The Most Balanced Piece I Could Write About the Stupidity of Ageism
When I was a young whippersnapper, a promising lad in his mid-twenties, unmarried, no children, with three years of SAP experience and the maverick in a team of older colleagues, interesting job offers started pouring in. I was an attractive fetch on the booming job market: Even though I was a junior developer, my experience and technical understanding were already much broader and deeper than those of most people I knew. ABAPers were much sought-after, and it was the time of the Y2K problem and the dotcom bubble. Internet firms lured new recruits with amazing compensation packages and flattering words. The fact that headhunters were camping on my doorstep was brushing my ego.
“Nobody over thirty”
One day, I had an interview with a dotcom company that wanted to expand into the SAP field. I had a meeting with the managing director in the morning, lunch with a him and a few other managers, and was scheduled to meet a number of people who would make recommendations as to whether or not to hire me in the afternoon. It went nicely until, just after lunch, one of the senior managers said proudly: “We don’t have anyone over thirty!” He grinned broadly and it was clear that he felt he was presenting a real perk. It seemed as if I was supposed to think: Whoa, I’ll be part of a YOUNG TEAM. No old farts to pester the air, no slow, old losers to put up with. He went on to talk to me about the youthful, dynamic environment they were offering, and began to tell me how young each of the senior managers were, but at that time, I was barely listening anymore. All I could think was, “These people are idiots. I want to get out of here.”
The ageist fallacy
Why did I think so? It would have been natural to be flattered by what he said – obviously, being well under thirty, in their belief system I was the greatest thing since sliced bread. However, despite my admitted vulnerability for flattery, I knew it was bad for three reasons:
- Everybody ages, and very soon, I would be thirty and they wouldn’t love me anymore.
- The same was true for them, and if they upheld a policy that would declare them invalid within a few years’ time, it showed that they were either very short-sighted, or stupid, or hypocritical, none of which are attributes I find desirable in my employer.
- I knew the value of working with older colleagues first-hand, and wouldn’t for the world want to go without that advantage.
Newbie Thorsten with senior colleagues
The first two reasons should speak for themselves, but I’d like to elaborate a bit on the third. Working in a heterogeneous team, I had direct colleagues in their thirties, forties, fifties, and even one in his sixties. What was it like to work with these people as a young hotspur? The answer: It was simply great to be embedded in a team of experienced colleagues who knew exactly how the wind blows. While I didn’t need any guidance at the technical level, I got invaluable advice on other levels, including but not limited to
- what’s really going on (I had NO clue)
- understanding that not everyone on a project wants the project to succeed
- understanding that not everybody plays fair
- how to avoid the obvious pitfalls in corporate politics (theoretically)
- how not to get on people’s death lists (advice I rarely followed)
- how to get what you want (ideally: while making the person you get it from believe they owe you)
- how to get the best results out of external consultants
- how to convince people.
It wasn’t so much that I discussed each of my steps with them. But whenever I was about to do something very foolish, one of my senior colleagues would mentor me and share some much-appreciated advice. Also, they were so kind to discuss their own mid-term and long-term strategies with me, for example – I was deeply awed by the wickedness of this plan – how to get the boss to remove them from the travel-intensive project that was destroying their marriage while making the boss think he owed them a huge debt for kicking them out of their favorite project. Generally, I was profoundly thankful to benefit from a variety of perspectives and backgrounds in a mixed team.
Senior Thorsten with newbie colleagues
Today, I am 39 years old, and my perspective is very much different. I have gained much experience at work and in my private life as a husband and father.
What is different today? While I still rely strongly on a reading code and working with the technology to achieve a deep, hands-on understanding, I often find myself approaching problems on a different level. Whereas previously, I might have been asked to write a difficult report, today I would more likely be asked how to set up the organization so the report can be written.
Working for the CIO or CTO, many questions for “senior Thorsten” require, in addition to knowing a concrete technology, a general understanding of people and technologies. Typical questions include:
- The solution that a team is proposing will fix the immediate problem, but is it good for the long term?
- Is a particular team doing the right thing? Can they keep on doing what they’re doing or do they need support?
- Does a particular technology have a bright future?
- Is the technology a good match for our functional requirements, our organization, and our customers?
- Is there a good match between a technological/organizational challenge and the person/team tasked with it?
- Are the interests and responsibilities set up correctly for a good outcome?
- Do the people match the strategy?
- Is the technology stable enough to support the strategy?
- In which areas are our partners reliable, and in which areas should we not rely on them?
- Is the product important enough in SAP’s strategy to undergo enough maturation cycles for our needs?
- Is a particular plan feasible? What will it cost? How long will it take? Who can execute it?
- Who will support it? Who will be against it? How can we get the organization as a whole to support it?
- Considering people’s previous experiences, long-term preferences, and current interests, how can I convince them to support a particular plan?
