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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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User Rank: Moderator
11/20/2013 | 3:52:20 PM
Ageism in IT Recruitment
I left Sun Microsystems some years ago aged a smidge short of 60 years old. I decided to try for another job, having got into IBM, Oracle and then Sun without a hitch. The problems then started. I was being interviewed for jobs by youngish people, the sort I used to have for my mid-morning snack with coffee and certainly wouldn't have had them on my 'team'. After a while, I decided to give up and write, using my 35 years experience in IT and a mass of useful material I had developed over the years. This is ongoing. The fact that some CIOs used to regularly ask my advice and opinion (because of my grey hair and gravitas) suggests I had something to offer. I had even more to offer after my years in IBM, Oracle and Sun but that didn't seem to count.

My summary: There is definitely ageism in IT recruitment, at least in the UK, flavoured with interviewers who couldn't tell an experienced and useful candidate from a grand piano - even if he/she was employed for a couple of years to help create a better IT shop. I suspect that the age of hari kiri in IT is 50.

User Rank: Strategist
11/20/2013 | 3:50:40 PM
Re: Similar Dynamic
a good programmer doesn't necessarily make a good manager. In fact the current young people obsession with email, texting may make then less than optimal communicator which is required to be  good manager.
User Rank: Strategist
11/20/2013 | 3:47:39 PM
Zuckerberg would be mindful to acknowledge the accomplishments of the older worker instead of denigrating it. I would put up the intelligence of those who created the space program, developed the internet, created huge compuer companies, and created some of the most advanced weapons, to any of his employees and himself. He knows 1 thing, websites.

And he is one of the reasons I'd never invest in his company.

For the older techies I offer testing as a career path.The discipline is across technical lines, and is readily doable without writing code.

I'm 63. Worked for a high tech company for 27 years and now I am consulting.
Thomas Claburn
Thomas Claburn,
User Rank: Author
11/20/2013 | 3:42:53 PM
Re: Similar Dynamic
The talented 40ish programmers I know all seem to get promoted to positions where they're managing other engineers. Software engineering as a discipline seems to be set up to move talent programmers past a certain age away from writing actual code.
Tom Murphy
Tom Murphy,
User Rank: Author
11/20/2013 | 3:18:52 PM
Re: Similar Dynamic
I can't think of a profession where there aren't more young people than old people -- even the geriatric care industry is dominated by the young.  In the fast-changing technology field, "new" is very often associated with "young." Most of the reasons are cited in the article, and certainly ageism is one of them -- perceived higher energy levels, willingness to work for less, willingness to work long hours without rewards.  I think younger people also may be more optimistic that by working hard they'll get ahead while older workers may feel they've plateaued or are now "downwardly mobile." Enthusiasm counts for a LOT in job interviews.

What to do?  Many older workers turn into entrepreneurs, so they can work for a boss they respect. Others pursue lifelong interests outside of their main career, effectively becoming a "younger worker" who is willing to work hard for less in exchange for learning the ropes. And there are many, many tech consultants and analyts in their 50s or 60s.

But the ugly reality is that unemployment is highest among young Gen Yers and older Boomers -- those who are perceived to be outside their "best years," even though they may be perfect for the job at hand.
User Rank: Author
11/20/2013 | 2:53:39 PM
Re: Similar Dynamic
In a similar boat. I'm 58, been in the industry longer than some of the folks I work with. I have found that in the consulting field I run into it less (it isn't non-existent, but it does seem less than in-house). I remember similar attitudes as Zuckerberg's during the internet boom in the 90's, then a large percentage of internet startup sites collapsed on themselve because they couldn't perform or scale.
User Rank: Apprentice
11/20/2013 | 1:58:24 PM
Re: Similar Dynamic
I agree to a certain extent.

I'm 59 currently and working with many that are in their mid 30s.

However, many of these 30 ish people, want very high starting salaries and don't want to start at lower positions, even without experience.

At times, I've done twice as much work in the time some of these people take to do the task and I do work the extended or overtime or weekend hours, while many younger workers say they want a life and they have children.

I think there is a value of the older experienced worker as well and don't want to place all younger workers into the category I've stated above, as I've met some really dedicated young people that will do whatever it takes to get the job done.

I've nearly got 40 years of service on the mainframe and midrange platforms.

So many of the young workers don't want to have anything to do with the mainframe, as well as want much of their work automated.

I agree about automation, but I also remember the good old days, when everything was manual.

Sure it was a lot of work and we automated processes for the future.

But I see that a lot of that automation that had previously been done is causing problems currently, as if it breaks, no one know how to do it the 'old way' any longer.

Good and bad with both I guess.

User Rank: Apprentice
11/20/2013 | 1:35:12 PM
Much Sage Wisdom Here
I agree with all of the posts here, as you clearly have experienced views.

Which leads me to my comment - for all of the chattering from IT "Leadership" about aligning IT with business, the clear ageism that exists tells me that these leaders are full of it.  The more experienced a candidate is, the more likely they have deep relevent business experience that would be valuable in aligning IT with business.

I've led efforts in sales, operations and later technology with a strong track record.  When I was cut in the HP mess last year, I found that there were few leadership roles open,  However, I was willing to work my way back up, yet even before salary was discussed, recruiters looked past anyone around my age. Hence my comment.

So I decided to start my own consulting business and with the exception of my son, only brought on people with twenty years or more of experience. And I named my firm with that perspective.  We are VoxPeritus- the Voice of Experience in voice consulting.

I do have to send kudos to General Motors who are opening four IT centers of excellent, and are recruiting experienced people.  So there is a bit of a light in the darkness!

User Rank: Ninja
11/20/2013 | 1:31:13 PM
Another kind of old
I certainly hope I never find out first hand what some of the guys you interviewed have gone thru. Now 55, my entire development career has been on IBM servers. First few years (1985) it was on mainframe with CICS and COBOL. 

I now spend most of time writing browser based applications using IBM midrange server, the i5 (formally AS400, formally iSeries). Even though it's native interface is green screen 5250 emulation, which leads it to get labeled as legacy and obsolete by some misinformed people, my new applications are written using Sencha's Ext JS framework at the browser front end and good old RPG and SQL on the i5 doing the backend, interfacing thru the native Apache HTTP server. Produces awesome Web 2.0 applications, including Touch device support.

But do I have any delusions I could easily find another place to do this? Heck no. i5 shops are either still writing green screen code in RPG or just running packages that vendors maintain, no custom coding is done. And at my age, I really don't want to do anything else. Regardless of Zuckenburg's ego, coding Facebook looks boring compared to supporting a challenging Mfg environment. A child could do Facebook, which is why they do it. But they can't do what I, and many like me, have been doing all our working lives.
User Rank: Apprentice
11/20/2013 | 12:59:00 PM
Re: Old Dog
IT departments are often the drivers for organisational change because technology is usually at the root of it.

Whilst it is possibly true that older employees (I am one) are less change oriented, more settled etc, this is not, in my experience an attitude defined purely by age.

Some on the most change resistant staff I have encountered were in their early to mid 30's, having worked hard to achieve the mid career status and job grade, they generally are very fearful that change will undermine their achievements

Conversely, older employees, may have already been through several change cycles and are therefore more sanguine about change; or may actually welcome change to reignite their career.

At the end of the day it is a case of "horses for courses". Any organisation that overtly ignores any section of the workforce, either because of gender, age, religion, disability etc, will be a much weaker competitor in the long run. So, as someone has already noted in this thread, if the process is discriminatory maybe potential employees need to turn this on it's head and reject the organisation instead.

Have a great week.


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