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Ageism in the tech industry?
February 25, 2014 10:07 AM   Subscribe

Vivek Wadhwa's article about hiring in the tech industry makes some startling assertions.
posted by toastchee (113 comments total) 20 users marked this as a favorite

 
Startling assertions or unsettling truths? The latter seems more apt to me.
posted by dfriedman at 10:12 AM on February 25 [5 favorites]


This is like the stockest of stock wisdom in the tech industry.
posted by brennen at 10:13 AM on February 25 [14 favorites]


Well I was going to answer this before... this isn't totally new but per the author - "I know this post will provoke anger, outrage, and denial" - I will sort-of deny it.

First off, ageism is a thing in a lot of industries. Second, if you think you can do exactly the same job (any job) at 55 that you did at 25 without being any better or having developed any new skills, well, you're in for a bad time.

There are lots of opportunities for rank-and-file programmers to grow. The days of getting paid more for simply having seniority are long gone, but they're so long gone I'm not sure that this qualifies as a startling revelation any more. TVs also come in colour now as well. And they also have cordless telephones. Oh, this brave new world that has such wonders in it.

If you are a programmer who can deal with people for more than 5 minutes at a time, go into management or technical sales. Alternatively, be a really amazing programmer. Like, reinvent the programming world every so often. It can be done. The people that do it are remarkably normal people when you meet them.

On the plus side, programmers still get paid salaries far beyond other white-collar professionals and there are plenty of jobs out there. So all is not lost.
posted by GuyZero at 10:15 AM on February 25 [8 favorites]


Ain't just the tech industry either. Try to find a position in any skilled labour market after the age of 45.
posted by Mary Ellen Carter at 10:17 AM on February 25 [4 favorites]


My sense is that companies are always on the lookout for ways to reduce the acceptable talent pool in order to increase competition and reduce wages. Whether the engine for that is sexism, credentialism, ageism, or whatever doesn't matter. It's a misfeature of capitalism.
posted by rhizome at 10:18 AM on February 25 [18 favorites]


Unless there are an equal number of management jobs as there are for the underlings, I don't see that as a very reliable career path. Even if you make the cut, you may discover that you hate management.
posted by Longtime Listener at 10:18 AM on February 25 [3 favorites]


Several things.

1. It's hard to measure employee contribution to organizational capacity to execute on things not directly tied to dollars. Your experienced product manager has likely saved your hide a dozen times, but you'll never know it.

2. Cheap, easy to exploit labour is most readily available in the young. Labour costs are the largest denominator when it comes to technology.

3. Since at this stage in the industry there are limited capital investments - everything is likelier to get thrown out and rewritten - there is a limited premium on experience when it comes to all the bullshit tasks, i.e. 90% of all work.

4. There simply isn't enough room at the top for everyone to gracefully retire. Meritocracy breeds inequality, afterall.

The article ends with very simple notes: differentiate yourself from young people. If you're forty and you're doing the equivalent of shoveling snow - i.e. a task lots of fresh graduates can handle, and which doesn't reward experience - you're gonna be in for a bad time.
posted by pmv at 10:19 AM on February 25 [6 favorites]


Unless there are an equal number of management jobs as there are for the underlings, I don't see that as a very reliable career path.

People move in and out of careers - it's not a single universal piece of advice for everyone, but it's a suggestion for a possibility. But generally, there are fewer older programmers than younger programmers because people do tend to migrate put of the profession over time. Although I don't have actual demographics to back that up I guess.
posted by GuyZero at 10:26 AM on February 25


First off, ageism is a thing in a lot of industries. Second, if you think you can do exactly the same job (any job) at 55 that you did at 25 without being any better or having developed any new skills, well, you're in for a bad time.

I think that what is happening in the tech industry is that all these guys who lead these charmed careers are starting to realize that it's just an industry, like anything else. The heady days when it was new and they were superstars because not a lot of people knew how to do the sorts of things the industry needed to have done are gone. Kids are getting told the only way they can earn a living is doing what these guys grew up "knowing" was a rarefied skill.

But instead of being a special skill set, it's just a skill set. While the programmers are starting to realize this now, it's something that people going into older industries knew from the start. The lament of not doing what you love anymore but having to be middle or upper management is as old as the white collar establishment--there's nothing inherent to the tech industry that insulates it from this. Given the rapidity with which the technology has been changing, in fact, one should have suspected the industry was more susceptible to a decline in employability with age than, say, advertising or lawyering.

Add to that the squeeze from longterm unemployment and the changes to the US middle class, and you have a lot of people in the tech industry becoming shocked by ordinary issues of the US workplace.
posted by crush-onastick at 10:26 AM on February 25 [4 favorites]


Every time I think about ageism in tech I think about Brian Reid, someone I worked with at Google. He got fired from Google in February 2004, just a short time before the company filed to go public. He quickly filed an age discrimination lawsuit over $45M of unvested stock options. It went back and forth in the courts for years and finally settled out of court some time between 2010 and 2012. I didn't work closely with Brian but I liked him. I hope he did OK.

The NYT article Old Techies Never Die; They Just Can’t Get Hired as an Industry Moves On is worth a read on the topic, a better-researched complement to the article in this post.

My partner is over 60 and works in IBM mainframe software. All his colleagues are also well over 60. They're quite expert at what they do and despite the jokes about dinosaur computing IBM mainframes are churning along quite productively processing transactions all over the world. They have a hard time hiring people and are pretty worried what happens as all the old greybeards either retire or die. IBM tries to counter this lack of talent pool by recruiting actively in schools but it's not enough.
posted by Nelson at 10:28 AM on February 25 [8 favorites]


"Prominent Silicon Valley investors often talk about youth being an advantage in entrepreneurship.".

...Because there's a sucker born every minute who doesn't realize the pay-off for working 80+ hour weeks is so bad it makes their stock options effectively worthless. Silicon Valley investors make money because they can work idealistic and/or naive young people crazy hours for (relatively) little pay and (generally) little worry of diluting the investor's portion of ownership of a startup. I highly recommend reading this article by Jamie Zawinski, on the subject.

I've found (as someone rapidly approaching middle age), that my areas of expertise lie in software architecture, managing, and generally fixing the messes left by younger/less experienced engineers. So - perhaps I fit into his move up or out paradigm? I have worked with folks significantly older who were excellent engineers and simply didn't have the interest to do anything but what they were doing. Hmm. thinking about it, I recommended hiring someone for my team who was just a few years from retirement. They worked out excellently for the company as 'just' an engineer - and why wouldn't they have, really?
posted by combinatorial explosion at 10:28 AM on February 25 [11 favorites]


and why wouldn't they have, really?

Only if they expected to get a pay premium for simply being older. But most rational people wouldn't expect that.

you have a lot of people in the tech industry becoming shocked by ordinary issues of the US workplace.

I'm not sure anyone is actually shocked. I can write an article saying how car owners are shocked about how often they have to buy gas but... it's probably not true.
posted by GuyZero at 10:33 AM on February 25 [1 favorite]


I am working on a product right now that uses code injection (as in malware practices) to add logic and UI elements to the application. This is from a Top-Tier vendor and when I say Top-Tier I mean top 5 software companies in the world. It is the biggest Piece of shit I have ever experienced. I am well over 40 and shake my head but my whole team is 20 somethings and think it is fine. Our application will be used by 40,000 users in 20+ languages.... I want to leave IT so bad I can taste it, but can't. The best is at my age my ACTUAL experience is ignored over the younger people... even by management types and being 18 months behind. I think I experience ageism against me (all my peers at my level have long since moved "up") but frankly I suck at management and business so everyday I ask myself what I should do... this article doesn't help.

[Edit]I also wanted to add the complete normal behavior by IT management to regard ALL programmers as simple cogs and we are replaceable in about 2 minutes... with people that are young and "get" the new stuff more... Don't get me started on what happens to Female humans in the industry and are over 40(ok REALLY 30).
posted by mrgroweler at 10:34 AM on February 25 [5 favorites]


"Startling" accusations? "Darkest secret?" I would honestly like to know who is startled by this or thinks it's just being brought into the light. You may as well inform me that an awful lot of stuff is being made in Asia these days, or warn me about the limited employment options for young journalists.
posted by Tomorrowful at 10:34 AM on February 25 [5 favorites]


Alternatively, be a really amazing programmer. Like, reinvent the programming world every so often. It can be done.

By a vanishingly tiny percentage of programmers.
posted by Steely-eyed Missile Man at 10:35 AM on February 25 [15 favorites]


In 5-10 years, as creating software continues to move closer to being like using Microsoft Word, experience will be even less in demand and a lot of front-line developers will be out of work. So, while age-ist retention and hiring practices are a problem, they are also an opportunity for older developers to transition to something with more long-term viability. Not everyone agrees with my forecast, of course.
posted by michaelh at 10:43 AM on February 25 [1 favorite]


My sense is that companies are always on the lookout for ways to reduce the acceptable talent pool in order to increase competition and reduce wages.

