Mitch Kapor vs. Mark Zuckerberg

I’m here at Startup School and there is a really interesting contrast between the presentations of Mitch Kapor and Mark Zuckerberg. Lotus was one of the fastest growing companies of all time, and was widely heralded as one of the best working environments, and Mitch has been involved with some really interesting tech revolutions over the years. Mark Zuckerberg is of course the founder of Facebook.

Mitch’s presentation was one of my favorite of the day, and one of the thing he emphasized was that you should hire for diversity because diverse groups of people innovate more. Diversity here is defined as a function of experience, background, family status, as well as the traditional definitions like gender, et al. He says that one of the most common mistakes entrepreneurship makes is building “mirrortocracies” instead of meritocracies, meaning they tend to hire people like themselves rather than hiring the best people regardless of backgrounds, and the company suffers as a result.

Almost on cue, Mark started out by saying that the two most important things for a company is to have people who are “young and technical,” and his explanation of such was actually the entirety of his prepared remarks. (He arrived shortly before his presentation, so AFAIK hadn’t heard any of Mitch’s.) He made some fair arguments for biasing toward a technically inclined workforce, even in roles like marketing and support, however he didn’t really say anything compelling in support of youth, besides some vague references to many great creators and chessmasters being between 20 and 35 years old. But in no uncertain terms, he said they have a bias toward hiring young people at Facebook.

I’m inclined to agree more with Mitch. Biasing your decisions based on something completely out of someone’s control, specifically the year they were born, seems as likely to have correlation to talent and success in a company as gender, race, or anything else that everyone knows doesn’t matter. It’s not what you’re born with, it’s what you make of it. However in defense of Mark, you can think of Frank Sinatra’s Young at Heart. There’s youth, and there’s youthfulness. The latter could be described as a set of qualities, and could definitely something you look for when hiring, but make sure you’re targeting the right things.

What do you think: Is there something inherent in age that’s valuable? What’s the most important thing you look for when hiring?

49 thoughts on “Mitch Kapor vs. Mark Zuckerberg

  1. Perhaps the age question has more to do with adaptability to change. Do younger people have a inherent ease with adjusting to the quickly changing landscape of the technical world? Perhaps that would be one of the angles Mark is coming from.

  2. The argument can be made that youth works hard — the only problem is working hard in the wrong direction because of a lack of experience.

  3. counterpoint: I’ve been reading a 1978 book on a processor design and one of the things they said in their “hiring new grads” strategy was that the inexperienced don’t know that the impossible is impossible and are able to overcome it.

  4. I think one reason it makes sense in the case of Facebook to hire young people is that young people are their audience – and having a staff who are in touch with the target audience, ideally part of it themselves, is a very good thing.

    But if he tried to extend that to say every company should focus on hiring the young, that’s ridiculous.

    I agree with Mitch. Even Facebook could probably benefit from hiring some of us “old folks” – for starters, they might help them reach a wider audience…

    Disclaimer: I haven’t ever hired anyone, although I’m always thinking about it as my business outgrows me.

  5. Doug Crockford is much older than I had imagined him [sorry if you’re reading this Doug], but having seen him on the YUIBlog videos I see that he’s not a 20/30 something individual. However, his technical expertise makes me think that no matter what his age is he’d be a great asset. Age discrimination (and I don’t mean that in a nasty way) doesn’t seem useful. There are other sorts of cultural issues that do matter. I worked with a guy who was from a very structured background at a startup and he just didn’t work out in the long term because he couldn’t handle the chaos (that he perceived). Was the problem his age? Not at all, the problem was his personal preferences verses the way the company was run.

  6. Arguments such as this always get a laughter out of me.

    Why does it have to be one way or the other? It is quite understandable that FB has a leaning for the young as much of FB feeds off of young folks. I can’t imagine too many 50+ guys brainstorming next generation of FB features. At the same time I can’t imagine too many grades in early 20s coming up with next set of Lotus features.

