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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.

[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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Kristin Burnham
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Kristin Burnham,
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12/6/2013 | 9:31:10 PM
Re: Re. Comments on Too Old For IT
@turquhart201 -- you nailed it. Young employees can groan about how older ones just "don't get it" and older ones can groan on about how young ones have no respect. The  more important realization is that both bring important qualities to the table, and both should be respected for such.
Susan Fourtané
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Susan Fourtané,
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11/25/2013 | 9:23:27 AM
Re: Ageism and Sexism
Mariposa, 

Maybe people, and the media are giving too much importance to what Mark Z. says? Let's not forget that FB satrted as a school project, he was not even working on a startup. He was just lucky. 

Also, maybe it's a good idea to remember that Mark Z. is not the sole representative of his generation. There are many others, founders and CEOs of their startups, who are smarter, and think differently. 

-Susan
Joe Stanganelli
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Joe Stanganelli,
User Rank: Author
11/22/2013 | 10:32:42 PM
Re: TOO OLD??? ARE YOU KIDDING????
I'm with you, turquhart.  While I've found that young people are frequently more open to innovation, Those 45+ generally know their stuff more -- and are more passionate about what they do.
Ariella
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Ariella,
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11/21/2013 | 12:58:21 PM
Re: Are You Too Old For IT?


Those of you who feel the pain of age bias may get a kick out of the video that looks at the flip side: what people think of millenials in the work place with some tongue-in-cheek advice about how to treat them.

 

 
Ariella
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Ariella,
User Rank: Author
11/21/2013 | 10:37:26 AM
Re: Too old and too hard to prove discrimination
@DiscustedOne what you say fits well with the investigations of hiring bias discussed in http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2013/12/theyre-watching-you-at-work/354681/ Aside from stereotyping older workers as set in their ways or not up to date, in general people who do hiring look for those like them.  They make judgements based on their gut reaction, and they are very often wrong. That's why some places are now using analytics for more objective and more accurate assessment of employee suitability for positions. 
Joe Stanganelli
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Joe Stanganelli,
User Rank: Author
11/21/2013 | 9:51:10 AM
Outdating of skills
I remember reading somewhere that the skills someone learns while pursuing a technical degree become obsolete in three years.  Ultimately, it's about the fundamental understanding.  Experience is a big factor of that.  It's a shame that companies have resorted to this age discrimination while shooting themselves in the foot in the process.
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.
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.
Tom Murphy
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Tom Murphy,
User Rank: Author
11/20/2013 | 4:35:28 PM
RE: Keepin up with Tech
Howard:  First, thanks for being so frank -- I'm sure there are a lot of us gray beards out here who can relate to your plight.  Personally, I found that happening, so I put myself through the exercise of figuring out why people would want to hire me.  I literally made four lists:

1. Things I do well and in which I have extensive experience. (social media? finance? tech? Writing?)

2. Things I need from a job to make me really happy.  (money? location? flex hours?)

3. Jobs that require expertise in the first list and offer most of the second. 

4. Companies that offer those jobs. Then I approach those companies and tell them affirmatively that I can help them with that job -- whether they are advertising for it or not.

That may sound simplistic, but it has led me to a series of fascinating jobs over the past 20 years. I have even convinced at least three employers to create a job for me.  I'm 60 now, and have no intention of quitting anytime soon, but when I do, I already know what I'm doing next. In fact, I have a few things in the No. 3 group (I keep the list current, just in case.)
Tom Murphy
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Tom Murphy,
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11/20/2013 | 4:19:11 PM
Women -- of any age.
Ageism is one thing. But even more frightening is the absence of women from the ranks. It's rare to see an IT department where women comprise even 10%.  That ain't right.
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