Ageism and Malaysia

Actually, this is not just applicable in Malaysia but rather, quite applicable throughout much of Asia. I lament on this issue as our nation will continue to bleed talent and brains if we continue to hold on to the age old ‘respect your elders’ mentality. The cause of the trouble is that people here tend to equate age with experience. Unfortunately, age merely indicates – being old, not experience.

Let me put it in context.

I have been actively programming for over 20 years. I have been writing production code used in products for almost half that time. Therefore, I would consider that my experience in programming would be about a decade of production code and two decades in total of active experience. However, most employers in Malaysia would consider me a fresher starting out in development because I have never held a development job in the past. What vexes me about this is that the decision is usually made by a hiring manager who has probably got less programming experience than me.

I came to this conclusion easily. Most of these managers are probably in their 40s and computers were not so prevalent during their time. So, most of them only started to code when they went to university, which was about 20 years ago. In fact, most of them cut their teeth on coding at the same time that I started coding. However, after about 10 years or so of coding, most of them end up getting promoted to a supervisory or managerial level and they stop coding then as their jobs become more people focused.

However, I have not. As a result, I have about double their active programming experience. I am stunned when they tell me that I lack experience, which is something that I tend to hear often. Once I hear that though, I tend to just walk away as the person hiring me is obviously an idiot. If the hiring manager is in their 50s or older, the situation is worse as they would already have been in management positions when programming became prevalent and probably never wrote much in terms of production code in their lives.

As another example, we were filtering a bunch of resumes and my manager highlighted that one of the freshers claimed to have a lot of programming experience and wrote lots of applications while he was a kid in school. My manager was dismissive of such ‘experience’. So, I told my manager that when faced with such a CV, we should actually probe and question this person’s work to find out if he/she actually wrote any useful or good code. If they did, then it should be considered as fair ‘experience’ even if it was done before they graduated from school.

I happily told my manager that I probably wrote better code when I was a kid that this manager and a whole host of other managers, directors and chiefs, write today. Something like coding is a craft and the quality of craftsmanship increases with experience but experience is measured in years of practicing the craft, and not years of living on the planet. This is not to say that we do not have late bloomers but we should not just dismiss the person’s experience due to his lack of age.

In addition, I recently approached a technical training company to become a part-time trainer. I am looking to supplement my income and found out that training pays quite well. So, I started exchanging emails with several of the Principals of this training company and things seemed to be going well. They must have had this image of me as a gray-haired industry veteran. Then, I decided to let them know my age because I know that age is a factor in Malaysia. After that, deafening silence.

I can understand why some people want to promote ‘experience’ as an euphemism for ‘age’. It is a defense mechanism employed by senior people who fear losing out to the new crop of young turks coming out each year. However, if we want to progress as a society, we need to recognise that although some people may be young, they may actually have spent more time in the trenches honing their skills and talents than us. Such skills and talent should not be wasted on the altar of ageism.

However, survival is the basest of human instincts. So, I don’t really blame people for practicing ageism. It’s just that I will not practice it in my organisation and in order to do that, I must make sure that I never ever have a HR department at my organisation and to have radical HR policies.

Update@2010-09-01: The silence has been broken.

Published by

Shawn Tan

Chip Doctor, Chartered/Professional Engineer, Entrepreneur, Law Graduate.

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