    May be the whole thing was missing a big disclaimer: USE WHAT WORKS BEST FOR YOU:)

    -Zaid

  7. Matt, my wife and I were at the Startup school and talked about the exact same thing — Mitch Kapor saying don’t create a mirrortocracy and Zuckerberg making highly suspect arguments for the intelligence of youth. Zuckerberg came across as an arrogant guy. I’d love to get a transcript of his speech. It seemed like he confuses “intelligence” (if there is one metric for such a thing) and “youth”, particularly when he answered one of the questions at the end about hiring. If you had some perfect test of intelligence, I’d imagine that there’d be a pretty large variation across the population — maybe a Gaussian. I’d also suspect that the impact of age is less than the differences between people. In other words, I’d take an “old” Einstein at 40 yrs old over almost any young guy, but I’m biased since my wife and I are “old.”

    I’d agree with Zuckerberg that the young have less stuff to worry about (e.g., marriage – sometimes, kids – probably, mortgage – probably) and can pick up and move or focus. I’d also say that’s a gross generalization. You could find old tech people who are unattached and living like a college kid, and you could find young kids who are married and building a family. But what about building some diversity into the business, as one of the other speakers mentioned. To steal from the Paul Buchheit talk (which I enjoyed), an opinion simply reflects a person’s rather limited experiences and view of life.

  8. >”..in no uncertain terms, he said they have a bias toward hiring young people at Facebook… What do you think”

    I think age discrimination is often illegal, and always small-minded. If that’s the norm at Facebook, that’s sad (though not unusual) and reflects a failure of leadership.

    > What’s the most important thing you look for when hiring?

    The most important things I personally look for when hiring are 1) integrity, 2) drive, and 3) skills – – in that order. Reason is that, as my mentor used to say: “Drive without integrity is dangerous, and skills without drive are useless.”

    Sounds a little quaint, I’ll admit, but it’s also true.

  9. Great entry Matt. I too agree with Mitch more than Mark. It is really easy to just hire people that are like you and create mirrortocracies – love that word. But you really are missing out on a different point of view. Diversity for the sake of diversity is bullshit. But if you really value diverse points of views, hiring people that think differently is critical as it will really make you and your team better. If everyone thinks the same and agrees as automatons, you’re never going to succeed.

    To me, age is really a state of mind. I’ve worked with 20 year old people that are lazy and I’ve worked with people in their 60’s that have more passion that anyone I’ve ever worked with and so if you’re only hiring based on age, you are truly missing out. I want to work with people that have passion, energy, motivation, enthusiasm and a great intellect and those aren’t traits exclusively of young people.

  10. Another school of thought for start-ups is that you hire, if possible, friends because you can, in theory, count on their loyalty when times get tough.

  11. I once hired a woman who had at least 20 years on me. It was one of the best hiring decisions I ever made. She was a rock! She brought sense and stability to a young company. Is there something inherent in age that’s valuable? Oh yes – you can’t manufacture experience.

  12. Matt,

    I don’t think age should come into it at all, unless the age of the person is going to cause a rift within your team.

    As an example, the development team I work within has traditionally been quite young and all within a couple years of one another in age. We were fortunate enough to have an excellent blend of people in our group with various backgrounds – but all relatively young.

    Over a year ago now, we hired a ‘young bloke’ who at the time was 21. It turned out to be one of the single greatest decisions we’ve made as his understanding of software engineering, architecture and the .NET framework continues to impress me day after day.

    About nine months ago, we hired someone who was about the same number of year above our average age and that too has turned out to be an amazing decision, as his experience in particular facets of our work has really helped us work through some very challenging problems.

    Moral of the story, you need to hire the people that help build a stronger, more diverse team. If you hire the same people all the time, you’re essentially building mediocrity to some extent – as the likelihood of having a very wide breadth of knowledge through the group decreases.

    Al.

