Too old for tech? Not these Silicon Valley CEOs

Think leading a technology company is only for thirtysomethings? These savvy sexagenarians beg to differ.

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Massaro: When I was CEO of Shugart, we were successful because we weren't too smart. If you have too much experience, sometimes you become too afraid of making a mistake. And then you can't create anything original.

[So] I encourage my people to make mistakes. My only requirement is that it's an original mistake, the result of trying something different, not because you didn't do your homework.

How much age-based discrimination is there in the Valley?

Braun: Most tech entrepreneurs are in their 20s and 30s, and the VCs who fund them and sit on their boards are in their 30s and 40s. It's harder for older execs to fit in with this crowd. I wouldn't call it discrimination, but it is way different than other industries where at 50 you're rarin' up your career and the boards are filled with guys in their 60s and 70s.

[As a recruiter] I placed more than 50 CEOs in Silicon Valley, and most were 40-45 years old. The oldest was Don Massaro at Sendmail. I think he was 62 at the time. He's a fabulous guy, full of energy and highly qualified. But there are always extra questions and obstacles to overcome for older candidates.

I think Silicon Valley is race blind. Let's say three equally qualified CEO resumes are presented to a search committee. Two are age 42, an Indian and a Chinese executive, while the third candidate is white and aged 60. Assuming they have comparable English skills, the toughest sell is the older executive.

Courtot: I think VCs size up people and they size up the opportunity. If you're a good VC, you'll pick the right person, whether young or old.

Braun: When I asked Intacct's board what they were looking for, they basically described my background, except for one thing: "We are looking for someone who can be a leader in the SaaS industry for the next 10 years." That was code for "someone younger than you."

Noerr: I'm 68 years old. Age is without a question a bigger issue for me than gender.

How about personally -- even something as subtle as a surprised glance when you come into a meeting?

Courtot: If I've talked with someone a lot on the phone, and then they meet me the first time, sometimes there will be surprise. "I thought you were much younger!" they'll say. I think it's because I look my age, but I don't really act it.

Massaro: When I come into a meeting, it's not like Father Time just walked into the room. I don't look my age, and I certainly don't act it. We also sell to large corporations. There are a lot of senior people in their 50s and 60s at those meetings. The people making decisions are a lot closer to my age than that of my salespeople.

Noerr: I was once sitting in a train and the conductor came by and patted my hand and said, "Dear, you don't have to pay." And I asked why not. "Because you're elderly." I should've pleaded with him to take my money. I hope I don't look or act that old. But that doesn't matter. It's just vanity.

What have age and experience taught you?

Massaro: At my age today, I've had it all happen, so I've got a lot of confidence. Now I try to encourage an open environment where people feel comfortable challenging me. For [less important] decisions, I've learned to let others do it their way, even if I disagree. Unless I'm sure they're going to electrocute themselves.

Noerr: I know that management is not my strong suit. I've learned to create a layer between me and the rest of the company. I used to try to get companies to run before we could walk, or spread our resources too thin. We haven't made those mistakes with MuseGlobal.

Courtot: I understand now that ego and drive aren't intertwined. Without the impatience of youth, you can look at things with a more detached eye. You don't have ego interfering as much anymore. You don't also lose your drive to achieve or the ability to act aggressively. When I was younger and I read about senior leaders, I couldn't understand that.

Noerr: I'm in a club that's literally called the Grumpy Old Ladies Club. We're all about the same age, and have all done something like start or run a company. And we're all grumpy. We say what we want, say what we mean. If we get bored at a talk, we don't stay.

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