How Amazon hopes to win the cloud by hiring older engineers

Tech may be a youthful industry, but Amazon Web Services is building the cloud on the experience of more mature employees.

Image: iStockphoto/yacobchuk

Silicon Valley has such a cult of youth that it's easy to overlook just how dependent we've become on older developers and engineers. That's right: A tremoring youthquake may be giving us taco deliveries by drone and new ways to apply filters to photos, but the clouds they're running on were invented by older folks.

How old? By Redmonk analyst James Governor's reckoning, the median age of an AWS engineer is between 40 and 45 years old. Governor's data may be anecdotal, but his contention that "when you sit down with one of the AWS engineering teams you're sitting down with grownups" rings true.

Your sons and daughters are beyond your command...

It has become de rigueur for Silicon Valley tech companies to report on their demographics to show just how much progress they're (not) making toward hiring a more diverse workforce. (See Facebook's 2016 report, and Google's.) Lost in their reports, however, is any mention of age. For that, you have to look at PayScale data, which pegs the median age of Facebook employees at 28 and of Google employees at 30. By comparison, the average age of an Oracle employee is 39.

SEE: Face it: Developers are becoming babies (TechRepublic)

This has led some to blithely declare tech a "young person's game," and if we look across many of the leading tech companies, this is certainly true:

Image: PayScale

How does this map to the wider industry? According to a 2016 Stack Overflow developer survey, the median age of developers is 27 (average is 29.6). Pretty young. Even so, if we break out developers by experience level, roughly 50% have at least six years of programming experience. For those who code professionally, according to the 2017 Stack Overflow developer survey, 25.9% of all developers have been coding professionally for at least 10 years.

Developers tend to skew young, in other words, but for those who make a living coding, a quarter are relatively experienced.

AWS is thinking differently about hiring

AWS seems to be hiring both. As one commentator pointed out to Governor, "[F]rom personal experience the teams skew *heavily* towards fresh out-of-college. It's the only way they can keep up with the burn-out rate. The hours and culture at Amazon are hardly conducive to having a family life." Indeed, PayScale reported that the median age for Amazon (not necessarily AWS) employees is 30 years, which corresponds to this commentator's view.

In my own experience, AWS teams have a healthy mix of older and younger employees. Still, AWS leadership isn't driven by millennials, but rather by graybeards (James Gosling, Adrian Cockcroft, Tim Bray, and Andi Gutmans are just a few people called out by Governor). Management at most companies will tend to skew a bit older, but AWS is notable for how those people are discovered. As Governor noted: "Some other older companies have older distinguished engineers because they grew up with the company. AWS is explicitly bringing that experience in."

That's an important distinction, but equally important is why AWS is hiring those older techies. As Governor said: "The company puts such a premium on independent groups working fast and making their own decisions it requires a particular skillset, which generally involves a great deal of field experience."

I have worked at startups where I was (jokingly) chided for being over 35 years old. It's nice to see AWS setting an example for a different kind of diversity: Age.

Also see

About Matt Asay

Matt Asay is a veteran technology columnist who has written for CNET, ReadWrite, and other tech media. Asay has also held a variety of executive roles with leading mobile and big data software companies.

Editor's Picks

Free Newsletters, In your Inbox