It's not just the oldies

When considered in the context of tech, I'm not that young. Though potentially I'm still in my prime - young enough to still be seen as fresh but with enough years experience under my belt that I can pretend I know what I'm talking about effectively (does that sound too hopeful?). Recently I've had a few reasons to think about ageism in our industry - it's always a fairly hot topic but I struck upon my view of ageism a little while ago and thought I'd try and put it in to words.

So, what's the problem?

one year's experience 30 times, not 30 years experience.

- edw519

My idea was clarified by a glass (or two) of wine, some stimulating dinner conversation and a comment from Ed Weissman (edw519) over on Hacker News - The resonating concept being that you can split his age group (very generally lets say older than 50) in to two groups. Those who have a great network, know how to pick interesting projects and use those two things to always be in good work. And those who have had "one year's experience 30 times".

I think it would be safe to say this statement could also be phrased as people who have thirty years of experience and those that have one year of experience thirty times. The truth is, generally, if you're good at what you do you naturally grow a network of people who want to work with you1.

Ageism is a natural condition that comes from the majority of tech workers2 not keeping up with changes and innovations in the industry. This is the case for all people in tech - young and old. The advantage of the young is that they have only just learnt their trade so they have the latest knowledge and can cruise on that for years giving the impression of up-to-date cutting-edge tech genius.

Got it - it's not ageism, it's skill based

I believe at it's core it's all based on skill. But the fact that a lot of highly-skilled older tech workers find work outside of the usual recruitment channels contributes to the impression hirers get of older, less skilled workers. Which leads to the generalisation that if you're old, you're out-of-date.

Obviously there are good older tech workers out there, but do we care? If I can put my hand in a bucket of young tech workers and pull out a handful where, say, 10%3 are great and the rest seem to know what latest technology X is, why would I choose the older tech worker bucket with less chance of that?

That depends on whether or not you're satisifed with building a mediocre team.

There are many things to consider when building a team and getting the team dynamic right can be very difficult. There are a few no-brainers however, one of which is that good people enjoy working with and being challenged by other good people. If you're good at what you do but are stuck in a team of people who don't really care, you won't stick around for long.

Effectively hire for good people

The issue comes back to hiring - how do you know if someone's good at what they do? And how do you know if they'll keep innovating and learning? This is really a whole topic in itself so I'll leave it at this - knowing latest technology X isn't enough, you need to look past the superficial layer of knowledge and uncover a person's passion and understanding.

  1. There are of course outliers as with anything - very good people with no network. These people are often very easily overlooked due to the pre-conceptions brought by age.
  2. This issue could be generalised to everyone in any field. Very few people continue to train, learn and adapt throughout their lives. It's just more noticeable in tech because of the speed at which our industry evolves.
  3. This number has no basis, except my experience. Going back to Ed Weissman, he states a 25/75 split. It will vary based on what you're looking for.