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, a 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, in their early 50s -- with the headline "Power geeks do not age well."
CEOs such as 64-year-old Philippe Courtot, head of hosted security provider Qualys, 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 Condé 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 year.