James Governor's Monkchips

How AWS Cloud is demolishing the cult of youth

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We live in a society obsessed with youth. Tech is no different from the wider culture. Startup culture in particular thrives on the idea that you’re past it by the time you’re 30. Mark Zuckerburg is 33 years old. Some Facebook employees quietly started call him Uncle Zuck while he was in his still in his late 20s. Brutal.

Younger founders and employees are willing and able to work longer hours, and really grind it out. They have higher stamina, and generally don’t have families they want to spend time with. They can completely commit to the job at hand. Most mathematical breakthroughs are discovered by younger people. It is true that today’s tech leviathans were founded by people in their 20s – Apple, Facebook, Google, Microsoft. Amazon is a bit of an outlier – Jeff Bezos was 30 years old when he founded the company. He was already a bit more mature.

And what a company he built. Amazon is one of the companies most likely to be worth a trillion dollars in the next few years. This video by Scott Galloway is the best take on the Four Horsemen, those most likely to hit that mark. Amazon is crushing it, Amazon is dismantling retail, Amazon is going to “kill brands”.

So who is hiring to drive the next stages of its growth? A bunch of 22 year olds, right? Not. So. Much. Amazon has a lot of time for seasoned talent, in the executive and technical ranks.

Amazon Web Services (AWS) just announced it is hiring James Gosling, one of the original inventors of Java. He is 62 years old. We don’t know what he’ll be doing at Amazon – he’s just as likely to be designing a fleet of underwater delivery drones as driving programming language innovation. But he is an inspiration, and he’s still coding. He could work on AWS-specific JVM optimisations. But it’s all conjecture for now.

Meanwhile James Hamilton continues to completely kick ass in compute, network, and data center design for AWS. He cut his teeth in database technology. He’s in his 50s.

Tim Bray, one of the inventors of XML, joined Amazon in 2014. He’s another Sun alumni. He’s 61 now. He still codes.

When you sit down with one of the AWS engineering teams you’re sitting down with grownups. At a guess median age would be 40-45, someone like Andi Gutmans, now 41, one of the original creators of PHP, who now runs Search and New NoSQL for the firm.

Adrian Cockcroft joined AWS in October 2016. He graduated in 1982, not 2002. He is VP Cloud Architecture Strategy at AWS, a perfect role for someone that helped drive Netflix’s transition from on prem Java hairball to serious cloud leadership.

Great engineering is not maths – it involves tradeoffs, wisdom and experience. Great engineers are generally great teachers. Fintan recently wrote about the reality of the distinguished engineer.

“A distinguished engineer not only leads; they also take responsibility. A distinguished engineer will not throw any of his or her team under the proverbial bus to protect themselves, nor will the make technical decisions that involve a massive pay back later (technical debt) without explaining why and getting buy in and understanding for the decision.”

His description fits the people AWS is currently hiring quite well. 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. A related trend is hiring seasoned marketing talent from the likes of IBM.

Some other older companies have older distinguished engineers because they grew up with the company. AWS is explicitly bringing that experience in. It’s refreshing to the see a different perspective on value.

 

AWS is a client.

Photo credit Peter Campbell under CC-BY-SA-3.0 license.

61 comments

  1. Adam Bosworth joined in September.

    1. interesting, i remember him from BEA.

  2. Note of the kids do infrastructure software

    1. Hey Peter, was that a typo – none of the kids?

  3. I don’t know what teams you’ve been dealing with in AWS, but from 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.

    As someone in my mid 30s I was on the older side of the equation. Occasionally we’d be chatting at lunchtime and something like the Y2K bug would come up as we reminisced, and co-workers would point out they’d barely even used a computer when that was happening.

    Yes there are a bunch of older people around in more senior consulting roles, but they’re the outliers, not the norm.

    1. hey Paul thanks. My view is obviously mediated by who I meet – who skew to senior people for sure. So that’s a useful view. loving the idea of AWS engineers never having heard of the y2k bug. i guess i just noticed the outliers. hopefully my shining a positive light on the subject might encourage the average age up a bit.

