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.

The Higher Education Death Spiral

One reason (among many) why I left my tenured position as a Professor of Philosophy is that I began to feel very strongly that the value of the education I was providing my students was deteriorating rapidly. Of course, I aways tried — with mixed success — to give my students the best education I could. But I kept having the sensation of trying to swim upstream in a current that was dragging me backwards.

Critiques of higher education in the United States are nothing new. We all know that funding is awful and getting worse, that public universities are becoming more like corporations, and that there’s an ongoing assault on faculty rights and the institution of tenure — an assault that bears an uncanny resemblance to union-busting techniques.

I believe that these critiques are all depressingly accurate. But they miss the underlying dynamic that’s at the root of all these problems. It’s a vicious, self-reinforcing cycle, which we might as well call the Higher Education Death Spiral. It’s accelerating and driving higher education in the United States into the ground. In short, the Death Spiral is caused by two facts. The first fact is that the intrinsic value of a university education is going down; the second is that the extrinsic value of a university education is going up. Those facts have conspired to create a market failure that’s dragging down the quality of higher education.

There are basically two reasons for getting a university education. The first is that it has intrinsic value. Increasing the breadth and depth of your knowledge, being exposed to new ideas and to people whose ideas and values are different from yours, and so on all have the potential to make us better people and improve the quality of our lives in ways that are difficult to quantify. The second reason is that a university education has tremendous extrinsic value. It helps you get a good job, increases your expected lifetime earnings, and so on. Both of these are very good things, and each of them is an excellent reason to go to college.

Frankly, I think it’s obvious that universities are doing a worse job providing intrinsic value to students. Unfortunately, there are powerful emotional reasons why it’s difficult to acknowledge this fact. When I was a professor, I once said in an offhand way that our students were getting a worse education than they did ten years ago. To be perfectly honest, I thought this was so obvious that it probably wasn’t worth saying at all. After all, the facts are irrefutable. Class sizes are larger, course offerings are fewer, students are increasingly taught by overworked, underpaid adjunct, non-tenure track faculty and graduate students, facilities are crumbling, and so on. Obviously, these facts will cause the quality of education to go down. But what I didn’t realize when I made this comment is that it would elicit a fiercely defensive reaction. It’s very difficult to say such a thing to a faculty member without coming across as criticizing him or her. Classes are ultimately the responsibility of the faculty, and so any critique of educational quality comes across as a personal criticism of those faculty. Naturally, they are often offended by any suggestion that the quality of their courses might be going down.

Nonetheless, I think the conclusion is unavoidable. In fact, it would be a miracle if those factors didn’t hurt the quality of students’ education. It would take a unified, herculean effort on the part of faculty and administration to overcome the problems that universities currently face. For example, at my former university — the University of Missouri — resources are so scarce that the library recently lost millions of dollars’ worth of books to mold, and a university-owned apartment building suffered a collapse that tragically killed a firefighter (there was no fire — the firefighter was there because a tenant noticed the structural degradation that caused the collapse). Those are symptoms of a lack of long-term thinking combined with scarcity of resources. And those deficits have conspired to damage educational quality throughout the university. Can it really be surprising that education has suffered in such an environment? (By the way, if you’re concerned about the University of Missouri’s athletic facilities, don’t be. They’re better than ever.)

Ironically, the same economy that has wrecked so much havoc in the university has also made a university education more extrinsically valuable than ever. Although college graduates do have an uphill battle to find a good job, their non-college educated counterparts have it much, much worse. In determining the extrinsic value of an education, the appropriate comparison isn’t between education now and education ten years ago; rather, it’s between the prospects now of a college-educated person and the prospects now of someone who has no college education. The difference is so dramatic that there’s no reason for me to get into it here. More than ever, you need a college education in order to succeed in the economy.

This pair of facts is the cause of the Higher Education Death Spiral. It’s a strange and unusual dynamic that I wish got more attention. Normally, as the quality of something goes down, and the price goes up, we don’t expect the demand to increase. For example, suppose you prefer a particular brand of shoes. But you notice that the brand’s quality has suffered — the shoes have holes in them and are made out of lousy material. And you also notice that the price has doubled. The last thing you’d do is buy more of these shoes. But that’s exactly what’s happening with higher education all over the United States: quality is down, price is up, and demand is higher than ever!

But that’s not the whole story of the Higher Education Death Spiral. The increased demand for a college education has the effect of masking the underlying cause of the Death Spiral by providing just enough revenue for the university to squeak by, but not nearly enough revenue to address the university’s real problems. Universities are now addicted to increased enrollment at the cost of long-term planning that might increase the intrinsic quality of education. And like any drug addict, they’ll make irrational sacrifices in order to get their next hit.

There’s a tremendous irony in the current situation. A university education’s value is increasingly economic — the overriding reason to go to college is to succeed in the job market, and that’s how educational quality is judged. But those who make the most crass economic arguments for how public resources are to be allocated, and who believe that it’s perfectly appropriate to turn universities into credential mills to enable students to get jobs, are blind to the fact that we’re in the grip of a textbook market failure. Market pressures have led to a situation in which resources are allocated inefficiently, and everyone would be better off if resources were spent not on buying short-term increases in enrollment, but on long-term investments that would actually increase the real quality of a university education. But the market won’t let this happen. Hence, the Higher Education Death Spiral.