That doesn't make even a tiny bit of sense. Reducing the number of potential hires drives wages up, not down. Supply and demand, you know?
posted by Edgewise at 10:43 AM on February 25 [8 favorites]


The author seems like a generally caring guy and all, but the second paragraph belies an opportunity for social, structural, historical, economic analysis (all tasks fit for academic thought), and yet he takes this all this as given. If as he rhetorically asserts engineering is like the military or like the olympics, then something is seriously wrong with the system. So for an academic I'd say he lacks vision on the problem somewhat, and the rest of the article seems to follow in that way.
posted by polymodus at 10:46 AM on February 25


In 5-10 years, as creating software continues to move closer to being like using Microsoft Word, experience will be even less in demand and a lot of front-line developers will be out of work

I had to double-check the timestamp on this comment as I distinctly remember the phrase "4GL" in the early 90's and the exact same prediction.

Look at all the UI developers Visual Basic put out of work.
posted by GuyZero at 10:48 AM on February 25 [11 favorites]


If you are a programmer who can deal with people for more than 5 minutes at a time, go into management or technical sales.

That's pretty much the option for 99% of folks.

Alternatively, be a really amazing programmer. Like, reinvent the programming world every so often. It can be done.

You mean, revolutionize everything, periodically? Just replace your first two sentences here with "Conquer Europe" and it's just as technically true.

The people that do it are remarkably normal people when you meet them.

No, they really aren't. They just seem normal, but they are usually incredibly bright.

Maybe you're being tongue and cheek, and I'm just missing your tone this being text and everything.
posted by Edgewise at 10:48 AM on February 25


If that's their darkest secret then I worry about the fate of the Darkest Secret industry.
posted by rtha at 10:50 AM on February 25 [8 favorites]


Not everyone agrees with my forecast, of course.

There is nothing remotely automatic about creating good software or maintaining old, bad software.


The main advantage of hiring "whiz kids" is they're willing to work under worse conditions for less money and their souls have not yet been crushed. Every one of them I've worked with, even if smart and creative, has written difficult to maintain, barely working (or sometimes not working at all) code and they overestimate and/or overrepresent their own skills.

(Then again, I've known a couple of experienced programmers who also think they're King Shit but whose code ensures the continued employment of the programmers to come after them.)
posted by Foosnark at 10:51 AM on February 25 [3 favorites]


In 5-10 years, as creating software continues to move closer to being like using Microsoft Word, experience will be even less in demand and a lot of front-line developers will be out of work

I had to double-check the timestamp on this comment as I distinctly remember the phrase "4GL" in the early 90's and the exact same prediction.

So, so true. Making development easier only makes it possible to develop more complex software. Thus has it ever been. I also heard the same complaint in the late nineties, but there is absolutely no shortage of development positions, now, even in this weakened global economy.
posted by Edgewise at 10:51 AM on February 25 [4 favorites]


GuyZero, I think it will actually be more like how VB put large systems teams out of work.
posted by michaelh at 10:52 AM on February 25


OK, fine, so "work smarter, not harder" is pat, somewhat shitty advice, except I see people do it all the time and it seems to work really well for them. I don't know what else to say. Some people get ahead by being smarter except that when you meet them they seem pretty normal. I think you actually "work smarter" if you try, with the caveat that it might actually be more work than "working harder."
posted by GuyZero at 10:52 AM on February 25


A lack of appetite for large system projects put large systems teams out of work. VB came and went and made an indelible impact on software-related jokes.
posted by GuyZero at 10:53 AM on February 25 [2 favorites]


I'm middle-aged, write computer code for a living, earn a (barely) six-figure salary and am not really worried about being headed for unemployment. The "tech industry" meaning people who will pay me to write/maintain code is really *every* industry, not just semiconductor companies and Silicon Valley start-ups. I've never worked for either of those before and don't expect I ever will. That doesn't mean nobody would hire me again.

My *goal* is take a $60,000 job because it probably means I'm doing something I think is actually socially worthwhile rather just farming my time out to the highest bidder. That's alot more money than I ever really expected out of life anyway. The scale of the economy is something that I marvel at every day and I'm don't believe that, short of zombie apocalypse, there won't be plenty of pie to feed both the newbies and the oldbies. Yes, I will have to be constantly learning stuff as I go along, but that's what I've been doing since I started in IT 15 years ago. That's one of the things great about the job.
posted by 0 at 10:55 AM on February 25 [7 favorites]


I'm 41 and on the ops side of things, which is inexorably moving towards "DevOps". I was just recruited by a company that does fairly interesting things, and I skew old in my workplace.

I have no idea how I will fare moving forward, but anybody in this field who neglects to continually acquire skills and hone existing ones is going to have a rough time.
posted by sandettie light vessel automatic at 10:58 AM on February 25 [2 favorites]


In 5-10 years, as creating software continues to move closer to being like using Microsoft Word

You don't actually know anything at all about creating software, do you?

OK, now that I got that off my chest...

There is some age discrimination in programming to be sure. Some of it is self-inflicted, though: younger coders' skills are up to date, by definition. Older coders keep up with current stuff for a while, but at a certain point it's just tiring to keep learning the new language or the new framework or the new whatever. Or you spend too long in one job and you overspecialize and then when that job ends you look up and discover that what you're expert in is basically obsolete. So you either switch over into management or you take a lower-paying job within your now-niche specialty. Or you gut up and keep learning.

I'm in my early 40s and still learning. I can feel myself slowing down and I know I'm not going to be able to keep this up into my 60s; I'm able to keep up now because I have twenty years of learned experience to draw on, but that won't last forever. That's not the industry's fault, though. I'm just getting old.

None of this is news to, like, anyone who writes code.
posted by ook at 10:58 AM on February 25 [9 favorites]


If I were a rock star, why would I be working here?
posted by thelonius at 11:08 AM on February 25


Most can’t even afford to pay $60,000 salaries, so they look for motivated, young software developers who will accept minimum wage in return for equity ownership and the opportunity to build their careers.
Is this accurate? I don't think this is true, but I don't have any evidence to back it up in either direction.
posted by mulligan at 11:09 AM on February 25


Who wouldn't want to be surrounded by puppies?
posted by srboisvert at 11:10 AM on February 25


If I were a rock star, why would I be working here?

Well, you could delete comments and, like, BAN people. And do exploding fist-bumps with Cortex et al in the corridor, I expect.

I mean, if they do that sort of thing.
posted by sandettie light vessel automatic at 11:11 AM on February 25 [1 favorite]


I think one of the reasons for 'ageism' is (almost mathematically) caused by the fact that

1) a manager will very rarely hire someone older than him (which kinda sorta makes sense, socially)
2) if you choose *any* age distribution in the management ranks of a company, the older you get, the less managers can hire you due to 1)

So the older you get, the less chances you have to get hired.

I'm not saying that 1) is great, but if you're 35 and managing a company, you're more likely to have natural authority over young 25 year old programmers than programmers which are 10 years your senior. If you were an ideal manager, this kind of consideration wouldn't be relevant but unfortunately there are not a lot of ideal managers...
posted by Riton at 11:18 AM on February 25 [1 favorite]


OK, fine, so "work smarter, not harder" is pat, somewhat shitty advice, except I see people do it all the time and it seems to work really well for them. I don't know what else to say.

You can just not say anything, you know. It's not just shitty advice, it's totally useless. It's not advice at all, because there's nothing to do, no there there.
posted by Steely-eyed Missile Man at 11:22 AM on February 25 [2 favorites]


and in other news...
posted by sfts2 at 11:28 AM on February 25


It's not advice at all, because there's nothing to do, no there there.

yeah, I guess you're right. The only viable option is endless slugging it out doing what other people tell you to do.

Young people of the world, don't try anything different. It's bound to fail.
posted by GuyZero at 11:30 AM on February 25


Most companies have no fucking clue how to manage engineers. Anyone who actually has that skill set is the new unicorn, but the problem is executive and business types can't see it or appreciate it. They don't understand the skills they are even looking for.

This is why every engineer has to choose to give up technical acumen to enter the management track. Executives don't foster the preservation of those skills, and these proto-managers have nowhere to learn the balancing act between still coding, and being in meetings all day.

Good technical managers protect the engineers. They have to have excellent project management skills, the ability to govern all of the SDLC, the ability to mentor, to provide software design guidance, to converse about architecture at a high level, and then to delegate to the actual programmers. Then they have to be doing constant code reviews, and they have to be able to do that efficiently.

Middle management of software engineers is uncharted territory. This role is undefined, because no executive can see how it fits into their bottom line. It's an article of faith that having this role well filled will result in more efficient development teams that are actually happier and more resistant to burnout.

But that is a strategic faith, and it doesn't really get a VC any closer to hitting a deadline.
posted by butterstick at 11:34 AM on February 25 [6 favorites]


What the tech industry often forgets is that with age comes wisdom. Older workers are usually better at following direction, mentoring, and leading.

I feel this is an out dated mindset. Maybe this was true with the baby boomers, but with Gen Xers starting to enter middle age, there is less loyalty/direction/mentoring than before. Job hoping is almost mandatory in tech industries to build skills to stay current with the changing environment, regardless of age/position.
posted by Suffocating Kitty at 11:35 AM on February 25


there is a limited premium on experience when it comes to all the bullshit tasks, i.e. 90% of all work.

This was an interesting reveal to me on my last round of job searches a few years ago -- there were one or two places where I'd felt the interviewing process had gone well that didn't make offers and issued generic rejections.

I like to gently ask for more feedback when this happens (even though I know full well that many won't respond on risk of increasing exposure to a lawsuit), and got a really candid response from one CTO, who more or less said that I was a competitive candidate, but they'd found another one seemed like he could fill the role but only had a few years of experience and thus was much more economical.