  13. having been one of the oldest people hired at PayPal (i was 35 when i fooled them into letting me on board in 2001), i can definitely say that there was a bias towards hiring young, smart, talented & technical people there. many of the paypal hires were right out of stanford / some not even finished school, and they feared nothing. CEO Peter Thiel was only in his 30’s himself, and co-founder/CTO Max Levchin was in his early 20’s. both were (and are) some of the most brilliant folks i’ve ever met.

    the culture at Facebook (what i know of it) strikes me as very similar… and not such a surprise, Peter is one of mark’s investors & advisors. Mark strikes me as similarly brilliant & fearless, and a few ex-PayPalers have joined on over at Facebook as well. and i might predict they appear to be on a path to eclipse even PayPal’s record of success.

    in hindsight, there’s a lot to be said for PayPal’s hard-driving, take-no-prisoners approach to its business, including hiring as well as other areas. if Facebook is attempting to copy & improve on that model, they appear to be well on their way.

    still, one thing that always struck me about PayPal’s hiring philosophy — i think we often overlooked many older / experienced / non-Stanford folks who might have contributed to the culture & success. as one of the few over-the-hill guys who didn’t come off The Farm that made it past the filter, i felt we occasionally had a bit too much group-think. of course, since Peter & Max (& Sacks & Roelof) were pretty visionary & accurate leaders, it served the company well most of the time for the rest of folks to be in lock-step. but altho the company tolerated a fair amount of self-review & criticism, it was also obvious we didn’t really have much diversity of perspective.

    in summary, i think the PayPal & Facebook cultures serve themselves well when they have high standards for technical (& other) excellence, and even for youthFUL energy & enthusiasm. less so, when those standards exclude those who don’t come from the same socio-economic & cultural backgrounds, or those of us who gradually succumb to that growing disease known as being “generationally-challenged”.

    my .02,

    – dave mcclure
    http://500hats.typepad.com

  14. I think you have to look at the product that each is making. Facebook is clearly geared towards young people so having people on the same age bracket on staff makes sense because they better understand what appeals to people of that age group. Mitch’s product is more geared toward people of all ages. So having people of different ages and abilities on his staff of various background does make alot more sense for him.

  15. I think Darren, your first commenter, has a point. As much as it’s natural for someone like Mark Zuckerberg to look at hiring people more or less like himself (young, technically smart, etc.) it also makes sense to hire people who are adaptable and open to change — and for better or worse, younger people tend to be better at that. Of course, every startup also needs the grey-haired guy in the suit who can go to the meetings and impress the bankers :-)

  16. I have to cut Mark some slack on his limited view on hiring. I remember back when I was 22. I hardly knew how to interact with people who were much more that 2 or 3 years older than me. It all stemmed from my years in school where the only people we interacted with us who weren’t in our general age range were in leadership roles. We were their definite subordinates. Now that I am 34, I find it easier and easier to relate to those older than me on a peer level.

    My bet is that in 10 years, Mark won’t be such an age-ist. For him right now, he probably will be more successful being surrounded by people more like him, but if he is smart and as he gets more astute at leading, he will look to have a more diverse and inclusive workforce.

  17. One thing I will say in Mr. Zuckerberg’s defense is that young people are probably better for his company, since no one over 25 seems to think Facebook could possibly be interesting at all.

    Us old people would probably just gunk up his website trying to put some sort of meaning into it =P

  18. Can’t say I was actually at Startup school but I watchd a few lectures via justin.tv I agree with Henri’s comment about Facebook being a website geared towards younger age bracket.

  19. Matt,

    I often ‘read’ you but have never felt compelled to remark on anything before this topic (sorry). This is a subject I really feel strongly about and not because I just turned 55.

    I’ve been a software developer for over 30 years (primarily ISO layers 2 and 3). I now consider myself a “Dino-sore” in this field.

    Why?

    Probably because when I was 30-something and on my way to my “first million” the guy that hired me into Motorola was nearly 60. At the time I dismissed him as “over-the-hill”. I thought most of his ideas were just “this side of a stack of Cobol punch-cards”.

    But HE hired ME… and looking back I realize now I may have actually heard some of his advice…

    When he hired me I was given a copy of Windows 1.0 Beta and told that we were going to build a “real-time” Network Management System to manage a new line of high-speed Motorola 9600 baud modems… so much for where I started…

    At that age I was considered by many to be a ‘star’. I was “innovative”, worked 30 hours a day… fixed bugs while I slept. I read everything and anything in print just to “stay sharp” and that continued through three very successful startup companies in the Boston area during the 90’s… I “Cashed-out” at 48….

