Failing in Silicon Valley

Marek Hoffmann Autor, Hemd & Hoodie

For many people, Silicon Valley is synonymous with IT, high-tech and success. Numerous technology firms, including Intel, have their head office there. And just recently, the famous valley has had a TV show named after it, where six software developers attempt to make it big in the Valley. However, being a specialist does not guarantee real life success in the Valley – increasingly, being young and well-connected is a requirement.

Could you describe yourself for our readers.

I began programming when I was around fifteen years old

My name is Robert Kiraly, I am 55 years old and come from the San Francisco Bay Area, USA. I began programming when I was around fifteen years old. Later on I studied at the University of California, Berkeley for five years, where I gained a diploma in Mathematics and Computer Science. However, I would rather describe myself as an IT all-rounder, than a computer scientist, software developer or programmer.

What is your current occupation?

I am unemployed at the moment

I moved to Silicon Valley in 1981. I spent just short of 32 years living and working there until in 2013 I lost my job and at Christmas my home as well. Then I moved away. Since then I’ve been looking for work. In the meantime, I’ve certainly taken every small opportunity to keep myself solvent, but up to now I still haven’t found a secure position in my previous field of work.

Just recently, the “Business Insider” (BI) published an article about you on their website. What was the subject?

My article had 32,000 unique visitors in 24 hours

The first thing I did was comment on an article on the “Hacker News” platform, which dealt with the fates of older developers like me. My comment was hardly noticed though, so following the advice of a friend, I decided to compose a blog article, in which I listed some personal tips. The aforementioned friend published his own post on “Hacker News” and posted a link to my article. That was a success. We got a lot of resonance and feedback. The post remained on the home page for almost nine hours and received over 300 comments, my article got 32,000 unique visitors in 24 hours. The BI became aware and decided to publish their own article and to use me as the subject.

They clearly hit a nerve with their article. What tips did you give?

The most important tip: specialize in something!

The four most important tips are: 1. Never go down the career ladder, 2. specialize in something, 3. build up a network of contacts, 4. spread your investments.

They sound quite general at first glance. How do you explain that your article created such waves in the IT industry?

It isn’t enough anymore to know a programming language

Many factors play a role. The BI focused on age discrimination. Almost as serious a factor is that I’m a generalist, an all-rounder. People like me are very valuable if involved in the right positions or fields. However, demand has changed in the IT job market and increasingly it’s specialists that they want. One of the main reasons for this, is that projects involve more specific frameworks these days than in the past.

It isn’t enough anymore to know a programming language. A developer has to understand the frameworks that can be associated with it. Up to a certain point it’s obviously quite sensible. But the market demands too many people with experience in specific frameworks and too few with general experience; the kind of people that you need in order to be successful.

Robert Kiraly (55) today: "I believe that age discrimination will probably increase in the employment practice of medium and large enterprises."
Robert Kiraly (55) today: “I believe that age discrimination will probably increase in the employment practice of medium and large enterprises.”

You mentioned that the BI focused on age discrimination. Do you believe that there is an obsession with youth in the industry?

It’s a practical filter in a process which is very strongly based on filtering

I’m not sure if ‘obsession’ is the right term or if it applies to all areas of the industry. Age discrimination occurs in the application process, absolutely no doubt. I know from my own experience that it’s a major issue. The BI correctly highlighted another important factor, which is that many managers, whether directly involved in the application process or not, don’t like the idea of having people in their team who are old enough to be their parents. However, I have encountered examples of the opposite as well. So in some cases, when interviewed by younger people, I have been treated in a completely fair manner. And a head of department who I worked for a few years ago, was young enough to be my son. But that was never a problem for us.

I believe that age discrimination will probably increase in the employment practice of medium and large enterprises. It’s a practical filter in a process which is very strongly based on filtering. At many companies the interviewing process is designed to sieve out as many applicants as fast as possible, without really checking whether they are suitable for the position. It’s all about shortening the list of applicants to a comfortable length to work with. It is becoming increasingly possible that in the next few years more and more people in the industry will be stood outside closed doors, for no recognizable reason. Especially those people who are now in their thirties. They’ll be treated well, probably better than younger applicants, but they’ll never get an answer or a job rather. It’ll be difficult to prove, but age will be the critical factor. It could be different at smaller companies, as for them it will depend on the individual business culture. Some will have no problem with older developers, others will.

Does age then play an important role in the technical sector?

There are factors that probably only effect the technical sector

Age discrimination occurs in many sectors. But it may be fair to say that it begins at an earlier age in the technical sector. I am aware that people have different views on the subject. There also seems to be different levels of awareness of the subject and in how the subject is perceived.

