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Age Discrimination in Silicon Valley (world-startups.com)
61 points by robmarkg on Aug 12, 2014 | hide | past | web | favorite | 70 comments

Anecdata: I'm over 40. I interviewed with a well known VR company which, aside from the dev manager, was staffed by 20 somethings. I've been doing that kind of work for my entire career and have written a number of multi-million seller games as a lead programmer. Still, they didn't want me. It was 7 hours of mostly rapid fire technical questions, which aside from one whiteboard problem that I didn't really understand what they were asking, I felt I did pretty good at. Obviously they felt different. I did go into the interview telling them that given my experience and record of shipping quality titles I expected a higher level of salary. Maybe that did me in, I don't know. But I did sniff that they thought of me as the old guy, and why would I still want to be coding & not in management at my age?

The upside is that by not getting/taking that job my current job bumped my salary by 50%. I was already making a bunch before, now I'm retiring even earlier! So I guess it all worked out in the end.

>This latest report by Linkedin is where it hit me – something smells fishy about this. It is just too much of a coincidence that three of the major tech companies have issued almost identical “diversity” reports, and all three have been missing something screamingly obvious – any mention at all of age, or even an explanation as to why it is missing. This almost seems like collusion, it is almost certainly a cover up.

Someone needs to do more research before jumping to conclusions about motive. Age isn't reported in the US EEO-1 Survey [1] which is the basis of the diversity reports that various companies have recently published [2]. That's why the reports are nearly identical.

[1] http://www.eeoc.gov/employers/eeo1survey/index.cfm & http://www.eeoc.gov/employers/eeo1survey/ee1_datafile_2013.c...

[2] http://static.googleusercontent.com/media/www.google.com/en/...

I don't understand your comment. The survey may have formed the basis for the diversity reports, but it shouldn't be difficult to supplement them with age data, since the companies already have the information.

Thanks EC - I didn't understand his point either but I expected it - that a self appointed spokesperson for these huge tech companies will try to invent some reason why they cant get this data. Of course they can - that data is readily available. The "someone who needs to do more research" it the person who made the comment - because his "research" attempt to find a reason to discredit this failed, though I am sure there will be more by apologists for this kind of behavior. If there really is some legal reason why summary statistics on employee age data can't be released, I still have never heard of it.

I'm not trying to justify the companies' decision to not release the age data. I'm just pointing out that there is no collusion as originally claimed. All the companies disclosed data based on the government survey which is why their reporting categories look so similar.

Honestly, much of this wouldn't irritate me so much if silicon valley weren't so emphatic that there is a critical shortage of software engineers that requires special consideration.

Could it be that one of the many reasons that other segments of the economy aren't experiencing a labor shortage is that they don't discard people at age 35?

It's worth remembering that many other industries have the opposite problem. Lots of the best jobs being occupied by baby boomers who are taking longer to retire, leading to a lack of opportunity for younger people to get on the ladder.

So we have a large number of smart younger people who are underemployed, are google etc simply innovating by exploiting this undertapped talent pool?

I have no experience with big-name tech megacorps, my career has been with startups and small companies mostly. As a non-young person who's looking for something new at a small startup, my feeling is that age discrimination is clearly a thing, but it's not (just) a function of expected compensation, skillset, or willingness to work insane hours. My feeling is that, while you're expected to fit the profile in those areas, most of the discrimination is based on what startups would call "cultural fit". Specifically, being "like them" in having an enthusiasm for a dorm culture atmosphere. Yes, Work is Play! It's All About Having Fun(!) here at our hipster office. We have fussball tables. A fridge packed with beer! Group outings to clubs (to hear bands that are popular among the just-graduated set, don't expect a night at the symphony)! Food from the food trucks. Nerf fights! Why oh why would you ever go home??

