I’d rather have a lot of talent and a little experience than a lot of experience and a little talent.
—John Wooden, American basketball coach
The tension in the office was high. A burly senior developer looked my manager right in the eyes and shouted, “Don’t ever ask an intern to develop an application without my approval! I don’t care how good he is!” I was the intern in question.
My manager, who was quite bold, remonstrated, “Kevin said he could do it, and I’ve been asking you to do it for months. I thought it would be helpful.” Seated behind his desk and irritated red, the senior developer asked me to leave his top-floor office while he continued to berate my manager. As the door shut behind me and I descended to my cubicle, a shouting match ensued. I wondered if I would be fired, but I decided right then and there that I would not give this bully the luxury of firing me. A few days later, I left the media company on my own terms, disgusted with what I had experienced.
About a week before this eye-opening meeting, my manager had asked me to create an application to track employee arrivals and departures. She mentioned that she really needed this application and that her boss was dragging his feet in producing it. Naturally I felt obligated to meet my manager’s request. I told her that I could do the program and that it would take a few weeks to complete. She got excited that I had the technical knowledge to do it. I finished designing and coding the application that weekend and showed it to her the following week. Elated, my manager decided to show my program to the senior developer whom she originally asked to do the application. It was a bad idea for her and an awakening for me.
I woke up with the understanding that it makes no sense for a company to stifle the growth of its extraordinary young talent, giving favor to its senior people or a counterproductive protocol. That happens often in corporate environments. This type of culture ultimately leads to a company’s demise or mediocrity. Conversely, companies led by young adults typically eschew the idea of special treatment because of seniority. Instead, they focus on merit and the ability to deliver results. For this reason, a majority of trailblazing companies with innovative ideas don’t have many employees over the age of thirty and implement a flat organization.
It’s not so much a secret anymore, but an expectation: Start-up tech companies prefer to hire people under thirty years old to avoid dealing with outdated and ineffectual norms that give preference to older people. For example, when Facebook started, it intentionally avoided hiring people in their late twenties and early thirties. Not until the company began to mature and needed to bring in experienced executives did it relax this practice. According to a recent book published about Facebook, the average age of the company’s fourteen-hundred-plus employees was thirty-one in 2010. Similarly, PayPal during its early days had a young staff. In fact, Peter Thiel, the CEO of PayPal, was thirty-five at the time the company was sold to eBay. He was an elder member of the company.
Entrepreneurs believe that talent trumps seniority. Of course, I don’t condone ageism. I do, however, advocate building an organization that promotes great results and not people for arbitrary reasons. If you want to win the game, don’t bench your best players.