A limit on the value proposition that experience presents isn't exactly age discrimination, but it's easy to see how it can function similarly (or in tandem).
posted by weston at 11:48 AM on February 25 [2 favorites]


You don't actually know anything at all about creating software, do you?

I do, and I think attitudes such as yours (and mine until I noticed the problem) are incentive to adoption of tools that replace custom development of software. Programmers are expensive and too in the habit of explaining away anything straightforward as not meeting needs when, like Word or Publisher, a 90% solution is good enough. Even if it's only a 50% or 70% solution that is made available to masses of users, it might become an expectation that one simply does that kind of work oneself as did happen in letter-writing, simple desktop publishing, content management, simple databases and applications, etc. The entire culture of being aware of complexity and using that awareness to justify ongoing complexity is being built up too much and it's going to crash.

I think that experienced developers, whether a hot commodity or struggling to remain employed, should be leaders in anticipating this and not justifying the system that threatens their employment security in both good times and bad times.
posted by michaelh at 11:48 AM on February 25 [2 favorites]


Age also limits the amount of bullshit you'll put up with, which can cut you out of a lot of these jobs. Like startups basically quit calling me several years ago because I was at the point where I'd no longer work 12 hour days for a minimal salary because there were free snacks and sodas in the breakroom.
posted by Ghostride The Whip at 11:50 AM on February 25 [10 favorites]


"Work smarter" is flawed advice because it glosses over the difference between individual possibilities and (collective) trends.

If somebody points out a trend, they're pointing out collective experience. "Work smarter" is saying, "Well, be in the 95th percentile and it won't effect you," but it's answering the wrong question - "How do I not be affected by a trend" and "Is this trend bad for lots of people and if so, how do we make circumstances better for many or most people?" are two very different questions.
posted by entropone at 11:53 AM on February 25 [1 favorite]


I think there's a regional thing going on, too. Lots of middle aged techies in Greater Boston and Virginia, but Silicon Valley and Seattle are youth-obsessed.

Boston companies tend to settle into a profitable niche and hang around for decades, bought and traded by larger companies who keep the unit intact, where Silicon Valley tech startups are expected to blaze out early and often. On the East Coast, tech companies buy product lines when they acquire a company, on the West Coast, they're out to raid their acquisitions for the customer base, patent portfoloio and top talent, leaving a husk that is gutted and dumped.

There's not as much emphasis on "culture fit" back east, either - can you do the job reliably? Can you learn new skills quickly? Do you have experience you can build off of? That's all they want.
posted by Slap*Happy at 12:00 PM on February 25 [2 favorites]


but Silicon Valley and Seattle are youth-obsessed.

Microsoft and Google aren't IBM, but they're skewing older over time. The entire reason Silicon Valley exists as an actual thing separate from the banality of the suburban landscape out here is that there's a supply of hyper-experienced engineers who have a depth of experience that isn't available elsewhere. Seattle exists because eventually those same engineers realize they can avoid paying state income tax by moving.
posted by GuyZero at 12:04 PM on February 25 [2 favorites]


If you are a programmer who can deal with people for more than 5 minutes at a time, go into management

I like people too much to want to spend my days trying to wring the most work out of them for the least money at the expense of their health and well-being, thanks.

The "up-or-out" phenomenon is why I'm always thinking about leaving programming for an industry with strong unions. When I'm feeling really ambitious I dream about unions in the web industry—but the Hacker News culture will never allow that to happen.
posted by enn at 12:05 PM on February 25 [2 favorites]


Also there is the idea that anyone over 50 can be considered a protected class for discrimination purposes. If an employee is hired that on paper fills the position well yet when the rubber hits the road it's found out that the new hire is a mismatch (common enough), if the person is over 50 they may choose to sue for age discrimination. It is difficult to prove or disprove, so I think employers tend to err on the side of caution and avoid the over fifty's.

It is also something that no matter how you 'gently ask for more feedback', you will never be told this directly.
posted by readery at 12:05 PM on February 25 [1 favorite]


in order to ... reduce wages

This, this, and only this.

go into management

What about those of use who have ZERO interest in managing? I studied computer science because I LIKE engineering!
posted by beerbajay at 12:12 PM on February 25


I have no idea how I will fare moving forward, but anybody in this field who neglects to continually acquire skills and hone existing ones is going to have a rough time.

Which is, of course, another way of saying that experience (and therefore seniority) tends to mean little, and that value as a developer is largely about how well versed you are in specific ephemeral arcanum.

Weirdly, no matter how much easier Shiny New Platform™ claims to make software development, many people seem to assume that you'll have a hard time using it if you only have More Difficult Older Platform experience.
posted by weston at 12:15 PM on February 25 [3 favorites]


yeah, I guess you're right. The only viable option is endless slugging it out doing what other people tell you to do.

Young people of the world, don't try anything different. It's bound to fail.


You are being super obtuse about this. entropone partly explained why your advice isn't really advice, but I'll do some more. The people who are working smarter don't actually need you to tell them to do it, and for those who aren't, your advice will help not at all. Your "advice" is the same as the well-meaning advice from friends and family to "well, get a new job" when you explain you don't like yours. If you don't feel like you have any marketable skills and you don't even know what you would like to do, "get a new job" is shitty, useless advice. If you're not sure what it is you should be doing to become a better, more competitive programmer, saying "work smarter" is shitty, useless advice. Gee, thanks, I never thought of that! In any case, your "revolutionize the industry" advice is something that vast, vast majority of people can't and won't do, so it's...just not advice.
posted by Steely-eyed Missile Man at 12:15 PM on February 25


First off, ageism is a thing in a lot of industries. Second, if you think you can do exactly the same job (any job) at 55 that you did at 25 without being any better or having developed any new skills, well, you're in for a bad time.

There are lots of opportunities for rank-and-file programmers to grow. The days of getting paid more for simply having seniority are long gone, but they're so long gone I'm not sure that this qualifies as a startling revelation any more. TVs also come in colour now as well. And they also have cordless telephones. Oh, this brave new world that has such wonders in it.


GuyZero, I am not sure what your point is here…ageism isn't older people with diminished/outdated skills or inflated salary expectations not getting jobs (that's just the normal job market), ageism is people assuming that older workers have diminished/outdated skills or inflated salary expectations and not hiring them because of those assumptions, assumptions that you seem to share. The fact that your first response is an assumption that these workers must be falling behind or asking for outrageous salaries based solely on tenure reinforces that ageism is endemic; you seem to be practicing it right now.

On the plus side, programmers still get paid salaries far beyond other white-collar professionals and there are plenty of jobs out there. So all is not lost.

And the point is those jobs aren't available to older candidates. If you are one of those older candidates trying to find a job, it sure can seem like all is lost.
posted by roquetuen at 12:17 PM on February 25 [9 favorites]


I don't know, and I mean that sincerely. This field is young; it and the economic landscape it is a part of change quickly. The only thing I know for sure is that I will not retire, whether that means I'm washing dishes or greeting people at Walmart or whatever.

Until then, I'm going to try to remain open and curious, because that seems like the least-worst option. Oh, and I'm going to continue to advocate for basic minimum income and socialized health care, because fuck this whole racket.
posted by sandettie light vessel automatic at 12:30 PM on February 25 [6 favorites]


OK, fine, so "work smarter, not harder" is pat, somewhat shitty advice, except I see people do it all the time and it seems to work really well for them.

It's good advice, in the sense that yes, that is the correct strategy. It's not good advice in the sense that it's incredibly vague and practically tautological. It's terrible advice when you pair it with the recommendation to "periodically revolutionize the world of programming" or something equally insanely unrealistic.
posted by Edgewise at 12:30 PM on February 25


I like people too much to want to spend my days trying to wring the most work out of them for the least money at the expense of their health and well-being, thanks.

This is exactly the disconnect that executives exploit. Most engineering managers are just expected to shovel their bosses shit onto their (very expensive, hard to replace) engineers.

It doesn't have to be this way. Your job as a manger is usually what you make of it. So protect those resources. I think in the next few years the execs will come around to this, once the VCs move on and companies are focused on medium to long term personnel management instead of IPOs and quarterly earnings.
posted by butterstick at 12:34 PM on February 25 [1 favorite]


I do, and I think attitudes such as yours (and mine until I noticed the problem) are incentive to adoption of tools that replace custom development of software.

There are no tools that replace custom software development. Tools that make development easier only enable more complex software to be built. Word processor? Hell, I can get half of a word processor on your average web form. Now that this is the case, we are essentially composing large forms out of many word processors. Instead of worrying about word processing, we're worried about validation and field dependencies. Just like the invention of programming languages obviated the need to think about your code in terms of registers, but didn't put anyone out of work. Quite the opposite.

Generally speaking, productivity tools rarely eliminate work, in the long run. They often change the qualifications, which is why programmers have to keep learning. But productivity tools tend to increase production rather than decrease work. For instance, consider how much miniaturization has occurred in technology over the last few decades. Has this led to more spacious offices, or smaller cubicles? Business adjusts by eating up all the efficiency and demanding just as much as before. Productivity tools increase profit above all else.
posted by Edgewise at 12:41 PM on February 25 [9 favorites]


there is a limited premium on experience when it comes to all the bullshit tasks, i.e. 90% of all work.