    I was still goin’ strong right up to the heart attack and triple-bypass I had at 50 in 2002… Then everything came to an abrupt halt.

    Yeah – I was a “hot-sh*t”… During the last 10 years of my illustrious over-paid career I could feel the “pitter-patter of those little stomping feet”. The generation of those behind me that actually had the opportunity to go to a college where they could take subjects like “computer-science”; they were taught “structured-programming” and “top-down design”; they learned the meaning of “abstract layers” and someone stood up and told them about the concepts of “objects” and “methods”…

    I learned C language at Bell Labs, Murray Hill from Brian Kernighan…

    Today, the oldest of my six grandchildren understand more about computers than I ever did at 25 – one of them has her own web site [he says cringing at the thought]. Computers, computer languages and their everyday exposure have made them as common as the air we breathe. I’m a “boomer” that remembers the first color television in the neighborhood and contemplated the purchase of a ‘build-it yourself Altair 8800″ in 1975.

    Despite my age, I think I’m as sharp as I ever was… but I’ve learned a few things… I’ve learned to listen and I’ve learned to try and understand the real meaning of the “big picture”. I’m tempered, stable and reliable… I “pick my battles” carefully. If your “idea” is better than mine then I’m more inclined to support your idea than fight for my own. I understand it’s not about “me” anymore it’s about something much “bigger”… I document everything I do… Script.aculou.us would be really great if they just spent five more minutes writing a guide for their API!

    Not everyone my age is like me and no one that is 25 wants to hire their Father to be a “code-jockey”; especially someone trying to “make their mark” in a very competitive field. Since 2003, I’ve applied for more software engineering positions that I can shake a stick at, (including Automattic’s recent request for “code-wranglers”) and no one is interested – and no one even acknowledges receiving my resume.

    It can’t be my background; I’ve forgotten more than most people know. Is it the money? I’m not in the habit of even “talking numbers” until its time for the “party to start”… besides, money is not why I keep doing this. It’s not because I’m too tall or too short… I speak English, I can write in at least 8 different programming languages for 4 different platforms and for most of the ISO layers. Personally, I think it’s the phrase “I have over 30 years experience” that kills it. Unfortunately, that represents more years than the average age of someone placed in a hiring position.

    I also believe that the best team of people committed to a project is made up of a diverse set of both “old-school” and “new-school”. Sure, the “mix” has got to work and that is the reason for meaningful interviews. I love the innovative ideas of young engineers – they have very fresh and exciting slants on some very tired ideas. The new ideas have merit but at the same time ideas must be realistic, goals must be achievable, and like it or not experimentation is not always “cost-effective”.

    Now, here is one of those ‘golden opportunities’ for a ‘shameless-plug’… I am for hire. If you have a project and you need someone you can truly rely on and you’re not afraid of questions like “Why do you want to do that?” Then email me – I’m still awake most of the time these days.

    That includes you Matt…

  20. You bring up some interesting points. I’ve heard people passed over before because they were “overqualified” for a job. What does it mean to be overqualified? Is that just a PC way of saying too old?

  21. My natural tendency is to go with Mitch’s approach of hiring for diversity. In fact, I like and believe in Jerry Hirshberg’s (Founder of Nissan Design International) idea of “creative abrasion”. At NDI, he used to hire designers in pairs and in direct opposite.

    Here is an excerpt, “I believe in creative abrasion. And I mean abrasion. We have titans in their fields going at each other: ‘I’m sorry, I see the project this way. The way you’re approaching it is just absurd.’ That friction can produce wonderful creative sparks.[NDI’s designers, modelers, and engineers] get a kick out of the pairings because they feel valued for their own quirks. They see that the boss doesn’t just tolerate divergence–he courts it. So they feel free to be themselves.”

