The Tech Industry's Problem with Ageism

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A hallmark of many tech companies, particularly those practicing agile, is being a flat organization with a company culture based on a meritocracy. When hiring, however, this meritocracy is inconsistent with the importance some companies place on a person's age, as I heard on an NPR interview with New Republic senior editor Noam Scheiber.

In the interview, Scheiber says that an engineer is considered old at thirty-five and being over forty is too old to be an entrepreneur in the tech industry. The surface reason for this bias seems to be that age is a proxy for being out of date and seemingly less able to come up with new ideas. 

Scheiber's article from the New Republic, on which the NPR interview was based, has some interesting examples of how this age bias can be counterproductive. For example, having a bias against entrepreneurs who have not had success before the age of forty seems counter to the idea of grit, which research has shown to be one of the most important factors in success.

In addition to being a challenge for those looking for work or entrepreneurs looking for funding, this bias can be problematic for the industry, as experienced engineers and successful ideas are sometimes dismissed for superficial reasons.

A New York Times Magazine article discusses this topic from the perspective of older workers not interested in joining some of the more popular startups. It’s interesting to note that while some older workers don't want to join startups for cultural reasons, some younger engineers don't want to join startups because they feel that they do not do meaningful work.

One problematic side effect of some of these hiring trends is that many good engineers are drawn to work at "more glamorous" software companies while ignoring the infrastructure-oriented companies essential for the Internet to work.

As Johanna Rothman points out, age is not an indicator of whether you have the latest skills. Regardless of your age, continual learning is an essential part of contributing effectively to a team. Additionally, understanding what you don't know can be equally important.

By itself, experience measured in terms of years is not a useful measurement of a person’s potential contribution. Although it's not easy to do, companies can benefit from evaluating job candidates based on the value they bring, which includes their ability to continue learning. Minimizing the impact of biases on your decision-making process is hard, but it can have huge benefits.

Have you felt that your age affected how you were perceived?

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Steve Berczuk

Steve Berczuk is a Principal Engineer and ScrumMaster at Fitbit in Boston, MA. He is the author of Software Configuration Management Patterns: Effective Teamwork, Practical Integration, and has an M.S. in operations research from Stanford University and an S.B. in Electrical Engineering from MIT.