I frequently see this sort of work environment publicly glorified on the "come work with us!" pages of startup websites, often accompanied by a self-congratulatory statement such as "of course, we wouldn't be a real {SF|NYC|Berlin|...} start-up if we didn't have all this and an office in the coolest part of the city" and so forth. The implied message being that if you're not likewise enthusiastic about a "work is socializing and play with some coding mixed in followed by socializing and play" atmosphere, if you don't share the non-work-related values and interests of "the team" (i.e. things 23 year olds care about), then clearly you're not startup material. You won't be fun to have around, won't be fun to hang out with, you should probably go work for an insurance company, somewhere boring where you'll fit right in.

When I go on a job interview, I'm interviewing the company as much as they are interviewing me. I've turned down a handful of job offers because their "workplace culture" wasn't what I was looking for. Some were way too dry, some were too much like what you describe above.

Of course, I'm not near an SF/NYC/Berlin type of "scene" though. Is the problem that every good job opening in these hotbeds is with a start up that has this type of culture?

I can't of course say that every startup company has this sort of culture, but my impression is that most small tech companies in startup hotbeds lean in the direction I describe. The sort of startups that catch my attention seem either to have such cultures or be straining to have them. They seem to think that hipster/dorm atmosphere is important for recruiting (the kind of people they want – 23 year-olds) and actively strive to create, maintain, and advertise it.

Im surprised that every comment so far basically leans towards age discrimination not being a wide spread thing. Its definitely a thing, especially in startups, incubators, and definitely companies already mostly staffed with young workers.

Disclosure: I'm 35 and have been CTO at my ladt 3 companies. I've certainly have been biased myself worrying that older candidates I'm interviewing wont have the same hustle, want a higher salary than the value they would contribute, and might be more stubborn and resistant to leadership.

Age should definitely be included in these reports.

>> might be more stubborn and resistant to leadership.

If you mean "stubborn and resistant to bullshit" then yes.

Older employees are much less likely to be deceived, because they've seen enough of the working world to notice common patterns and pitfalls.

Tell a 23 year old that you're going to disrupt an industry and need some rockstars to pull it off, and they might jump onboard. Tell the same thing to a 35 year old and they will just laugh at you.

How much of the "ageism" is actual discrimination and how much is "we have a small budget and need 80 hour weeks" that older workers won't accept?

I received an offer from a very interesting startup in southern California (down between LA and San Diego, not SF). The offer was $30K/year (with increases as revenue increased), with minimum 80 hours a week expected. As cool as the projects were... There's no way I at my current age and life situation could possibly make that work. Ten years ago? Maybe. Fifteen years ago? You bet!

I'm twenty-three and I would turn them down without thinking twice. I get double that and only have to work the expected 40 at my job and there isn't any pressure to put in more hours than that.

I'm surprised that you could get anyone for that kind of money. I wouldn't have taken it 15 years ago, either.

If people are willing to take so little, it does mean that I could finance a pretty decent startup for a little while without significantly damaging my savings. New information to me.

30000/(80*48) --> whopping 7.8125/hr really ??

That shows a little problem, in that its probably not terribly difficult to find a "real employer" or some contract work paying over $16/hr 40 hrs/wk and then do something even cooler than the startup during your 40 hours "off".

If the startup is only looking for $7/hr caliber of employee, if you're worried about them making it big and missing out, get a "real" $30/hr job 40 hrs a week and out of that income hire a $7/hr noob to keep the startup entertained while you're at your real job. Essentially, subcontract your job.

Depending on holidays (likely bare minimum) and vacation (likely none), that would only be minimum wage.

I made more than that 15 years ago as a very junior developer in a very interesting startup.

That's not ageism, that's idiocy. (barring some great equity offer) No business prepared to pay that will function for long, as it suggests inadequate capitalization.

I was willing to accept the "we have a small budget and need 80 hour weeks", but they still preferred to hire a younger person and gave him a decent salary

They don't need 80 hour weeks. That just underscores the irrationality of these employers.