      1. A very encouraging and motivating read. At 51 yrs of age (yes, I also remember Y2K) I recently decided to switch career direction from IT Ops Management to AWS and am currently working my way through the AWS Solutions Architect related courses, with my goal being to get the SA Professional Certification. Re:Inventing myself to kickstart my next 25 years in IT! 🙂

        1. hey evan that is awesome. well done. retraining is super important. let me know if i can try and help you find a role when you’re ready.

        2. Hey Evan – I’m 47 and last year I did a bunch of retraining in cloud, and now I am a SA for AWS. This article hit spot-on for me and they really don’t look at age when considering for employment (no, they really don’t). I have kids at home and a life away from work otherwise and I can tell you, it’s no problem here. Good luck!

      2. “and co-workers would point out they’d barely even used a computer when that was happening” != “idea of AWS engineers never having heard of the y2k bug”

        1. In a recent meeting, I made a reference to a scene from the movie, “Stripes” (Bill Murray fan) and all the “kids” in the meeting looked at me like I was from Mars. They had never even heard of the movie. It was then that I realized I was officially “old”.

          1. I had an experience like that recently when I mentioned the Ballmer Peak and nobody knew who Steve Ballmer was. SMH.

          2. Lighten up, Francis! 😉

    2. My personal experience at Amazon was very different. Working for Amazon Instant Video in London, recognised as being one of Amazon’s more intense divisions, I worked with engineers, Product Managers and Program Managers of varied ages and experience. It was ambitious and hard working but rarely was there pressure to work very long hours. There was also a high degree of flexibility over time-keeping to help when this was necessary.

      Regarding this article, I found that the Amazon teams with more experienced leaders had plenty of time for a personal life, got the job done and did high quality work with a minimum of angst. Its great to hear that Amazon is investing in experience as well youth.

      1. You said a worthful thing there – experienced leaders.
        I see this so much, people put in positions of responsibility are nowadays at least 10-15 years younger than when i was a kid.
        Cheaper, maybe more eager, but also just without the experience, without the endurance and safety (craftsmanship?) of growing into this slowly.
        I hope this stops, I see enough people who basically *dream* of being able to clean their house every month just because they don’t have the levity of experience, and can’t stay on top of their duty for more time than not.

        It’s not industry related, I met a ~30yo store manager who was in the same pressure like the IT ops guys I work with.

        This shit doesn’t save money.
        We don’t need technically incompetent trained managers that “lead” by some book either. We need to grow suitable people into leaders and, well actually:
        Just fuck flat hierarchies. All it means is they pay less people.
        Everyone dreads incompetent managers, but why aren’t we demanding good ones instead?

    3. My personal experience at AWS is different. My team has a mix of ages from 20s to 50s in individual contributor roles. I’d guess the average is late 30s, median early 30s. Also, the work-life balance is quite reasonable, comparable to any of a half dozen tech companies I’ve worked at. (We are not in Seattle, so may be atypical.)

      That said, the individuals mentioned in this piece are all in very high-level roles – distinguished engineers and VPs are not demographically significant. It’d be super interesting to see hard demographic data in this regard.

      1. My experience with Amazon’s team of on-line spin control efforts has been rather uniform. It’s a little unusual for these guys to forget and use the same first sentence twice in a row, though.

  4. And, James Gosling makes crepes 😀 That’s an ideal programmer to have on your team.

  5. You’ve named 5-6 old guys hired out of literally a workforce of thousands. I don’t see how that’s demolishing the cult of youth.

    1. so i am querying myself? “[email protected]” some high profile hires can be a useful palliative to the cult of youth, imho

  6. Minor quibble – alumni is plural, alumnus is (masculine) singular. FWIW, most of my AWS teams have been a good mix of people my age and older (40s – we were there for the dot-com crash in the late ’90s/early 2000s) as well as those fresh out of college. I love being neither the oldest nor smartest person in the room.

  7. […] AWS Cloud is demolishing the cult of youth {$excerpt:n} submitted by /u/speckz [link] [comments] Source: […]

  8. They may hiresome hire profile olds, but I’m very skeptical that any more than a tiny percentage of developers are over 40.

