Strategic CIO // Team Building & Staffing
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11/20/2013
09:06 AM
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Are You Too Old For IT?

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.

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"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."

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Shepy
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Shepy,
User Rank: Apprentice
11/21/2013 | 8:59:32 AM
Re: Too old and too hard to prove discrimination
"  I do not have much gray hair, look about 8-10 years younger, but that does not help when the I.T. management, and staff is in the 23-29 year old range.   Management wants their team around the same age for company culture reasons in many cases, and your days are numbered in that environment.  "

I suspect at least some of it will be that older people can be seen to be set in their ways as it were, often not keeping up as much with new tech as the younger people. I'm not saying this is always the case or even correct, just what the tought process may be
DiscustedONE
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DiscustedONE,
User Rank: Apprentice
11/21/2013 | 8:43:03 AM
Too old and too hard to prove discrimination
I am 56 years old, and been it I.T. about 25 years.    It is very true about what I have read in other statements regarding this article.

  I do not have much gray hair, look about 8-10 years younger, but that does not help when the I.T. management, and staff is in the 23-29 year old range.   Management wants their team around the same age for company culture reasons in many cases, and your days are numbered in that environment.  This happened to me.  Management will concentrate on you so your pay does not get too high, and you will be recycled.  Rather than pay out for experienced workers, business has resorted to hiring contactors to cut head count, costs, and do not have to deal with benefits.

The sad thing is that benefits through contract are non-existent, or too expensive in most cases.  You are hourly paid, and that is all.  The pay is good, about industry standard,  until I pay for Health insurance and try to bank for sick leave and vacation time.

There is no doubt that there is job discrimination in the work place.  Doing my job was not good enough; going beyond what was required was not good enough.  Being contagious with enthusiasm is not good enough once they get on the culture train.  You will be on the documentation microscope and railroaded out when it is time.  I currently am 4 yrs on contract at a great job, no benefits, and with the economy, things are not looking good.  Being to take a day off now and then would be great, holiday pay would be great.

 
tcritchley07
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tcritchley07,
User Rank: Strategist
11/21/2013 | 3:34:48 AM
Ageism in IT
I think 'anon21....' has a point in currency of skills but what he is missing is the management and mentoring of those skills in others - a 'grey beard role'. Not a pay and rations management role, but a Colour Sergeant Bourne role at Rorkes Drift (film Zulu). For example, nearly every UK public sector IT initiative goes down the pan and has done for at least 12 years, culminating in the cancellation of the NHS project costing £12.5 billion + .

I am 100% convinced this is not a technical skills issue but a 'management' issue. There are skills and methodologies which defy time (Project definitions, Delphi technique, SWOTs, FMEA, Fracas etc.)(*) and these are gradually being lost in the mad dash for high tech skills and implementing everything with the latest fad - flash memory, clouds. I've seen it happen - The ATTAM project (All Things To All Men), a recipe for catastrophic failure.

(*) If you've never heard of these, you are not a 'grey beard' or 'IT Heavyweight'.
Gary_EL
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Gary_EL,
User Rank: Ninja
11/20/2013 | 10:51:40 PM
A Corollary to Ageism
A year or two ago, when the recession was still raging, the then-new grads in IT, along with everybody else, couldn't get jobs. Now that the economy is a bit recovered, 2013 IT grads are doing OK. But those poor souls from two years ago are tainted meat in the eyes of the personnel departments that control hiring.

So, I ask, should the grads sue their universities for taking away four years and $200,000 for a degree that expires in two years, or should they sue the corporations that empower these personnel folk for age discrimination?
KevinRCasey
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KevinRCasey,
User Rank: Moderator
11/20/2013 | 7:18:58 PM
Re: Similar Dynamic
Huckabone mentioned something in a follow-up that didn't make the story but speaks to your point on efficiency. His previous employer "was using a set of tools that was very, very inefficient. So, the young guys don't see that because they don't have the experience; this old guy saw it because I've used lots of different tools and methods."

His point was simply that his younger coworkers were diligent and hard-working, but logging far more hours than necessary to accomplish tasks that could be done faster.
Michael Endler
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Michael Endler,
User Rank: Author
11/20/2013 | 6:55:22 PM
Re: Similar Dynamic
@Thomas-- A friend of mine has had a similar experience. He's about ten years into his career as a software engineer, and every interview he's been to lately, all for senior engineer positions, he's been asked why he isn't applying for management roles.
keitha0000
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keitha0000,
User Rank: Strategist
11/20/2013 | 5:57:12 PM
RE: Keepin up with Tech
This is not confined to Silicon Valley-- it is an epidemic through the IT / tech sector all thoughout North America. (I can't speak for Eorope, Asia or South America.) For a 50-plus-year old, I have been able to keep working nicely, but I can't say the same when I survey what is happening around me. If you're a grey beard and aren't protected by a union (very reare in tech), you're at risk of being dumped. Further, prospective employers aren't interested in you. In my opinion, they may be interested in your experience, but not in your age demographic, and possibly not in your salary expectations.
Case in point, I see tech firms crying for people with mainframe experience, while the LinkedIn groups are full of older people with mainframe experience crying for work. It's not a fluke...
cjohanssonv6t
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cjohanssonv6t,
User Rank: Apprentice
11/20/2013 | 5:17:49 PM
Re: Probably a simple reason
Ha! Yep, same advice, big city services are better than rural. The best doctors always want to be in the big city. Regarding your doctor firend's advice, relative to IT, by the time they get their ticket to practise they are of an age that would be considered old in other fields. That's my observation.
Tom Murphy
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Tom Murphy,
User Rank: Author
11/20/2013 | 5:13:02 PM
Re: Probably a simple reason
Actually, it was my doctor (a fellow in his late 50s) who gave me that advice about heart surgeons. He also told me that if anyone ever tells you that you need a stent, make sure you go to a big-city hospital instead of your local general hospital. "All the good doctors work in the city," he said.  He lived in the burbs near me.
anon7127394659
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anon7127394659,
User Rank: Apprentice
11/20/2013 | 5:02:01 PM
Let's keep it real
Not to cast any stones or accusations, but we need to keep a couple of things in perspective here.


First off, everyone needs to bring their A-game when interviewing. Or, in regards to the current subject, no one wants to hire a curmudgeon - regardless of the age.

Second, you have to be actively engaged and invested in your skillset. No one has the luxury of a career in IT with a single technology any longer. That's been gone for at least twenty years now. If the skills on your resume are fifteen years out of step with the market, you have no one to blame but yourself.
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