This is perhaps the sad but undeniable truth of the software industry: there is a lot of innovative and important stuff going on, yes, but most of the work that exists is scut work for code monkeys that companies want to minimize expenses for.

Even as the industry expands in size, the size of management will only expand by log(n).

That said, the DC area seems to have greater tolerance for older programmers. But salaries can be correspondingly flat.
posted by deanc at 12:47 PM on February 25 [1 favorite]


That said, the DC area seems to have greater tolerance for older programmers. But salaries can be correspondingly flat.

I can guess why: security clearances. Older programmers tend to be US nationals, while more recent graduates are often from overseas, or here on visas. I work for a company that does contract work for the DoD among others, and we have to ignore a lot of resumes from folks who won't be able to get a clearance.
posted by Edgewise at 12:51 PM on February 25 [1 favorite]


The fact that your first response is an assumption that these workers must be falling behind or asking for outrageous salaries based solely on tenure reinforces that ageism is endemic; you seem to be practicing it right now.

Unlike comparable white-collar professions like accounting or law where the core parts change vary little over time, the half-life of technology-related skills is very, very short. Heck, even other types of engineering change relatively slowly next to software. It's not that older workers are "falling behind" - skills based on domain knowledge do become less useful more quickly in programming and IT. This is not built on an assumption of ageism, it's based on an assumption of very rapid change in the field.

Much of what I do day-to-day in my current role did not exist 5 years ago. There are some developers out there who think their MCSD in Enterprise .NET APP development will keep them going forever. It will not. (Platform partisans, feel free to substitute with Sys V system development or HP-UX system administration or whatever)
posted by GuyZero at 1:03 PM on February 25


I can guess why: security clearances.

Plus once you've been cleared it's much cheaper and easier to keep re-upping it rather than clearing new people who haven't been through the process before.
posted by brilliantine at 1:03 PM on February 25


I am a 53-year-old, college-educated professional, who worked most of my career in construction sales and management. Translation: I got to be expensive in an industry that fell off a cliff five years ago. I was laid off in December of 2008, and have faced ( I am completely convinced) voluminous streams of ageism ever since. I have not been able to find a construction-related job since, and have squeaked by as a self-employed design and marketing consultant. Tomorrow, I actually have my first (!) second interview for what I hope will be my reentry into construction.

So, IMO, ageism is a real thing. Partially, it's a permanent management mindset; minimizing any kind of investment anymore is the way modern managers think. But, the economy has really, really played into this, too. Companies have had the luxury for five years now of demanding the most for the least, and that means hiring kids or paying kids' wages to experienced people. But, that's not a permanent condition. What goes around comes around, is what I'm saying.
posted by Benny Andajetz at 1:03 PM on February 25 [3 favorites]


On top of the economic reasons that older tech workers get shut out, there's a pervasive ageist culture in the industry. Which sucks for anyone who decides to get old, but particularly women.

Virtually any discussion of useability will eventually cite "your mom." As in, "So easy your mom can do it." They'll always say they don't ACTUALLY mean it once you point it out, and helpfully inform you that their mother really is incompetent. But the fact is that you don't just turn those stereotypes on and off at will. They're pervasive in the industry, and they eventually affect any older worker who is not established in their current workplace.

Work in tech long enough, and you achieve the status of the Ultimate Incompetent User.
posted by ernielundquist at 1:18 PM on February 25 [5 favorites]


IT is strange in that its artifacts are constantly changing, even though its bases are only slowly evolving. You get frameworks-of-the-day every six months, and each one is different in its own complicated way, but underneath you always have something that looks like the typed lambda calculus.

In, say, construction, the bases don't change, you're always dealing with the same old statics and other physics, but unlike in IT, the artifacts change much more progressively: codes change, new materials come along, new techniques, etc. But new artifacts are only adopted because they provide some advantage (taking into account training, etc.) or because they are mandated through a fairly "large" process.

It's kind of funny looking at changing artifacts, since I'm now looking at the set of artifacts that was new when I started learning (.NET and Java) and seeing it become old, and it's my first time with the phenomenon.
posted by Monday, stony Monday at 1:23 PM on February 25 [2 favorites]


There is ageism in the industry, but I've noticed that in the past decade, employees at the larger firms seem to be slowly skewing older. For example, guys at the bottom of the stack at Apple (chips, compilers, operating systems) are almost all 40+. My 40+ year old startup burnout friends seem to be hiring each other into groups at Google. I sometimes wonder if the opposite of the ageism predictions will happen, and older guys will ensconce themselves and their friends into sinecures at places like Microsoft, Google and Apple, making it difficult for younger guys to get hired.
posted by BabeTheBlueOX at 1:30 PM on February 25 [1 favorite]


This time it's about ageism; the next time about H1-B's, etc. The bottom line is the "bottom line" - i.e. that corporations and their senior leadership (with few exceptions) are about maintaining market-driven models of sustainability built on profit and market value and damn the cost to anyone and anything that gets in the way of that - including the cost of labor. Short-term market valuations help to drive this.

Using profit and market value as "ultimate values", accepted within the convenient moniker of "free markets" or "freedom" whatever easy platitude comes their way, enables the cutthroat sociopaths at the top of the corporate ladder (and the corrupt legislative and legal apparatus that supports that ladder) to rationalize their behavior to the masses. They certainly don't have to rationalize these cost to themselves (human and social costs), because they are sociopaths, and are thus not wired to care about the necessary nurturing connections that make a society whole.

Kurt Weil wrote a song about this; it's about banks, but the spirit of the song resonates in the spiritually hollowed-out and orally bankrupt halls of contemporary corporate-supported structure.

All that said, many painful adaptations are having to be made, and will continue to be made as population increases and job opportunities decrease (this is in the cards, without doubt, due to the replacement of even highly paid professional help via automation). The corporate model is the dominant model. Someday, it won't be, but in the meantime what we have is collective creativity and intelligence and guts enough to try living in different ways. It's the thousands of micro-experiments that will bear fruit.

In the meantime, until laws are changed - and I'm not hopeful that even if they are that our corporate overlords would follow the letter of those laws - we will continue to see more of this outrageous discrimination, in addition to other morally bankrupt practices visited on us by institutions and people who simply don't care.
posted by Vibrissae at 2:12 PM on February 25 [2 favorites]


"Why would any company pay a computer programmer with out-of-date skills a salary of say $150,000, when it can hire a fresh graduate — who has no skills — for around $60,000?"

Because it's a company that wants high-quality code written for sophisticated, critical systems. Those who've done enough of it recognize that programming is as much art as science - and that all programs have bugs, some of which can kill people. Experience with all the ways in which code can go wrong falls under the "10,000 hours rule". As does experience in how to write code that can be debugged and maintained.

Not all businesses need such skills, just as people who only need grass huts don't need skilled masons. But when you get to the level of Apple, for example, and need to supply maps for people all over the world, massive fuckups -have- to be avoided.

I've seen and despaired over the same attitude in education, because too often those who make hiring decisions are incapable of recognizing the value of experience and mastery.
posted by Twang at 2:18 PM on February 25 [4 favorites]


But when you get to the level of Apple, for example, and need to supply maps for people all over the world, massive fuckups -have- to be avoided.

That particular example sort of disproves your point, but I agree with you anyway.
posted by GuyZero at 2:27 PM on February 25 [3 favorites]


I think there's a regional thing going on, too. Lots of middle aged techies in Greater Boston and Virginia, but Silicon Valley and Seattle are youth-obsessed.

Group Atlanta with the other eastern locations.
posted by madcaptenor at 2:45 PM on February 25 [1 favorite]


But when you get to the level of Apple ... massive fuckups -have- to be avoided.

Yes, one of the benefits of experienced developer is that they follow coding best practices.
posted by Monday, stony Monday at 2:48 PM on February 25 [2 favorites]


I have one direct experience with ageism in tech in the US.

I was maybe 23 or so years old, and was applying to a job at a company that made database related tools. Everyone that interviewed me was seemingly over 40. I thought the interview went well enough - I had the skills they wanted, could do the job they wanted... And then I didn't get the job. When I inquired, I was straightforwardly told that I was 'too young'. Turns out that the legal protection in the states is for older workers, not for younger ones.

It didn't bother me that much, being too young is a problem that time will solve; and I found a company that had a better culture fit (ie: didn't think I was too young).

Later, I moved to Europe and worked there for a bit. When I was creating a European CV, there were a couple of things that startled me - a picture was required on the CV (still not certain why this might be - perhaps to allow ethnic discrimination), and also my age was. I asked the company why they asked for your date of birth. They told me without hesitation that older workers generally had more experience, and expected to be paid salary that reflected that experience. The ageism was very much out in the open. I was startled, but appreciative.

Personally, I've been in larger organization that are made up primarily of folks right out of university, and it's troubling. They didn't have the mentors with industry experience (that I am accustomed to in large organizations), and frankly didn't have the wisdom that comes with experience. In my opinion it's pretty short sited to have an organization filled with people that don't have experience in their industry - they will make mistakes that could be easily avoided.

Alas, I'm now starting to get to the age where organizations will look at my age, and my industry experience, and engage in ageism. I assume this is because they don't think I'll put in 60 hours a week for modest salary and most-likely worthless stock options (they are right), and that they figure they'll have to pay me a figure that takes into account my experience (largely correct, although I'll certainly trade a lower wage for a higher quality of life), and that I'm unwilling to engage with new technologies (well, that's totally wrong).

