cokes. I wanted to tell them how well they did after they finished speaking, TED-style, about their hard-won insights into digital optimization.

Gen X doesn’t always mix so warmly with the next generation. Louis C.K. in his show “Louie” had words with a snooty Manhattan shop girl who turned out to be the owner. She dressed him down for being scared that people his age matter less now. Bloomberg’s June 11 mega-story about computer code also hinted at intergenerational friction. It opened with a seasoned VP meeting uneasily with a young tech guy. “Who wears a taupe blazer?” the boss asks.

My own Facebook feed seems to be sending me a message. It’s been serving up articles that tell me which words I can no longer use in a resume lest I look like a codger. And I recently saw a job ad for a pharmaceutical company that listed being a “digital native” as a requirement. Discriminate much?

So there’s a growing feeling that they get it and we Gen X-ers don’t and what did we ever know anyway? Yet I am fond of — and a little worried for — these 20s and 30s, who surrounded me at Opticon.

Opticon 2015 was the second annual user conference for Optimizely, a genius analytics tool that lets you fiddle with websites and apps to optimize them. To “optimize” means getting people to do something (often buy something) or it can mean getting people to click on your content as a precursor to what you’d like them to do next (often buy something). Optimizely helps you make the most of your situation through A/B testing. If you don’t know what that is, here is the most basic example: You serve out two different versions of a page. The testing tool starts measuring whether customers buy more widgets if the shopping cart button is A)red or B)blue.

Optimizely cofounder and CEO Dan Siroker came up with the idea while working for President Obama’s first campaign. Siroker was tinkering with different photos and phrasing to raise money through the campaign’s website. But changing a website the old fashioned way took too much time and it was too hard to analyze results. Optimizely made A/B testing far easier for any company — be it a startup or large corporation — that doesn’t have a gigantic developer staff like Google or Amazon.

Optimizely has competitors, but the startup feels strong with a surge in investment, staff, and 1,000 attendees at Opticon. At the conference, Siroker announced a new product that allows for more personalization on top of its A/B testing. So, among others things, you can show swimsuit promos to those in warm climates and present people who tend to buy leather bags with promos for leather bags.

“Is your mind blown?” a young man asked his companion as we spilled out of the keynote address and onto a promenade of bocce ball courts and hammocks.

So this is the playing field for Millennial tech employees: Every page and element of every website and app can be scrutinized for low-hanging fruit and more daring changes — each one a revenue-generating opportunity.

“Talk data to me” read a T-shirt one could earn by energetically participating in Opticon-related social media. The data is all there waiting to be integrated and harnessed. And these determined young people are ready to put their shoulders to the digital plow.

Venture capitalist (and fellow Gen Xer) Marc Andreessen appears to be betting on their success. The Optimizely investor spoke to a packed house and preached to the choir, saying that old folks don’t tend to “get” new technology and never have.

Older folks are also quick to panic when the new tech isn’t immediately perfect, too impatient to see the inevitable mark that will be made by say, the automobile or the Internet. Today, it’s artificial intelligence, virtual reality, and Bitcoin that we are selling short. Andreessen more than implied that these twenty- and thirtysomething’s do get it. He cheered them on by saying that optimization is a big idea that can make the world better.

But the road to a better world isn’t for sissies. So then it was right back into the bread and butter sessions about how to set up tests and make the attendant changes that increase ROI. Companies want big wins. Why else hire these young pistols who talk fluently of conversion rates and sales funnels? And here is where the Millennials have my sympathy: When everything can be measured, history can record every failure. Your losses, every single one. No mulligans allowed.

Hard measures are not new, of course. Lawyers have long needed to bill hours and win cases. Doctors must do successful surgeries. Sales people must sell. A batter needs to hit the ball. And now tech workers must test and win. But it seems there are fewer careers in which you can ramp up and learn before being benchmarked and compared to others. Just ask a teacher.

The best companies make it OK to fail, many at Opticon said. Still, the margin for mistakes that cost real time and money feels pretty tight. One young woman addressed a session on major website redesigns by asking the audience: “Did you ever think you were going to lose your job because of big changes you made?” She talked about “the loneliness of just you and the data,” with no guarantee that your hypothesis was right. How to explain yourself when traffic falters and sales dip? Mentors must be scarce in this trailblazing line of work.

Plenty of sites and apps have made bold moves only to get something deeply, sales-crushingly wrong. It’s complex and difficult. Testing different designs and individual elements beforehand can take away some of the high-wire tension, but it can’t completely eliminate it.

Data can work in a Millennial’s favor, though. People talk about its power to deflect the HIPPO (highest paid person’s opinion), who might be just going with his gut. Yet one gets the sense that the struggle endures. A full session was devoted to getting executive buy-in and a few attendees complained openly, microphone in hand, about clueless hire-ups.

Through Opticon’s excellent conference app, I followed a Twitter-like feed from other attendees. Organizers encouraged us to share one key point from each session. The more you participated, the more points you earned, which could be redeemed for Opticon swag. Several people posted the slogan “Eat, Sleep, Optimize, Repeat.” That got some smiley-face likes. One man said he was actually setting up A/B tests while waiting for the keynote speech to start. “Multitasking!” he announced.

As evening fell, and liquid nitrogen margaritas were quaffed, I noticed one accomplished young woman, who filled up the stream with more personal reflections: a photo of her skateboarding down a dark street; her cute dog; her pizza order; the revelation that she couldn’t sleep; a call for others to join her at SoulCycle in the morning; then an early morning selfie with the news that she overslept and now can’t make it to SoulCycle. Eat, Sleep, Optimize, Repeat.

While at Opticon, I learned about a new analytics platform that lets online publishers measure which writers get the most views and social media interactions. Monitoring traffic and social sharing isn’t new, but byline-specific score-keeping takes it to another level. Medium.com, where you are reading right now, will track how many people recommend this article. (Heart it please!) At PopSugar, if you click on an author’s name, you can see the volume and type of reactions her work has generated. There must be days when even the buzziest items don’t take off. Pure misery, I suspect.

I started my career as a newspaper reporter at a time when there was no website. Just that wad of papyrus flung on door steps and front lawns. I was sometimes measured by the number of column inches I wrote. Certain stories drew letters to the editor or phone calls, which could be good or bad. But my ability to appeal to the masses was never tested and I was never judged on this kind of rain making.

For me, success was calculated by a mixed grill of my daily performance, editors’ opinions, journalism awards, and sometimes luck. Together, they created a qualitative perception about my value and my fitness for the job. Not that there weren’t random variables that could be unfair and awful in that system, too. But judging human worth should always be a soft science.

No doubt the best of the best at Opticon will soar and profit. And these smart, well positioned Millennials needn’t worry us as much as their less fortunate counterparts, who have no college degrees and few prospects. Still I wonder about the young professionals I met at Opticon 2015. What of those who will miss too many targets? I think of my own sons who will start their working lives in just a few years.

So yes, the Opticon conference was awash in well-groomed young adults who lounged in beanbag chairs and outdoor hammocks. A drone flew overhead and the DJ was already setting a party mood at 8:45 in the morning. At an evening party, tiny tuna tacos were on offer and one fellow dipped his cotton candy in — what else? — bourbon.

I say let the Millennials have a fancy drink and a swing in the hammock. As one of the more senior speakers told them: After the conference, it’s back to reality. And if you’re a Millennial, that means optimizing yourself every data-driven day of the week.

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