In Tech, ‘Age’ Is About ‘Experience’

In hopes of broadening the technology talent pool, San Francisco staffing firm Riviera Partners has teamed with Code Path to offer a free class in Android development to engineers. The six-week class began last week. The average experience level of those attending: 4.5 years.

Older and Younger Workers“We wanted to take experienced engineers and give them a new skill,” Riviera Partners COO John Simonelli said of the class, taught live by Code Path founders Nathan Esquenazi and Timothy Lee. It plans to repeat the class in October, and offer sessions on iOS development as well.

However, the age of the attendees illustrates how, in technology, the term “experienced” is relative.

Time to Market

HP and Cisco have been among the tech stalwarts announcing massive layoffs of late. But layoffs don’t always mean that hiring stops. Cisco, for example, reportedly will hire 2,000 Millennials this year, even as it announced plans to eliminate 4,000 positions.

“We just have too much in the middle of the organization,” Cisco CEO John Chambers has been quoted as saying. “We’ve got to speed time to market. Small teams move much faster.”

And no doubt the middle isn’t made up of younger workers. So what some refer to as a “youth movement” looks like age discrimination to others – though that’s not really a new dynamic in the tech industry.

In a recent poll of 32 tech companies by PayScale, only six had a median employee age older than 35. Eight had a median age of 30 or younger. By contrast, the overall workforce’s median age is 42.3 years old, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Age Vs. Experience?

“You can’t discriminate on age, but you can discriminate on the number of years of experience. That’s a fine line,” says Colleen Aylward, President of Devon James Associates, an executive search and consulting firm in Seattle.

And winning an age-discrimination lawsuit became harder since a 2009 Supreme Court decision, which determined age was the determining factor in deciding which employees are laid off. Previously, plaintiffs had to prove only that age was a contributing factor.

Contributing Right Away

Riviera Partners’ client companies – small, venture-backed emerging technology firms —  aren’t focused on recruiting people straight out of school, Simonelli said. “[Employers] definitely pay attention to the top schools… and certainly that’s a key criteria,” he explains. “But these startup companies, where there’s not a lot of infrastructure or management, they’re much more focused on experienced engineers. That experience can be as little as two-three years … [but we see] more of a desire for ‘been there, done that.’”

For these companies, the sweet spot in hiring is three to seven years of experience for individual contributors. “They’re experienced enough to contribute right away and they tend to be very current on the latest languages and that type of thing,” says Simonelli. For executive positions, it’s 10 to 15 years.

The Bottom Line

Aylward, author of From Bedlam to Boardroom: How to Get a Derailed Executive Career Back on Track, says about half her business these days involves consulting with displaced workers at the senior manager or director level or above. Many of them were the hiring managers of years past.

“More of the development jobs are going to younger folks because they’re more open to the integration of software, they’re much more well-versed in how devices work,” she says.

“The older generation, they’re the ones who built big enterprise software, databases. Big Data – it’s been around forever, but now integration of it is the key,” she observes. “The younger kids are all about integration. They’re integrating onboarding with gaming. You hire somebody and they don’t want to sit through two days of onboarding, paper forms and finding out where the lavatories are. They want to do a game online where there are contests and they win points.”

In her book, Aylward talks about the pros and cons of older versus younger talent. Older workers might have a more mature way of communicating. They often are more business-savvy, and they command higher salaries. “When you talk about ‘older workers,” you’re talking about people who have had several jobs, several life experiences and hardships and seen things from many angles…. They’ve grown into really unique people.

On the other hand, “Most younger workers have had limited work experience, may not have fully developed emotional intelligence, patience or active listening skills…. They work in free-form with few rules to limit them, creating and reinventing, taking cues from their peer age group or [people] slightly older.”

Also, younger workers require more managing and lack the business acumen of older workers, Aylward says. “They may keep their companies backtracking and changing course to overcome obstacles that a more experienced person might have foreseen.”

Whatever the dynamics, the age preference is about getting to the bottom line more quickly. “[Employers say,] ‘I can hire a bunch of 20-somethings who know this technology, then fire them in a year or two and get new blood in and get to my bottom line quicker,’” Aylward says. “Employers are not about employee loyalty and pension plans anymore. It’s not good or bad. Times have just changed. Employers don’t expect you to stay and employees don’t expect to stay.”

However, Aylward says it’s important to keep an open mind, pointing to Apple as a successful company that employs a mix of ages. “It’s more of a mindset,” she says of its ability to innovate.