I appreciate this discussion, but would agree that the original post contained no startling revelations.
posted by el io at 3:08 PM on February 25


The business case for shunning 50 year olds really doesn't exist in this industry. Hire a guy in his 50's and he'll retire on you after 15 years, probably sooner, but a younger guy will just get poached or jump ship for another reason on the same time scale.

That's why I personally just got a 50 year old hired at my company over a 30 year old. Both had the same skillset, but the older guy elaborated about his skills without a problem at the interview.

However.... If you're in your 40's and you have not kept up with the state of the art, if you're still writing impenetrable Perl for system administration, you're in trouble. When the landscape shifts, you have to be the one to tell your boss, not the other way around. That's why I insisted to my wife that I will not go on long car commutes. That's dead time that I am not working, not enjoying family life, and not keeping up with my field. And why I also insist that we live in Boston or SF. I will need to have a critical mass of potential employers near me, especially as I get older.
posted by ocschwar at 3:19 PM on February 25 [1 favorite]


The business case for shunning 50 year olds really doesn't exist in this industry.

Anyone with the slightest experience in "tech" knows that hiring is completely and utterly irrational.
posted by GuyZero at 3:44 PM on February 25


If you're in your 40's and you have not kept up with the state of the art, if you're still writing impenetrable Perl for system administration, you're in trouble.

Well, duh. This has been true for as long as IT has been a profession. Everyone working in the field knows it. It's pure ageism to assume someone older than 30 isn't aware of the pace of change in IT and software development, despite having put in more than a decade making that pace happen.

Yeah, everyone know someone who'd stuck a decade back - they are by and far the exception. More, for every moldy oldie who's building a server from ail order parts in one of those full-tower cases on wheels to run XP, there's five newbs wasting hours trying and failing to plagiarize stuff they found on github.

More, Ruby and Python are 20+ years old at this point, C is going to be 45 soon, C++ is over 30, iOS and MacOS are based on tech that goes back to the mid-80s (older if you count the Unix layer). Long experience can only help and accelerate learning new tech - because it's all based on old tech! All of it! Older workers can and do keep up with new technologies, and have a wealth of experience with the foundations of the latest and greatest.

Not hiring them is crass prejudice that shoots the employer in the foot repeatedly - yet another example of how a free and unregulated market winds up producing less profit.
posted by Slap*Happy at 3:54 PM on February 25


Unlike comparable white-collar professions like accounting or law where the core parts change vary little over time, the half-life of technology-related skills is very, very short. Heck, even other types of engineering change relatively slowly next to software. It's not that older workers are "falling behind" - skills based on domain knowledge do become less useful more quickly in programming and IT. This is not built on an assumption of ageism, it's based on an assumption of very rapid change in the field.

I really hate this argument. The basic skills of Computer Science math and program design have actually changed very little in the past 50 years. The "revolutionary" MVC paradigm that Rails brought to the web was developed and implemented in Smalltalk in the 1970s. It's common that every few years, some new framework or language will come along that actually implements a decades-old concept.

It is true that the frameworks and artifacts that programmers use change rapidly. But I'd argue that the skill to architect software, and to learn how to use those frameworks effectively changes very slowly, if it all. In fact, one of the best programmers I've ever worked with was in his 60s. He inherited a slapped-together pile of crap, and over the course of eight months learned a new framework (Android), mapped out the old system, designed a useful replacement, and then implemented it while giving consistently accurate estimates of the work left to be done. I have literally never seen anyone under 30 do the same.
posted by heathkit at 3:55 PM on February 25 [2 favorites]


Anyone with the slightest experience in "tech" knows that hiring is completely and utterly irrational.

Baloney. You're just illustrating the ingrained myopia and prejudice endemic in the field. Idiotic and anti-social groupthink at its worst.

My last gig I was working in an infosec shop with a guy who got his start on s/390 units back in the early '70s, and he was the go-to guy for making our automated firewall config management work. Another guy had been with the organization for 25 years, starting out as a tape swapper. This was part of a large institution who had very firm anti-discrimination rules (hey, wow, there are black people in IT!), and the department was the most competent and responsive IT shops I've ever been a part of, that worked smoothly in high pressure, high-visibility situations.
posted by Slap*Happy at 4:06 PM on February 25 [1 favorite]


I took the 'hiring is irrational' to be about how things work, not about how it should. I agree that how it works now is broken.
posted by winna at 4:12 PM on February 25


Per my note above: here's the link to the Kurt Weil song - it's as meaningful today as it was in the 1920's - applying in this case to banking, but in it's full meaning to the world of unbridled corporate capitalism. Aside from its stark message, it's hard to believe such a beautiful melody could call out the outrageous moral bankruptcy that Weil was pointing out.

Here's the original, with translation:
"Lied Des Lotterieagenten" from 'Der Silbersee'
("Song Of The Lottery Agents" from 'The Silver Lining')
Music by Kurt Weill

Was zahlen sie für einen Rat,
wie man sein Geld anlegt mit Nutzen?

What will you pay for advice
on how to use your money wisely?


Hast du Geld, lass' es nicht bei dir im Sack.
Geh' zu den Menschen und säe es aus.
Das ist ein Acker, der düngt sich mit Blut,
da wächst etwas, da kommt etwas heraus.
Das produziert die Krone des Gewinns:
Zins und Zinsenszins.

If you've got money, don't leave it in your pocket.
Go to the people and sow it.
They are a field, fertilized with blood.,
something grows there, something's coming up
That produces the cream of your profit:
interest
and compound interest


Zuerst kommt das und dann kommt nichts danach.
Für dich schließt sich des Lebens Bilderbuch.
Du schlägst nur pünktlich den Kalendar auf
und liest Termine und du liest genug.
Das kalkuliert die Krone des Gewinns:
Zins und Zinsenszins.

That's the most important thing, nothing follows that,
close your picture book on life,
just open your diary punctually
read your appointments and you will have read enough.
That's how you calculate the cream of your profit:
interest
And compound interest


Trägst du ein Herz von Fleisch, erhärte es zu Stein
und wund're dich nicht, wenn es nicht gleich gelingt.
Sei einmal hart vor einer großer Not,
bald siehst du zu, wenn wer ins Wasser springt.
Das garantiert die Krone des Gewinns:
Zins und Zinsenszins.

If you've got a human heart, harden it into stone
and don't be surprised if it's not successful straight off.
Just once be firm and when faced with great need,
soon you'll be able to watch them jump into the river.
That guarantees the cream of our profit:
interest
and compound interest



Bau' einen Turm von Quadern um dich,
du hörst nicht, wie sie draußen kläglich schrein.
Sei blind — sei taub, erlass keine Schuld,
du büßt ja Geld und Geldes Nutzen ein.
Verleugne nie die Krone des Gewinns:
Zins und Zinsenszins.

Build a towering block around you,
you won't hear the accusing screams outside.
Be blind, be deaf, forego no debt,
or you'll forfeit money and money's benefit.
Never disown the cream of yuor profit:
interest
and compound interest


Darum lerne, wie man's macht,
daß einem Zinsenszins und Zinsensfreude lacht.

Learn by this how it happens
that compound interest and the joy of interest smile on someone


Sie sind jetzt ein reicher Mensch...
Sie haben viel Geld auf Ihrem Konto...
Sie sind ein Millionär...
Dann können Sie machen, was Sie wollen...!

Now you are a rich man.
You have an account full of money.
You are a millionaire.
Now you can do what you want!

posted by Vibrissae at 4:33 PM on February 25



If you're in your 40's and you have not kept up with the state of the art, if you're still writing impenetrable Perl for system administration, you're in trouble.

Well, duh. This has been true for as long as IT has been a profession. Everyone working in the field knows it. It's pure ageism to assume someone older than 30 isn't aware of the pace of change in IT and software development, despite having put in more than a decade making that pace happen.

Yeah, everyone know someone who'd stuck a decade back - they are by and far the exception


Not among the people I've seen laid off. Mr. Write Everything In Perl was the most poignant example I saw.

The thing is, it's so easy to find a challenging job that keeps you mired in legacy issues 50 hours a week, and find yourself unable to keep up.
posted by ocschwar at 4:36 PM on February 25 [1 favorite]


Baloney. You're just illustrating the ingrained myopia and prejudice endemic in the field. Idiotic and anti-social groupthink at its worst.

"Tech" is not renowned for having exceptionally great hiring practices. I'm glad you work somewhere that seems well-run. My current employer has a number of good things about our hiring practices although there are equally a number of things that are simply poor execution on top of an otherwise good process. But the average development shop or IT organization has like a a "business case for hiring" of anyone.
posted by GuyZero at 4:40 PM on February 25


About to hit fifty and so far so good for my career. I was laid off last fall from a startup and just started this week at a new job doing test automation in Ruby despite the fact that I didn't know Ruby when I interviewed and told them so. They said, that's OK, you'll pick it up. They were right, it's pretty easy to pick up your seventh or eighth scripting language but I glad that they were willing to take that leap.

