My Dad Can Program Circles Around You
A response to ageism in Silicon Valley
My Dad is one of the best programmers I have ever known. He is also over the age of 60. With more than twenty years in the computer industry in Silicon Valley, his resume is peppered with company names that even most outsiders to computing would recognize: Apple, Adobe, Ebay, Microsoft, VMWare. He has worked for big companies and lesser known startups.
My younger brother is also a programmer. His resume is also stellar. An internship at Ebay led him to drop out of college, and he continued on to work for HP and eventually, Netflix, where he continues today.
My brother makes more money than my Dad does.
In some ways, this is an unfair comparison, and I do realize it is like apples to oranges. There are more differences between my brother and my Dad than just their relative ages. My Dad is beyond brilliant, but socially awkward, a geek at his best. My brother inherited my mother’s people skills on top of my father’s technical brilliance. Some of his career success is due to the fact that he is handsome and charming as well as good at what he does.
But my brother’s career took off when he was very young. The first ten years of his career were colored by some simple things: without a mortgage, student loans to repay, or children, my brother was able to devote his undivided attention to his career, working long hours. And during those years, he cost far less to hire than someone with the kind of experience my Dad had. Although his compensation has always been liberal, there is no denying that companies benefit from hiring young people, paying them starting wages and taking advantage of their propensity to have the bandwidth to work long and hard for their pay.
But now, that excuse hardly applies. With no insult to my brother (who is very good at what he does) he would hardly deny that my father is more experienced, more highly skilled, faster, better at coding, and more flexible. My brother thrives by taking advantage of a niche: he started out in quality assurance testing, and he continues to work in that area. My father has, over the span of his career, tackled an incredibly diverse array of projects. This is why I call him brilliant: he is able to do just about anything requiring computer code. Even so, if you were to swap my brother out for my father for a few weeks, I would wager that my Dad could do the job without skipping a beat. The same would not be true in reverse. Dad’s generalist approach perhaps disguises that his depth is as good as his breadth.
A couple of years ago, my Dad interviewed at Google after a recruiter reached out to him. He went through many rounds of interviews, at least four, and was confident that he was a qualified match for the position. But he was not hired. There is simply no way to know for sure why he was rejected. But afterward, an unspoken question lingered in the air: was it because he was too old? I watched my friends in their twenties and thirties be snapped up by companies like Google, Facebook and Twitter. Part of me knew what was happening, but at the end of the day, there was nothing to point to, no way to prove what we suspected.
I may not have an answer, but I do know this: my Dad is amazing at what he does. He is a superhero. Over and over again, I watch companies hire him and assign him difficult and complex work to do, which he then completes ahead of schedule. Anything he needs to know, he teaches himself. I have watched him learn entirely new programming languages in a weekend. It infuriates me that his talent and hard work matter less than his age.
Something about Steven Levy’s articles, We Need to Talk About Age Diversity in Tech and How Can We Achieve Age Diversity in Silicon Valley? really touched a nerve for me.
Here is what I would say, and I would single out Google because of that one memorable rejection, but this applies to any Silicon Valley company or manager who sees this:
I would love to see you put your young programmers up against my Dad, any day. Because my Dad can program circles around just about anyone. You have no idea the unsung hero that he is. For many many years he has worked diligently to become the best he can be at what he does, quietly and humbly and without thanks or praise or adequate recognition.
You are missing out by not having him on your team. His depth and breadth of skill, built over a lifetime, are certainly worth paying for.
I would love to see him paid what he deserves. I would love to see him once in his lifetime truly valued by the company who hires him. I would love to see someone, at least once, acknowledge that his age is an asset, not a liability.
Go ahead. I dare you, Silicon Valley. Innovate. Try something new.
Respect your elders.