Numerous studies and surveys have shown that Baby Boomers need (or want) to continue working throughout their “traditional” retirement years. And although some industries are receptive to hiring workers over 50, the tech industry regularly faces accusations of ageism, especially when it comes to startups.
Despite the claims of age bias, the startup space may be warming up to older candidates, especially those with decades of highly specialized experience.
Take the case of Drew Eckhardt, a distinguished engineer at cloud-security firm Zetta. Despite being over 40, he’s found that he’s still in demand—and as a hiring manager, he has no issues with employing people his age and older.
As Eckhardt noted, experience comes with a lot of invaluable perspective. “If you’re going to do something significant,” he said, “you want to start with people who have experience having done significant things. You can define this as how much of an effort they’ve put in, how many man-years and how many moving parts there are. Startups need people who have done lots of big projects before.”
Or look at Lumobody, where a full third of the engineering team is over 40 (the oldest member is in their late 50s). According Dave Woods, the company’s VP of Engineering, speed is often a factor when he hires more experienced engineers: he needs people who can have an immediate impact. As a result, he’s looked for candidates who have worked in several different environments on a variety of products.
“When we’re adding someone new and we need to get them up and productive very quickly, we don’t have the time to ramp up someone who’s very green,” Woods said. “It makes a lot of sense to have somebody on the team who has plenty of industry experience and has already been in situations like ours.”
Eckhardt believes that startups that keep an eye on the bottom line can most benefit from technologists with lengthier resumes. “I think it’s a track record of success,” he said. “You’ve done a number of products of the same or similar scale so it’s pretty good odds that you’re good to go and can do the same thing again.”
He also emphasized that, with any startup, a certain amount of risk management is built into the corporate DNA. An experienced employee who has prevailed under a variety of circumstances can give the workflow more predictability. “They’ve got a long record and know what works and what doesn’t work,” he added. “They’re likely to bet right, taking the right risks at the right time, so the product and company as a whole are more likely to be successful.”
For example, after contending with a persistent product-manufacturing problem, Woods and his colleagues sought out and hired a hardware engineer who had years of experience dealing with manufacturers, as well as working with hardware products akin to theirs. Because of the engineer’s broad and deep skill set, he was able to jump in and very quickly identify the need for both technical design and process changes, which Woods was careful to stress wouldn’t have happened if they’d hired someone with less of a knowledge base.
When hiring someone older, it’s critical that they’re not only mature, but also open to learning new ideas and absorbing different perspectives. During the interview process, Woods will ask candidates to explain situations where they didn’t get their way, or saw someone else’s idea chosen over theirs. “I want to know what they did and why the other idea was chosen,” he said. “I need to see if they understand that just because they have some gray hair, they’re not always going to be right.”
People learn by interacting with others. Older employees have worked with a broad range of people in their careers. “I’ve worked with guys out of Bell Labs who have been around forever and I had the advantage of their 30-year careers,” Eckhardt enthused. “You can stand on the shoulders of giants, who not only have had the experience of doing many things; they have the experience of making mistakes. If no one on the team has had that experience, you’re going to make a lot of avoidable mistakes and in some cases they could be product-killing.”
To paraphrase acclaimed technologist Fred Brooks: the first time you build something, you get it wrong; the second time, you over-design the system. It isn’t until at least the third time that you get it right. When building new and complex products, startup founders and managers should be acutely aware of Brooks’ axiom—because whatever the role, someone who’s been in the game a long time will more likely succeed out of the proverbial gate.