I worry quite a bit about my next fifteen years or so of employment and have really tried to keep up with current tech. I spent the last two years really working hard at my Python coding skills which makes it a little ironic that I ended up getting a Ruby coding job but I'm more than a little terrified about letting myself get even five years behind. Maybe we'll have this same thread in ten years and I'll have a very different answer but so far I haven't hit any agism.
posted by octothorpe at 4:57 PM on February 25 [2 favorites]


Maybe it's just my somewhat fucked health, but I don't even know why someone 50s+ would WANT to be in the shit. I mean for hobbies or open source sure, but not as a stressful job. Save up some bucks, become like, a park ranger, that's my plan.
posted by save alive nothing that breatheth at 5:26 PM on February 25 [1 favorite]


> Anyone with the slightest experience in "tech" knows that hiring is completely and utterly irrational.

Baloney. You're just illustrating the ingrained myopia and prejudice endemic in the field. Idiotic and anti-social groupthink at its worst.

Wow, super harsh! My opinion lies somewhere in between...it really depends on the organization. It's actually a primary difference between a company that is poised for healthy growth, and one that is not. I'm deeply involved in the hiring process of the (very small) company that I work for, and we put a tremendous amount of time and consideration into finding the right people.

It's extremely tricky to accurately gauge an applicant's value to our organization without wasting a tremendous amount of their time and ours; I say "wasted" because we hire a very low percentage of the people that we talk to. It's a significant consideration when your organization is trying to grow because you're heavily booked, and engineering may have to put in up to twelve hours to assess a single applicant who makes it to the final stages. When you combine that with the percentage of successful interviews, there is a strong incentive to disqualify applicants ASAP and move on to the next. After all, hiring the wrong person can be a disaster...the industry is drowning in criminally under-qualified "developers," and the only way to truly assess an engineer is with other engineers.

So recruitment is a huge challenge, and it's very easy for it to become irrational. But it's also something very important, and good companies get it right. Just like good companies realize that good developers are worth the money they cost, in the long run. Even if 90% of programming is bit shoveling, that 10% will bite you in the ass. But like I say, it's a huge challenge , and easy to get wrong.

Honestly, as someone who is involved in lots of tech interviews, one of the things I'd scrutinize with an older developer would be whether they keep up with the state-of-the-art, just like I'd scrutinize a younger developer a little more closely on questions of experience and professionalism. But as long as all those qualities are there, I'd gladly hire a developer of any age. At the end of the day, I really don't care what your background is, or what school you went to. I've given programming tests to seemingly brilliant nuclear physicists who switched over to program for Wall Street banks, and been embarrassed by how poorly they did. I've seen enough that I don't try to predict who is going to have the qualities we're looking for. I'm always rooting for every applicant, and I often find myself biting my tongue to keep from giving them the answers.
posted by Edgewise at 5:39 PM on February 25 [1 favorite]


The talk about hiring practices and keeping up with the latest techs reminds me of the early Java days when they would ask for people with 10 years of experience in a language that hadn't existed that long. Also, those long list of TLAs and FLAs that appear in resumes and job ads.
posted by Monday, stony Monday at 6:01 PM on February 25


The "latest tech" in the sense of new languages/frameworks/etc is only important in a subset of the industry, though. For large tech companies, most stuff still gets done in languages that are 20+ years old.

In the last 6 years (which is how long I've been with my current big employer) the newest language I've used is Actionscript which is 16 years old. (Others: Javascript (19 yrs), Python (23 yrs), C++ (31 yrs)). This is finally changing as I am learning Go, but thats a house brand :)

Now, these have certainly evolved over the years, but if you're using them you're probably slowly absorbing those changes the same way engineers / technicians in other fields are absorbing incremental changes in their tools / materials.

The language/framework of the moment sort of things seem to mostly be prevalent in the kind of just-add-water startups that pop up and die all the time in SV. Having never worked at one of those, I've never really seen these get used/adopted, big companies tend to have more invested in a set of languages. I don't ever want to work at a startup again, so thats fine with me :) [I did work at a couple of "enterprise" software startups in the late 90s/early 00s but we just used Java/Javascript/C++ like everywhere else].

But as always happens in these dicussions, "IT" is a huge varied field so what I'm used to from companies like Microsoft and Google is different than the Techcrunch startup world, which is also quite different from doing IT for a bank or insurance company.

I mean, my father spent over FORTY years writing COBOL on mainframes for banks. He just retired from doing that this year, after years of being lured back when he announced he might retire. They would hire him back in a second and he's 71, because there is a huge shortage of people who know how to do that. Those kind of islands in tech do exist, but its not something everyone can or should find.
posted by wildcrdj at 7:02 PM on February 25


Greylisting? That is unpossible.

one of the things I'd scrutinize with an older developer would be whether they keep up with the state-of-the-art

Yeah right. A young kid fresh out of college does not even know there IS such a thing as a state of the art. He only has one data point. For those of us who have a lifetime of data points, you just tell me what state you want the art to be in and I'll go check it out and in about ten minutes, I'll get back to you with a full assessment.
posted by charlie don't surf at 7:57 PM on February 25


you just tell me what state you want the art to be in and I'll go check it out and in about ten minutes, I'll get back to you with a full assessment.

Having been on both sides of the interview chair too many times, yes, everyone goes into an interview with a very good opinion of themselves. And yet somehow only a small fraction of applicants get hired. This is true of both older and younger candidates.
posted by GuyZero at 8:08 PM on February 25 [1 favorite]


And yet somehow only a small fraction of applicants get hired.

Maybe that is your experience. In the last 5 or 6 major interviews for jobs I had over the last 20 years, the fraction was 1/1. I was the only person interviewed and I was hired. The trick is getting the interview in the first place.
posted by charlie don't surf at 8:24 PM on February 25


Maybe that is your experience. In the last 5 or 6 major interviews for jobs I had over the last 20 years, the fraction was 1/1.

That's great for you, but he's dead right on this. For the interviewer, if you're getting those kinds of odds, just quit your job and play the lottery immediately. From what you're saying, it sounds like you have no idea how hard it is to find qualified candidates. They're not all you. If you don't do interviews, then someone else is making sure you don't meet the 90% of self-proclaimed developers who should never be allowed around keyboards.

A young kid fresh out of college does not even know there IS such a thing as a state of the art.

It really depends. That's often true, but I've seen a few who are surprisingly savvy...they generally are the ones who do development on their own (Android and even open source enthusiasts). Besides, it's not just a choice between fresh-out-of-college and ready-to-retire. Only the most budget conscious hire full time developers straight out of college. Or those with great recruitment that are able to find the best students and track them into their companies before graduation via internships, academic outreach, etc. "Young" programmers often refers to folks with just a couple of years of experience.
posted by Edgewise at 8:59 PM on February 25


If you are a programmer who can deal with people for more than 5 minutes at a time, go into management or technical sales.

No.
posted by schwa at 10:55 PM on February 25 [1 favorite]


schwa: "If you are a programmer who can deal with people for more than 5 minutes at a time, go into management or technical sales.

No.
"

I agree. Management is a trap. It pays a little more but you're first on the firing line when shit goes bad and your skills are going stale everyday. I don't know how many managers I've known who had to switch back to being engineers (sometimes in the same team that they had managed) just to escape that fate.

My previous company had layoffs in October and of the two dozen people I personally knew, they all have jobs by now except for the one manager who's still looking. He had been at that company for 13 years and now his skills are horribly out of date to be an engineer and there just aren't that many management jobs and they mostly get filled internally.
posted by octothorpe at 4:46 AM on February 26


It's extremely tricky to accurately gauge an applicant's value to our organization without wasting a tremendous amount of their time and ours; I say "wasted" because we hire a very low percentage of the people that we talk to. It's a significant consideration when your organization is trying to grow because you're heavily booked, and engineering may have to put in up to twelve hours to assess a single applicant who makes it to the final stages.

Oh, geeze, one of those shops. OK, here's the deal. Most (tho not all!) of the candidates who show up on time for the interview will be qualified to do the work and decent people to work with. If you won't hire them, they will be hired in the next few weeks or months by someone else, who will be generally happy with the results.

You're looking for a unicorn - a world class programmer with ordinary salary requirements. They don't exist. You get what you pay for, full stop. These long and gruelling hiring pageants waste time and money and jeopardize the business - you will be perpetually understaffed, which puts deadlines or quality or both on the line, and you will still be hiring average professional engineers like everyone else in their pay band. Their sparkly horn and luxurious mane are largely wishful thinking on your part.

If you understand from the start you're hiring a ham'n'egger who will be nervous at the interview and need time and training to pick up your toolset and grok your codebase, you'll get one in the door, up to speed and cranking out code commits while Unicorn Hunters are still agonizing over the font a candidate used in a resume.

The true superstar programmers won't be submitting a resume, and won't be interviewing with you - your boss' boss will be flying them in for a sales pitch.
posted by Slap*Happy at 5:25 AM on February 26 [4 favorites]


you will still be hiring average professional engineers

uh, no, not in Canada at least. P.Eng. software developers are actual unicorns, although I have worked with one or two over the years. I assume you mean something else and not actual Professional Engineers (tm) governed by their state's or province's Professional Engineering Act.

except for the one manager who's still looking.

So he was the only manager laid off, since you seem to imply that everyone else was a developer/staff person?

He's my other bit of trite career advice: don't be at the bottom of the fucking stack rank.
posted by GuyZero at 8:45 AM on February 26


So he was the only manager laid off, since you seem to imply that everyone else was a developer/staff person?

