Ageism is Easy!
I just love ads like “seeking recent college grad”. “Bright young engineer wanted”. Exactly HOW is this different from “seeking white guy”, “Bright white engineer wanted”?
One day looking through the resumes HR’s forwarded us, I find one that looks interesting. Show my boss, he says “look at the graduation date”. It’s 10 years before. He’s been doing challenging stuff for 10 years. Boss frowns, shakes head.
I was first paid money to program in 1975. My resume, even excluding short contracts, paginates to 7 pages. I’m always advised to only carry it back 10 years or so.
But some of you seem to believe there’s no such thing as ageism. So, for you all, I’m writing a little guide to being ageist.
Believe that Good Programmers are Young
One year Strange Loop was held in the same hotel as a sports convention. Both conventions attracted far more men than women.
It was striking that you could tell which convention people were attending by their age.
A great trick for getting a crude measure of popular perception of some group. Type it into Google images. Try typing ‘senior engineer’ – you get a page of photos of white men in hard hats. Now try typing ‘senior programmer’ in – you get a strikingly younger group.
I’ll admit, it’s often true that people are at their most ‘clever’ when they’re in their 20’s. But that’s rarely what’s most needed in programming. Good software engineers are willing to develop a good practice, exercise good judgement, have good work habits, have a breadth of understanding of the world, wide experience of software development in many environments, and have written a crap ton of code.
Think in terms of career track.
Anyone 22 is an intern. If you’re in a large corporation, anyone in their 50’s is the CEO or an underperformer. Remember, by looking at someone you immediately know their age, and hence know where they should be on the career track.
Uh, no. If you spent the last 8 years getting out of a refugee camp, or raising a child, or overcoming an illness, or caring for a sick spouse, you might be entering a career at any age.
I know an artist who was once college faculty, who has a child, etc. She started making kinetic, interactive art, realized she needed to program, learned to program, enjoyed it, and ended up working as a programmer for a company that does Kinect based kiosks. She’s definitely still a ‘junior programmer’, but rapidly learning. She fits none of the models of ‘bright young programmer’, but is the perfect person for the job.
Assume that everyone wants a more complex, demanding job than the one they had before. After all, that’s almost universal for 22 year olds who may have only worked at McDonalds before. I’ve routinely been turned down for jobs just because they were less technically demanding than the last job I held.
Give out awards for ‘best researcher under 35’.
I found this on twitter within a few hours of writing this post.
I see a few of these each week.
Assume that the older person is the boss. Well, until they’re too old, then assume they’re a loser who’se working because they can’t get by on social security.
Assume you can give orders or be paternalistic to anybody younger than you. Assume you know more too. Even if the young person’s a PhD you brought in as a consultant on the subject of their thesis.
This is especially fun with older women. Young woman in a programming pen – must be the new engineer. Late middle aged woman in a programming pen – must be the marketing person or secretary.
Walk into a meeting with a UX designer, a hardware engineer, a front end programmer, and a manager from another company. Sitting at the table are an older white guy in a shirt and tie, a young white hipster-y looking woman, a white woman in her late 30’s or early 40’s wearing a suit, and a young black man in a T shirt.
I’m sorry, in real life almost none of us wouldn’t immediately start making assumptions about who’se who. And be really ‘suprised’ (we actually mean ‘disturbed’) to discover the young guy’s the manager or the older woman’s the hardware engineer.
Judge people based on how they dress or how ‘cool’ they are. After all, it’s a software development environment, and that’s important.
Promote Culture Fit
Make sure everyone the interviewee meets is the right age to be friends – with their son.
Take the engineering team snowboarding as a team building exercise. Many people in their late 60’s find snowboarding exhilarating.
Have a foosball table or other reaction time based game in the office. Having a game based on a physical characteristic that usually gets worse with age is a good way to communicate to the entire team that everyone is valued.