  9. […] previous? By Redmonk analyst James Governor’s reckoning, the median age of an AWS engineer is between 40 and 45 years previous. Governor’s knowledge […]

  10. hiring Tim Bray, James Hamilton, Adrian Cockcroft, James Gosling – is hardly ‘demolishing the cult of youth’.
    Those are some of the best minds of my generation. It’s a symptom of the cult of youth, that it’s remarkable that they can still get hired.

    See also Tim Bray’s post on old geeks,
    https://www.tbray.org/ongoing/When/201x/2016/09/14/Old-Geek

    The rest of us have to be starving hysterical naked and unemployed, or possibly Cobol Cowboys..

  11. doug – fair. i just thought it was kind of cool. watch this space though, let’s see if we can do a thing

    1. The headline of this article is certainly somewhat provocative, and that’s why it attracts a lot of readers, I guess those above all who are beyond their 30s. And my 30+ years of business tell me that the message isn’t new at all; there were always a handful of guys around me with kind of a relentless and admirable standing and charisma who work very hard even in their 60s and are still able to motivate the young ones. Other geniuses burn out with 30. It’s simply how mother nature has equipped us. Still I like your article very much because it reminds us to be careful with prejudices concerning age and experience.
      BTW: At the Plug & Play Tech Center in Sunnyvale I see a lot of kids, but I also see that about half of the people are already beyond their 30s, and at least a dozen or so beyond their 50s and still energized by new ideas… And yes, I am coming from Sun as well 🙂

      1. thanks Wolfgang I did indeed write rather a tabloid style headline 🙂

    2. yeah, it’s like saying Microsoft is demolishing the cult of youth because Leslie Lamport is at MSR. look at neither the mass of developers nor the standout VPs who’ve made headlines before but at the PM & equivalent level to see what the demographic is there. I think your headline is really some big name people in tech* are going to Amazon when they once mostly went to Google if they weren’t already at Microsoft’ *who might have to think about what their healthcare plans are going to be

  12. HAHA, I’ll believe it when i stop interviewing burnt out 25 year olds with AMZN as the only entry on their resume.

  13. You can obtain software that pretty much does all the hardware provisioning for you. Just provisioning the hardware is self is left up to you. Most of the Amazon EC2 platform will be extinct within a decade or only used for legacy implementations. But no growth. Their control plane implementation wont last that long. It’s too top heavy and it went into the wrong direction just mere months before containerization became mainstream.

    They will not have the projected growth you say, I guarantee you that from a developer point of view.

    1. You’re darling. Containers are not the death of AWS. Containers aren’t even an evolutionary branch that’s likely to survive at all (know of a lot of production work using Docker right now? Go to a conference and watch the hands go down when the speaker asks “So how many of you are using it in a production environment?”

      We’re a gnat’s eyelash away from the explosion of serverless computing, and guess who pioneered that?

  14. […] 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 […]

  15. AWS is an enterprise compute engine – it’s higher priced, higher reliability, feature rich and offers global reach. There are lots of other SaaS and IaaS competitors at lower price. Lots of scrappy startups use these lower priced XaaS.
    No surprise that an enterprise compute company hires deeply experienced enterprise compute engineering talent.

  16. An analogy is today’s youth and cooking-from-scratch. For example, the other day there was a youngster who had never seen pizza crust made from primary ingredients like flour and yeast.

    1. charles – *love* this. it’s a really interesting point about abstraction and deep understanding.

      1. Since you mention abstraction, don’t forget Joel Spolsky’s Law of Leaky Abstractions. Ultimately, abstractions are useful, until they aren’t any more.

    2. I’ll bet they couldn’t make an app work in 64K, or create overlays in a linkage editor. …snickering softly

  17. If I could, I’d hire Richard Stallman (64) tomorrow. Top guys in AI are Raymond Kurzweil and Geoff Hinton who are both pushing 70. Kristen Nygaard, Alan Kay were both doing good work in their 70’s. I still code (Scala).

