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How age discrimination is killing high tech

Dennis Parker once dismissed the talents of old timers. He learned his lesson. Now on the other side of 50, he warns that ageism remains alive and well.

Rachel Konrad's excellent article reporting the new study on age discrimination in the high-tech market struck a familiar note with me.

I was guilty of that behavior in the past and have recently experienced it from the other side. From those experiences I can confirm the study findings that age discrimination exists in the high-technology marketplace. And it is hurting our position in international competition for supremacy in technology.

Why? Because we are wasting the knowledge base that made us leaders over the past forty years.

In 1973, I thought I was one of the smartest telecommunications people in the world. Fresh from several switch implementation project management successes, I had just been promoted to lead a group of engineers and technicians to introduce modular electronic telephone sets in Michigan. Confident and cocky, I was full of myself.

The crew I inherited--I did not get to select the ones I wanted--was much older than me, and I had no confidence they could do the job. They were all over 40, with one of them over 50. Old guys! My new boss was a few years older than me, but we were close enough in age that I felt comfortable complaining to him. "Come on, Pete, these guys don't understand this technology and don't think like we do. How soon can I replace them with some younger people?"

Age discrimination was alive then, and it is alive now. I should know. My own ignorance, arrogance and intolerance to older workers made me a perpetrator then, and I have been a victim in recent years. But I digress. Back to the story.

After my boss told me to get to work and stop complaining, I knew I was stuck with the old guys. So I called my mentor, Harvey Ettig, and asked him for help. Harvey was about twenty years older than me, and I revered him. He was like the father I never knew, and he always had a solid answer for me. We met at a local watering hole and talked for hours. He told me to ignore their ages and concentrate on what they could do.

"Tell them what the mission is, and ask them for ideas. Ask them to help you plan the work and work the plan, and ask who wants to do what. Match them up. Hold them accountable, and then get out of the way. You won't regret it."

I never did.

I put my prejudice aside and did what Harvey suggested. Those old guys worked like mad and did a marvelous job--no arguments, no petty backstabbing, no complaining. They just did the job and did it well.

I not only didn't replace them, I wound up praising them, publicly apologizing to them for my prejudice and recommending two of them for promotions, which they both received. I learned a life-changing lesson that year; good people are ageless and will perform well if they have necessary skills and are given an opportunity.

I had to learn that lesson again a few years ago, when I was faced with a complex programming challenge with just a few very young people to help me do the job. I was the new CEO, and we met to plan and assign the project. My old prejudice nagged at me. My first thought was "Why me, God?"

They all had extensive programming skills, but they looked like a rag-tag bunch. Long, scraggly hair, baggy clothing, earrings, nose rings, eyebrow rings--you name it. They had it. Then I remembered something Harvey had told me long ago. (He passed away years ago.) His advice had been, "Judge your people for what's in their heads, not for what's on their heads." I followed that advice and again, I did not regret it.

On the receiving end
Recently I faced the same kind of prejudice I dished out in my earlier days. This time I was "the old guy." I now manage a technology consulting business, and I was advising a technology company in England. The company's product was very robust, but the designers had ignored the need for user documentation and user training. When I pointed out that shortcoming, I was told, "That's not what we wanted you to do." I told them they would not be able to sell their product without those things, and they told me to stop saying that. They wanted me to produce a positive recommendation for their product that they could give to prospective customers. I told them that would be dishonest, and they told me I was "being old-fashioned."

"You're being old-fashioned, and besides you are too old for this technology. You don't understand this new technology. You're an Old Economy person, and you don't understand the New Economy. People today don't need all that process stuff."

Huh! What was I missing? People don't need documentation and training for new products? I must have missed something, because all the potential customers I speak with tell me the weakest thing about dot-com products is the lack of documentation and training materials.

Just last month I interviewed for a chief operating officer position with a West Coast technology company. The headhunter was very positive and told me I was "the leading candidate," and my video interview with the company CEO and CFO went smoothly. The CEO congratulated me on my stellar technology background. Then I heard nothing for two weeks. I called the headhunter, who then told me the company was seeking "a person with more technical experience." Right!

The other side of 50
Yes, age discrimination is alive and well. I have lived both sides of it, and I am still living it. Before I turned 50, I loved building new high-tech companies and was fairly good at it. I built two very successful high-tech companies that still exceed earnings expectations each quarter. I loved turnarounds and did two of them. I still love new technology and have always kept pace with the latest developments. And thanks to Harvey's advice and the excellent leadership training I have received through the years, I have always had a great relationship with the people reporting to me. But when I passed 50 years of age, I became "too old."

One of my past colleagues told me I am "too demanding for this New Economy. You expect people to be accountable for their actions, and that is not good today." I have heard too many excuses that all translate to "too old." It is very frustrating to know that companies would rather hire an untested, younger manager than a seasoned and proven successful, older manager. But that is the way it is, and it is very difficult to change minds.

My generation will soon be retiring from the positions we have held for so long, and many will not stay out of the market. Those talented in technology will be seeking new positions in the tech companies. Most are very capable people. They are not just along for the ride or just trying to build their resumes. They have the valuable skills and experience to help the technology market recover.

I hope for the good of the country that today's leaders have some of the wisdom and patience Harvey Ettig had with me.