As an aside, you can make women on your team feel included by having a secluded corner where everyone marks the highest spot they can pee on. Or just make them go down 3 flights of stairs to use the bathroom.
Speaking of stairs, rent a cool loft office space in a fifth floor walkup. The extra exercise is good for people, and promotes meritocracy.
Hold a hackathon as a recruiting tool. Give people 72 hours, make it competitive, don’t have a ‘must go home/not work at night’ rule. After all, most people in their 20’s can pull overnighters, and almost no one else can. And people with families probably can’t do a whole weekend anyway.
Serve greasy pizza. Older people will handle that really well. Extend invitations to interview to the winners.
Frequently make last minute announcements of meetings and all-hands events at times outside normal work hours. This will make sure anyone who’s a parent is excluded.
Speaking of which – pay lip service to ‘work-life balance’ but reward putting in 16 hour days. That not only discourages the old farts, but makes sure women get out of the industry when they start a family.
Hire women based on their appearance. That way they’ll get into the industry, then wonder what went wrong as they get into their thirties.
Act like being out sick is a personal failing. After all, you and your twenty-something friends are all healthy most of the time.
Ask people to solve complex riddles or speed code during interviews. Avoid asking questions that test actual engineering judgement.
Hire based on whether people would be fun to hang out and drink beer with.
Emphasize knowledge of all the latest frameworks. Don’t ask questions about engineering fundamentals.
Have an open-plan office. Maybe play music sometimes. Something light like Vanilla Ice. After all, playing music by a black man like Kanye West will make everyone feel like you value diversity.
If you have some engineering that absolutely, positively has to work, for goodness sakes, do not give it to the middle aged engineer who came over from the aerospace industry. Because, you know, airplanes are something where ‘fail fast’ is a good motto.
You probably don’t have engineering like that. Because shipping $3 million worth of big screen TV’s to a scammer in the Ukraine or being able to change the root password on the production server from your site’s login dialog aren’t big deals.
If you discriminate against anybody who isn’t a young, white, straight, cis, male in hiring, you dramatically reduce the pool of competition for your job. And you can spend easy work time complaining about how hard it is to hire good engineers.
Remember, anybody who has been in the industry for 25 years probably just wasn’t cut out to be a programmer.
Remember that 75% of specific technologies older engineers have learned is now obsolete. Of course that leaves the 25% that are aren’t. And those are more likely foundational. I think I’m on my 11th source code control system. I’ve got definite opinions on source control.
But do older engineers know the ‘new’ stuff? Well, by definition, nobody has more than a year’s experience with wizzyzam that came out last year. And yes, it’s tech – everybody learns stuff every day. (for the record, today I learned how to add a ‘skill’ to Alexa, and some stuff I didn’t know about I2C).
Sometimes they also know how things got the way they are (I recently used my knowledge of the Hayes modem instructions) isn’t important. After all, linux was invented in, what, 2005? I mean, ok, that’s old, but it’s not old old.
You like doing things your way – and your buddies like it the same. If you hire somebody older, they might disrupt your world view by suggesting, I dunno, that we load test the system before going live or some crap like that. Who needs that?
Your users aren’t you. So screw’em. Maybe the middle aged woman with the funny accent will remember that not everyone lives on a 50Mbit low latency internet connection, or that your ironic use of the hammer and sickle seems less cute if you’ve lived under Bolshevism. Maybe she’ll be able to explain why your ad campaign targeting ‘gamers’ isn’t working for your family games site. That kind of thing usually leads to lots of boring work reducing bandwidth requirements, and can really harsh your vibe.
Beware of experience. You hire some old fogey, they’re going to point out that visual programming systems of the flow based boxes and arrows variety usually end up with problems as programs scale. If you’re clever, you’ll have a bunch of PL theory you can blather away at them why your system is different. Then at the next job, they’ll have watched six such systems fail instead of five.
So, don’t hire your mom to write monads! Even if your mom is an algebraic topologist.