If developers honestly track their time, I'd be surprised if many who claim to be doing 60-80 hours a week are doing more than 8 hours a day of productive work. I'm not talking about coding. I'm just talking about doing work related things that aren't watching Youtube and writing on HN.

I got kind of annoyed at a buddy of mine would humble-brag about staying until midnight to get things done. Of course, he arrived at 11, made coffee and surfed until lunch, and then got down to work around 1:30 or so. While working, he'd have a Youtube window open continuously on a second monitor, and be bidding on penny auctions, etc.

He's a great guy, and got a lot of stuff done. But he basically worked an 8 hour day.

That sounds like a bad offer no matter your age, health, marital status, and so on. 30K/year, 80 hours a week and (I assume) no equity? Pass.

Well there goes another person who is "offended". Is there age discrimination? Possibly, but at my workplace there are a lot of slackers and you guessed it, they're usually (emphasis on "usually", stop trolling) older, paper pushers, "Let's have a meeting to talk about changing a line of code" people, etc. Needless to say, I work in a big company.

The best way to avoid discrimination of any kind is to continuously update your skills (technical, social, inter-personal etc.). If you have nothing to show for working X number of years, then why would people hire you? They'd rather have someone who can put in an insane amount of hours. I'm not supporting companies who do this, but I'm rather stating the stark reality of Silicon Valley. It's unfortunate, but it is what it is.

Edit: I should've expected these responses; I've said explicitly I do not support this. But at the same time instead of complaining, invest in your skill set.

And conversely, I've worked on teams where most of the developers were "inexperienced" and didn't have the skills necessary to do a good job.

No one is worried about a bias against "bad" developers. The problem is that the same companies that are crying the most about a lack of available developers are (potentially) explicitly not hiring older developers. The cynical amongst us assume this is another tactic to keep employee costs down.

Well, it's not a big jump if they are willing to collude illegally to depress wages.

> The best way to avoid discrimination of any kind is to continuously update your skills (technical, social, inter-personal etc.)

That may be a way to respond to discrimination, but it's not a way to avoid it.

Discrimination, by its definition, refers to what happens after one's skills and qualifications are sufficient and comparable to other candidates, and yet other candidates are systematically shown preference.

Yup, I agree. I'm not disputing this fact, discrimination happens everywhere. I'm merely pointing out what I think we should do as individuals, because let's face it, legislation is not going to work (passing it is one major hurdle, implementation is another)

You are getting old.

Day by day, all-nighter by all-nighter.

The more hours you put in, the faster you will burn.

But that's ok, your company will not mind. There's a sucker born every minute.

Their company is a family... one of those cannibalistic ones that eats their ancestors.

Not necessarily.

It is amusing that after observing that older folk employed at the same company seem to be taking it easier compared to the average, ashwinaj uses this observation to partially justify age discrimination on the basis that the older people look like they are putting in less effort, when these are the same set of people who have been successful at staying with the company.

Perhaps the company actually values more relaxed people and doesn't encourage the perpetually rushed to stick around.

edit - Something that did occur to me after reading this -

there are a lot of slackers and you guessed it, they're usually (emphasis on "usually", stop trolling) older, paper pushers, "Let's have a meeting to talk about changing a line of code" people

- was to think about how much money could have been saved globally by someone like that being in the loop on the openSSL source code. It has to be in the billions by now.

Well, you can nitpick my comment, pick outliers and twist my words (I never said I justify age discrimination - I merely said it is a fact of life) but readers here are smarter than that :)

You do not need to explicitly say that you support a given position to be able to make a statement that supports a given position.

The statement - "there are a lot of slackers and you guessed it, they're usually (emphasis on "usually", stop trolling) older, paper pushers" - clearly, in the plain meaning of the words, supports age discrimination without requiring any further clarification on your part, and does so even if you did not mean it to.

Explicitly stating != implying Oh BTW, I learned this from the older folks in my company :)

It seems equally likely age isn't included because widespread discrimination based on age hasn't been a historical norm (and arguably isn't now) the way discrimination based on race, ethnicity, religion etc. has. One "high level google employee" declining to answer such a loaded question in a social/unofficial context is definitely not a strong indictment of their culture.

