‘Silicon Valley’ Writer Sounds Off on Tech Ageism

In 2007, a fresh-faced Mark Zuckerberg famously ruffled feathers among some older colleagues when he suggested that tech companies should not hire people over 30. “Young people are just smarter,” the Facebook chief executive, then 22, told a crowd at Stanford University.

Nearly a decade after the public gaffe, some say little has changed in terms of how older workers are perceived in the tech industry. Despite making recent attempts to diversify their workforces through aggressive initiatives to attract more women and minorities, Silicon Valley firms still wear their disproportionately young ranks like a badge of honor, proudly flaunting a youth-focused culture in which 28 is seen as middle age and 35 over the hill.

While workers over 40 are protected by federal civil rights laws in the United States, the plight of older employees so rarely enters into conversations about workplace discrimination in tech that one would be forgiven for not realizing it’s an issue at all.

In fact, ageism is very prevalent. Just ask Dan Lyons, a technology journalist and writer for HBO’s “Silicon Valley.” As notably chronicled in his recent best-selling book “Disrupted: My Misadventure in the Start-Up Bubble,” Lyons lost his longtime position at Newsweek magazine when he was in his 50s and decided to switch gears by taking a marketing fellowship at the software company HubSpot. In his book, published earlier this year, Lyons describes the startup’s culture as a frat-like circus filled with Nerf gunfights and hookup dens.

To complement the book, Lyons also wrote a LinkedIn post in which he called out tech industry executives for their defiantly ageist rhetoric, including his old boss at HubSpot, who he said once called gray hair and experience “overrated.” The LinkedIn post went viral, and Lyons said it was at that moment that he realized how widespread the problem really is.

“I got this outpouring of emails from people,” Lyons told Dice Insights. “I don’t mean to toot my own horn—I don’t think it’s that the article was so good. It’s just that there are a s–tload of people out there who experienced this. It was upsetting really.”

We spoke with Lyons last week about what it might take for the tech industry to become more welcoming, but don’t expect a happy ending: The characteristically cynical author said Silicon Valley still has a long way to go.

Dice: With such an emphasis on youth, people forget that older workers are a protected class. Why do you think there’s not more awareness about this issue in the tech industry?

Dan Lyons: I don’t think there’s any real protection, though. That’s the thing. At HubSpot it was like, “We can do whatever we want. We can fire you at will.” HubSpot didn’t even have an HR department for the first six or seven years it was in business. They didn’t really care about that stuff. And let’s face it, everybody knows you can’t really bring an age-discrimination lawsuit. You’ll never win—I don’t think.

Dice: It’s a hard thing to prove. It’s one thing to have a law, but it’s another thing to prove that’s why you were fired.

Dan Lyons: I recognize that there’s a law, but I don’t think tech companies feel it at all. Google just got hit with an age discrimination lawsuit. I don’t know if it’ll go anywhere.

Dice: Is there any remedy to this? Are you hopeful that discussions about this will change the culture?

Dan Lyons: I’m really not. I wish I could say I was. If these guys came to believe that it was in their own self-interest to hire more older workers—if they thought they would make more money with older workers—they would. But I think they’ve just decided they can make more money with young kids. I wish I felt otherwise, but I don’t see any sign of it changing.

Dice: That’s pretty grim.

Dan Lyons: I just did a story for Boston magazine about this topic, and I talked to some tech companies trying to manage what they call a multi-generational workforce. I mean, maybe there’s a glimmer of hope there. There are definitely bigger companies out there—if you have 50,000 employees, you need people of all ages. But overall in tech, with the venture-funded companies, it’s the venture capitalists driving this. And they’re driving it based on their own desire to get the biggest return in the shortest time possible.

Dice: Makes sense. If you’re investing in a company, you want the best return.

Dan Lyons: And as cheaply as possible. I think it starts with those guys—the investors, what they want and what they push for. I think they’ve all decided that the optimal return is young kids: Burn them out, get rid of them, replace them.

