“How old is he?”
“Umm, older than me, slightly. Early thirties I think.”
“Okay, good. I mean, not to be ageist, just… I wouldn’t want a guy that’s like 24 doing this.”
When I was 24, my boss – the CEO of a bootstrapped and profitable multi-million-dollar company – pulled me aside and told me he thought I could be CTO one day, and that it would probably only take me a few years. It resonated so strongly with me that climbing the technical ladder was my sole professional focus for three years.
I had already proven myself as highly competent. Management referred to me as a linchpin. I had built a complex Web application for a billion-dollar company. I built another that generated millions in revenue and helped a company grow from a dozen people to fifty. And more importantly, I built my company’s people. I worked with a handful of others to do everything from recruiting to training and mentoring to sales. I tried to leave my mark on everything I touched, improving tools and processes before moving on to the next task. I probably grew more professionally between 23 and 25 than most software developers do in their lives. When I’d go to conferences, fellow attendees assumed I must have been older and must have had a decade of experience behind me. I told them that a year at my company was worth five anywhere else, and they believed me. Because they saw what I – and the company that trained me – did, not my age.
When I became a vice president of technology at 27, people assumed I must be very smart and very capable. But the title and the company is what they respected, and my age typically did not come up in conversation. Prior to that, carrying a middle management title, I oftentimes felt as though I was justifying my existence to the outside world. Age came up frequently. No one questions a young software developer. But a young manager? That guy is clearly in over his head.
In probably the most embarrassing ageism encounter, my company’s team members added to a client’s existing nervousness about our average age by explicitly stating how inexperienced they were. I made a simple round of introductions disastrous: “I’m Dave, the director of technology. I am responsible for our development team and I’ve been with the company nearly five years.” In turn, my team revealed their very short resumes: one year, two months, three months. They neglected to mention previous jobs or anything that would increase confidence in their experience. Where I intentionally stated that I had been with the company for five years to give the client some confidence in my experience, my team thought I was listing a fact that must be inexplicably important and relevant to all of their introductions. The client panicked and expressed concern to a co-worker. I spent the rest of the day making friends with the client, talking about my nearly-ten-year relationship with my wife, and bragging about everyone’s past experience on interesting and high-profile projects. Starting with what was really important to the client’s project and altogether ignoring age would have saved us a lot of grief.
In a friendlier encounter, a developer from a partner company asked me a series of questions about my responsibilities and team size, ending with a very direct “how old are you?”
“Well… I’m 27.”
“Really? No way. Bob, listen to this. This is incredible.”
My ego swells. He’s clearly impressed, I think, of all I’ve accomplished in so few years.
“Do you know how old this guy is? You won’t believe it. He looks fantastic. I hope I look this good at his age. He looks fucking fantastic and he’s 47 years old.”
“Umm… No… I’m 27.”
“What? You just said you were 47.”
“No. I said 27. I’m 27 years old.”
“Oh. Well, in that case, you look like shit.”