There could be something to this (younger workers don't have families, work longer, cheaper, fresher skills, to rehash some common points), but this article feels really contrived.

I've worked in a few different industries that are traditionally a lot more corporate than most startups. Most notably, finance.

What I've noticed is that while these companies tend to have older tech guys than you'll find at a lot of startups, it's still a lot younger age-wise than the rest of the business.

I think part of it is that the number of young people who were in tech 20 years ago compared to now was much smaller. This is a new industry and it's not completely far fetched to think that part of the reason why we are missing a lot of grey hairs is that there's simply not as many of them. It's also pretty well known that a lot of older programmers move out of full-time coding roles and into management positions. Granted this isn't universal across the board but it's been proven true in my anecdotal experiences.

Personally, I absolutely love it when I get an applicant who graduated college before 2000. No matter what their skill as a developer, I know they have way more life experience than me. Someone with experience will usually beat out the guy working more hours so for me, it's a no-brainer to hire the older guy who's done it all than a young whipper snapper who's super ambitious but has a massive ego.

I am just about to turn 40. Been developing software for 11 and a half years professionally. I realise that I am a lot better developer than I was a while ago. Actually I have seen a lot more problems, and I have a good idea what will work two months down the line, and what will be a constant fire fighting exercise due to a half though through design.

How do I get this across to employers? All they seem interested is if I have experience in MongoDB (which in 9 out of 10 cases seems to be a crap choice).

The typical interview in the silicon valley goes like this:

him: you're coding netflix, which db you use?

you: [insert any relational db name here]

him: but what if you have a gazillion users?

you: ok ok, i'll use mongodb (sigh)

If mongodb is in fact a poor choice for their problem set and they made it anyway, you're better off not being there.

If it WAS the pragmatic or correct choice, then I'd say spend a few days or nights getting up to speed with mongo. Learning to use it is not that hard, it's keeping things working smoothly/tuning when you have a huge cluster and many consumers of it that's hard.

Start consulting or doing independent contractor work? Apply to Fog Creek software or Trello, and let us know whether the reality is as good as the marketing?

I am based in Spain. The job market for senior developers is a bit tougher here.

Come work with us! We're growing fast and love people with lots of experience.


Would you consider remote? I am a Django dev (at the moment) and have experience in the financial sector, but I am based in Barcelona.

We do!

Barcelona is awesome. Our COO is actually from there originally

Judging from your team photo it doesn't look like that :-) But it is a thought what counts


We have people in China, Poland, Russia, Pakistan, France, and India!

You should hire young ... but not to get the best technical ability. You should hire young because we older developers, while being technically superior to our younger colleagues, don't want to put up with your bullshit.

I've been on enough projects that can best be described as rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic that I don't put up with management dropping the ball. The challenge for more experienced developers is to recognize when some extra individual effort would actually save the project and also be compensated, without getting burned on another fucked project.

In every software company I've worked at there's been no feedback loop for poor management tighter than project failure, or ultimately company failure -- but that takes a long time. Also, it can be attributed to many confounding factors by bosses who are less than self-aware.

Now that I'm 49, here's my 2 yen.

After a certain age, I didn't care as much about the "challenge" of a new position so much as the money and power I would receive. Shocking, I know.

I also acquired a certain ruthlessness born maybe out of my observations of corporate life, or from a sense that my life's candle is burning ever shorter.

Sure, I would still make the mouth noises and refrain from keeping it real. And I would occasionally succeed.

The problem with revealing a taste for money and power is that it puts you in competition with the company suits - who consider money and power as much their birthright as their perfectly coiffed hair and their legacy admission to Hahvahd. So if given the choice, the suits will always choose less-experienced people who don't value money and power over better-qualified people who do.

Put another way, suits have a sense of inadequacy that only Freud could appreciate.

