SUNNYVALE, Calif.--It's nearly 10 a.m. in the City Council chambers here, and 43 people are waiting for their turn to speak.
These are not citizens with civic matters on their minds; divided into two lines that stretch out from either side of the podium in the center of the room, these veterans of Google, Cisco, NASA, Hewlett-Packard, Yahoo, Microsoft, Boeing, Sun, and others, are here looking for a new lease on their professional lives.
One by one, they lean into the microphone to introduce themselves. They mention where they've worked in the past, list their skills, and then talk about the type of job they're looking for. The hope is that someone else in the packed chambers might be able to help them.
Welcome to the Sunnyvale chapter of ProMatch, "an interactive career resource center for professionals who are seeking work in Silicon Valley." Each Thursday, more than 200 members of the organization pack this room for a morning of career education and networking, and the strength and support that comes from being around job seekers with similar backgrounds and skills.
As has been well chronicled, the market for tech talent in Silicon Valley has not been this hot in years. Tech workers there pulled down an average $104,000 salary last year, up 5.2 percent from 2010, and software engineers did even better, bringing in $116,000 in 2011, up 10 percent from a year earlier, according to Dice.com. On average, Dice listed 7,000 available software engineer positions on any given day last month, up 17 percent from a year ago. And a November survey by Nova Workforce Development found that 77 percent of employers in the Valley "reported at least some difficulty in finding and hiring qualified [tech] employees."
But while everyone knows the market for highly skilled young tech workers is booming like never before, and that companies are struggling to find top engineering talent, there's a perception that things are not nearly as rosy for tech workers whose 30s are behind them. Take this January article in The Bay Citizen. Headlined "Old Techies Never Die," the story's subhead sums up its damning conclusion: "They just can't get hired after 40 in Silicon Valley."
Or take this exchange during a recent panel discussion hosted by CNET on "Startup Funding: Strategies and Opportunities." Asked whether they would fund entrepreneurs older than 45, the uncomfortable body language of the three venture capitalists on the panel--Naval Ravikant of AngelList, Dave McClure of 500 Startups, and George Zachary of Charles River Ventures--spoke volumes. Eventually, after Ravikant and McClure (himself older than 45) muttered half-hearted jokes, the best they could come up with was this milquetoast response from Zachary: "Yeah, assuming they're active and they have a lot of energy to put into a startup."
Nationally, unemployment is at 8.7 percent, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. In California's San Mateo County, the heart of Silicon Valley, things are definitely better, with unemployment at 7.3 percent, though in Santa Clara County, also part of the Valley, it's currently 8.8 percent.
But given perceptions like that of the Bay Citizen article and the VCs on CNET's panel, one might think that the mood in the standing-room-only Sunnyvale City Council chambers for a recent ProMatch Thursday meeting would be grim. You could count the number of 20-somethings on one hand. The vast majority there had already celebrated their 40th birthday, and many had had their 50th or even 60th. Yet grim would hardly be the word that anyone attending this meeting could leave with. "Upbeat," "supportive," and even "successful" would be more accurate.
It's all about talent
Although the VCs who spoke on CNET's panel may have wished they hadn't been asked about investing in companies with founders older than 45, others say age--whether in regards to hiring or funding--isn't really an issue in Silicon Valley.
For example, while the average age of founders admitted to the hit startup incubator Y Combinator is in the mid-20s, that doesn't exclude those past their 30s. "We don't have any feelings about founders in their 40s per se," said Y Combinator founder Paul Graham. "We just fund the companies we think are most likely to succeed."
And Stewart Alsop, a partner with Alsop Louie Partners, a VC firm in San Francisco said that "We do it [fund founders in their 40s or 50s] all the time. We like youth or experience. We tend to avoid what's in between."
Plus, said Alice Hill, the managing director at Dice.com, many startups are bringing in older workers as advisers or senior executives -- frequently at the behest of boards of directors that want to balance the vision of young, energetic founders with real industry experience. If someone is a talented software engineer, no one cares how old they are. "If you're a software engineer, you can be any age," said Hill. "It's all about whether you can write code."
