Ageism in the Tech Sector

When Randy Adams, 60, was looking for a chief-executive officer job in Silicon Valley last year, he got turned down from position after position that he thought he was going to nail — only to see much younger, less-experienced men win out.

Finally, before heading into his next interview, he shaved off his grey hair and traded in his loafers for a pair of Converse sneakers. The board hired him.

"I don't think I would have been able to get this CEO job if I hadn't shaved my head," says Adams, who has founded eight venture-backed companies. He is now chairman of the company that hired him, mobile conference-call service Socialdial, and is fundraising for a new business. Adams has supplemented his makeover by trading in his button-down shirts for T-shirts, making sure he owns the latest gadgets, and getting an eyelid lift.

Forty is definitely not the new 30 in Tech, it would seem:

"I don't think in the outside world, outside tech, anyone in their 40s would think age discrimination was happening to them," says Cliff Palefsky, a San Francisco employment attorney who has fielded age-discrimination inquiries from people in their early 40s. But they feel it in the Bay Area, he said, and it's "100 percent due to the new, young, tech start-up mindset."

They go on to point out that there are some benefits of youth, but it is possibly being over-emphasized now:

In some cases, there are reasons other than bias for preferring younger workers in a startup setting. People with young children can be strapped for time and less able to work long, late hours. Younger workers are more likely to be expert in the newest software programming protocols. Young entrepreneurs, like many others, often move instinctively in hiring from the cohort of those they know.

Yet there are some indications that age bias is now part of the culture in Silicon Valley - especially visible in what Adams of Socialdial calls the "cachet of the young entrepreneur." When young executives like Zuckerberg are successful, their age often gets a lot of attention. Successful older entrepreneurs, on the other hand, take pride in every aspect of their accomplishments - except their age.

So when the software company Workday went public last month and raised $637 million, little attention was paid to the fact that co-founder and co-CEO David Duffield is 72.

My own experience and those of other "wrong-side-of-40's" in the industry I know (bearing in mind anecdote is not the plural of data of course) is that no, we are not as up on the intricacies of the latest cool language, but our experience also shows us that the big drivers of success are seldom to do with the tech itself, nor working long and hard instead of smart. It's about managing risk, enthusing people, controlling cash, ensuring delivery quality, attracting customers, managing expectations - and while experience doesn't guarantee success in this, it does increase it's probability, as it's a learning curve thing. Which is why, when the going gets tough, Boards start to want a "grown up in charge" (Google, Facebook...and now Groupon it would seem). Horses for courses, as they say....

And, if I was being exceedingly cynical, I would suspect that some of the preference for youthful startups is their naivete, allowing funders to strike deals that no-one who has been around the block would ever accept.

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