    More info can be found at this page at Lemelson Center for the Study of Invention and Innovation at the Smithsonian Institution.

    http://www.inventionatplay.org/inventors_hir.html

    Just my 2 cents.

    – Kempton

  22. Yes “overqualified” means either “we’re a bunch of kids who would be threatened by someone older” or “your resume was reviewed by a non-technical recruiter who sees that you have more than 10 years experience, and thus isn’t going to bother because she has no idea how to value it, plus anything you worked on 10 years ago must be worthless now.”

    If you’re over 50, and cashed out at 48– its time to start your own company. Don’t look for work, look for employees.

    You’ll get respect from VCs (assuming you get someone over 35, rather than some young MBA airhead) …

    I’m younger than you, but the I’ve recently had to realize that the current generation is not mine– and they look at me as an old fart. (Which is a weird feeling).

    One thing though, colleges these days, they may be offering computer science, but they sure are not teaching the kids anything worth a damn. You have to un-learn them to get them productive. (Broad generalization, of course, I’m sure some colleges are decent.)

  23. As Friedman (economist/journalist) said, it’s a “flat world” out there–or getting there, anyway.

    I don’t think that age should be that much of an issue because young people are empowered on their own through technology to level the playing field. Adaptability is key.

  24. I’d like to suggest some alternate definitions of “overqualified”:

    1) The work we need done here would be boring to someone with that level of experience. We will not challenge them and they will not be happy.

    2) They’re going to be too expensive for us to hire, relative to the work we need done.

    I don’t think it means “too old” at all. How many people here would probably admit that they’d be “overqualified” to cut HTML pages all day for $15/hour? It’s not a dirty word. It simply reflects a disconnect between the position and the applicant.

  25. When I was VP of HR at Microsoft, we were getting 30,000 resumes a month, and hiring 3500 people a year. My biggest challenge in the hiring area was convincing a company full of really smart young people to recognize the wisdom in Mitch’s approach. People who aren’t just like you can also be as smart or smarter than you, and often bring things to the table you never even knew existed.

    Age does not equal wisdom, it may not even equal experience. I’ve seen a million people who never stretched, and so never had much to offer. Having age in abundance means neither that you’re crusty nor that you’re a valuable asset. And lack of it doesn’t magically mean you’re innovative or that you’re without insight. I’ve seen many observations (such as this post) from you Matt that quite definitively belie your precious few years.

    You hire individuals, not stereotypes. Just as the best foods are made from a combinations of the finest and sometimes most exotic ingredients, so are the best teams.

  26. Some good points, that support Zuckerberg’s premise (adaptability to change, employees are the target audience, etc) but I would just like to add that young people have nothing to lose – and that’s the powerful thing about them. Young people arn’t recognised as masters of something yet; young people haven’t got a mortgage and 2.4 kids to worry about; more importantly, young people haven’t had enough life experience to scare them yet.

    In short, young people are super intelligent – not because they know more, but because they know less. Someone who has burnt their hand isn’t going to be as enthusiastic as someone who has never seen a hot stove before, if you ask them to touch it.

    And in a sector of the economy where no one knows what things will look like in 5-10 years – that’s why they are valued – because their creativity and enthusiasm is without restraint.

  27. I am just a student so I can’t really give out advice, but I think the diversity approach is probably best. For example, I work on the Web site for our student newspaper The Daily Collegian and we recently started including the journalists in the planning and execution of our enhancements. They’ve been very helpful in picking out process issues, ethical problems, or UI errors. I would also caution that while technical expertise may be hard to come by, most technical skills can be taught and learned very easily.

  28. If Mark Zuckerburg really said that, then he is setting himself up for a lawsuit. Really, not a smart thing to say given that his “bias” is illegal.

  29. Glad Mark said this. Anyone who was not hired by Facebook can now sue them based on age-discrimination. The evidence is part of the public record.

    Having said that, I would never want to work for a company whose definition of valuable is “has no life except working at the company 24/7″. (One of the reasons I recently told Ebay to f-off when they came calling to ask if I wanted to interview there.)

