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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What has failure taught you?

Massaro: My very first gig [as 29-year-old CEO of Shugart] was a success. It goes straight to your head. All of a sudden, you feel like Superman. A really serious failure, where you fall flat on your face, teaches you that sometimes you can't get there from here. It also helps your management style when you've failed big time and can convey that to people. You're human to them.

Courtot: With cc:Mail, we essentially beat Microsoft with just 45 people. Then we made the mistake of selling to Lotus. I got a very good price. But within one and half years, Lotus replaced cc:Mail with Notes. And IBM shut cc:Mail down despite 20 million users. I felt very sad.

Massaro: I was CEO of an environmental products company that I funded myself and lost a ton of money on. They call that self-embezzlement.

Seriously, I've learned that so much success in the Valley comes from being in the right place at the right time with the right product. At the same time, you have to know what time it is and where you're standing.

If you were hiring an older person, what would you look for?

Noerr: The most telling thing I think is if they have enthusiasm or passion. If they don't, then it doesn't matter what age they are, I won't hire them.

Braun: For every John McCain, there are a lot of people that age who are so set in their ways, or so tired out, they lack the energy or creativity to be really creative. But there are others who have more energy than most 30-year-olds. We're running marathons, doing pushups.

Noerr: Whatever you think about McCain [politically], he is not keeling over into his grave. He may have a toe in the grave, but not a foot.

Massaro: My main criterion is enthusiasm. I have taken younger people without much track record. I'm willing to because I was once CEO at a young age.

Braun: I like that comment Ronald Reagan made when he was running for re-election [against Walter Mondale in 1984, at age 74] -- "I will not make age an issue of this campaign. I am not going to exploit, for political purposes, my opponent's youth and inexperience."

How much pressure is there for you to do the typical Silicon Valley thing -- cash out, invest, serve on boards, play golf?

Courtot: Absolutely, there is a lot of pressure to do the done thing. I'm not the VC type. I'm on very few boards because I'm not the type who can manage multiple companies. I like to be directly involved with just one.

Massaro: I've seen a lot of that, where money was the objective, and as soon as they made it, people retired. I'm not against that, but it's always been the result, not the goal, for me.

Noerr: Golf is absolutely not my kind of thing, nor is hanging out at the bar smoking cigars. I don't really know what I'll do after this company is sold. I've been offered opportunities to be on boards. I think my nature would be to tell them what to do, and then they would get pissed off. Chances are that I'll go on and build another company.

Any trouble staying young and refreshed?

Courtot: As long as you exercise your mind, you'll be OK. It's not that difficult to be healthy. I lift weights. I play tennis. I eat well. I drink green tea, because I like it. I avoid processed foods, because I don't like them. I'm also the very happy father of an 18-month-old girl.

Massaro: The companies I've done include disk drives, then systems, then software-based slots, then security and now messaging infrastructure. My only requirement is that I get to do something new each time, because I'm such a technology nerd and want to learn something new. My wife maintains I am a 65-year-old kindergartener that way.

Noerr: When we sign a big seven-figure deal, it is still just as sweet as the very first deal I ever signed.

So when will you finally retire?

Noerr: I'm grooming my president, Kristina Bivins, who is in her late 30s, to replace me in a few months' time. She is infinitely better than I ever was at things like process and marketing. I'll keep doing what I do, which is think about where the market is going.

Courtot: I have no timetable for retiring. But I can start to see the end of the line. And I do want to enjoy my little girl. When you're a young man, you're so busy you don't have time to see your children the same way. So I certainly want to spend time with her and for her. On the other hand, I've still got to build a very good team. I've got just a few more management holes to fill.

Massaro: I have three kids. The youngest is just going into college now. That's a boundary condition for my wife and me to start traveling. But I don't have a date here. My afternoon naps might be getting longer, but I think I've got another five years in me.

Copyright © 2008 IDG Communications, Inc.

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