Main image of article In Tech, 'Age' Is About 'Experience'
In hopes of broadening the technology talent pool, San Francisco staffing firm Riviera Partners has teamed with Code Path to offer a free class in Android development to engineers. The six-week class began last week. The average experience level of those attending: 4.5 years. Older and Younger Workers“We wanted to take experienced engineers and give them a new skill,” Riviera Partners COO John Simonelli said of the class, taught live by Code Path founders Nathan Esquenazi and Timothy Lee. It plans to repeat the class in October, and offer sessions on iOS development as well. However, the age of the attendees illustrates how, in technology, the term “experienced” is relative.

Time to Market

HP and Cisco have been among the tech stalwarts announcing massive layoffs of late. But layoffs don’t always mean that hiring stops. Cisco, for example, reportedly will hire 2,000 Millennials this year, even as it announced plans to eliminate 4,000 positions. "We just have too much in the middle of the organization," Cisco CEO John Chambers has been quoted as saying. "We've got to speed time to market. Small teams move much faster." And no doubt the middle isn’t made up of younger workers. So what some refer to as a “youth movement” looks like age discrimination to others – though that’s not really a new dynamic in the tech industry. In a recent poll of 32 tech companies by PayScale, only six had a median employee age older than 35. Eight had a median age of 30 or younger. By contrast, the overall workforce’s median age is 42.3 years old, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Age Vs. Experience?

“You can’t discriminate on age, but you can discriminate on the number of years of experience. That’s a fine line,” says Colleen Aylward, President of Devon James Associates, an executive search and consulting firm in Seattle. And winning an age-discrimination lawsuit became harder since a 2009 Supreme Court decision, which determined age was the determining factor in deciding which employees are laid off. Previously, plaintiffs had to prove only that age was a contributing factor.

Contributing Right Away

Riviera Partners’ client companies – small, venture-backed emerging technology firms --  aren’t focused on recruiting people straight out of school, Simonelli said. “[Employers] definitely pay attention to the top schools… and certainly that’s a key criteria,” he explains. “But these startup companies, where there’s not a lot of infrastructure or management, they’re much more focused on experienced engineers. That experience can be as little as two-three years … [but we see] more of a desire for ‘been there, done that.’” For these companies, the sweet spot in hiring is three to seven years of experience for individual contributors. “They’re experienced enough to contribute right away and they tend to be very current on the latest languages and that type of thing,” says Simonelli. For executive positions, it’s 10 to 15 years.

The Bottom Line

Aylward, author of From Bedlam to Boardroom: How to Get a Derailed Executive Career Back on Track, says about half her business these days involves consulting with displaced workers at the senior manager or director level or above. Many of them were the hiring managers of years past. “More of the development jobs are going to younger folks because they’re more open to the integration of software, they’re much more well-versed in how devices work,” she says. “The older generation, they’re the ones who built big enterprise software, databases. Big Data – it’s been around forever, but now integration of it is the key,” she observes. “The younger kids are all about integration. They’re integrating onboarding with gaming. You hire somebody and they don’t want to sit through two days of onboarding, paper forms and finding out where the lavatories are. They want to do a game online where there are contests and they win points.” In her book, Aylward talks about the pros and cons of older versus younger talent. Older workers might have a more mature way of communicating. They often are more business-savvy, and they command higher salaries. “When you talk about ‘older workers,” you’re talking about people who have had several jobs, several life experiences and hardships and seen things from many angles…. They’ve grown into really unique people. On the other hand, “Most younger workers have had limited work experience, may not have fully developed emotional intelligence, patience or active listening skills…. They work in free-form with few rules to limit them, creating and reinventing, taking cues from their peer age group or [people] slightly older.” Also, younger workers require more managing and lack the business acumen of older workers, Aylward says. “They may keep their companies backtracking and changing course to overcome obstacles that a more experienced person might have foreseen.” Whatever the dynamics, the age preference is about getting to the bottom line more quickly. “[Employers say,] ‘I can hire a bunch of 20-somethings who know this technology, then fire them in a year or two and get new blood in and get to my bottom line quicker,’” Aylward says. “Employers are not about employee loyalty and pension plans anymore. It’s not good or bad. Times have just changed. Employers don’t expect you to stay and employees don’t expect to stay.” However, Aylward says it’s important to keep an open mind, pointing to Apple as a successful company that employs a mix of ages. “It’s more of a mindset,” she says of its ability to innovate.