Ageism

Silicon Valley’s Open Secret: Over 26 Need Not Apply

Sure, olds can still get Valley jobs--all it takes is some sneakers here, an eyelid lift there...
 Silicon Valleys Open Secret: Over 26 Need Not Apply

This is apparently what Valleyites imagine upon seeing a birthday prior to the Iran Hostage Crisis. (Photo: Shermanave.com)

All the world loves a prodigy, but nowhere more so than Silicon Valley. Investors love to talk about all the exciting ideas flowing forth from the 20-somethings, and it sometimes seems startups are half business, half playroom.

It’s all very exciting if you’re a college kid looking for an alternative to the 9 to 5 grind. But if you’re a technology veteran in his fifth or sixth decade, it looks a lot different. In fact, as Reuters reports, it looks a whole lot like age discrimination run rampant.

Ageism is notoriously tough to prove. But Reuters says that, in discrimination claims, age is cited more commonly in California than nationally. And there’s a mountain of anecdotal evidence. Take the tale of 60-year-old Randy Adams, who kept losing jobs to younger applications until he finally just shaved his head and slapped on a pair of Converses. Apparently, that was all it took:

“I don’t think I would have been able to get this CEO job if I hadn’t shaved my head,” says Adams, who has founded eight venture-backed companies.

Nor has he stopped there!

Adams has supplemented his makeover by trading in his button-down shirts for T-shirts, making sure he owns the latest gadgets, and getting an eyelid lift.

It seems Mr. Adams has all sorts of informal rules to which older applicants should hew if they want a fair shot. Backpacks, not briefcases. Androids and Apples, not Dells and Blackberries. And for the love of God, no wristwatches: “‘The worst would be a gold Rolex,’ he says. ‘Tacky, and old.'”

Silicon Valley loves to wax poetic about the creative juices of youth, but the ageism side of the coin is rarely discussed. Sexism, for all its prevalence, at least gets a hearing: Just today, women in the gaming industry have been swapping stories of appalling treatment on Twitter. But it’s not exactly a secret, either. HR departments can’t screen outright for youngsters, but investors run around saying things like this:

Khosla Ventures’ Vinod Khosla, 57, told conference goers last year that “people over 45 basically die in terms of new ideas.”

Mr. Khosla told Reuters, “I was encouraging people to try new things that go against conventional wisdom,” but that still sounds pretty much like No Olds Need Apply to us.

As the Reuters piece points out, there are plenty of legitimate reasons startups tend to hire young. 25-year-old singles don’t have to rush home to put the kids to bed, and newly minted college grads are up on the latest in computer science.

But running a business isn’t all grandiose pitch decks and TechCrunch Disrupt appearances. Sometimes it takes a steadier, more experienced hand, and sometimes that means hiring someone over the age of 40. Maybe if Silicon Valley kept around a few more wizened ancients, they’d be able to do a little bit better on the pattern recognition.

Follow Kelly Faircloth on Twitter or via RSS. kfaircloth@observer.com