Tuesday, December 27, 2016

Now that I think of it, maybe all tech reporters should be satirists

[I really need to get around to watching that show]

If you follow the tech industry or the discussions about employment and the treatment of workers, you definitely need to be following Dan Lyons, best known these days as a writer for the satirical show  Silicon Valley. Lyons is sharp and insightful and funny as hell and he does a great job cutting through the bullshit of the Augean Stables of today's tech journalism:
Making hiring and firing decisions based on age is illegal, but age discrimination is rampant in the tech industry, and everyone knows it, and everyone seems to accept it. What other industry operates like this? What would the world be like if doctors, lawyers, or airline pilots — or anyone, really, other than professional athletes — had to accept the idea that their career would end at age 40, or 50?

The standard defenses of this practice make no sense in terms of business
One excuse for pushing out older workers is that technology changes so fast that older people simply can’t keep up. Veteran coders don’t know the latest programming languages, but young ones do. This is bunk. There’s no reason why a 50-year-old engineer can’t learn a new programming language. And frankly, most coding work isn’t rocket science.

What’s more, most jobs in tech companies don’t actually involve technology. During my time at HubSpot fewer than 100 of the company’s 500 employees were software developers. The vast majority worked in marketing, sales, and customer support. Those jobs don’t require any special degree or extensive training. Anyone, at any age, could do them.

The actual reasons do make business sense, but they aren't what you'd call pretty [emphasis added].
People born after 1980 do not possess some special gene that the rest of us lack. But Silicon Valley venture capitalists and founders somehow seem to believe this is the case. I suspect the truth is that tech startups prefer young workers because they will work longer hours and can be paid less.

Age discrimination is just the beginning.
Twenty years ago, when venture capitalists invested in young founders, they usually insisted that founders team up with older, seasoned executives to provide “adult supervision.” Lately the conventional wisdom has been that it’s better to let young founders go it alone. The consequences have been predictably disastrous. Young male founders hire young male employees, and spend huge money building kooky office frat houses.

In the tech industry the practice of bros hiring bros is known as “culture fit,” and it’s presented as a good thing. The problem with “culture fit” is that unless you’re a twenty-something white person, you don’t fit. People of a certain age, people of color, and women — most of us, in other words — are often unwelcome. This huge, dynamic industry, which is generating so much wealth, has walled itself off from most of the workforce, telling millions of people that they cannot participate. This situation obviously shortchanges a lot of workers, but it also hurts tech companies by depriving them of talent.

Age bias goes hand-in-hand with other forms of bias. HubSpot had many female employees, but few in top management positions. The company was run (and still is) mostly by white men. As far as I could tell, there were no African-American employees. Once, after sitting through a company all-hands meeting and being stunned by the ocean of white faces, I wrote to a woman in HR asking if the company had any statistics on diversity. HubSpot prided itself on possessing numbers for everything, and being a “data-driven organization.” I received a terse reply: “No. Why?”

Hiring by “culture fit” has a way of crowding out hiring by competence. Partially as a result, it is disturbingly easy to find multi-billion dollar tech companies with high level executives who are dumb as a big ol' box of rocks.
I lasted 20 months at HubSpot. My time there was filled with incidents in which colleagues demonstrated they shared Halligan’s low regard for older workers. After I left the company, I announced I was writing a memoir about my experience as a 50-something guy trying to work in startup land. Apparently some of the company’s executives freaked out about what might be in the book, and they did something so crazy that I still almost can't believe it.

According to the FBI, which investigated, these executives tried to hack into computers to steal the manuscript, and also tried to prevent publication of the book by engaging in extortion. No criminal charges have been filed, but the hacking, extortion, and ensuing cover-up raised questions about HubSpot’s culture and the trustworthiness of its leadership. HubSpot's board fired the CMO, and sanctioned Halligan, the CEO. A vice president resigned before the board could decide whether to terminate him. The board still won't tell me what happened.


  1. As a middle aged guy kind of "adjacent" to tech (I live in Silicon Valley, I've coded and now manage, but not for software companies) these last two posts are very interesting.

    But are you missing a link to the original in this one? It's pretty amazing, I'd like to read the rest.

    1. Thanks for the proofreading. I added the link, and yes, the whole thing is pretty amazing.