Ageism might be a taboo topic among employers, but veteran IT pros say it's very much an industry reality.
It is illegal for employers to base hiring and firing decisions on a person's age. Explicit discrimination can be tricky to prove, however, and age can have subtler effects on someone's career -- perhaps even more so if they work in IT.
Ageism in IT isn't a new story, but it typically doesn't travel beyond the confines of Silicon Valley and its youthful startup culture. Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg, for instance, told the audience at a 2007 Y Combinator Startup School event: "I want to stress the importance of being young and technical. Young people are just smarter." Zuckerberg's now a wizened 28-year-old, which also happens to be the average age of Facebook employees, according to a recent study. The average age of Google's workforce is 29.
The IT profession, though, extends well beyond the Silicon Valley and the technology industry at large. So does ageism.
Gary Huckabone, who lives in the Detroit area, has been programming since the 80s, when he toiled with the likes of Digital Equipment Corp's VAX/VMS. Later, he moved into UNIX and Oracle database work. Today, Huckabone's focused on .NET desktop applications and ASP.NET Web apps. He currently works for an agency that contracts with one of the Big Three automakers.
"I am an old guy," Huckabone, 56, said in an interview. The IT veteran isn't a complainer, nor has he ever been part of any actual age discrimination claims. He doesn't lack confidence, either -- "I'm good at what I do," Huckabone said -- but he has become increasingly aware of how employers may perceive his age.
Prior to his current gig, Huckabone worked for a Detroit firm that had hired him because of his experience, not in spite of it. "The other six developers were basically fresh out of college," Huckabone said. "They hired me as someone who had some gray hair and had been around the block a few times."
Huckabone discovered, though, that the firm expected 60-hour workweeks to be business as usual for the development team. Unlike startups offering equity stakes or established companies with attractive incentive plans, there was no upside to the long hours. "I've worked plenty of 50- and 60-hour weeks, but there's got to be some kind of reward," Huckabone said. "You can't just keep doing that and get nothing in return." Unlike his younger coworkers, Huckabone voiced his concerns; according to him, things came to a head when he asked for an afternoon off and was told no. He was later fired from the position.
Back on the job market, Huckabone was upbeat -- he saw a thriving software sector and plenty of opportunities. But he found it took longer than expected to land his next gig. "I probably did twice as many interviews -- this is a guess, of course -- than I would have done if I was 32 instead of 56, " Huckabone said. "You never know [if age is a factor], because obviously no one's going to tell you and a lot of it is probably subconscious. I think a lot of people are just uncomfortable talking to a guy who has confidence. I'm not out there all nervous and begging for job. It's a 'this is what I do, I'm good at it, take it or leave it' kind of attitude."
It wasn't the first time Huckabone wondered whether his age was an employment factor. In 2010, he'd been contacted about a potential position with Google. At the time, Huckabone trimmed his resume for brevity. "I had lopped off probably my first 10 years, just to keep the resume a little quicker read. I wasn't trying to hide my age. [I was] just trying to keep it to more recent experience. Nobody really cares about my VAX VMS stuff back in 1988, quite frankly," he said.
After a phone interview and two subsequent online meetings with Google that included coding tests, Huckabone was flown to Mountain View for a full day of in-person interviews. It didn't lead to a job offer. There could be any number of reasons why, but Huckabone noted it was the first time anyone at Google had been able to see him in the flesh. "I don't know if you've ever been to their campus, but it's basically a sea of 30-year-olds," Huckabone said.
"I don't think they did anything conscious. I just think it was a subconscious 'we don't like older people, we want to be surrounded by younger people' [mindset]," Huckabone said. "I do believe it's just a subconscious thing that pervades their culture."