  30. Biasing your decisions based on something completely out of someone’s control, specifically the year they were born, seems as likely to have correlation to talent and success in a company as gender, race, or anything else that everyone knows doesn’t matter…There’s youth, and there’s youthfulness. The latter could be described as a set of qualities, and could definitely something you look for when hiring, but make sure you’re targeting the right things.

    Perhaps youthfulness correlates with youth?

  31. depends what you are trying to do and the job function.

    Take Company X that is geared towards Web 2.0. I would tilt the programming and technology side to people that would understand the web 2.0 crowd -which might be a younger audience. And if Company X were looking for a backer or going public, i would want the finance team to have experience that comes with many years in the financial markets.

    in any event, kudos to Mark and Mitch talking about a topic that always stirs the pot.

  32. Well, if you’re not already, everyone here will be part of the over 50 crowd one day…so ask yourself if you’ll be less useful at 50 than when you were 25, and if you have more wisdom now than you did when you were 10.

    I’d say you’d be ‘differently useful’, and those company cultures that overlook this aren’t just breaking the law, they’re denying themselves a mixture of talent and, in some cases, wisdom that ‘just may be’ a little harder to come by at 25.

  33. Just go for smarts…if you’ve got that you can learn anything.

    @OverTheHill: quite right. Any company that is dumb enough to admit in public that they are ageist doesn’t seem like a good bet to me.

  34. I think it’s also Google’s strategy to target youth when hiring, of course they don’t limit their requirements for that, it is just a preference. When I read The Google Story, I was reading about how many engineers were leaving Microsoft for Google on the basis that it’s more “youthful” and allows for more growth.

    Personally, I think the decline of Facebook is apparent. There are so many other competing social networks that are growing much faster and introducing better concepts, they also have much better marketing strategies. Facebook was unique in the sense that it was for “students only,” but now it’s open to companies, all networks, so anybody can sign up regardless of age and occupation. That kind of stole the fun out of it.

    In the Googleplex there’s definitely a youthful atmosphere, that doesn’t mean you should only hire people within a certain age bracket though. Like many people above said, that’s just stupid.

  35. 1. Energy
    2. Adaptability
    3. Willingness/Ability to learn
    4. Temerity to ask questions

    If they can keep up with (and tolerate) me at full caffination, they can be taught just about anything else.
    Unfortunately, most of these things take a while to determine, so my last three have been temp-to-perms; that gives me a few months to determine their viability.

    And I agree with OverTheHill, it sounds like one mother of a class action discrimination suit is about to happen over at Facebook. Someone @ the office needs to muzzle this guy before they’re drowned in debt.
    I’d like to take a moment to compliment Mitch, though. As someone who didn’t break into an actual “tech” job until I was 30, I appreciate his willingness to adapt, and his appreciation for all kinds of diversity.

  36. The best reason to hire young is that young folks will work for next to nothing.
    On the other hand, you get what you pay for so I tend to go for experience rather than exuberance…

  37. Startup School was great. I actually liked Mark Zuckerberg’s talk a lot. I felt that he was a very effective speaker, despite using no visuals and having a very casual talk. He’s really opened my eyes to a new perspective on hiring and running a startup that I hadn’t considered before.

  38. I got here trying to look for a Zuckerberg quote on the validity of hiring coders to do your recruiting.

    My 2 cents. What Zuckerberg is saying is simply false. I tend to agree more with Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers. It not how old you are but when you were born.

    Zuckerberg was born in 1984 same year as the author of this blog. In their 20s these two would hit a sweet spot of Net Neutrality combined with the demise of Friendster.

    If you were born a few years too early, you’d hit the tech market during the first dot-com crash when tech wasn’t cool and folks were going for secure, boring jobs.

    If you were born a few years later, then you’d probably reap the work of Facebook, WordPress, and others as well as their rich APIs. You’d probably be busting your chops for your first few years of your career working on mobile apps.

    1984 and 1955 seem to be the monumental sweet spots in tech. I was born in 1972. I’m not sure what that means to Malcolm Gladwell, but Miranda July was born that year, too, and she is a very awesome artist who won a film prize at Cannes.

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