Mark Zuckerberg is 28. Tumblr’s David Karp is only 27, and the founders of DropBox are 27 and 30. What’s more, Yahoo recently bought tech startup Summly, whose CEO is only 17-years-old, for $US30 million dollars.
Founders aside, even Silicon Valley CEOs tend to be very young, and the engineering talent is often even younger. The result can be a bias against — even hostility toward — older workers, and experience can actually be seen as a detriment.
In an SFGate article exploring the issue, Andrew S. Ross spoke to a 49-year-old IT professional who, despite having held multiple senior positions at multinationals and startups, has been out of work for 10 months; a 40-year-old corporate IT manager who can’t get hired for the numerous positions he’s qualified for; and a 56-year-old physicist named Paul Brunemeir, who spent his entire career designing electronics and was laid off as an engineering director.
“I would have taken a 33% pay cut to keep my job, but they never offered,” Brunemeir said.
There are many more like them, in an industry apparently so starved for talent that it applied for hundreds of thousands of visas to hire foreign workers.
There’s a belief, often stemming from founders’ limited experiences, that young engineers can focus better, are more likely to be up-to-date on the latest technologies, are more trainable, and can put in those all-night coding sessions. And because the young stars rise so high so quickly, they may have trouble relating to and interviewing older hires.
Simply “acting old” or even wearing out-of-date clothes holds candidates back in interviews, according to the piece.
Research shows that people tend to want to hire those they can see themselves hanging out with, even if it comes at the expense of talent. This age gap ends up being particularly awkward and difficult to overcome.
The result? A large pool of extremely experienced, out-of-work people in one of the hottest job markets in the country.
There’s an economic dimension here that should be troubling to older workers not just in Silicon Valley, but everywhere. It’s cheaper and more efficient to hire a series of young engineers and replace them as needed than invest years of training in people or pay the six-figure salaries and substantial benefits commanded by the over-40 set.
Hires are for specific technologies and product pushes, rather than long-term investments.
The practice is pretty short-sighted. In addition to the value of experience, there’s a lot of evidence that people don’t actually reach their full potential until they’re older than the average Silicon Valley engineer. This is particularly true for highly complex and technical fields, according to Northwestern Professor Benjamin Jones. The likelihood of someone making a significant scientific advance or discovering a grows the most during someone’s 30s, and peaks at 38.
Industry realities are a part of the youth trend. Tech companies, particularly those on the Web, emphasise very short product cycles and moving fast. And fewer older engineers specialize in, say, cloud computing or mobile technology.
But really significant ideas — the things that change companies and the world — take a bit longer to develop. And they take people who have been working with that idea for years, and have the experience to actually move it from concept to fruition. After all, Steve Jobs hit his stride when he returned to Apple in his 40s.
There are plenty of Silicon Valley companies that have risen extremely fast but failed to stick around. Frequently, the hiring strategy seems to be more about hypergrowth than longevity.
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