Questioning the Tech Wunderkind Image

One of the things that irritates me about Silicon Valley culture is its blatant ageism.  I dislike it for several reasons:

  • Let’s start with the easy one:  it’s illegal.  As an employer you should be looking for someone qualified to do the job, not someone of a specific age.  While certain job requirements may end up setting a de facto lower bound on age (e.g., it’s hard to have a top MBA and 5 years of second-line management experience before you’re 30), age is not something you should talk about in the recruiting or management process.  People who would never say “let’s go find a Baptist to do this job” or “let’s go find a woman” will say things like “let’s go find a 32-year-old,” seemingly unaware it’s the exact same kind of discrimination.
  • In addition to over-promoting the whiz kids, the media almost never does any follow-up, telling us what became of the wunderkinds ten or twenty years later.  That’s why I was surprised to see this story in today’s New York Times, For A Mogul Money and Magic Have Limits, which details the dog’s breakfast whiz kid Halsey Minor has made of things since making a fortune off CNet during the Web 1.0 era.  Find the lessons in this quote:  “he thought he was a billionaire, spending far more than he had … but he really was a multi-millionaire always thinking I’m going to make the big score.”
  • The asymmetric media coverage gives people a distorted sense of reality:  (1) that they must start a company before they’re 30 or they never will, (2) that after 30 they are washed up, (3) that the odds of succeeding in a venture are way higher than they are, (4) that skills are more the determinants of success than luck, and (5) that youth/energy are more important than experience.
  • Point 4 is the Fooled by Randomness effect.  We don’t worship lottery winners, we just consider them lucky.  In business, we tend to equate financial success with skill and further sense that each idiosyncrasy is a cause of success.  If Google has free lunch, we’ll have free lunch.  If Steve Jobs wears jeans and a black t-shirt, then we should wear jeans and black t-shirts.  All notions of luck and causality get confused in the business media.
  • Regarding point 5, I’d like to ask the freshly-minted MBAs in my readership to ask themselves a question:  do you believe that you will be a better manager now or twenty years in the future when you still have the same degrees, the same intelligence, but twenty years of management experience?

But the thing that most amazes me about Silicon Valley ageism is that it’s often practiced by the 40+ crowd.  Here, neither self-interest nor logic prevail, just — I suspect — intellectual laziness.

10 responses to “Questioning the Tech Wunderkind Image

  1. I am with you except for the part about luck being more important than skill. Skillful people can be successful at anything. Just not every time. Most successful entrepreneurs are skilled and have worked very hard.

  2. Dave – Nice blog! Thanks for writing. In a country where marketing means a lot, this is a story that sells and as long as “we” buy it, it’ll be fed to us in various explicit and implicit forms. Have you ever across any data about the effects of entrepreneurship on the families of the entrepreneurs? Are there short or long term positive or negative impacts documented somewhere? Here I assume that most ventures fail and only some success but perhaps even that is false.

    One other question (perhaps out of place) is whether you can point me to a paper detailing the pros/cons of MarkLogic vs. Oracle XML DB vs. BaseX, etc. I am very new to XML databases. Unfortunately the applications I have in mind require some of each (relational, multi-dimensional, XML, etc.).

    Again, thanks for your informative blog.

  3. Another reason: it’s unwise since it’s cutting off one source of of the industry’s seed corn.

    Sometime after the crash this ageism became widely recognized and a lot of college students decided they’d prefer to work in a field where they will be employable after turning 35-40. It’s very likely this is one of the reasons for the especially sharp drop in CS major enrollment (even MIT’s EECS department saw its enrollment crash).

  4. Paul,

    I agree with you. My riff on skills vs. luck is longer and probably best done as the subject of another post. But net, no, I don’t think it’s just about luck. (Nor, for that matter, just about skill.) One needs the humility to see both.


  5. ld,

    Thanks for your note. I am not in love with our current technical marketing collateral so I can’t refer you to one, great paper on the topic. Best I can do for now are the ones here:

  6. Lina,

    Thanks for your comment, good point about EECS enrollment dropping.