It's deck chairs all the way down.

You rearrange them to the best of ability, get some commendations on how well the chairs are arranged, and get promoted to the next sinking ship before the current one sinks.

If you're lucky you'll become an expert deck chair arranger and get lucrative consulting gigs on how a different arrangement of chairs could have saved the ship.

Bingo. Every so often, you do ship something and gasp people like it and pay money for it, though. That keeps me on the ship. The moment that becomes institutionally unlikely, I'm gone.

I would certainly like to see the data, but I'm not sure what I think about the topic.

Age discrimination feels like it could be the other side of the coin that presents so much opportunity in this field to begin with - a system that values intelligence, willingness to learn and work hard on par with or lieu of experience.

I jumped into tech without a degree or much in the way of experience. Now that I'm established can I reasonably expect that the situation should reverse to suit me?

I just turned 35, young by most standards yet older to old by seeming tech standards. After 17 years working full-time, I'm a better asset than I was 15, 10 or 5 years ago in every way, but I can think of plenty of reasons why someone would understandably prefer to hire young me versus old me.

It's the difference between a guy who will work 65+ hours a week year round and someone who wants to spend every hour possible with his child. It's also the difference between a guy who is learning certain things and one who has fully automated those things a dozen times over.

That's an oversimplification on both fronts, but hopefully you get the idea.

How much 'done it before' value can there be in the context of growing companies which are creating things which don't yet exist or are constructed with tools that are <5 years old? How many opportunities are there for people whose most effective position would leadership or strategic?

I'm reminded of an amusing encounter in Berlin. I went to meet a seemingly promising proto-startup, one associated with a prominent accelerator, at their well-known coworking space. I was interested in their CTO spot and had plenty of relevant experience. I could tell from the first handshake that my potential non-tech counterpart was not exactly amused by my lack of youth, which, as everyone knows, is crucial to CTO success. I was dressed the part - the standard-issue German uniform of polo shirt & jeans, nothing off-putting there. At some point not far into the meeting, he asked me what my GPA was. I kid you not. I graduated from a well-respected school, decades ago, have a long track record with startups, keep up to date on tech, but he emphatically wanted to know my GPA. I scratched my head and guessed, upon which he asked if that put me in the top 5% of graduates at the school. Color me mystified: not only did they not tell us that sort of thing upon graduation, I could not imagine why he would think it important. Not only did he think it important, he informed me, gesturing through the glass partition at the worker bees, "most of the people we hire are in the top 5% of their classes", and that was just something I should know. It seemed obvious that knowing one's GPA and class standing was a gating factor: it screened out both those who could not claim to be “elite”, but also those with enough age and experience for whom school performance had long ago become irrelevant.

I found it disturbing how much the Berlin startup community deifies SV, attempts to ape it, and maybe this encounter was just one facet of that. In general my impression was that Berlin companies seemed to be less inclined toward age discrimination than US ones, but I would be interested in hearing other opinions on that.

Edit: typo

Wow - these are wonderful comments everyone - even the ones I don't agree with all that much. This post has had almost 4000 views since this morning - that is huge for me. The point I really want to drive home here though, is that even if you think there are "issues" with older workers, do you also believe these companies should be suppressing this data? As I said, it seems to me to be too much of a coincidence that three different tech companies would independently decide to leave this data out, unless they were hiding something. I think "transparency" is a base value among members of Hacker News, and I appreciate the support I have gotten for writing this.

Fundamentally, it's better to be an owner than a worker.

Sometimes it takes decades to realize this. It's easier to sucker young people who have lots of free time into working crazy hours under avoidable stupid conditions with a few cheap perks.

A good company balances the overzealous enthusiasm of youth with the practicality of the wisdom that can only be attained through years, possibly decades, of work. The problem is a lot of people get jaded over time and forget what it was like to be young and excited to work on new (usually to them) projects. The older people tend to become downers if allowed to. Companies that can foster mutual respect between workers spanning multiple generations are the best. If everyone, old and young alike, can focus on continual growth and realizing we can all learn from one another then much can be achieved.

