DigitalFriend Blog

November 2018

On Age Discrimination in the IT Workforce

Mon, 3 Dec 2018 21:55:01 +1000 (updated)

By: gosh'at' (Steve Goschnick)

I'd heard that age discrimination in the job market was rampant (certainly in Australia e.g., but wasn't aware of how much it was true until my own personal incident or two or twenty . . .

A few months back, a head hunter (HR firm) sort me out via LinkedIn as a 'C Programmer'. His Client company was paying up to $140K and it turned out they were after 4 such experienced programmers for a large conversion of two systems, via a merger of two large companies. They got my interest at a number of levels, one of which was that I'd gone back to doing a significant C project myself in the months before (after programming mainly in Java for years - I've done very substantial systems in C and C++ over 3 decades, and even taught the C language to companies and colleges (e.g. teach-the-teacher) back in the early 1990s when it was a newer language).

After the initial Interview with the HR firm I was required to do an IKM online test for ANSI C89 / C99. Here's my result summary of that adhoc test:

Figure 1. The Interface Guide built into the App is accessible via tabs along the bottom of screen.

The HR guy came back quickly, impressed enough to tell me that my 88% (which would be a H1 at university) was the highest score by some margin of all the applicants, and that he was instructed by the client company to shortlist for interview, all those candidates who achieved 60% or higher. That transpired to 6 candidates for 4 position. He couldn't see how I wouldn't get an offer - "though it may or may not be a little less than the $140K".

My interview with the HR firms Client was the following week. I'm no spring chicken, but I was certainly not going to start dying my hair for an interview where one's skill-set was the first-and-foremost the requirement, and where they had used an International testing agency of considerable reputation to measure that, and my team-player skills were also high, and valued during my considerable employment record.

I arrived at the Client's site about 12 minutes early for a 3pm interview. Between the reception desk and a meeting room there was an open C-shaped lounge-chaired area (pardon the pun) with a coffee-table of newspapers and a book or two, and a large TV screen on the wall with various live sporting events.

I took a seat and read a newspaper, having not layed hands on one for a year or two. About 10 minutes to go, two fellows - both between 30 and 45, perhaps, came along and went into the meeting room, to prepare for the Interview, as it transpired. They never gave me more than a fleeting glance as they rushed in to plan their questions and approach.

At 3pm they both emerged from the meeting room and looked about for the candidate, questioningly. Looking straight thru/past me, the older of the two checked his watch wandering why the candidate was now apparently late! Just as he began walking toward the Reception desk he looked back to me, as I'd now stood up moving his way with an 'excuse me . . .', and he then asked incredulously "Are you Steve?" To which I acknowledged and we all went into the Interview room and so it proceeded for the next 50 minutes or so.

They asked several standard team-player oriented questions, but mainly they asked technical questions about the C language. Of the 35 to 40 questions there were just 2 or 3 where I said something like: "No I haven't used that particular library of code for a while, so I can't tell you the specific method call and parameters I'd use off the top of my head, but I'd easily look it up in the online documentation". The rest were straight forward. They kept on searching for the allusive question that I couldn't answer at all, but it didn't come. The more senior of the two, certainly knew his C - and he would probably cherish remaining top-gun in the organisation in the C-language stakes.

The HR guy rang me the following Friday and apologetically told me the client didn't want to hire me, much to his own amazement, and that no reason was given. I said: no-matter, one gets used to these sorts of outcomes after 2 or 3 years - it was he that approached me after all - I'd long given up on seeking out such fruitless encounters and would happily get back to my own programming projects and writing endeavours. At the very least I enjoyed his conversations and the online test too - as it was a variable test, dynamically altered for the individual in its presentation and so it couldn't be fudged - which in itself was refreshing in the testing world.

There you have it: many people in IT don't think that people over 60 can even use a computer never mind program one at a very high level, never mind be an expert at it - with or without independent, international-standard testing! Despite even that I've been called upon in Court as a C-language Expert Witness, no less.

Ironically, the fact that I've programmed in C and C++ since about 1988 (i.e. 30 years), means its burned into my brain, and will probably still be clearly there the day I die.

They probably thought the younger candidates, though scoring much lower on the IKM Test, could be quickly brought up to speed. Unfortunately for the greater Client organisation itself, the C language is probably the least language that programmers can be moved across to quickly, from other, moderner, safer languages. C is very unforgiving to the uninitiated and the undisciplined. It runs counter to the modern programming paradigms and mindsets. To the unwitting Project Manager who may be used to teams working in Java or JavaScript+CSS or C# or even pure C++, throwing lightly-skilled C programmers coming from those other languages into C-proper, will blow their timelines and budgets out-of-the-water, and give their competitors a significant advantage because of the resultant delays and persistant bugs.

While I do wish the Client company good luck with their system merger, when one has age discriminatory hiring practices at the coal-face, when it comes to systems written in the C language, its going to cost you, significantly! Steve Jobs himself no less, pointed out that when it comes to system-level code (i.e. mainly written in the C language), the difference between a very good programmer and a mediocre one, is about 20+ to 1. While that ratio doesn't hold in the modern languages, purpose-built to curtail certain risks, it remains true for the C language, itself now 40 years old and only lightly enhanced. No place on earth knows this better than Silicon Valley and nearby Seattle, where most system software in the world is still written and maintained in C. It certainly seems that project managers further afield are less experienced in the peculiarities of the individual languages. . . which of course, adds to those advantages that Silicon Valley has and retains.

I looked up the HR policies on the website of the Client company in question here, and they clearly state they have Diversity in their teams: "We are proud to have teams with different backgrounds and experience. It inspires diverse thinking that in turn underpins everything we do". However, beyond those two sentences, the rest of their PR Diversity blurb is just about gender diversity. From that and my own experience, any concept of age diversity is far from their thinking or concern.

While age discrimination is wide-spread, it is particularly acute in the IT field. Companies are bringing in new younger IT programmers/analysts on work visas, claiming they can't find the numbers with the skills needed, already here. From my own experiences like this incidence here, that is often bullshit, simply because they don't even consider most people the other side of 50, or even the other side of 45, or else they only want to pay new graduate-level wages or less.

Age discrimination is hard to prove, and when someone like me chooses to raise attention to examples of it, a typical response/thought is likely: 'proves the point why you wouldn't employ such a whinging old/middle-aged privileged white guy, not used to knock-backs, who probably has a house and no mortgage to pay, with kids who have flown the nest' - all assumptions of convenience and often false, which shouldn't even enter into the 'on merit' (i.e. see test above) argument in the first place.

And yes, contrary to the usual retort about older workers, like many, I continually update my skills: Programming for me is a pleasure not simply a tool of my vocation - I've always kept my hand in it even when not programming fulltime - i.e. when project managing, researching or lecturing in other things. As well as being a long-time expert in the languages C, C++ and Java, I'm not bad at JavaScript and I'm simply loving the new Swift language from Apple, which I've chosen to learn most recently.

Steve Goschnick (gosh'at'



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