Being a Geezer in a Tech Startup

I’m forty-two years old, and I’ve never felt better. I am mentally and intellectually sharper than ever, and I happen to be in physically better shape, too. Whatever it feels like to be middle-aged, I’m pretty sure I don’t feel like that.

I’ve tried hard to avoid letting my brain turn into an old person’s brain. That was one reason I left my tenured position as a philosophy professor and went to work for a technology startup. I’ve seen lots of formerly intelligent, creative people turn into dusty old crackpots. My strategy for avoiding that fate is to do something totally different in a fast-moving environment, and surround myself with smart, creative people. I’ve done this for a little over a year now, and I’m having a great time. I’m learning a huge amount every day, and I really enjoy the environment I’m working in. Tech startups face a lot of challenges, and unexpected problems arise more frequently than we’d like, but it’s fun. In fact, a major draw to my current employer was that I understood that late stage startups (i.e. after B or C-series funding rounds) which are growing quickly are the ones that have to adapt most rapidly. So it was the best way to get into a business that was going to be especially challenging and which would also provide the best learning opportunities. As it turns out, this was the right strategy for me.

A side effect of switching to a new career in my forties is that I’m working with people who are younger than me. Many are much younger than me — nearly twenty years younger. I enjoy this a lot, which I knew I would. But it raises the question of what an old geezer like me brings to the table. In other words, I know that I’ve gotten a lot of benefit from working in this startup environment; but is the reverse true?

 I’ve been interested in reading what others have to say about geezers in technology companies. Many of these pieces are written in the context of a discussion of age discrimination. Apparently, there’s a sense that people who are not in their twenties are at a disadvantage in the job market, and that geezers like me are frequently discriminated against, or face a hostile work environment. So these essays are often an attempt to argue that we shouldn’t do that to “old” people, and that tech companies can benefit from hiring geezers — even ones that are in their (gasp!) forties.

For the record, I have not had a single incident of anything even resembling age discrimination at my workplace. Maybe I got lucky by getting hired into a supportive environment. Maybe it’s a regional difference (my workplace is in Chicago, not Silicon Valley).

Anyhow, most of the essays I’ve read are disappointing, to say the least. They seem to be divided into a few categories, based on which set of geezer virtues they’re extolling: (1) Geezers are good at legacy systems, such as mainframes; (2) Geezers might not be as quick and creative as younger people, but they have greater maturity and a higher emotional IQ, and this benefits the work environment; (3) Although geezers might not be up-to-date on the all the most current technologies, they do have a broader range of experience to draw upon.

Honestly, I think these are pretty awful reasons to hire a geezer into your technology company. The first reason — that geezers know mainframes and other legacy systems — is especially ridiculous. Apparently, when we were all panicked about the Y2K bug, some businesses had to dust off their geezers, install some new tennis balls onto the bottom of their walkers, and send them into moldy basements to patch up some COBOL, or screw in some vacuum tubes, or something like that. If you’re a geezer, and this is your job, you’d better start catching up. It’s the 21st century, and if you’re in charge of COBOL or punchcard machines, you’re in trouble — your job is going away. And if you’re a non-geezer, there’s also something called the “internet”, which contains all sorts of information you can use to acquire new skills, like COBOL programming, if that turns out to be absolutely necessary (which it won’t).

To be fair, at my office there have been a few times when a question has come up about some obscure feature of UNIX, and I knew the answers because those features weren’t obscure when I started programming. But those questions all had two things in common: they weren’t important, and they could have been answered with a little research online. If I was hired to be the go-to guy for questions like that, then they’re paying me too much.

Let’s think about the second reason — that although geezers aren’t as quick or creative as younger people, they are more mature. First of all, if you tell me that I’m not as quick and creative as someone in their twenties, I’ve got one thing to say to you: “Speak for yourself, pal!”. Actually, what I’d say would include a lot of speculations about your parentage, too. As someone who spent more than a decade teaching college students, I can tell you one thing — people aren’t quick and creative merely because of their age. There are lots and lots of young people whose brains have prematurely calcified, and there are lots and lots of geezers like me who are every bit as capable of thinking “outside the box” as you could want. Honestly, I’m so far outside the box, I can’t even see the box anymore. But I know that if you found the box and opened it up, you’d discover a lot of college students sitting inside it.

Being creative isn’t about age — it’s about cultivating the right mental habits. It’s about questioning yourself, and becoming sensitive to the presence of an invisible status quo. It’s about understanding why you do things the way you do, and being flexible enough to change when necessary. It’s also about not believing everything that you hear, for example, that geezers are less creative than younger people. Being creative is certainly not about having some ineffable quality called “creativity” that slowly recedes into the mists of time as you age.

I also think my new colleagues would tell you quite definitively that one thing I don’t bring to the table is greater maturity. Let’s just say that if I were ever to hear someone say, “It’s really good having Zac here because he’s so mature”, I’d be surprised.

And finally, is it good to keep a geezer around the office because of their breadth of experience, and does that offset the fact that they’re not going to be quite up-to-date on current technology? Let’s just bring a little common sense to the question. Whether you’re up-to-date on anything doesn’t depend on how old you are, it depends on how you spend your time. It takes work to keep up with the fast-changing world of technology, and you can fall behind in no time flat. In my case, it turns out that in a lot of respects, I happened not to be as current as some of my new colleagues. But that wasn’t because of my geezer status. It was because I was changing careers, and had been busy keeping up with changes that impacted my previous career. If someone were twenty-eight years old and had spent the last five years as a circus clown, they’d have faced exactly the same challenge.

Of course, you might think, “but a geezer will have more to catch up on. If they’ve been out of the technology game for twenty years, that’s a lot of stuff to learn!”. Actually, this is not true. For example, in my case, I missed a lot of stuff that happened around the mid 1990s. But who cares? That stuff is outdated now. There’s a moving window of a few years of knowledge that you need to have. But it’s a moving window. I don’t need to learn best practices from the 1990s any more than one of my younger colleagues needs to learn how to transfer files over a VAX terminal with the Kermit protocol.

Finally, we might ask, “why is age such a big deal in the tech world, anyway?”. This is a very curious phenomenon. Personally, I think it has to do with the strange way we judge what’s common and what’s unusual. The typical example is airplane crashes. Fortunately, airplane crashes are very rare. So when they do happen, it’s big news, and everyone hears about them. As a result of the crashes getting so much attention, people get the impression that they’re much more common than they are. This is ironic — the fact that they’re so rare indirectly causes us to believe that they’re very common. The same is true of technology entrepreneurs. Most successful entrepreneurs are not in their twenties. So when Mark Zuckerberg comes around, he gets a lot of attention. And then this unusual person gets established as representing what’s normal. There are a small number of people like Zuckerberg out there, but what’s interesting about them is that they’re rare. But we associate all the qualities of a smart, creative person like Zuckerberg with young people. But that line of reasoning is crazy. All of us — and that includes my fellow geezers — need to get over it.

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