14 Responses to “In Tech, ‘Age’ Is About ‘Experience’”

  1. Nightcrawler

    ——–“[Employers say,] ‘I can hire a bunch of 20-somethings who know this technology, then fire them in a year or two and get new blood in and get to my bottom line quicker,’” Aylward says. “Employers are not about employee loyalty and pension plans anymore. It’s not good or bad. Times have just changed. Employers don’t expect you to stay and employees don’t expect to stay.”——–

    When I read things like this, it solidifies my decision to work for myself. If an employer is going to hire me with the assumption that they’ll just get rid of me in a couple of years anyway, it makes more sense to work for myself. I could spend those two years slaving away for someone else, only to end up unemployed and with zero income. Or I could spend those two years building my own business, and end up with a successful venture.

    This is something worth pondering regardless of your age. I’m a Gen X’er, and I wish I had just gone into business for myself years ago. I’d be so much further ahead right now.

    • Unca Alby

      Running your own business isn’t for everybody. As you know, there is a lot more involved than just getting up in the morning and going off to the salt mines. You need to have business, social and marketing acumen as well as technical expertise.

      Sometimes I wish I could do what you’re doing. I tried a couple of times, but it didn’t work for me.

      More power to you.

      • I hear you. I have a friend that mortgaged his house to get his business going. That, and meeting payroll would scare the bejeebers out of me. Guess I’m not cut out to run a business either.

  2. “Employers are not about employee loyalty and pension plans anymore. It’s not good or bad. Times have just changed. Employers don’t expect you to stay and employees don’t expect to stay.”

    It’s a sad state of affairs in this country. Costs that used to be part of your benefits – health insurance, pension, etc – have been shifted to employees over the last 30 years. Employers have not compensated employees for this loss. This is why the middle class is disappearing. It won’t be long and even tech jobs will be low wage, no benefit jobs.

    It is bad.

    • Unca Alby

      You are right, the costs have been shifting back to employees in the last thirty years. But, to be fair to employers, it was a little over SEVENTY years ago when they began accepting these costs in the first place. It was necessary due to government mandated wage freezes during WWII. In order to attract quality talent, they had to offer something besides wages. Before that time, employer-paid health insurance was unheard of.

      In the scheme of things, that’s not that long ago.

      Now, employers are finding that the escalating costs of health insurance it too much cost to cover. It’s cheaper to offer employees more money and let them shop around for the best price for their insurance, if they even want insurance. If we let this trend continue, it will ultimately lead to controlling costs more effectively.

      • Unfortunately, your presumption that employers are providing more money when benefits are cut or paying higher wages without benefits is inaccurate. Employers are not compensating for fewer or no benefits. They’re just cutting them. Did UPS offer higher pay when they cut spouses from their health coverage? Hell, no.

        The middle class is disappearing and nobody seems to care except those of us who keep getting less and less while corporations keep making more and more.

        I’ve been an employer who had to deal with rising health insurance premiums. It’s not easy covering it. But it has to come from somewhere.

        By the way, who doesn’t want health insurance? Everyone wants it when they’re sick.

        • Unca Alby

          I’ll allow that many companies are not paying their employees more to compensate for lack of insurance — yet.

          After all, it took several years before paying health benefits became the norm in the first place. It can only be expected that reversing that trend will take a few years as well.

          Ultimately, health insurance MUST be paid for by the end consumer. Yes, that means you and me. Otherwise, so long as the costs are borne by some disinterested third party, they will ONLY get more expensive.

          I predict we aren’t going to learn that lesson until the nation goes bankrupt, and we end up like Greece; constant protests trying to keep the freebies coming, while the source of those freebies has long ago dried up.

          • What is your solution in the interim while companies don’t compensate for reduced or no benefits? People are supposed to suck it up? It’s attitudes like that that are destroying the middle class.

            If you think companies will automatically increase compensation for reduced benefits sometime in the future, you’re dreaming.

            By the way, almost everything is paid for by consumers, including employer paid health insurance. We pay for it when we buy products and services.

            If there is a decline in America it’ll be because we go back to the robber baron days.

  3. Age is not just a number. Wonder what she means by “older”? Sounds like discrimination to me. I also enjoyed the generalization about reactions and attitudes based on age. When a hiring manager adopts this view the “older” workers need not apply. Sounds like they will just hire cheap 20-somethings and then let most of

  4. In my first job I found a best friend; a woman 50 years older who taught me about surviving in business. My second friend was a 70+, male, ex-president of US Steel who couldn’t retire and worked as a mail boy. He taught me a lot more on how to run offices…..I thank those two “seniors” so many years ago. Its a shame that we cant teach those 20 years olds…..they have so much to learn….

  5. Unca Alby

    I want to correct the title of this article. It should not be:

    In Tech, ‘Age’ Is About ‘Experience’

    What it should be is:

    In Tech, ‘Age’ Is About ‘Unemployment’

    Because that is the reality, no matter how many heart-warming stories you hear about an older employee providing his age-garnered wisdom. In the Real World, if he hasn’t got a job, he’s likely not going to get one. And if he has a job, he’s likely on the short list for “early retirement” the next time the company either suffers major losses or enjoys record profits.