Dice: There also seems to be a perception that older people are out of touch when it comes to technology, that they don’t adapt as quickly. Is that a misconception?

Dan Lyons: I think that there’s probably some truth to that. Like all of these things, there’s some grain of truth in it. But I think the way it’s described, people talk about “digital natives” like they’re a different species, like they have some gene. I get that young kids are more comfortable with social media, they’re earlier adopters. But I don’t think that means a social media manager at a company has to be a young person. Where it gets weird is on the issue of engineers. Can an older engineer who already knows a bunch of languages learn Python? I don’t think there’s any other field where people say at age 40 you just can’t understand this technology anymore.

Dice: If you’re in the workforce, you evolve with it. That’s how it works.

Dan Lyons: I guess I’m of two minds about it. On the one hand, I kind of feel like I’m better at what I do now than I was when I was 35, but I also get that I’m probably not as “opted-in.” I haven’t used Snapchat. I don’t give a s–t about it.

This interview was edited for length and clarity.

25 Responses to “‘Silicon Valley’ Writer Sounds Off on Tech Ageism”

  1. I gave up my dream of switching careers. I have a Ph.D. in a difficult STEM area, and taught in academia for many years. Two years ago I decided to get a M.S. in one of the hottest STEM areas around, learning multiple computer languages while completing my degree. I was told I could virtually name my salary, as companies would be competing for my services.

    It is two years and 200 applications later. Employers excited about my resume have squirmed after meeting me to describe me as “overqualified” or “underqualified”, while they hire less-qualified foreigners. I started a consulting business, and I think it could just barely support me – a few years down the line.

    Sadder and wiser, I am very grateful to academia to giving me a full-time job. I am stunned that a business trying to maximize its profits and provide optimal services for its clients will not allow me to help them out with my background.

  2. When people completing their Bachelor’s and Masters degree’s in computer science and other related degrees the age will become 30. What next no JOBS…..??? This is ridiculous and selfish.

  3. Brian kennedy

    I am still amazed when recruiters/job managers ask about my social media skills. It is NOT a skill. Writing, coding public speaking, even Excel are skills. Can you honestly say that if given a position requiring social media management, you could not be as functional as any other person?
    Early adopters and marketing/pr firms have done a great job convincing people through fear that they NEED social media expertise. It’s complete BS.
    Social media has brought ageism to PR.

  4. I feel like the response from older folks should be to become founders. Sure, not everyone is fit for the entrepreneur role, but perhaps consider rallying around the older founder who is?

    Full disclosure, I’m a startup guy, and a Gen X’er, and to be honest, the millennials I hang out with don’t actually have many ideas – mostly well designed variations on whatever is currently hot. I’m young enough to remember my 20’s very well, and it’s a strange kind of bubble existence, where, unless you are a worldy, exploratory personality type, you’ll find that you are “surrounded by yourself” – your references, preferences and general knowledge base are built up by the people you spend the bulk of your time with…other 20somethings.

    The truth outside of this bubble is that most of what you experience as youth is coming to you from the previously young – the few unicorns that had good ideas and did something about it.

    All this said – I’d love to talk to you Surak….

  5. dwfAustin

    This Dan Lyon guy is cool. I am also over 40 and in the tech biz and I also don’t give a sh*t about snapchat or pok-e-mon but I also wish I would have thought of them. I am also starting my MS CS degree but I have no desire to work with the 20-30 something type-A silicon valley A-holes. Those dudes are the high fiving types at resorts slapping each other on the rear. No thanks. I believe there is a niche for people over 40 in this market but its’s not in San Jose. Save yourself some pain and don’t apply at tech startups or tech companies that started as a startup.

  6. Phil Sproat

    I am sorry to say this is merely a reflection of what is going on in the overall job market. The tech sector is not immune. If one of the political candidates is really serious about getting Americans back to productive work then they should commit to implementing a tax credit for on-boarding workers over the age of 50.