Is there any published research on what CS majors or people working as software engineers in their 20s are doing at age 30, 40, 50, 60?

As many has observed, the numbers don't make sense for everyone to be a manager or CTO.

I definitely sense anxiety when people talk about their future - "I know I don't want to still be coding in 10 years" - but I wonder if that's partly an incomplete picture of what others are doing.

I do want to be coding in ten years, but I realise I also want to be respected for my experience. At the moment, despite having designed and implemented the database and front end that my entire organisation runs on, they decide that I ought to be fixing dumb excel errors, rather than writing an interface that would rid them of all the problems they get from using Excel in the first place.

The key with ageism in tech is to move into mgmt. You're not supposed to be a code monkey at 30. And especially not having 10 years of experience in a technology 10 years old.

Also as you said, young people put up with shit no one over 30 would ever put up with. $30k for 80 hour weeks? No thanks, I'd rather flip burgers because it pays more than $7.50/hr, McDonalds also has free soda.

The key with ageism in tech is to move into mgmt. You're not supposed to be a code monkey at 30.

To suggest that one must move into management, and not do a particular job, because of age, is quite possibly the most ageist comment I've ever heard on HN.

Assuming you have a degree, that means you have 6 or 7 years of experience. To think that's the full extent of your development "career" means that our entire industry would be exceptionally shallow skills-wise.

I'm 37, and I love to hack. And no, I'm most definitely not making $30K for 80hr/wk.

And especially not having 10 years of experience in a technology 10 years old. Is this an indictment against those who get in on the ground floor of a technology? Are you suggesting that you should jump to the latest hipster language, never becoming an expert in anything? Not to mention the fact that most languages that drive the web (Java, JavaScript, Ruby, PHP, to name a few) are about 20 years old at this point.

But a lot of people finish their PhD in their early 30s and becoming a code monkey is one of the foot-in-the-door ways to get into the tech industry.

If the employer only wants one year of experience or less noobs and excludes anyone experienced as out of date or too expensive, then the recent PHD grad is by definition excluded unless the PHD took less than a year.

But I have seen many recruiters/companies treat a 5-6 year PhD as the equivalent of 1-2 years of industry experience.

You are correct. I know many PhDs who finished their degree around 28-35. Several of them are in a conundrum because they don't have management experience nor do they have professional software development experience. When companies interview these people as senior developers (the level corresponding to the 6 figure salary some PhDs expect), they find the person with a PhD lacking. It is quite a mess really ... I tell people to not do a PhD in CS unless they are independently wealthy or don't want a normal (kids, house, yard) life. Sad but that's life.

The key with ageism in tech is to move into mgmt.

Where are these abundant management jobs, ready to absorb every programmer over 30? Personally, having had several awful managers who were worker-bee programmers, I find nothing worse than the idea that programmers should move into management. Good managing is a completely different skill set from programming.

You're not supposed to be a code monkey at 30.

What an awful attitude to have. Code monkey? Personally, I was just getting good at about 30.

And especially not having 10 years of experience in a technology 10 years old.

It's been my experience that good products tend to end up living to ten or more years. And new technologies tend to only get deeply explored and solid after something like ten years.

>>The key with ageism in tech is to move into mgmt. You're not supposed to be a code monkey at 30.

Said the pointy-haired boss who once used to be a code monkey.

Haha, yep, pretty much.

If you can't be part of the solution, there's plenty of money to be made being part of the problem.

I expect to be a programming primate come 30. Some day I aspire to be a software simian.

> "...in a technology 10 years old..."

Like JavaScript, Python and Ruby :)?

You're right that you shouldn't be a code monkey at 30. You should have graduated to programmer by then.

I'm 30, and largely self-taught.

+1. I graduated "code monkey" at 25 or so, "programmer" at around 28, and feel I'm nearing the top of "software developer" now.

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