  18. […] AWS is Demolishing the Culture of Youth […]

  19. I took that photo of James Gosling. I am happy for you to use it but could you please provide attribution as per the CC-BY-SA-3.0 licence?

    1. Peter – yes so sorry. that’s a bad oversight. thanks!!!

  20. […] where older tech pros are not only relevant, but also dominating. As RedMonk helpfully pointed out in a new blog posting, Amazon Web Services has hired many of tech’s most notable figures, including James Gosling […]

  21. At first I thought I had stumbled onto a thread about mixed martial arts, or some other intense contact sport that will beat your body into submission at a young age. Perhaps I’m simply in denial, but I can’t believe we are talking about 30’s and 40’s being considered over the hill in the context of IT. Sure, I can see the attraction companies have towards young employees. There are no wife and kids to compete with them for your precious time. That being said, we shouldn’t be too concerned about this since it’s illegal to discriminate based on age, right?

    1. Let me correct myself. I should have said: “spouse and kids” instead of “wife and kids”. I was phrasing my response based on my personal situation. Habit. 🙂

      1. Habit? Or is it really that women have an even harder time overcoming a clear bias for younger workers than men?

  22. […] firm Redmonk, in this post suggested that AWS is “demolishing the cult of youth” by bringing the 62 year old […]

  23. […] where older tech pros are not only relevant, but also dominating. As RedMonk helpfully pointed out in a new blog posting, Amazon Web Services has hired many of tech’s most notable figures, including James Gosling […]

  24. […] the power of a good headline. I used to be a journalist. I am the guy that recently wrote how AWS is demolishing the cult of youth. But the whole Death of DevOps thing is getting a little old. Frankly in tech nothing ever dies. My […]

  25. Not one women in the list. :/

    1. sarah i wish it were otherwise on the technical side. if i am honest, though, some of the seasoned marketing talent amazon has recently hired are more mature, but sexist though it may be, i was brought up not to discuss a woman’s age, so i didn’t start naming names because it made me uncomfortable, and they might not appreciate it either. it’s hard enough to be a woman in tech without someone labelling you as “older.” overall though AWS is hiring a range of experienced professionals as it grows.

  26. “it’s hard enough to be a woman in tech” what is this supposed to mean? These companies focused on fast delivery of code (and what that implies of course) can really tell the difference between the code a woman writes and the code a man writes? I interviewed quite a number of women for technical positions and they were just as good or bad as the men….

    Also, maybe it is not a global thing in AWS but there are parts of the world where recruiters and HR of AWS are making the most incredibly unprofessional and stupid mistakes during the hiring process. I thought I was an exception…

    1. hey emil. woman are discriminated against in tech every day. their code is just as good, but they are judged differently, and treated differently on the job. hiring processes are not great, and neither is treatment on the job in many cases.

  27. Its been great reading both the article and all the comments. Generally they are all relatively accurate viewpoints and positive overall. However, there has been a long history in the valley that promotes hiring folks under 30 because even if they lack experience, they come in cheaper. Additionally, this trend is fortified by the idea that ‘older’ more experienced talent ask too many questions that can cost more time (or money) and ‘limit’ innovation. I disagree. I must fall into the ‘older’ group. Having said that, I am a creative that has worked between the design world and IT industry and all I can say about the creative world I originated my career in is- “like a good wine, it only gets better with age!”

  28. The average path is to hop startups in your 20’s until you get aquired into a corporation. My generation hopped startups until they all got aquired into the FAANG corporations, 15 years ago. When someone over 30 is still hopping startups, it raises the question of why he didn’t already get aquired.

    1. he or she

  29. […] 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 […]

  30. […] How AWS Cloud is demolishing the cult of youth (redmonk.com, 1) The tech industry tends to be obsessed with youth. But Amazon is a bit of an outlier. […]

  31. […] are a wide range of potential responses. A lot of it is about culture. Amazon Web Services, for example, is actively recruiting older engineers, recognizing that experience is important. The […]

  32. […] are a wide range of potential responses. A lot of it is about culture. Amazon Web Services, for example, is actively recruiting older engineers, recognizing that experience is important. The […]

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