No one is arguing, of course, that tech chops alone guarantee a new gig. Clearly, people's results will vary depending on their skill levels, personal networks, and preparation for the job hunt.
Sometimes, though, workers in flourishing fields just need a crash course in competing for employment in 2012. For someone who has been in a rich, secure position for many years, being forced to look again can be a daunting process. They may have forgotten how to interview or know little about navigating crucial tools like LinkedIn and even Facebook.
But spend a few minutes at a ProMatch meeting and you see much of that fear dissipate. The organization is set up specifically to help educate members through those fears with well-oiled, member-facilitated workshops on key job-hunting skills, like networking, social media, interviewing, and many others.
There's also plenty of encouragement. When new members introduce themselves, or existing members make requests for connections to companies where they're interested in working, the capacity crowd constantly breaks out in applause for the speakers. "Hi, I'm Bob...from the Interview team," one man begins, and the whole crowd shouts in unison, "You're hired!"
'We hear success stories every week'
"It's like a pep rally," said Carolyn Warren, who recently got a job as a risk analyst at LinkedIn in part because of skills she learned through ProMatch. "They cheer you up. Looking for a job can be draining. And nobody wants to hire a mopey Molly."
At this ProMatch chapter, membership -- which is free and available to any U.S. citizen -- is capped at 215 -- the number of seats in the Sunnyvale City Council chambers. That's so every member has a seat at each meeting. As recently as last summer, that meant there was a five-month waiting list to join. But now, with the job market in Silicon Valley at full boil, there's no wait at all, said Connie Buck, the ProMatch facilitator who manages the local chapter.
It's not that no one is losing their job in the Valley, of course. Buck said that there are as many as 35 new people showing up for new member orientation every three weeks. But spaces in the program are opening up, she explained, because "the job market's getting better. We hear success stories every single week."
One of those success stories is Suzie Wong, who recently landed a job as a contract sourcer/recruiter at Google. Having worked at Hewlett-Packard for more than 15 years as an Internet marketing program manager, Wong needed help finding a new direction. "ProMatch helped me by allowing me to keep up my presentation skills and fine-tune my networking skills, which is truly the key way to find out where the openings were."
Perhaps even more important, Wong said, she found out about the Google position through a ProMatch alum. "I would never have found these openings without having been at ProMatch," she said.
That's a key element of the program. Many former ProMatch members return to help recruit on behalf of new employers, and at the weekly meetings, anyone interested in those positions holds up a business card in order to be properly connected to the person with the job lead. And that's exactly what Wong was doing at a recent meeting -- encouraging people to come to Google, as well as helping out the Networking team by leading a workshop on improving LinkedIn and social media skills.
Listening to stories at ProMatch and elsewhere, it's clear the opportunities are out there, but no one's getting a new job unless they can impress a hiring manager, and convince potential co-workers they'll be a good addition to an existing team. Startups are the new lifeblood of Silicon Valley, and many are dominated by the young. In places like that, it may be hard for older applicants to find common ground--which may help reinforce the perception that those 40 and older can't find work.
But given today's shortage of top-tier engineers, talent is the most valuable currency of all, and those who can do a good job of presenting in-demand skills are getting hired, sometimes specifically because of their years in the field.
That was the experience of Larry Edelstein, a senior software engineer at Klout. After leaving a three-year position at Salesforce.com last summer, the 46-year-old Edelstein's search for a new position took just six weeks. During that time he interviewed at five different companies and ended up with two serious possibilities.
And rather than his age being an impediment, Edelstein said some hiring managers essentially told him they appreciated not having to waste time asking a lot of the questions they do of younger recruits because they recognized the breadth of his experience doing general software development and the fact that he'd know how to navigate through situations younger engineers might not be familiar with. "They said, 'You've been around for a while, that'll be an asset for us.'"