But there are factors that probably only effect the technical sector. For example, it is a commonly held belief that older developers cost more than younger ones. This is because developers are often expected to work sixty to ninety hours a week– for no extra pay. Whereas younger developers are more inclined to let this happen, the older ones often have families and aren’t prepared to do it anymore.

Let’s return to the four factors that you mentioned previously. Which of these is it that you failed to adhere to the most and led to your current situation?

It never occurred to me to keep channels of communication open with other people

I failed to build relationships. That is possibly the biggest mistake of all, whereby it was never a conscious decision. I am a high functioning autistic person. I have made attempts to help others– both at work and on a personal level. But until a few years ago I found it difficult to build a relationship or trust with other people. The situation was aggravated by the fact that it never occurred to me to keep channels of communication open with other people.

The second error I made was that although I acquired a few special skills, this was always done on an ad hoc basis. I didn’t make the effort, or not enough effort, to understand how the market was changing and how I could develop with it. The third error was a financial one. I didn’t spread my capital wide enough. My fourth error was that I was naive. I trusted people and was disappointed by them. You should be helpful, but never expect that others are too or will reciprocate.

And the fifth error was that I never made preparations for the eventuality of losing my job. In the late 1990s I ended up at a dotcom company. When the company fell into financial difficulty one or two years later, I should have reoriented myself immediately. Instead, I put all my energy into the company. Almost ten years later I made the same mistake again. You should take your job and responsibility seriously, but at the same time never lose sight of your own interests.

Robert Kiraly as a teenager: "I began programming when I was around fifteen years old"
Robert Kiraly as a teenager: “I began programming when I was around fifteen years old”

Is the “specialize in something!” factor still missing? Why is that so important?

One day any additional skills acquired could make a difference

The short answer is that the cost-benefit ratio is a good one. Developers should have a wide range of skills in order to avoid the danger of becoming obsolete one day. It appears to me, however, that most programmers see it as rewarding to focus their expertise in individual fields that are enjoying increasing popularity such as interface design, web apps, native apps and especially frameworks like Flask and Rails. But if someone makes the effort as a generalist to specialize in stages while still working, the effects on any current projects shouldn’t be too big. But one day these additional skills could make a difference.

You indicated that you would have avoided your current situation if you had built a wide personal network of contacts. To what extent would this have been helpful?

How can a generalist show they’re the perfect choice for a job or project?

We are social beings. Belonging to a group is important for us. When a person introduces a colleague to another person and recommends him, that’s an important part of the process. Such introductions are important, but they are just the beginning. The person that is introduced doesn’t have to start right at the beginning, at zero. Certainly it doesn’t make anyone a “known player”, but that person will be perceived differently. It would probably have been better for me if I hadn’t had to start at zero. My status as an all-rounder was part of the problem. How can a generalist show they’re the perfect choice for a job or project? It is possible, but a personal introduction from a third party is very helpful.

In addition, many vacant positions are never publicly advertised. Technical jobs are often given directly to people with connections. A friend of mine put it well “I ask friends first. And when I’ve asked all of them, I try my luck with strangers.” I’ve never relied on this tactic, although I have also got some jobs through connections. I always thought that people that I had helped would be well-disposed towards me and at the right time and in the right place would put in a good word for me. It was a painful experience to learn that this only applied to a few.

What are your plans for the future?

My main goal for the future is to find a position that is 100% right for me

The article in the BI has stirred some interest. Although I have had more responses to the original article on “Hacker News” and to translations that have been published in China. I received offers from people to look at my CV and make some suggestions or recommendations. That’s a start.

My main goal for the future is to find a position that is 100% right for me. It doesn’t matter if it’s in my current location, another state or another country. I want to go where I’m needed. A place where I’m welcome and perhaps somewhere I can find a home. Just in case anyone is curious, I’d like to briefly sketch my expertise.

During the last 35 years I have successfully worked on countless projects in many different fields. My duties have included the following areas of responsibility among others: compiler and assembler, debugger, code analysis, network server and clients, database layers, BIOS, recruitment, customer service, house management software, multimedia transcoding, Firefox extensions, technical documentation, share analysis tools, Photoshop EKG plug-in, web development, developments in programming languages as well as producing documentations. On top of that, for the past 20 years I have invested a lot of work in developing my own Linux distribution. I am currently administering around 1,800 FOSS packages, all of which I have selected, patched and configured myself.

Anyone who would like to know more about me is very welcome to get in touch. I can be found on LinkedIn, Twitter and on both my websites.

We would like to thank you for giving us an interview and wish you all the best for the future in your private life and career!

Teaser Photo: Flickr – Nik Cubrilovic (CC BY 2.0)

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