Silicon Valley’s Other Diversity Problem: Age Bias in Tech
The open-mindedness that permits very young people to succeed in tech goes out the window when it comes to the other end of the age spectrum.
I have been erasing my history. The date I graduated from college, the time I spent as a journalist, the years I attended graduate school — gone. Deleted from my resume, my LinkedIn and my Facebook profiles.
I wrote my first line of code when I was in my thirties and since I started working as a software engineer in the tech industry, my default is to deflect any conversations about age. If someone asks me outright, I won’t lie, but I certainly won’t volunteer any information. Being old, being anyone who isn’t in their twenties, is taboo in tech.
In the almost two years since I’ve been programming, I’ve heard and taken part in a lot of discussions about diversity. Almost all of the conversations have phrased the issue along race and gender lines and focused on the overwhelming white maleness of the industry. But you could easily add “young” to the list of characteristics that describes the monolithic norm in the high tech sector. New college grads fill the hiring pipeline for major tech firms, twenty-something founders are common among Silicon Valley’s most successful start ups, and the average age among attendees of coding boot camps — which are turning out a growing pool of skilled workers — is 29. It’s not abnormal for high school whiz kids to be actively recruited by tech firms or for a 12-year-old to be courted by VC investors. In Silicon Valley, youthfulness is aligned with the way start ups like to think about themselves — they move fast, aren’t afraid of change and are more innovative. Or as Mark Zuckerberg once said, “young people are just smarter.”
But the open-mindedness that permits very young people to succeed in tech seems to go out the window when it comes to the other end of the age spectrum. Individuals who try to enter the tech industry via a non-traditional route are frequently told to “fake it until you make it,” but age is a tricky thing to try to fake. If asked outright, once you answer honestly, it feels like you’ve revealed something that can’t be taken back. And you have no control over how it will influence the way your abilities are judged.
The cult of youth
The first time I was asked how old I was, which was not in a hiring context (which would have been illegal), I can still remember the look of surprise and the awkwardness that followed my answer.
Him: “Oh wow, I thought you were a lot younger.”
Me: “Um, yeah, I’m pretty old.”
The second time the question was posed to me, I tried to divert the conversation, but that only generated more attention. Surely I had something to hide if I was not being forthright. I could understand why the question was posed: Age provides important cultural markers for interacting with someone; in the first case, we had been discussing a song and when it was released. But in both scenarios, I felt at a loss. I’ve been lucky to work with people who I don’t think have had preconceived notions about my abilities based upon age, but the implicit youth bias is very real in tech, which makes it a difficult topic to navigate.
I can think of only a few other industries — entertainment and professional athletics — where youthfulness is so revered as it is in technology. It’s not surprising, given that the predominant script for success in Silicon Valley involves a young, often white male phenom who starts out tinkering with the family computer, writes his first program in middle school and drops out of school to found a start-up. This cult of youth is reflective of tech culture’s obsession with what is quantifiable — age provides a benchmark for measuring success against your peers (e.g., how many successful exits you’ve had before you’re 30) — and hedges against a deeply rooted fear of becoming irrelevant.
Even within this cult of youth there is an underlying current of exclusion — to what degree does this archetype extend to young people who are not white and not male? The “origin” stories of the handful of female leaders in tech are rarely celebrated with the same level of widespread admiration as those of their male counterparts. The archetype of the young, male phenom holds such sway because it seems to line up with reality: many of the most respected voices in tech — Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, Larry Ellison, Elon Musk — are older white men who have come out of this mold or a variation of it.
There’s certainly nothing wrong with celebrating or nurturing the success of the young and talented. But it is a problem if what is accepted as the only viable pathway to success is exclusionary. Not everyone has the opportunity to learn computer science at an early age, and framing perceptions of ability along lines of age is dangerous for all stakeholders because it contributes to a uniformity of experience that can stifle innovation and dismisses the needs of excluded groups. More than ever, technology is transforming the way we live and work. It’s the filter through which we see and make sense of the world around us. If the teams that are building and designing these tools are homogeneous, then it’s not outlandish to infer that the products that will be developed will first and foremost serve their needs.
When I decided to become a programmer, I only thought about the technical skills I would need to bridge to make the change. But one of the unexpected biggest challenges has been coming to terms with working in a youth-oriented industry and finding a way to fit in without feeling like I have something to hide. Starting over is always hard and it’s something I decided to do on my own terms. I’m sure I would have felt similar feelings of discredit if I’d switched into any other field, but in tech in particular, the stigma of being older is hard to shake.
Lately I’ve been thinking about why I feel so apologetic about my age. After all, I don’t regret having a career before engineering or the liberal arts track I pursued in college. If I’d been a CS major, sure I’d be farther along technically, but the experiences I’ve built up inform my work as a software engineer in other ways. Studies have shown that having team members with different backgrounds who bring unique information and experiences can provoke thought and creativity. As a member of a small product team, I believe my background of having been an industry outsider can bring a valuable perspective and contribute to a diversity of thought and ideas.
The irony of tech’s ageism is that programming today is one of the few careers where, if you have enough drive and commitment, you can get started on a path in software development in a short period of time. Unlike a field like medicine, where a long tenure in med school makes a career switch less feasible later in life, there are a growing number of programmers who do not have a computer science degree and are self-taught or have taken an accelerated course in software development. This ability to ramp up skills quickly has been acknowledged by the White House, which recently launched the TechHire initiative, a program aimed at creating more fast-track tech training opportunities.
This ability to establish a foundation quickly is empowering, but I wonder how many individuals are turned off from pursuing it because they think they’re too “old” or that there is no place for them. To be sure, I am not saying that anyone looking for a new career path should learn to code or that technical skills are easy to pick up at any age. Anyone who has the desire and the determination should not feel excluded from participating and achieving success simply because of how old they are.
As a cultural outsider, I’ve felt the need to conform to the norm in tech because more than anything else I want to be evaluated on my merit, not on my gender, my race or my age. But there doesn’t have to be a one definition of how to be exceptional. I wish more companies would be open to a range of backgrounds, but as long as they’re not, tech will remain a monoculture.