Product Marty Cagan

Youth versus Experience

If you have been wondering what’s going on with all these startups with 20-something founders and product leaders, you’re not alone. There are some great companies that have been started by some very young people, several of whom dropped out of college to pursue their ideas. I’ve talked earlier about the value of experience, but in this note I’d like to talk about the problem I see of people discounting product leaders because of their youth.

In truth, I think there are outstanding product leaders across the age spectrum. But how is it that someone can be only 25 years old and an exceptional product leader? First, remember that the Internet has really only been around since 1995 or so, so anyone who today is 24 or older probably has about the same amount of experience online as the rest of us. And people that were in their teens during the rise of the Internet grew up taking for granted technologies that many are still trying to figure out. Further, while experience can play an important role and naturally develops over time, other traits like innate intelligence and product passion are not a function of our chronological age.

I personally had to get used to the idea of working for someone in their early 20’s when I worked for Marc Andreessen at Netscape. But I quickly forgot about how old he was once I started seeing how quickly he was absorbing the new technologies and assimilating the literally thousands of customer visits he was doing. Anyone just listening to him would assume he was at least in his 40’s.

But what this is really about is finding great product people – regardless of their age, gender or race. I’m not here to talk about the moral issues involved in the different forms of discrimination, but I do want to talk about the business issues. I believe there are still stereotypes and biases that get in the way of companies creating the best product teams and products possible. In his new book “Blink” Malcolm Gladwell makes a similar point (among several other very useful points for product managers).

One reason I love the Bay Area so much is because we’re so diverse. At the typical Silicon Valley tech company, within a single product team you’ll typically find males and females, straight and gay, Caucasian, Chinese, Indian, and Russian. But even in the most progressive of companies I think there are often hiring biases based on our mental image of a great product leader. For example, we know that communication skills are essential for a strong product manager, so we sometimes look for someone with native English language skills, even though others that may be much stronger have more than passable language skills.

I point this out not to chastise anyone but just to try to make us aware that we might be missing some truly outstanding product leaders by unintentionally restricting our view of what makes a great product manager and where great product ideas come from. So the next time that 22 year old college hire comes to you with a product idea, you may want to listen. Her idea might be the next Facebook.