How Can We Achieve Age Diversity in Silicon Valley?
Steven Levy

Ageism is real, and it is relentless. I’m 58, a career developer. I have two US Patents, a dozen publications, and a ton of very relevant and sellable experience. But I’m soooo old. I was blown out of one interview after 15 minutes because I wasn’t young and trendy enough for the company.

With an average age around 30, young line managers are not capable of recognizing the value of experience, because they still rely on book-learning themselves. They want to hire people with resumes that look like their resume (because surely their experience is relevant!) But older workers have different-looking resumes, because the software biz has, in fact, evolved some in 35 years.

Older workers do get idiosyncratic. They have developed personal styles that seem productive for them. They must be managed so they work to a common standard. But the quality of management in tech companies is uniformly low. This comes from promoting geeky people into management when they lack the hardwired skillset for it. Falling back on a stereotype, empathy isn’t a part of the necessary toolkit for developing software. But it is very relevant to managing human beings.

What it comes down to, I think, is that young workers will do whatever you tell them to do. Work late? OK (sorry honey, sorry kids). Write the code using this tool or that paradigm? OK boss. Shut your eyes and run in this direction even though there’s a cliff over there somewhere? Sure thing boss. Older workers are more difficult to manage (especially if you aren’t very empathetic) because they know what bad management decisions look like.

Another problem with older workers is that they expect to be fairly compensated for their labor. As long as there are companies who will pay you to work 40 hours a week, working 60 hours a week for the same wage looks like a dumb idea. Young workers don’t have a basis for comparison. Working for half a wage and a dream of getting rich at a startup looks less appealing to older workers, once they’ve had the fun experience of working their butts off only to see a startup fail two or three times. Young workers are easier to seduce with the promise of riches. So older workers walk away from “opportunity”. No wonder they leave tech.

Older workers’ skills do eventually become less relevant. Not tool skills — you have to learn a new programming language, toolchain, and library every half-dozen years. I’m talking about experience developing code. When I started work, all software development was green-field development. I’m a terrific architect. Today, most dev work is maintaining legacy systems. Different skillset, different motivational set. I’m less experienced at making minimal changes to a creaky old codebase so it doesn’t collapse like the house of cards that it is. I lose out on these “opportunities” too, though I don’t feel bad about it.

The only problem is, I love to code. I’m really, really good at it. I might take a job in another industry, for a pay cut, but then I wouldn’t get to code. But the last few years have been a series of dissappointments for me, being let go several times for trying to do good quality work, when all that mattered to the manager was speed. I can see myself choosing to retire early (lucky for me I earned well and lived frugally) rather than keep banging my head against the wall. Perhaps it’s the fault of the old for abandoning their industry, pushing down the average age with each departure, spoiling the age distribution. Yeah, that’s it. Blame the f’ing grandpas.

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