  7. Kk… What if the foreigners he’s talking about really are less qualified? What a stupid correction. The important distinction between him and the foreigners he was talking about is qualification. He didn’t say they were lazy, or even that he was harder working than them, just that he is more qualified.

  8. I’ve seen, and been subjected to, the age discrimination mentioned. There was no point in pursuing an age discrimination lawsuit against the company (which was the last I worked for as a “captive”). I had consulted with them for 5+ years then they made me an offer too good to refuse to go captive which I did for another 5+ years, but at the end of the day I had gotten to a point where I was making too much and they could hire two younger workers with less experience but that didn’t matter. Many of us who were “older” got the heave ho over a couple year period.

    I went on to go back to consulting on embedded projects for another 8 years.

    Out son who has a PhD and two Masters degrees including one in Computer Science with a focus on AI has been trying to find steady employment for the last 4 years surviving on part time teaching jobs. It’s the same thing, companies are very excited when they read his resume but after the interview it’s either “not a good fit”, your “overqualified”.. etc. Even the Big “G” flew him to the west coast for an interview but “didn’t have anything that he would be a good fit for”. He had been working for a small company that did contracts for the military involving AI and had been quite successful until the budgets started cutting back with the current administration and that market pretty much dried up.

    So there is a lot of age discrimination out there. For myself I’m doing product design and development for myself and don’t expect that I will ever work for another company again as an employee.

    My thoughts would be to gather a bunch of Engineers who are “over the hill” and form a company that focuses on hiring experienced developers (read as “over the hill”). Kind of reverse age discrimination if you will:) That is probably the only way to combat the age discrimination that is rampant out there.

    As far as foreign workers. I’ve worked with some who were excellent software or hardware engineers, but I have also worked with a LOT of them that were no where near the level of capabilities that were required. In many cases it was an inability to think outside of the box, or things like assuming that other modules would always provide proper parameters to their code so they would do NO data validation even where they could not be certain that correct data was being provided.

  9. Alton Moore

    I remember the looks of disappointment on the faces of the 20-30-somethings when I would walk into their startups here in Austin. 50 years old, very language agnostic, work circles around most of them really, but “not a good fit”. And I can’t blame them, when their biggest concerns seem to be (1) feeling important, and (2) burning through their investors’ money, rather than getting down to the task at hand. Sheesh, some of these folks are using stuff that I wrote 30 years ago.

    What happened to the good old days, when we got into the computer business because we really enjoyed the work?

  10. BC Shelby

    …it’s not just the tech sector either. Many types of firms are shunning older workers for younger candidates. The main reason. the bottom line as first, they fear older employees may demand more pay for their experience and second older employes are seen as potentially being a larger drain on company subsidised healthcare programmes. A lot of the reasons employers hide behind for letting go of and/or not hiring older candidates are little more than excuses based on fear.

    The worst of these is the word “Overqualified. To us older folks it has become one of the most hated words in the English language. However then we are told that there are many jobs for us at Walmart, fast food joints, or convenience stores. I guess those jobs have changed over the years since I last worked at one and they now require tonnes of experience.

    As Mr Lyons point out it is very difficult to win an age discrimination lawsuit, especially in this “at will” age we are in. Under an at will agreement, an employer need not give any reason for sacking an employee, or for not hiring one. Furthermore if you did manage to win a case would you feel comfortable going into the workplace of a company that tired their best to get rid of you every day? One that may have paid a fine and/or was subjected to an audit?

    This is part of the reason for the high number of older people who have been dropping out of the workforce and retiring. Over the last three years since I lost my job I’ve read hundreds of accounts of people who were let go for no reason or passed over in hiring by candidates who do not even meet the basic requirements of the job when they did.

