What 'The Old Guy' Brings To IT Teams

IT pros report that hiring managers often favor young hires in the name of "culture" or "fit." But this may throw your team's balance off.

Kevin Casey, Contributor

December 6, 2013

5 Min Read

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The latest SIM IT Trends Survey points to rising salaries, increasing investments in on-the-job training, and higher turnover IT roles. The latter is a particularly promising omen for jobseekers.

"All of those things tell me it's a good time to be in the IT job market," the study's lead researcher told InformationWeek.

Sure, as long as you're in your 20s or 30s.

Older IT pros on the job hunt might find their age is an unwelcome factor in employment decisions, even when market conditions are favorable. There's little hard data on age bias in the IT field, but professionals and recruiters say it's an industry reality.

It's also stupid.

Most ageism is subtle, often lurking in disguise as a "culture fit" issue. Sometimes, though, it's right out there in the open. A reader tipped us onto a story comment to a Denver-area online forum where, in 2012, an IT recruiter posted a call looking for two "young, up and coming mobile developers." I'll leave the names of the recruiter and company out of it; the point isn't to assign blame. Suffice it to say the recruiter works for a national IT staffing firm that was recently highlighted in Gartner's IT Workforce Practices report. When another forum poster suggested deleting the word "young" so as to not run afoul of the federal Age Discrimination in Employment Act, the recruiter responded in candid fashion.

[ Which IT fields need people? Read Data Scientist: The Sexiest Job No One Has. ]

"I apologized [sic] for the way I phrased the posting but it's the truth. This company wants a young, passionate team to grow with the company. If I present anyone more than 6-7 years out of college, they will not schedule an interview," the recruiter wrote. He didn't stop there: "There are tons of federal acts trying to make everyone equal, but at the end of the day companies know exactly what they want and will say 'their personality doesn't fit the culture' or 'their experience isn't a match' when in reality the individual is too old."

Another finding in the 2013 SIM report: 20% of IT leaders say a skills shortage keeps them up at night. What's wrong with this picture? How can one in five IT decision-makers bite their nails about a skills shortage while veteran IT pros -- especially those 50 and older -- contend with age bias?

To be fair, individuals have to hold up their end of the bargain. Keep your skills sharp. Don't be the office grouch. Stay in touch with your professional network, even if you're not looking for a job. Good advice for any age, but especially if you're a so-called "old guy," a term I use here for male and female IT pros. (Gender bias in IT? That's a whole other story.) Gary Huckabone, one of the 50-something IT pros I spoke with recently, even said "some ageism is warranted." But if you're not doing your job well, that's not age bias, it's poor performance.

What about the dedicated IT pros who do stay current, deliver value to their employers, and offer the wide-angle perspective that comes with experience?

Smart CIOs and other decision-makers embrace the veteran workforce; dumb ones misappropriate terms such as "culture" and "fit" to build an exclusively young staff. It does a disservice to culture and fit, both real things -- not everyone's cut out to be a triage nurse or a derivatives trader or an elementary school teacher. For that matter, not everyone's cut out for IT. But age should have nothing to do with it.

Let's set aside social and moral concerns and just consider the bottom line. Ageism is bad business. If IT is ultimately about solving problems and innovating, what good is a homogenous team? As InformationWeek reader and IT exec Adam Blackie noted in a comment: "Any organization 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."

Tom Hart, a former IT executive who is now CMO of the recruiting firm Eliassen, told me in a recent interview that age comes up regularly with clients, though usually in an indirect manner. Although the client ultimately signs the checks, Hart and his colleagues try to emphasize the benefits of balance in a team.

"We'll talk about having a balanced organization that allows you great flexibility in terms of the direction you may be taking a product or service offering," Hart said. "Having some seasoned folks on the team -- who have been there, they've done that, they're battle-weary, they know how to avoid making the same mistakes over and over, they know how to work with more difficult business counterparts -- it's good to have that balance in play. Just to have a bunch of young guns who are willing to work really hard and long hours may not be good enough for the ultimate success of the endeavor."       

And those employers griping about a skills shortage?

"They need to broaden their perspective in terms of what they're looking for," Hart said. "There's plenty of talent out there."

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About the Author(s)

Kevin Casey


Kevin Casey is a writer based in North Carolina who writes about technology for small and mid-size businesses.

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