No, there was one other manager but he'd only been one for a year and was able to transition back to being an engineer without a problem. But no one seems to want to hire a manager who hasn't coded in a dozen years.
posted by octothorpe at 9:46 AM on February 26


I assume you mean something else and not actual Professional Engineers

I assumed he meant "professional" in the extremely common and everyday usage of "a person engaged or qualified in a profession." Why are you being so obtuse in this thread?
posted by Steely-eyed Missile Man at 9:51 AM on February 26 [1 favorite]


In the province of Ontario stating you are "professional engineer" without a license carries a fine of $25,000 for a first offence and $50,000 for each subsequent offence.

I went to an engineering school, I know actual licensed professional engineers and I don't have contempt for the law. So while a lot of people play fast and loose with the term "professional engineer" it actual has very explicit legal meaning in most North American jurisdictions. It's not "obtuse" to care that words have meanings.

Non-engineers may not care but I do.
posted by GuyZero at 10:10 AM on February 26 [1 favorite]


I assumed he meant "professional" in the extremely common and everyday usage of "a person engaged or qualified in a profession." Why are you being so obtuse in this thread?

Rear-guard action to defend entrenched interest. Some people believe they benefit from the status quo, and will pull every rhetorical trick in the book to derail discussion of the issue. Classic misdirection technique.
posted by Slap*Happy at 10:16 AM on February 26 [2 favorites]


Oh, geeze, one of those shops. OK, here's the deal. Most (tho not all!) of the candidates who show up on time for the interview will be qualified to do the work and decent people to work with. If you won't hire them, they will be hired in the next few weeks or months by someone else, who will be generally happy with the results.

Aw geez yourself: have you given any interviews? Unicorns? Honestly, at least in the situations I'm dealing with, you couldn't be further off base. I'm looking for Java developers who can answer questions like "What is the base class of Exception and Error?" Is that hard? I don't think so, either, but at least 2/3 of our applicants can't answer it. Yesterday, a phone interview went 0/5 on some easy Java questions, that being a good representative of them. Is that unusual? Sadly, no!

God, you sound like you've never given an interview. When I say that 90% of applicants aren't qualified, I'm not talking about my company, I'm talking about the field. I've been involved in interviews in three companies now, and this problem is huge. People who have never done developer interviews and only sat on the other side of the table have NO IDEA how bad it is out there.

Everyone who can write a line of code has apparently heard that software engineers are very employable, which is true. The problem is that everyone who can write a couple lines of code that talks to a database thinks they are a "developer". And there's a lot of desperation out there, but I've seen this problem back in '06 when I was working for a very recognizable company.

We're not looking for superstars, we're looking for competent developers; journeymen, not masters. I really don't need someone who has no clue to be telling me that I'm looking for unicorns and superstars. You don't have any idea what my standards are! I'm certainly not a superstar, and I'd be happy with engineers who are even slightly less competent than myself.

If you think my standards are too high, you need to be able to cite some evidence other than your vague opinion that most candidates in the field deserve a job in my company. If you had any idea of what the reality on the ground is like, you'd realize how off-base that idea is for ANY company looking to hire programmers. Most so-called developers should not be in the field.

Frankly, if you do involve yourself in the interview process for your company, and you really think that showing up on time for an interview suggests a high likelihood that the candidate is qualified, I'd never ever want to work with the incompetent people who would swarm past your "filter." For the sake of you and your co-workers, I hope this is not the case. But based on what you've said, I'd be genuinely surprised if it was.
posted by Edgewise at 11:22 AM on February 26 [1 favorite]


So while a lot of people play fast and loose with the term "professional engineer" it actual has very explicit legal meaning in most North American jurisdictions. It's not "obtuse" to care that words have meanings.

The standard term I've heard is "Chartered Engineer" and only applies to those disciplines for which chartering is available. Apparently things are different in Canada, but software engineers do not have a chartering process (and this is a topic of some historical and ongoing concern), and so the use of the word "engineer" in the tech industry is necessarily slang. I don't know if this would hold up in Canadian Engineer Court, but there's a certain caveat emptor in play here, since it's impossible to hire a chartered software engineer such that one would be aggrieved by their lack of certification.
posted by rhizome at 11:33 AM on February 26 [3 favorites]


I'm looking for Java developers who can answer questions like "What is the base class of Exception and Error?"

Huh. Maybe I do have a future. I'm not a Java (focused) dev and my guess was correct.
posted by weston at 12:02 PM on February 26 [1 favorite]


Rear-guard action to defend entrenched interest.

To the detriment of everyone I feel compelled to reply. I have no clue what interest I'm defending nor even what the specific discussion I'm derailing is. We're discussing this article which says of bunch of things that are a) not surprising and b) not very specific to the "tech" industry. I don't think there's any requirement to stick to one topic. Feel free to post cookie recipes.

For whatever it's worth, the notion of professional engineering accreditation is next to completely irrelevant to software development and IT. There is some argument to be made for real-time or embedded systems or for system interfacing with things you'd want an actual professional engineer to certify (I dunno, software-controlled high-voltage system? I honestly have no idea.) But the vast, vast majority of software development isn't an engineering exercise. So it seems logical not to use a very specific term ("professional engineer") which has specific legal meaning to discuss a topic where it's unrelated.
posted by GuyZero at 12:33 PM on February 26


Huh. Maybe I do have a future. I'm not a Java (focused) dev and my guess was correct.

Dude, the guy who got this one wrong has been teaching Java as an adjunct for YEARS. It's like viral ignorance.
posted by Edgewise at 12:37 PM on February 26


Rear-guard action to defend entrenched interest. Some people believe they benefit from the status quo, and will pull every rhetorical trick in the book to derail discussion of the issue. Classic misdirection technique.

Well in theory it's a little bit like the bar; you have to be a P. Eng. to do certain acts, like design a bridge or a septic system, and there's some actual consequences if you mess up, with professional inspections and the possibility of losing your license.

At least in Quebec, the professional organization (the Order; in French ingénieur (ing.) is the reserved tile) seems to be fairly active in policing the engineering/licensing side (but let's not talk about the business ethics of our major engineering firms).

Of course, as with all professional organizations, you can always say it's putting wolves in charge of protecting the sheep (from other wolves), but AFAIK the situation is better here than it is, say, in the US with the bars.
posted by Monday, stony Monday at 12:39 PM on February 26


"What is the base class of Exception and Error?"

So basically you want to hire Yahoo Answers?

Perhaps the real question you are asking is what the base class is good for, and when you should work with it instead of Exception, and other things that get beyond the trivia question. If you really want to have fun though start asking them about what class Class is, and how that works, and what ClassLoader really does.
posted by Nelson at 1:03 PM on February 26 [1 favorite]


Perhaps the real question you are asking is what the base class is good for, and when you should work with it instead of Exception, and other things that get beyond the trivia question.

Perhaps there is no point asking that question if they truly have no answer to my question. Our interviews occur in stages. Once you can answer some really basic-ass questions, we invest more time in you with a deeper look. I didn't say we hire people after they answer five easy questions. But would you really want to hire someone who doesn't know something so basic? What experienced Java developer has NEVER had to catch a Throwable? None that I know of. So we start with the stuff that we feel like "hey, if you don't know this, you're just not ready."

Hell, if the guy I was interviewing had claimed to be a .NET expert, guess what? I wouldn't have asked him the question. Or I might have asked him just to gauge his Java knowledge, not to disqualify him. We ARE willing to hire people who don't even have the skills we're looking for...as long as we think they could learn them.

But for chrissakes, this dude TAUGHT Java at several different institutions of higher education (or so he claimed). Speaking of which, do you know how many applicants just lie? I don't know if this guy was lying, but deception is par for the course in this process. A lot of applicants just hate it when you ask them details about technologies they claim to have mastered, or even just claim to know.

If you really want to have fun though start asking them about what class Class is, and how that works, and what ClassLoader really does.

No, it would have been NO FUN AT ALL to have asked this guy those questions. I don't actually enjoy hearing candidates stammer and struggle through basic knowledge questions. I always want them to have the answer, and it hurts to watch them squirm. I want to hire people, dammit!
posted by Edgewise at 1:49 PM on February 26 [1 favorite]


It still sounds like interviewing by trivia.
posted by rhizome at 2:09 PM on February 26 [1 favorite]


It still sounds like interviewing by trivia.

Well, guess what smart guy? You're not hired!

In all seriousness, I am getting tired of this and I don't really have a need to defend our hiring practices (and yet, here I go). You think that asking five technical questions to ascertain someone's technical knowledge, before diving into substantive questions, is interviewing by trivia? Fantastic, you can have all the people who go 0 for 5.

If you want to work with someone who claims to be a seasoned Java developer but truly doesn't know that you don't need to implement any methods when you declare a class implements Serializable, I can hook you up many times over. I guarantee you that's not the only hole in their knowledge, but it doesn't sound like that will worry you.

I guess any technical questions are "trivia." In the future, I will start out asking for an explanation of ClassLoader. Although, personally, I would consider hiring someone who might have trouble with that question, because my bar is actually not that high. I'd even consider hiring someone who got a couple of our questions wrong, as long as everything else was solid.

