Do Google -- and Other Tech Employers -- Put a Premium on Youth?

Ann All

Just last week, I blogged about Google's highly decentralized approach that puts employees in control of their own tech destinies. While this practice seems unusual today, many observers think it will become more common as a new generation of tech-savvy younger employees enters the workforce -- bringing expectations of a flexible work environment with them.


I hesitate to do another post on the search giant so soon, lest I seem Google-obsessed. But I'm willing to make an exception, considering we are, after all, talking about the "Angelina Jolie of tech employers," as Bug Tracker blogger Corey Trager so aptly puts it. (Got it. If you're a an employee, you want to work for Google. If you're an employer, you want to be Google.)


Trager shares insights from his own interview with Google and includes links to several blogs in which other folks do the same. The single biggest impression is how thorough Google seems to be during the several rounds of interviews to which it typically subjects its job candidates. Interestingly, Trager lauded one of his interviewers for not being too specific, while other folks felt Google interviewers focused on nit-picky technical details. Writes Trager:

He asked me how I would design software to do X, where X was the kind of challenge that Google has to deal with. The content of the interview as appropriate. It tested my thinking, experience, problem solving skills, rather than specifics of some language syntax. The design challenge was left deliberately underspecified, testing whether how I would dig with good questions to add more specifics.

From a roundup of Google interview anecdotes published in The Register


I have a PhD-level resume and a string of major innovations and discoveries to my credit -- the interviewer asked questions like, "What is the C-language command for opening a connection with a foreign host over the Internet?" My (wrong) answer: "Look it up in the back of the book." Apparently they not only want you to be able to program, but to have memorized all the function syntax.

Perhaps the most interesting part of Trager's post is where he speculates about the reasons why he didn't get an offer from Google. Two of the reasons -- a degree in liberal arts rather than computer science and a career heavily skewed toward Windows rather than Linux -- relate to his background. But Trager thinks his age also may have worked against him. He's 52, which he says "makes me maybe not look the part of a young energetic geeky software developer."


As I blogged in January, some observers, including Duke University researcher Vivek Wadhwa, say the tech industry shows a strong preference for younger workers. Writing in BusinessWeek, Wadhwa relates a discussion he had with the CEO of a software patent firm. The exec told Wadhwa that younger workers tend to be more creative, flexible and schooled in the latest technologies. In contrast, the CEO says some older workers expect to be paid for their experience -- whether or not it is relevant to the job.


As I write in the same blog, some folks like University of California, Davis professor Norm Matloff think the skills issue is a red herring, one that companies are using to lobby for reforms that would make it easier for them to employ more foreign workers. Yet Trager doesn't seem to see anything nefarious in Google's rejection:

Take those three together, and it would be a special interviewer who could overcome prejudices and see me as a fitting into a team of 20-something developers with engineering degrees. I'm not accusing anybody of anything illegal, unfair or narrow-minded here. The essence of doing an interview and making a hire/don't hire decision is to take a few impressions, inadequate information, and make a judgment. Or, maybe, there wasn't any negative inclination, that it was purely a case of the interviewer judging my design skills to be lacking based on how I handled the questions.

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