Working with all kinds of colleagues, sometimes I can support them with this kind of perspective. They may have the right solution, but in order to get approval to execute, they’ll need to pitch it to the right person with the right words. Or a person displaying destructive behavior poses a risk to a project, and we need to figure out how to get that person into a constructive, supporting role. Generally, younger colleagues need this type of advice more, while older colleagues tend to have it figured out. I am still profoundly thankful for the variety of backgrounds in my work environment, where the particular contributions of people of different demographics come together.
Elephants in the Savanna
As a junior team member, one day I read about the composition of elephant herds in the African Savanna. Researchers had found out that herds profit greatly from having older, female elephants in their midst. Whenthe herd meets other elephants or animals such as lions, these matriarchs are better than anyone else at assessing the risks properly: They’ll know whether another elephant is a friend or foe, and they can tell reliably which lions are likely to attack and which ones aren’t. Instead of living in a constant state of fear, a herd that relies on the leadership of an older matriarch can spend their energy where it’s really beneficial, such as on bringing up healthy and well-nourished offspring, instead of performing one pointless evasion maneuver after another. And when there is a real thread, the matriarch ensures that the herd steers clear of it.
The result: a calm, efficient, focused group that spends their energy where it makes sense. I’ve always wanted my team to be that way. Working with more senior colleagues, I felt that they were providing exactly the kind of leadership I had read about in the article about African elephants. I counted myself lucky to benefit from this kind of leadership, and today I’m happy that I can provide the same value to other colleagues.
Innovation requires inclusion
I’ll make this brief, but I have to mention it. As SAP’s Michael Bechauf pointed out on twitter tonight, “Try to build SAP HANA only with green 20+ year olds.” In fact, I remember distinctly the SAPPHIRENOW keynote in which Hasso Plattner introduced HANA and explicitly mentioned the great average number of years of experience building relational database management systems in the team that built HANA. An innovation like HANA would be unthinkable without a team composition that brings in many different profiles and perspectives.
SAP has incorporated this idea so deeply that last week, at SAP TechEd 2012, Co-CEO Jim Hagemann Snabe made it a point to emphasize the strategic importance of the Design Thinking methodology, where an inclusive and empathetic approach to the needs of end users leads to new insights and innovations. SAP has understood that you can’t make products for billions of users across the world by having a strictly homogenous group of white, protestant, male, twenty-somethings or thirty-somethings figure out the requirements in the grand solitude of the Palo Alto or Walldorf ivory tower. As good as those folks may be, they need to reach out and get a variety of perspectives involved into the design process if the product is to be widely relevant.
There are many other reasons to be inclusive, including not wanting to miss out on some of the best talent in the market – a non-inclusive company like the one I interviewed with loses not only the ones they’re actively excluding, but also the smart ones who don’t want to bet their future on a narrow-minded (and very likely doomed) company.
When ageism rears its ugly head
Why did I spend the entire evening from the moment the kids were in bed to the moment I have to go to sleep (much too late) on writing this blog? Most of these thoughts have been on my mind for many years, yet tonight I had to share them with you. Why?
SAP is generally a company that sets a great example in being inclusive and fostering diversity, even to the extent that I and others have expressed great pride in being members of the SAP community. Moya Watson deserves a big shout out for her inspiring “It Gets Better” video project and for her relentless fight against bullying (of gays and others).
This is why I was disappointed when fellow SAP Mentor Christopher Solomon pointed me today to an article titled “What’s the shelf life of a techie? Just 15 years,” in which a high-ranking executive of SAP Labs India is quoted with some disturbing statements:
- “The shelf life of a software engineer today is no more than that of a cricketer – about 15 years.”
- “The 20-year-old guys provide me more value than the 35-year-olds do.”
- “We find people after 40 finding it very difficult to be relevant. They have missed a whole learning cycle.”
As the echo on Facebook and twitter showed, these statements were very negatively received by members of the SAP community and perceived as “horrible,” “disturbing even if quoted out of context,” “ageist,” “left me speechless,” “makes me feel redundant,” and so on.
I contacted the executive who is quoted here to give him the chance to comment on them, and was relieved when he assured me that the statements were taken out of context. (I’m deliberately not linking to the article or naming the person because it’s not really about them, but about the general mindset.) I hope that he will take the time to set the record straight and put them back into the proper context in which they belong to send the right message to SAP’s employees and partners. I believe that age discrimination should have no place in the SAP community, because it is unacceptable both from an ethical and from a utilitarian standpoint.
The stretch of Savanna ahead
I’m no longer a young whippersnapper, but at nearly forty, I’m middle-aged and deeply committed to life-long learning – through reflection, from media, and from people. Consequently, I hope that as I provide more and more guidance to younger colleagues, I will benefit from the leadership and experience of older colleagues for at least twenty more years. Cheers to the elephant matriarchs!