Culture Fit

"He said he liked your background, but didn’t think you’d be a good culture fit," the recruiter told me.

"What’s that mean?"

"I don’t know," she said. "But we have lots of other clients."

Truthfully, though, I knew what it meant: “Welcome to middle age in Silicon Valley.”

At the end of 2010 I’d been laid off from Nokia, after being there for only a year—the same year their new non-Finnish CEO came in and completely changed the direction of the company. Say what you will about their phones and strategy, they’re a great company to get laid off from. An unexpectedly generous severance package let me try my hand at the startup lottery for a few months, working on spec with a company putting together a social network-slash-event planner for amateur athletes. I’m not a sports guy but it seemed like a terrific idea. However, after pushing an app into the iOS App Store with little fanfare and waiting a couple months, they refocused on being FourSquare for athletic clubs. No, wait: golf courses. No, wait: on being a way to play betting games on your golf game. Well, maybe just a way to track your golf game and bets you make on it. By that point I couldn’t see what differentiated it from all the other golf tracking apps out there.1 Eventually, someone—although not me—is going to take the original idea and make actual money with it.

As I approached the first year anniversary of the layoff, my income was about twenty percent of what it had been. If it hadn’t been for that severance package I’d have already been in trouble. So I’d decided I’d had enough with contracting. Fortunately—maybe—my résumé seemed to make me serious recruiter bait, so I actually started responding to them. That’s what had brought me to the office I’d been in the day before. One client on-site right now hot new startup just three people just getting going right there in Palo Alto a block from Caltrain looking for a new programmer just like you go in and talk to them for a few minutes! So I did, a brief talk with the hot new startup’s CEO.

He looked like he was about half my age. I’m not entirely sure I could have gone out drinking with him.

I’ve read about age discrimination in IT for years, but had never seriously worried over it. I’d started in telecom, where engineers in their fifties and beyond were common; after moving out to Silicon Valley in my mid-30s, I didn’t have any trouble finding work that I could reasonably blame on my age.2 But I’d worked at companies where people were more or less my age. Even at Nokia, while my boss was younger than I was, his boss was older. I was in the generation that had literally grown up with microcomputers, had only been in the workforce a few years as the Internet took off: it would be my peers, give or take a few years, who would be with me as engineers and managers through my whole career. Right?

You may have spotted the logic flaw. People kept entering the workforce after I did. And—not having truly steeped in the dot-com culture myself—I never saw twenty-something CEOs as normal. Or even possible. Coming of age in Florida in the late ’80s, that was simply not an aspirational goal.3 In Silicon Valley in 2013, it’s a wonder there are any teenagers without their own startups left to ask you if you want fries with that.

I’ve been able to ignore this as long as I have, I suspect, because I still live like a twenty-something. No wife, no kids, no alimony, no mortgage, no responsibilities that might prevent me from devoting my life to your scrappy little startup! I’ve been able to keep up the appearance of just being out of college much longer than I should. Most of my friends are younger than I am, helping to perpetuate the illusion. But while hanging out at hipster coffee shops and tiki bars with thirty-somethings talking about writing makes me happy, it doesn’t make me a thirty-something.

Early in 2012 I accepted a job that has a startup feel, with the company’s half-dozen employees scattered around the country working from home. But we are not working in the social networking space or the casual gaming space, not using exciting new web technologies, and not solving terribly glamorous problems. This was a mixed blessing—I couldn’t have more flexible working conditions and I had a stable and fairly high income, but I worried that my skills might stagnate. That I’d become, well, what the twenty-something CEOs imagine that I already am.

And, as if fate decided that I really needed to put that to the test (thanks, fate), the company I joined isn’t doing so well. They’ve decided that they need a new marketing person more than they need another programmer, and I got the short straw.4 I’m still working there part-time, but I’ve been asked to look for other work.

Right now, right here, this really should be easy. We are, as I recently noted, in the midst of another dot-com boom.

And sure enough, recruiters do ping. I quickly got a face-to-face interview with one strong-seeming company. It went pretty well. They gave me a coding test which involved actually working with their API and sending a code sample back, rather than “write pseudocode on a whiteboard during the interview to solve a problem that you will never ever face except during interviews with whiteboards.” (I’m pretty good at solving real world problems, but I’m not very good with abstract puzzles.)

And yesterday, the recruiter got the message back: the company liked me—I already knew they liked my code—but they didn’t think I was a good culture fit.

This now part-time gig likely won’t be my last in the industry. I am, however, wondering if it will prove to be my last in Silicon Valley.

  1. If you’re not a golfer you’d be surprised how big that niche is. I am not, and I was—there are very sophisticated, GPS-driven apps that cost surprising amounts of money to help you play golf and/or keep track of your game. Not even the betting aspect of the startup’s current-as-of-now iteration is entirely novel. 

  2. The trouble I had could reasonably be blamed on being a web engineer moving out here a couple years after the first dot-com crash. My timing has always been a little suspect. 

  3. If you listen to Merlin Mann and Dan Benjamin’s “Back to Work” podcast, The Florida Episode was painfully familiar to me. I went to the same liberal arts school as Merlin—we met there, in fact—and, like him, I became a web developer in the mid-90s. Unlike him I have doggedly stuck with it. This may not be a point in my favor. 

  4. Why me? Likely because I live in Silicon Valley, and get Silicon Valley pay rates. 

  1. geekmom666 reblogged this from chipotle and added:
    Definite food for thought for those who started working in IT during the 90’s.
  2. chipotle posted this