Methuselah@startupinc.com

Silicon Valley recruiter Morgan Missen (@mm) raised a storm back in January with an innocuous, if annoyed, tweet:

Saying you have twenty years of experience on your résumé only means you’re forty; and, much like being forty, it’s nothing to brag about.

— Morgan Missen (@mm) January 23, 2013

Now having done my own recruiting for most of the last fifteen years, I’ve read hundreds, if not thousands of resumes and I know exactly what she meant.  And in the free-for-all that followed, Missen made the point that “waving 20 years of experience in people’s face” is a job-search anti-pattern.  This is intuitively obvious. We’ve all been there.  The guy with 20 years experience on his resume gets in-house and becomes the guy who is somehow ‘not with the program’ constantly pulling out his trump card – I’ve been doing this for 20 years!

dragonI’ve been doing this for twenty years too, and it counts for not a lot.  There’s not much call for experts in Easel, OS/2, or the DEC PC.  But “not a lot” is not “nothing”.  What I have gotten out of all that is a kind of sixth sense about dragons. If there’s a dragon about, I get a sense of that long before I can actually see it or describe it. I think that’s what distinguishes me from the brilliant minds in this business. At the point where I can only sense the dragon, the brilliant can describe it in detail and tell you how to kill it.  It doesn’t look  like a dragon to them.  But I digress.

Is there a value in being able to sense dragons at a distance, and if there is, then why does this industry value not having that sense?  More instincts are better, right? The answer isn’t going to make anyone happy. Most startups fail.  In the trenches, what that often means is that you’re doing stuff that probably won’t work, doesn’t work when you try it anyway, and in hindsight obviously wouldn’t have worked**. Even in startups that succeed, you’re often doing things very badly, (see Zuckerberg, Mark here).  You have to be willing to do that and guys who’ve had long careers in the biz usually aren’t.  You have to be willing to walk into the dragon’s lair with only harsh language (Objective C?) and an unwavering faith in the job market to protect you.  You have to be willing to be eaten or burnt to a crisp doing something you knew all along would lead to you being eaten or burnt to a crisp. And you have to be willing to do it on the orders of a guy who’s twenty years younger than you.  With a smile on your face. And a song in your heart.  And laugh about it afterwards.  While you watch the company’s seed capital dribble away.

A culture’s irrational prejudices are over the top expressions of its core values. “It doesn’t matter what you look like” turns into “you have to look like you wouldn’t belong in an IBM office”, an entire industry springs up to cater to that anti look and voila, you have a new dress code.  So it is with age-discrimination in startup-land.  “Demonstrated startup attitude” in a job description turns into “you have to look like you don’t not-have the startup attitude” in person and suddenly guys who look like they could slap you around with 20 years experience are unemployable.  A core-value, startup attitude, becomes a prejudice i.e. sorry Grampa, we’re pulling an all-nighter and when it’s over we’re having a pushup contest to determine who’s the bro-est of the bro-grammers and you don’t look up to it.

Is that sad for me, doomed from here on out to be methusaleh@startupinc.com?  Yeah, a bit.  Like most developers I’ve benefited from plenty of prejudices over the years and I’m probably still way ahead in that game.  Knowing that, however, doesn’t help much when you’re competing with 25 year olds for attention at a pitch competition, or for a tech lead gig at a ten-man startup.  Boo fucking hoo.  As any waitress over forty could say “welcome to our world”.

**This means that, as you suspected, your CEO is a dumbass.  Which is one of the core-values of this blog, and thus becomes a prejudice. Which is sad for CEOs because they have to do stuff that “everyone knows won’t work” because you can’t make something new doing stuff that “everyone knows will work”, which means that it usually sucks to be a CEO.  Boo F Hoo.

About JR
Software guy, startup guy, non-fiction glutton, south shore inhabitant

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