    We older folks are effectively being treated like refuse, many ending up having to make ends meet on a 1,200$ a month Social Security cheque and 190$ in monthly SNAP benefits when rents alone in many cities are beyond that, and low income housing is at a premium with wait lists measured in multiple years. I’m 62, and am in the midst of an SS Disability claim as I am physically unable to do the only work I have done most of my life. If that doesn’t go through, my only other choice is early SS retirement which only pays 3/4 of the benefit I’d receive waiting another four years. I don’t have a degree and am not about to get crushed under a mountain of debt to get one at this stage of life as it wouldn’t really change the situation much (except that I would have my SS cheques garnished and be that much more “unhireable” as I’d be four years older).

  11. I too am a victim of ageism. Aged out of the Silicon Valley at 35, and am now 40 and was working on getting back into the IT field again. Heard the phrase “overqualified” more times now than I can remember.

  12. LogiRush

    I think workers over 40 (and maybe over 35) should have rational expectations about the kind of employers that are suitable for them. Generally, that probably excludes startups, anything in social media, hot and trendy employers (e.g. Google, Facebook), firms focusing on hot/trendy technologies, and hot/trendy locations (e.g. Silicon Valley, Portland, Austin).

    I’m a 49-year-old .Net platform developer, mostly web, and I have no difficultly finding contracts with large non-trendy firms and government agencies in Houston and Dallas-Fort Worth. And I’m not working on “exciting” projects, just run of the mill IT work. But hey, I was once a 20-something and 30-something, and I had my window of opportunity. I’ll cross the threshold to 50 soon, and I’m optimistic I can continue working in the non-glam tech world.

    So these folks with difficulty may need realistic expectations.

  13. @mal…. becoming a “founder” is no more difficult than creating a “gmail”/Google account, but then what? You would not be looking for a job, if you had sufficient $$$ to hire people for your team. And “team” is what get funded. After being unemployed, an individual orbits further and further from known individuals, and then must vet strangers to join his “team”.
    Individual “founders” rarely get funded. Jason Calcanus interviewed one, and one only: a Stanford grad with five years of Chevron experience.
    I have three big “disruptive” ideas worth funding, but no team, and so they remain yet ideas.

  14. For some reason, Dice did not publish my earlier reply to Kk. Let’s try again.

    “Capable, hard working foreigners”? Really? So capable that they ask me to train them and clean up the mess they make because they don’t really understand the subject.

    So hard working that they check smartphones and social media during class and cheat on assignments.

  15. Agree with what LogiRush said. It depends on what your expectations are, and just be realistic. And I’m saying it as a (sort of) younger generation, being foreign born and working for a company which probably would be the ideal employer for older gen.

    I work for a traditional tech company in which the average age of my colleagues is way above me. Having said “young”, I do have 10 years of experience and am working with some newer technology. So I’m probably one of the more experienced people in the market with expertise in that area. The company hired me because they are developing new products.

    Here is my problems: Management hired some native born, older people who just switched career and expected me to bring them up to speed. I am severely overloaded and found myself spending the majority of my time teaching them everything, and they wouldn’t even appreciate my effort because I am this foreign born kiddo.

    On the other hand, my other colleagues working with older stack, the engineers with 30+ years of experience, would insult me if I check in code that is perfectly up to standard but is not something they are familiar with. And they would constantly make decisions based on their knowledge in older technology which ends up making my job 10 times more complicated than it should be, and then expect me to finish the tasks with lightning speed.

    My situation is probably the opposite of the situation the older gen faces. And it all comes down to the fact that it depends on the company culture and whether it is a good fit for you.

  16. John Doe

    Zuckerberg is an idiot. Facebook wouldn’t hire Brian Acton in 2009 because he was 35 years old. In 2014, Facebook paid $16.7 Billion dollars to acquire the company Acton founded with his friend Jan Koum. Yeah, he was too old. LOL!

