Ageism in Tech Takes a Turn for the Wiser
Older workers have talent and plenty of know-how. Finally, Boston’s youth-obsessed tech startups are starting to notice.
Nobody gave this a name, or had to create encounter groups to discuss the issues that arose because of our different needs. Alas, the world has changed, and now the idea of people of different ages working alongside one another has become a concept, complete with its own jargon and special processes invented to handle it. EMC, a big tech company based in Hopkinton, operates “employee circles,” where people with shared interests can kvetch and kvell online and in person. One is called the “multi-gen” circle, in which people talk about issues around age and generational differences. I suppose this serves the purpose that the barroom in Lawrence used to for my newspaper pals back in the 1980s—though probably with less cursing and fewer boozy tall tales.
But hey, this is a good thing. It means EMC is aware of the issue, and thinking about it, and trying to do something about it. You have to applaud them for that. Renee Murphy, the company’s VP of global talent acquisition, says older employees “absolutely” have a place at EMC, and that while some tech companies “have over-focused on the needs of millennials,” that’s not the case at EMC. “What’s really important to our candidates is they can walk around the halls and see people like them—and they can see them being successful,” she says. “No matter who they are, they will see someone like themselves.”
Last year, for instance, the company launched a formal employee-training program to address multi-generational workforce issues. About 12,500 people participated. EMC also does a lot of work around mentoring, bringing together people from different generations so young and old can learn from one another. Murphy mentors 10 people, helping them with career advice, but she has also sought mentorship from two colleagues, both of whom are younger. One helped Murphy get up to speed on using Twitter.
To me, that sounds a lot like what used to happen in that newsroom in the 1980s, maybe without the barrage of insults, which now would be considered inappropriate in the workplace, and without the prodigious afterwork drinking. Or maybe they do drink the way we used to. I don’t know. I hope not.
Even startups are beginning to see the value of older workers. Acquia is a rapidly growing nine-year-old cloud-services company that is said to be headed for an IPO. Like most businesses, Acquia wants to recruit millennials, and toward the end of last year it moved out of its headquarters in a drab old office park in Burlington into a groovy, gleaming new space in downtown Boston. The new headquarters on State Street boasts fun-and-games décor with perks that millennials love, as well as standing desks and open workspaces, standard fare in modern offices. The hip new space no doubt will help Acquia recruit young people, the kind who live in the city and wouldn’t be caught dead schlepping out to Burlington every day. There are already plenty of twentysomethings making espresso in the shiny kitchen and shooting hoops in the game room.
But Acquia isn’t just about the kids. In fact, the average age among its 730 employees is 35. That’s old for tech, older than what you find at established West Coast outfits such as Google and Facebook. Acquia’s CEO, Tom Erickson, says that’s not by accident.
“Have you heard of bond laddering?” he asks me.
Laddering is a concept from investing: Instead of putting all of your money into bonds that mature at the same time, you spread your money across bonds that mature in different years. That way you always have some bonds maturing, and you’ve spread your risk around.
“I think of my leadership team in the same way,” Erickson says. “I have two guys on the leadership team who are in their late thirties, then some in their earlier forties and some in their later forties, and then a small handful in my genre, which is middle to late fifties.”
Erickson is 57, meaning he’s not the typical startup guy, which in turn may explain why he sees the value in having some old folks—by this I mean people my age, or his age—around the office. Erickson believes people acquire wisdom as they get older. Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg once famously (and stupidly) said, “Young people are just smarter.” He was 22 when he said that. I’m not sure he’ll still feel that way when he’s 40, or 50. Somehow, when he reaches that age, I suspect Zuck will be amazed by how much smarter old people have become.
There are two big raps against older workers. One is that we’re too expensive. The other is that we don’t work as hard as younger employees. We have spouses and kids and outside obligations, so we’re less inclined to put in 80-hour weeks or pull all-nighters. There’s some truth to that, though the counterargument is that as we get older we get better at what we do. “If you put the 22-year-old me and the 43-year-old me in a room,” says Max Metral, the chief technology officer of a startup called GasBuddy, located not far from TD Garden, “I would kick the 22-year-old’s ass.”
When I first met Metral, in 1997, he was 24, fresh out of the MIT Media Lab and running a startup company called Firefly. Metral and his partners had raised venture money almost without trying and were already being courted by Microsoft, which ended up acquiring their company a mere one year later. After a stint at Microsoft, Metral cofounded a second company, PeoplePC, took it public, and sold it. Then he founded a payments company and sold it to PayPal, where he stayed for five years.
Now he’s back at a startup, but feeling his age. At 43, he lives in Brookline and has three kids. He coaches baseball, teaches coding classes to youngsters, and posts photos on Facebook that show him mowing his lawn. Metral admits he can’t put in the hours he used to: “In the past two days I’ve had two doctor appointments and a baseball game. I’ve put in only 12 hours of work. At Firefly that would have been 20 hours. But that’s just not happening now. I want to be involved with the kids. I’m learning how to work differently. I can’t just sit down for a week straight and crank something out. It’s been a hard adjustment.” Still, Metral believes he works smarter now and can get more done in less time, and that the value of his experience—“the things I’ve tried and failed at, the things I’ve seen”—makes up for not pulling all-nighters or sleeping at the office anymore. He says he likes working with younger engineers, and he tries to put himself in positions where he has to learn new things from them and face new challenges.
On the other hand, he admits to being annoyed by the phenomenon of “people starting companies for the sake of starting companies.” He grumbles about the entitlement of young techies who expect to be lavished with perks. “These people who say, ‘I started a company, now I need free everything’—I don’t have patience for that,” he says. “Maybe that makes me old.”
Maybe it does. But I’m not sure it’s a bad thing for the tech industry to be sporting some engineers with gray hair. It used to be the normal order of things. “When I look back at the teams I built, I had people ranging from their thirties to their fifties,” says John Landry, a 68-year-old former Boston tech executive turned angel investor. “These weren’t rookies. They were not a bunch of youngsters.” Landry started his career in 1972 and worked at a string of high-profile Boston tech shops, including McCormack & Dodge, Cullinet, Agility Systems, and Lotus Development. “Sure, we had a lot of junior programmers,” Landry says, “but we also had a lot of senior engineers.”
Tech culture in Boston seems to be slowly changing, as companies are waking up and increasingly looking for those killer technologists who have been put out to pasture. I’m sure there will always be tech startups that only want to hire young people, but I’m heartened to discover that some are making room for older folks. I’m obviously biased, and I may be engaging in wishful thinking, but I want to believe that the tech industry’s obsession with youth has been a temporary phenomenon. I’m excited to see that things, at least in Boston, are starting to get better.