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Ageism in Information Technology: It’s a Goldilocks paradox

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By Mohan Krishnamoorthy

Those of us who have been in the IT sector for any number of years have probably observed the Goldilocks paradox at work. According to the popular fairy tale, “Goldilocks and the Three Bears,” little Goldilocks tries the three bowls of porridge and sets aside the big bow as it is ‘too hot,’ the second as ‘too cold’ and eats the porridge from the third bowl that it thinks is ‘just right.’

Tech recruiters and hiring managers are like little Goldilocks, wanting their candidates neither too young, nor too old, just the right age. The media and analysts have been focused on the high turnover in IT sector, but a closer look shows how this Goldilocks paradox is playing out – the demand is highest for those with at least a few years’ experience in a specific technology, gradually tapering off for more experienced candidates who are likely to be higher paid, hitting a glass ceiling at the top.

One of the reasons for this is the cost to company (CTC) that candidates expect. Indian IT has evolved an archaic “Years of experience and salary” formula that recruiters seem to use, with an equally obtuse number of two-hundred thousand rupees for every year of experience. By this formula, a candidate with 10 years’ experience will be expected to draw two million in annual package, while the one with 7 years can expect only 1.4 million. Negotiating an exception can be a contentious and long-drawn affair.

Ageism at the bottom of the pyramid
Recruiters and their filtering software are quick to reject graduates with little or no experience, creating a vicious cycle – young techies unable to obtain relevant experience without the first job, while most entry level jobs require experience. A viral twitter post from Sebastián Ramírez (@tiangolo), the creator of FastAPI succinctly highlights this paradox

“I saw a job post the other day. It required 4+ years of experience in FastAPI. I couldn’t apply as I only have 1.5+ years of experience since I created that thing.”

The glass ceiling at the top
At the other end, the glass-ceiling for experienced (read older) tech workers is also equally pronounced. Most recruiters are unwilling to evaluate candidates with 15 or more years’ experience creating an implicit bias against older workers. Social forums like Quora, Reddit or even LinkedIn groups frequently debate the question over such ageism with a common theme: when is a person ‘too old’ to be hired at a tech company? Are folks in their forties or fifties considered ‘too old to hire’?

Having explored a job-change while in my forties after relocating back to India a few years ago, I am probably well-qualified to answer this question. My job-search was unique in another way – unlike many of my peers out to showcase their credentials in managing ‘large,’ teams, I was essentially selling my skills as an individual contributor, albeit one who could help organizations navigate a breath of technologies.

It took me a few months of serious networking, contacting hiring managers and recruiters before I began getting calls for interviews. The feedback was simple: my peers were all “IT Director” level folks who could showcase their project or team management skills; so, I had to emphasize my business partnering skills and the knowledge of a breadth of technical skills.

The way forward – get over the conscious bias

The IT industry is maturing, especially in India, where there are over 5 million people in the IT–BPM sector. The average age of professionals has steadily been increasing over the years. By some accounts the average Indian techie is between 27 and 30 years old, which also happens to be the sweet spot where the industry is seeing a hiring frenzy.
It is time for hiring managers and recruiters to set aside their blinders and look beyond the Goldilocks paradox. Doing so will not only ease the pressure on hiring; but casting a wider net for talent will also drive a more inclusive and diverse work environment.

About the Author
Mohan Krishnamoorthy is a Technology Executive and Enterprise Architect with a multinational company. His viewpoints and papers have been published in several international technical and nontechnical journals.
He can be reached at [email protected] or https://www.linkedin.com/in/mohanbabuk/

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