Accidental Ageism

There is a post that's been seeing quite some spotlight these past two days. The first two thirds of the post or so starts with a short story about a bad database schema (which understandably got Hacker News quite confused since reading a 400-word article from start to finish is not the kind of thing that a busy hacker/founder has time for) but the last part of the article has two good nuggets. One is that, you know, everyone's clueless about something at one point. The other is this one:

Considering that we as an industry tend to chase off anyone who makes it to the age of 35, is it any surprise that we have a giant flock of people roaming around trying anything that'll work?

This is a very real indictment of the software industry and I can only wholeheartedly concur. But I think there is a very bothersome bit of background to this reality of ageism: it's accidental.

I don't mean to say it's accidental as in, all the CEOs and COOs and CWTFs out there set out to build a solid, inclusive work environment but oops! they took a wrong turn at Albuquerque and now you either go into management by the time you're 40 or you're fucked. I mean to say that it's an accidental feature: it doesn't occur because they deliberately set out to exclude people past a certain age. That would've been pretty stupid, seeing how most chief whatever offices are not exactly young, either. It happens because, aiming for completely different things -- "optimizing" return on equity and operating costs and so on -- they built their organizations that simply don't run on grown-ups.

These organizations cultivate a style of work based on easily-replaceable people who don't question things too much. Their hiring practices -- and, because of that, everything else, the way work is done and coordinated, they way evaluations and promotions happen, they way they educate their leaders and the kind of leadership they cultivate -- have to be aimed at easily-impressionable groups. Otherwise their high-churn machine grinds to a halt, as they have nobody to easily replace people with. Unsurprisingly, the 18-25 age segment is the one where it's easiest to find people to drink your Kool-Aid, so that's who they target.

It comes as no surprise that the places that chase away people past a certain age are usually the most glamorous ones: startups, FAANGs (in their high-churn business units -- they know better than to try to build critical things with overworked brogrammers), and the countless companies that cargo cult their practices. The glamour isn't a consequence of their young, highly-energetic team, it's the result of a carefully-cultivated employer branding work, specifically designed to attract young people with a taste for Kool-Aid.

If you don't mind the lack of glamour, there are actually plenty of places that will have you after 35. That's not to say our industry doesn't have a real problem with ageism. Startups and FAANG are a small chunk of our industry, but companies that cargo cult them are a huge chunk, so a huge chunk of our industry chases people away after a while.

But -- given how many people just give up programming altogether -- there's actually plenty of space for those of us who are still punching keys long before our bodies are unable to graciously deal with hangovers anymore. In my experience, most of the glamour goes away once you're on the inside anyway, and working in an organization that isn't systematically constructed to keep 18-25 year-olds busy is extraordinarily refreshing.

This, by the way, is in no way something we should sneer at young developers for. This -- I hate the word, but it's the right one this time -- this toxic approach to entering the work force and building your career is very much a cultural product of the world young developers come into. It's not something they built for themselves, it's something that we, their wise-ass predecessors, built for them. They do what they can, and they don't know better because they're at an age when nobody knows better.

The fact that ageism is an accidental feature of these organizations is also why they are so powerless to change it. It's not a policy that they can simply retract, or a set of bad policies that they can counteract with a set of good policies. The kind of companies that build thirty-year careers, with thirty years' worth of technical expertise, are precisely the kind of companies that MBAs have been dismantling since the early nineties. Building such a company is not something that our generation of corporate leaders lacks the competence to do: it's something they were literally taught not to do in the first place.

Back to blag archive

Back to blag index