Ageism in the Technology World, and the Arrogance of Youth

Reuters reported on ageism in Silicon Valley, which unfortunately is but a symptom of a larger problem. A few choice snippets:

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 gray hair and traded in his loafers for a pair of Converse sneakers. The board hired him.

[…] the human-resources executive told her he would like to find somebody “around age 26 or so” to fill a job. An age requirement along those lines would violate both state and federal laws on discrimination, California labor lawyers say.

“You mean, somebody less jaded?” [she] recalls asking, hoping to jolt the executive back into legal territory. “And he said, ‘No, I mean somebody young, probably no older than 26.‘”

a 61-year-old technology marketing and strategy veteran […] recalls the follow-up after a long phone interview at a small online-surveys company last year.

The hiring manager asked [him] to come in for an interview with the chief executive, who was in his 20s. When [he] walked into the room, the CEO looked at him, said something had come up unexpectedly, and left.

The interview never got rescheduled, and a younger candidate eventually got the job.

Yes, this is a “respect your elders” rant.

Can’t Get No Respect

The Valley may be an insular navel-gazing cultural anomaly, but it merits further study. People have to stop worshiping at the altar of the mythical wunderkind entrepreneur. Older people may have a particularly hard time in the tech industry but it’s merely a symptom of a larger problem.

Khosla Ventures’ Vinod Khosla, 57, told conference goers last year that “people over 45 basically die in terms of new ideas.

That’s insane, not to mention hypocritical. Is Khosla saying he hasn’t had a good idea in 12 years? Ironically, Khosla himself in Ray Kurzweil’s awful “documentary” The Singularity is Near says he would like to live forever. Since he is already, by his own admission, past his useful shelf life, why bother? Or does he think he will still have something to offer to the world at age 200 or 500? I think he might. I think a lot of people would. If Da Vinci were still alive today, I’m sure we would like having him around.

Of course, deep down Khosla must know what he says isn’t true. Some of history’s greatest minds were at their most fertile in old age. Listen to them – you might learn something.

You’re Not My Dad, Don’t Tell Me What to Do

Or maybe the Valley CEOs don’t want to learn something. Maybe they just don’t like having anyone tell them their idea doesn’t work or isn’t viable as a business model. The tech industry is notorious for feedback loops of self-congratulation where mediocre and derivative ideas are hailed as cultural breakthroughs that will forever redefine humanity. Venture capitalists and investors then climb aboard the hype train, hoping to become the next tech billionaires.

So why break that bubble with a sharp dose of reality? Maybe someone with half a clue could have told Zynga that paying $180 million for OMGPOP (makers of Draw Something) was utterly ridiculous. Or better yet, someone could have pointed out that Zynga itself was grossly overvalued. Or even that Facebook’s mind-boggling valuation of $100 billion was unfounded in reality and obviously devised to provide maximum benefit to pre-IPO shareholders. Note that the “value” of all three companies has dropped dramatically, with Zynga in a particularly dire position right now.

But God forbid anyone tell that to the entitled, petulant, self-appointed geniuses behind these companies. You don’t get it, man! We’re boosting engagement and synergizing funnels!

Doomed to Repeat History

Not only does this obsession with novelty and innovation ignore the value of wisdom and life experience, but it also willfully brushes aside history. Ideas don’t come in a vacuum, and many aren’t as new as their creators may think. Without the context of history, without knowing which businesses of the past have succeeded or failed (and how it happened), entrepreneurs lack a solid footing. In which other field is complete ignorance of the past not only acceptable, but encouraged?

Oh, but this time is different! Even the recent tech bubble of 13 years ago is ignored, perhaps because most of the tech CEOs were still in high school at the time. To be fair, so was I, but I at least try to learn from the past. Not all people my age are myopic, but the tech industry doesn’t seem to encourage introspection. Maybe they know the house of cards they’ve built wouldn’t stand up to it.

Skills to Pay the Bills

Valley entrepreneurs like to think (or at least outwardly pretend) that their businesses exist in some parallel universe where revenue and profits don’t matter. The goal is to scale rapidly and then figure out a way to “monetize”, with the plethora of social media “platforms” being the most egregious example of this. Startups burn through tens of millions of dollars before making any revenue, in what I can only assume is the hope that a bigger company will pay a hyperinflated price to acqui-hire their team, like Facebook did by paying one billion dollars for Instagram, a company that had no revenue. In which other industry would that make any sense whatsoever? I can’t think of any.

But if someone were to point that out – that tech companies obey the same free-market rules as any other profit-seeking entity – then the whole thing comes crashing down. Maybe that’s why they avoid bring in people with, you know, actual business experience.

All About Image

Or maybe they’re all playing us. After all, lots of people line up to throw their money at the latest up-and-coming Zuckerberg clone, so why not play the game and hope to get rich? The media has helped perpetuate this image of the brilliant kid CEO that creates this hugely valuable company out of thin air – the story doesn’t make as much sense if it’s a company run by an experienced, older person. It doesn’t have that gee-whiz veneer of novelty and invention that dupes people into believing that particular startup really is worth billions of dollars.

Maybe the only way to fix this is by cutting off the source of the problem – the financing that allows this net-loss machine to keep operating. There are signs that the tide is slowly turning toward reason and accountability; let’s hope that trend continues.