Why it’s OK that startups prefer to hire younger workers

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Adult supervision required.
Image: REUTERS/Tobias Schwarz
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Silicon Valley’s “youth problem”—its culture of bar crawls and technical interviews that disadvantage older engineers—caused some hand-wringing in the New York Times recently. And the New Republic called Silicon Valley “one of the most ageist places in America,” interviewing a plastic surgeon who says he does a brisk business in Botox injections for tech employees terrified of wrinkles.

But the idea that older employees are competing for the same tech industry jobs as people right out of school doesn’t fully reflect reality. While there are hordes of new graduates at entry-level positions or joining friends at new startups, more experienced engineers are also in demand as companies mature and turn their attention to reaching and supporting millions of people and businesses, instead of just trying to innovate with new products.

Sure, it’s true that tech workers tend to be on the young side. According to data from PayScale, a website that compiles and compares salaries, Amazon and Google have average ages of 32 and 29 respectively. Recently founded startups can skew even younger, and their new-kid-on-the-block visibility creates a perception that that’s the norm.

Even so, accusations of systemic bias particular to the tech industry are off-base. The finance industry also tends to hire many young graduates for entry-level positions; Goldman Sachs has an average employee age of 29, according to Payscale. The same is true for management consulting; McKinsey says its average age is 30. With tech companies rapidly growing and paying well, they are just attracting more young people than in the past. Intensive hiring and growth within new companies tends to keep their average age down.

And as National Review columnist Reihan Salam points out, if low barriers to entry mean that lots of young people get a chance they otherwise might not, that’s probably a good thing.

A look at the profiles of engineering and IT workers on LinkedIn, which breaks down employees by experience level, indicates that more than 40% of LinkedIn members who work as engineers at Google are people with more than 10 years of experience—a similar percentage to older companies such as Oracle, Cisco, and Apple. At Twitter, the percentage is 36%, and Netflix, a whopping 60%. Younger companies such as Uber or SnapChat skew younger.

There’s a pretty simple reason for the concentration of young people at new startups, says Patty McCord, a startup consultant who is Netflix’s former head of human resources and a co-author of the company’s hugely influential culture presentation. It makes sense because younger and older companies deal with a different set of problems: Young companies often find themselves faced with brand new problems that require a great deal of trial and error to solve. Older ones focus on complex problems of scale that require experience.

“Startups are companies that don’t make any sense, by nature of who they are,” McCord tells Quartz. “If it was obvious, Cisco would already be doing it. They try and fail and iterate, so experience doesn’t necessarily help… It attracts the kind of people who can pound away hour after hour, day after day. They’re problems more conducive to young people who aren’t constrained by the eight-hour day, That’s where they learn together.”

Issues that come with scaling up—addressing the technical challenges of keeping popular services working smoothly, for example, or figuring out how to manage hundreds of employees—take a different kind of person. ”Scale problems aren’t solved by hard work, they’re solved by planning, by thinking before you leap,” McCord says. “Problems of scale are solved by somebody who’s scaled before.”

McCord cites an example from her own career at Netflix, pointing out that there was a big difference between creating the early version of the video-streaming company’s innovative product, and building a technical structure and team capable of streaming so much video that it makes up a full third of North America’s downstream internet traffic. As Netflix grew to its current, massive size, its employee needs changed, as they do for every tech company over time, McCord says.

Many tech companies are intensely engineering-focused throughout their lifespan, but in their early days they can focus on just hiring people to write code all day. If they survive, grow, and mature, the most valuable hire isn’t necessarily another brilliant young engineer, but someone wise enough manage rapidly growing groups of them.