  7. Dave,
    In my experience, your point 4 happens often at quarter end in software sales organizations. No matter how inane the tactic was, it will never be attributed in anyway to luck. “Look, Fred pulled in a massive deal by sitting in the execs parking lot. Now, I want everyone spending at least 34% of their time in parking lots.” The next quarter, if Fred pulls a goose egg, then all of a sudden he is a corporate pariah. SV highly underestimates the “right place, right time” factor for a lot of sales transactions. Yes, knowing your client and understanding their needs is fundamental, but if they can’t or won’t buy, there is very little you can do to make it happen.

  8. I have to agree with the 30 year old statement. As the CEO and Founder of a new company, I am seeking people with experience first, then I seek out if they will fit in my “Silicon Valley” couture.

    In my past 9-5 experience, non technical managers make the mistake that I.T. is for kids or Gen Y (the 30 year old boys club). Don’t get me started on certs versus an education!!

    Let’s face it; Gen-Y uses it because the 40 year old Gen-Xers are creating it. I will take the gray hair (or no hair) and 3 decades of experience any day versus a full head of green-horn! The challenge is will this person fit in and add to my organization? Answer = YES!


  9. Being on the north side of 45, this blog post resonates nicely with my own experience. Here’s the reality: The reason why corporate culture (and hence the media) love the wunderkind image is because those wunderkinds are cheap, they have no external baggage (i.e., families) that will keep them from devoting 60 hrs a week to even a death march project, and because by and large those kids are more easily manipulated.

    Typically most hiring managers (especially for larger projects) have no clean way of assessing either the technical complexity of their needs or the true skills of their prospective hires, beyond comparatively simple interview tests. There is a manifest difference in the quality of code produced by a Java programmer with fifteen years of experience in Java and other languages and a recent college grad – the graduate my have slightly more up to date knowledge (though that’s debatable) but the senior Java dev will usually be able to write far more robust code. Yet if you look at hiring statistics, most Java hires are at the lower end of the scale (same with any other technology, including XML).

    I think the same goes for the wunderkind CEOs and company founders. Most happened to have good ideas at the time that a given market had not yet fully developed, and were able to ride the lottery wave. Yet if you look at the track record of those CEOs that started out young with one success and follow their post-success career, it’s rare to find those that can recapture that magic thereafter with successful second or third ventures, because the conditions are no longer right for their particular perspectives (on the other hand, by the time you’ve helmed your fourth company, and are in your 40s or 50s, chances are pretty good that you’ve gained experience and perspective to make it happen again).

  10. Dave, random thoughts re the ageism post,

    1. Firms often reward top-down hierarchical structures – managers typically get paid more than engineers and rewarded for building pyramids vs. hiring the best talent. It is logistically difficult in many corporate cultures to hire people more ‘experienced’ than yourself – which can mean both older than yourself and/or at a higher salary. A few great silicon valley firms and one in Redmond were known to have life-long career paths for engineers – where engineers were often paid more than managers. Management of Teams is a business function and should be rewarded for developing talent vs. building pyramids – “always hire people smarter than yourself” – very few firms have been able to pull that type of culture off over the long term.

    2. Lack of life-long career paths for software engineers – pushes talented engineers into management for career growth and increased earnings. It can also result in weak management at tech firms, great engineers do not always make great managers. Hence, engineers often get an MBA or create a start-up where you act as founder / engineer to ensure you get rewarded for your experience. Perhaps this re-enforces ‘ageism’ at least in engineering.

    3. Why are there so few 70 year old technology professionals? Even Bill Gates got out of the business. Compare this to all the 70 year olds still fully engaged in other professions: financial, lawyers, doctors, sales, politicians. Perhaps these professions allow you to build value over a lifetime while for some reason software gets “re-set” every 5-10 years. It seems like you have a 5-10 year career window to go as far as you can and then it ”re-sets” to a new playing field and everyone starts basically even again. Seems to wipe up the advantage of long term “experience” .

    On the other hand the constant innovation and entreprenurial renewal that perhaps contributes to ‘aegism’ is what makes the tech industry so much fun and holds out the carrot of new wealth and success from the next great idea.

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