I am a computer scientist and software engineer. I am 79 and I have been unsuccessfully applying for a professional employment for the last 4 years. Ageism? Yes, probably, at least in 95% of cases. But I am still interested in the remaining 5%.
What jobs are offered?
Typically, companies are looking for someone with years of experience in a particular technology. Here are some sample lines from my recent emails.
“5 yrs. experience developing in C++ or 5 yrs. experience in OOP”
“7+ years in Java application development”
“2+ years of Node.js development using common middlewares such as express, async, and q.”
If you didn’t do this for your previous employer you’re out of luck. Is it that an intelligent person cannot learn this as the work goes on? One recruiter lectured me that “the company has no time to teach me Java”. Well, I used Java probably before she went to school, but later I didn’t need it. (Now she is recruiting for a different industry.)
Can you imagine hiring a car driver with the skills of driving on US-101 between San Jose and San Francisco? (Driving on I-280 would be a different skill set.)
With so narrowly defined duties, no wonder it is easy to find cheap labor overseas. Do you remember the story about a Silicon Valley programmer who outsourced his job to three Chinese workers for one third of his company salary? And everything went perfectly well until the security discovered logons from China. Is this guy a recruitment genius? Hardly so, it is rather his boss who defined his duties so narrowly.
Are the managers smart enough?
After a number of contacts I don’t think this is the case. One example. A company providing network security tools wanted to extend the tools to detect internal threats from insiders, and they figured out that this would require analysis of internal emails in English. And a newly minted leader of the new department interviewed me asking about programming tools to detect certain keywords in the mail. And he was disappointed not to hear from me the magic formula (n*log(n)) for complexity estimates of a similar search. But I didn’t mention it because I knew that the list of required keywords cannot be very long to warrant more advanced methods. What the interviewer did not know was that (1) malicious people would avoid use of the most revealing words in the emails, and (2) there already was a small company seriously specializing in detection and litigation of such frauds (and this was good for the small company or else it would be acquired and destroyed).
In another interview (which I failed because not well prepared) everyone was obsessed with deadlocks in a multi-process system but they didn’t seem to understand what kind of programming discipline was required.
In one more case, an interviewer (a competent one) wanted me to solve a simple problem but didn’t realize there was an alternative solution which I initially offered.
Are hiring practices fair enough?
Definitely not. The decisions can be arbitrary, and no one is liable for an unfair decision. In one case when I had an insider’s assistance I heard of an explanation that allegedly I was not a hands-on developer (which was easy for me to refute but no one was going to listen).
And candidates are subject to various abuses. In one case I was given a psychological test not related to job requirements; probably someone in the HR was writing a thesis in psychology and wanted subjects for free.
Once I was invited for an interview but it turned out that they had no intention to hire me. The interviewing manager realized that we shared some acquaintances and was just curious to see me.
In another case the candidates were offered a problem to solve and the intermediary recommended to impress them with elegant coding. I took the challenge and got interviewed. But on looking at the company website I found that they had NO OPEN POSITIONS. So why did they announce the test? Probably to collect other people’s ideas (for free).
There are other cases for posting job ads for non-existent positions. Often they already have a preferred candidate but want to make an illusion of a competitive hiring (e.g., to get a permission for an H1B visa). I was a victim of this scheme at least once.
Is there a solution?
Some solutions were suggested which I think could only partially work. For ageism, there was a suggestion of financial incentives for companies hiring senior workers. This might help, or might result in hiring “token seniors” with very limited responsibilities (after all, some managers are afraid not just of seniors but of people more competent than themselves).
One could at least try to require companies to provide statistics of age of their new hires (not of their surviving older workers). As far as I know they avoid publishing such statistics.
One could try to establish stricter rules for public hiring. A company is free to hire or not hire someone personally known to them, but when a company goes public, either by announcing its open positions on their website or searching a public database (like LinkedIn), or using a staffing agency for this purpose, it is no longer their exclusive competence. Ideally, a company should announce a competition for their positions, with clear-cut rules, and, for every rejected candidate, to give an explanation in what respect he or she was inferior to those selected (probably with a procedure to challenge the decision if the explanation contained false assumptions). Of course such a rule would be bitterly opposed by the companies which would probably revert to private contacts.
The real problem
Back in 2000 a manager saw my resume and spotted a research project (actually a transient one) very similar to the kind of reverse engineering they did. They found me, conducted a lengthy interview and finally hired me. At that time I had to explain to them (not the other way around, no ageism!) that at my then age (63) engineering work was more appropriate than research. It was during the economic boom when the companies were eager to acquire engineering talent, and there were a couple hundred companies recruiting at a career fair.
No longer now. The companies are mostly interested in sales and executive people, and tend to solve their problems by various executive maneuvers rather than by technological excellence. And if a technologically advanced start-up appears they will just acquire it (start-ups are usually funded by venture capitalists who are happy to get their return on investment).
An example of such destructive policies can be found in a rare revelation from the Science magazine (8/22/2014, pp. 865-867) about a promising anti-cancer drug (palbociclib) developed by a smaller company, Parke-Davis, acquired by Pfizer through Warner-Lambert. The development was blocked for about 10 years and only recently revived. Pfizer was thinking “strategically” and acquired Warner-Lambert for Lipitor. And then, in late 1990ies, do you remember what was on Pfizer’s mind? “Ask your doctor about Viagra”! No time to think about the obscure palbociclib.
And this story is not an exception. Think about the acquisition of PeopleSoft by Oracle. I was once in touch with a company that had acquired another company owning a popular product, and then laid off all competent and well-paid developers, still trying to harvest benefits from the product. (My colleague from Microsoft thought this was business as usual.) The product I worked on (Purify) also suffered from such policies,
Compare this with Israel’s Iron Dome. They couldn’t make a partnership with Hezbollah, so the only way to succeed was technological excellence. If we in the US don’t want to fall behind them we need much stronger anti-trust regulations and protection of new companies.
Gregory S. Tseytin
freelance computer scientist / software engineer