But five easy questions, all wrong? I'd like you to tell either how I was (a) too harsh or (b) could have disqualified him faster (it took ten minutes). Because that's all we care about when it comes to interviews - accuracy (i.e. identifying the suitability of a candidate) and efficiency (i.e. not wasting their time and ours). You guys who are arguing with me are just whipping out your buzzwords and standard issue bullet points, but they are a poor fit for the particulars.
posted by Edgewise at 2:43 PM on February 26 [1 favorite]


No, not all technical questions are trivia; the question is relevance. How often does this base class question figure into the actual work the person would be doing at the business? The frequency determines the appropriateness of the question, that's all.
posted by rhizome at 3:21 PM on February 26


How often does this base class question figure into the actual work the person would be doing at the business?

OK that's a reasonable question, but I do have a reasonable answer. The point of the question about base classes is to ascertain how much the applicant has actually programmed in Java. Basically, anyone who has mucked about with enough Java code at some point has had to catch runtime exceptions, if only for debug purposes. If you've done any exception handling more than try{} catch (Exception e) {}, how can you not run into this? Understanding core Java classes is a necessary part of understanding the whole platform.

Again, the point of these questions is to get an idea of how familiar a candidate is with Java, in general. If their familiarity is a lot lower than they claimed, that's important to know. Many mediocre programmers have no idea that they are mediocre, so it's not merely a matter of catching them in a lie.

Is this relevant to the job? Hell yes! We deal with exceptions many times a day. Same with Serializable. And that's an even more egregious example: how is it possible to be an experienced Java developer without knowing that nothing needs to be implemented for Serializable? OF COURSE we use it every day. All JSF backing beans and (I think) RESTful services need to be Serializable.

In the vernacular sense, these may qualify as what some people call "trivia questions". But the information is anything but trivial. If you don't know how Serializable works and you've been in the Java world for a couple years, I seriously suspect your ability or honesty.

We could start out with questions about the more advanced aspects of the job, like whether or not candidates have experience with semantic technologies, web programming and big data, but why bother going through that when half of the candidates are going to prove themselves unhirable after ten minutes of "trivia" questions?

Once they pass that portion, we ask them about the other stuff. And even then, the point is that we don't CARE if you already know Hadoop or not. What we care about is whether or not you can learn it. If you haven't learned about exceptions or serialization in several years in the field, then I have real doubts.

The point is, we're measuring what we need to measure. We're not hiring a collection of specific technical skills. We're hiring people with proven technical ability, which is a lot trickier to evaluate. We just hired someone as a Java developer who couldn't answer those questions because she's been working with Ada for ten years. Of course, she didn't claim to be polluting young minds with her ignorance of Java. And now, she's doing great. You see how it works?
posted by Edgewise at 4:00 PM on February 26 [1 favorite]


If I seem touchy about this, it's because it's a topic I put a lot of effort and time into getting right. We have a great organization with amazing people, and with a company this size, it's essential to avoid diluting the talent pool with mediocrity. We really struggle with finding competent candidates, to much hand-wringing. Hearing a bunch of folks spouting the kind of standard-issue wisdom that all of us are really well-familiar with is just irritating. We've all read a hell of a lot on the topic, and are constantly looking for ways to refine the process so as to take less time and find better people. It's not quite a sore spot, but it is something I care a lot about. And not just from our side of the fence...we actually make an effort to make the process as painless for the candidates as possible. Just because they're not yet working for us, and may never do so, doesn't mean we disrespect their time and feelings.
posted by Edgewise at 4:06 PM on February 26 [1 favorite]


You're clearly thoughtful about interviews, Edgewise, and my apologies if my accusing you of asking a trivia question insulted you.

Back to the topic at hand, ageism in tech, one problem with "can you recall this specific fact right now" is it can test immediate recent experience with some minor thing while overlooking valuable deeper wisdom. Frankly I'm much more interested in someone knowing how exceptions work in a variety of languages than a specific class name in a single language. But you're using your test as a quick screen for "do they really know Java?" and that seems reasonable enough to me.

When interviewing at Google "can this person really do this job" test I found most useful was asking someone to write actual real code. Some trivial enough algorithm, reversing the words in a string is an old chestnut. (No fair using regex, but bonus points if you suggest it.) Just checking that the person can declare a function, name a variable, write a loop with a reasonable ending condition, write a quick test suite. About half the candidates I interviewed, even the ones pre-screened by Google, could not do that.

Again on ageism, I found a few older candidates bristled at the arrogance of being asked to write code by someone 20 years their junior. Fair enough, I tried to defuse that by being polite and deferential. IIRC the older candidates for engineering jobs could pretty much always code without much trouble; it was the young folks right out of college CS degrees who often simply could not program.
posted by Nelson at 4:37 PM on February 26 [2 favorites]


No worries, I just get a little passionate about some topics. By the way, I have no idea how you would reverse the order of words in a string with a regex; my instinct would be to say that it's not possible, so I'd be fascinated to hear how it's done. But yeah, you obviously have seen how many candidates surprise you by being able to do really basic stuff. It almost doesn't matter what you use as your initial screen, as long as it's something that you think everyone should know. By the time we actually ask a candidate to come in-person, we want to make sure that they can write a method and a unit test.

As for the issue of age, the biggest issue I've seen with older programmers is that some have been promoted into quasi-managerial status, and are thus out of practice at working in the trenches. As for younger candidates, I would be extremely reluctant to take someone straight out of school, unless they had some form of experience, be it professional or deep extracurricular activities. I don't mean computer club, I mean someone who has actually made something impressive on their own. We've certainly run across a couple of people like that, but they are pretty much the exception.

Honestly, I wouldn't be too happy with a candidate who thought they were too good to write code for a younger interviewer. Is that person going to be difficult if they have a manager who is younger than them? What about a customer? It's not a disrespectful request, and as an older developer coming to an interview at google, you'd be insane not to expect a younger person to ask you to whiteboard some code. People are supposed to be on their best behavior on an interview, so something like that strikes me as a bad sign.
posted by Edgewise at 11:58 PM on February 26


There's a scene in Monster's Inc. where the villain, Randall, is trying to prompt Mike with easy answers to simply put questions. Mike, an otherwise bright guy, fails to answer the questions under the stress of the situation, and it's very funny.

Gameshow interviews rarely result in good outcomes. You understand the context and importance of the question, an interviewee generally doesn't, and under the stress of the interview may flop entirely. Usually flops entirely. Interviewers come away with the impression that the field is full of liars and phonies, where in actuality, it's just not. (Not to say they don't exist, tho.)

The way I've run interviews is to engage in a conversation. For instance, at a previous gig we needed an AAA infosec guy. I could spring some questions about RADIUS vs. TACACS, or basic troubleshooting steps on the Cisco ACS. Easy, simple questions anyone applying for the position should know. I would have been disappointed.

Instead, I asked him if he used the ACS, and an overview of how it was being used. Softball, easy answer that also tells me something about how he visualizes and communicates, and if he's faked the rez. I asked what he liked about it - and he started to warm up. I asked him how he liked it compared to a competitor's product he also had on the rez, and man, we were off to the races. Implementation details not in the vendor documentation, low level knowledge of the standards, funny jokes about LDAP (I wasn't aware those existed...) it was a conversation between professionals rather than a test. Once the candidate figured that out, they were able to shine.

Put the candidate in their element. Get them to talk about doing things rather testing to see if they know things. It will be immediately obvious if they're able to walk the walk. I mean, right away immediately obvious.

One notable failure was shady all around - a real paper tiger with all the right certs, but who didn't seem to have actually worked with anything. This is OK for some positions, but he was trying to run a con rather than admit he had studied the tech but didn't actually work with it. Fail. Another candidate was very nice, but just didn't have the depth of knowledge or experience required. They were exceptions rather than the rule, and I generally haven't regretted any of the hires I was involved in.

I dunno, maybe we just had better recruiters feeding us better candidates. I think interview style and realistic expectations had more of a hand in it.
posted by Slap*Happy at 6:22 AM on February 27


I have no idea how you would reverse the order of words in a string with a regex

Well it's generous calling it a regex, but what I mean is no fair using String.split(). The purpose of a simple coding test is to see if they can iterate over a string and reason about boundary cases. The equivalent Python code that's "cheating" is ' '.join(reversed(s.split(' '))); that skips the hard parts of the test, although it is really the right way to do this task.

I wouldn't be too happy with a candidate who thought they were too good to write code for a younger interviewer.

Perhaps you underestimate the arrogance of the typical Google interviewer. The candidate is supposed to be on his best behavior, but sadly the interviewer sometimes is not. In my experience older people are sometimes less patient with that kind of bullshit than younger people. OTOH patience with arrogant young people is a useful job skill.

Your comment reminds me of another Google interview trick, this one to combat sexism. Make sure at least one woman engineer interviews every engineering candidate. Partly it just sends a good message ("we value women engineers!"). But more importantly, you will find that some male candidates don't take kindly to being questioned or challenged by women. That's a useful thing to find out before hiring.
posted by Nelson at 7:33 AM on February 27 [1 favorite]


Reversing the words means splitting the string, and that's basically done with a state machine, with states WS (whitespace), NWS (non whitespace) and maybe END. Then you deal with the transitions.

The state machine may not be made explicit in the implementation, but they'll be there nonetheless. They're fairly obvious in Python's split(), though they're pretty hard to see in Haskell's.
posted by Monday, stony Monday at 12:48 PM on February 27


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