Too old for tech? Not these Silicon Valley CEOs

Silicon Valley is the epitome of California's youth worship, geek-style. It's the stage where wunderkinds emerge and are feted: Yahoo's Jerry Yang and David Filo, Netscape's Marc Andreessen, Google's Sergey Brin and Larry Page, Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg -- all in their 20s when they hit it big. Going farther back, let's not forget Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak, who were 21 and 25, respectively, when they started Apple Computer.

The flipside is the subtle but pervasive bias against older executives, the feeling that, as Wired magazine's Clive Thompson puts it, "If you're ending a third decade [turning 30], you're obsolete." The assumption is that the technology changes so quickly, and the work style in Silicon Valley so draining, that they simply can't cut it.

"There is a central casting version of the standard Silicon Valley CEO type, and I don't fit it," said Mike Braun, 59, CEO of Intacct Corp., a San Jose-based hosted financial software provider. "I'm three standard deviations from the mean, and I'm proud of it."

The prevailing attitude seems to be summed up by gossip blog Valleywag, which last month ran pictures of top tech execs -- all of them, with the exception of 64-year-old Larry Ellison of Oracle Corp., in their early 50s -- with the headline "Power geeks do not age well."

CEOs such as 64-year-old Philippe Courtot, head of Redwood Shores-based hosted security provider Qualys Inc., naturally resent the pressure to be sidelined.

"A lot of people ask me, 'You've made so much money, had so much success. Why keep working?'" said Courtot, a five-time CEO whose resume includes successful stints at cc:Mail, Signio and Verity. "My answer is very simple. I like to take very small companies and forge them like a sculpture. That is my art. No one asked Picasso why he continued painting until he died at age 91. Why should what I do be any different?"

And is technology all that different from other fast-paced industries? Take retail, whose CEO ranks include James Sinegal, 72, of Costco; Leslie Wexner, 70, of The Limited; and Ralph Lauren, 68, of Polo Ralph Lauren. Pharmaceutical maker Forest Laboratories is led by Howard Solomon, 80; 75-year-old Sheldon Adelson is in charge of The Venetian hotel in Las Vegas; and Milton Cooper, 79, is at the helm of real estate developer Kimco Realty.

Maybe older executives just don't get this New Media stuff. Tell that to Sumner Redstone, the 85-year-old active chairman of National Amusements, which owns CBS, Viacom, MTV, BET, Paramount Pictures and Dreamworks; 80-year-old Si Newhouse of Cond? Nast; 77-year-old Rupert Murdoch of News Corp.; or 72-year-old billionaire investor Carl Icahn, who bullied both Yahoo and Microsoft earlier this summer.

In this article, Computerworld talks to four CEOs of Silicon Valley start-ups, three of them in their 60s, one on the cusp:

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    • Kate Noerr, 68, co-founder and CEO of MuseGlobal Inc., a private San Francisco content management software vendor.
    • Mike Braun, 59, a three-time Silicon Valley CEO (currently of Intacct ) who has also been an executive recruiter.
    • Donald Massaro, 65, a five-time CEO whom Braun recruited three years ago to run Emeryville-based messaging infrastructure provider Sendmail Inc.
    • Philippe Courtot, 64, also a five-time CEO (currently of Qualys ).

These executives discuss the sort of bias, subtle and overt, that they have experienced as older CEOs, why they continue to play the game, how they remain vigorous and when they think they might finally retire.

What drives you to stay in the game?

Braun: My wife complains about how I can't sit still. There are guys who are wired to work, who can't not work. I'm one of them. Not everyone is wired that way. I have plenty of friends younger than me who have retired.

Courtot: I look at my father. He was a lawyer who went into business. He died in his 80s but worked until his very last day. I would visit him in France every six months, and I could see that he got even more intelligent as he got older.

How much do you work?

Braun: I work 70 hours a week, start in the office at 7 a.m. I get home, I eat and then I'm on e-mail until 10 p.m. I've always worked those kinds of hours. Being a recruiter was the only time I didn't. I worked 30-40 hours. It felt like a vacation.

Massaro: I've slowed down a lot. I used to work 70 hours a week when I was younger. Now, I don't put in more than 50 hours. I also like to take a 20-minute nap every afternoon.

Noerr: If you have to ask, I probably work 60-70 hours a week. But I'm not a clock-watcher.

Massaro: Work is only work if you'd rather do something else, and there's nothing else I'd rather be doing.

How did you come to your current gig?

Noerr: MuseGlobal is my fifth start-up since the late 1970s. It's just my thing. I like to build companies. My two main skills are having a vision of where the market is going and having a good sense of timing. Both have gotten sharper over time. Hey, there need to be some perks with age other than free bus passes.

Braun: When I started my career selling IBM mainframes to banks in New York City in 1972, you just expected to retire at age 60, since that was IBM's mandatory retirement age for senior executives. I actually retired in 2000 [at age 51]. But I flunked it. So I started my own recruiting firm and ran that for six years.

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