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11/20/2013
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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.

[The cybersecurity industry is growing fast. Here's how to land a job, even if you don't have direct experience: Looking For A Security Job? You Don't Need To Be Bo Derek.]

"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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BillS20101
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BillS20101,
User Rank: Apprentice
11/20/2013 | 12:04:45 PM
Re: Similar Dynamic
Ageism exists where hiring managers focus on skills rather than values, abilities, and skills.  Plenty of older technologists value learning and advancing their careers and have the abilities to do so.  Focusing on a particular skill, e.g. Ruby on Rails, eliminates some of the best, most consistently creative people out there.  Here's a specific example of where "experience" trumped the willingness to work 80 hour weeks. 

A particular company had a system that required constant, I mean 7x24, babysitting.  They had run this system the same way for many years and considered production support the "trial by fire" for their developers.   One "experienced" hire, worked on the system for 6-8 weeks and reduced the 52 hour weekend batch to 6 hours and the overnight 12 hour process to 90 minutes.   His values, doing things effectively and efficiently, resulted in far greater benefit than 5-6 years of people who valued "working long hours". Sure this "could" have been done by a younger person if they had the same value system - but I contend those values are developed through experience.  It's experience that results in true appreciation that 80% of a system life cycle is maintenance; that you need to manage productivity which drops with extended hours; and that a great technology department is a reusable resource to be nurtured rather than burned through.  

http://www-cs-faculty.stanford.edu/~eroberts/cs181/projects/2004-05/crunchmode/econ-crunch-mode.html

TBC - I love the enthusiasm, the new knowledge, the desire that new blood brings to a department. Without new ideas the tech department will wither.  Not all "experienced" people have the right value set - continuous learning, doing things better, adapting to paradigm shifts - but those that do make an invaluable resource. 

 

 

 
BenCronin04
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BenCronin04,
User Rank: Apprentice
11/20/2013 | 11:20:59 AM
Re: Can't Wait
I see both sides. As a "younger" individual in IT, I have been passed up for positions strictly based on my lower age. "We think you'd do a great job in this position, unfortunately we are not sure if our clients would feel comfortable with having someone of you age in this high of a position."  Once I have enough equity to branch out and start my own business, that will be one factor I WILL NOT allow to influence my decisions.
Alison Diana
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Alison Diana,
User Rank: Moderator
11/20/2013 | 11:03:50 AM
Can't Wait
I believe there is a lot of ageism in tech -- and tech firms are depriving themselves of a lot of wisdom, savvy employees, and running into problems these workers could have helped them avoid. Some of these young-oriented companies will make missteps in their efforts to focus on "culture," and I hope these more seasoned applicants catch them in the act, take them to court for discrimination, and win. Heartbreaking to see so many potentially strong employees put out to pasture.
RobPreston
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RobPreston,
User Rank: Author
11/20/2013 | 10:11:19 AM
Similar Dynamic
There's a similar (though not the same) dynamic in the legal industry, where big firms hire lots of young people fresh out of law school and expect them to work 70-hour weeks, all while the leathery partners punch the standard clock. The big difference is that the lawfirm employers aren't suggesting that the young lawyers have the fresher skills. (Meantime, the Zuckerberg comment is just nauseating.) 
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