  17. I am 60 and have not had too much trouble finding jobs as a contractor doing tech projects that interest me.

    I think the issue is not age, but that all small companies are very quirky. If you do not fit in with their culture you will not make it, no matter how good you are. They will find a reason to not hire you or to fire you if you don’t fit in exactly. They don’t have the resources or budget to work through it with you.

    Many small company new perm jobs I investigate are a joke. They really need a fire put out and do not have 2,000 hrs a year of steady work to keep me busy. I leave interviews with small companies thinking the people I spoke with are lunatics. I don’t mind contracting for a lunatic but I don’t want to perm for one.

  18. The real reason Google, Intel & Apple settled the High Tech Lawsuit was litigating it would have given the feds a way to pursue the blatant age discrimination that happens around 10 years (age 35-39) in with the company if one hasn’t been “made” as a new-hire RCG superstar Individual Contributor or started the management track.

    Both of those paths end as the pyramid narrows at 15-22 years.

    The companies would have lost that fight…look on LinkedIn, someone with good data-mining skills, and try to find the percentage of people still with Intel over age 50.

    100000 people, and the only ones over 55 are the unicorn “lifers” and execs.

  19. Ruth Sessions

    I know a tech writer who is 75 and writes instructions for electronic circuit simulators. His company begs him not to retire as he is impossible to replace. He doesn’t just copy the text handed to him by engineers, but understand the technology. When will the next generation catch up? Not sure. While most are discriminated against, I’ve know people well past retirement age who really make a difference. Sadly, it is not the norm for an American company to recognize the value of an older employee.

  20. OlderDude

    Fully agree with the statement: “Where it gets weird is on the issue of engineers… …I don’t think there’s any other field where people say at age 40 you just can’t understand this technology anymore.”

    Yep, victim of ageism here. Worked for a huge corporation. When they had layoffs a little over a year ago, they “said” they were getting rid of old folks because they couldn’t keep up with technology.

    Def not true in my case. For example: I led the way for my team on learning new vulnerability scanning software… wrote a DWI doc for our team on how to use the new software.

    My “problem,” as it were, was that I was literally pulling down twice the salary of many of my younger peers. Right now, nothing could make me happier than getting hired with a salary a third of what I was making when I got laid off.

  21. total_loss

    OK, most people replying to this are getting it wrong. Mark Z. has it wrong too.

    Being an older work, age 60, and a Linux Engineer I don’t pretend to have all the questions to all the answers. Or is it the other way around?

    See, if you go to sleep and wake up the next day, you are blessed. Even at 20, some people don’t see their next day because they are so caught up in themselves that they aren’t informed and are hit by a bus. Suppose, just suppose, you don’t live to see tomorrow. At that point Mark Z is probably not someone you even care about. If you are blessed enough to be my age, then you have gotten somewhere. It is not about where you’ve been, but…..you know the rest.

    I could care less about Mark Z., or Google, or whatever. If that is all that matters to you, then you have bigger problems. For me, I am thankful to have what I have. And as long as I can form words and know my [root@whatever], then I’m probably OK.

    Just a thought.

  22. Edward Bell

    I owned a successful executive search firm for almost 30 years. I closed my business about 7 years ago. Since closing I’ve worked I’ve had full time positions with 2 Fortune 500 companies and am consulting for a third.

    There are a lot of advantages to hiring senior workers. You need to make your case to potential employers. It’s all in your presentation.

  23. Alan Jones

    kk: “Please allow me to re-phrase your words

    “while they hire less-qualified foreigners”

    it should be “while they hire high capable, hard working foreigners” ”

    I haven’t seen too many foreigners who are capable and hard-working. They work for cheap and employers abuse the H-1B program to pile them all in. Twice I have been laid off, having to suffer the indignity of “training” my replacement in India, only to find out that person in India eventually made their way here to the US. All highly illegal, but to try and prove something is a waste of time.

    Sometimes I wonder how many people under the age of 25 are left in India, because I think they are all here.