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Can the "Young and Old Guards" of Silicon Valley Get Along?

Enter the new cohort of technologists -- all looking for the next big thing.

Carlo Toffolo/Shutterstock

Whatever your views on Silicon Valley are, know this much: Not every hacker here wants to be a “ninja.”

While it’s a name sometimes reserved for skilled young engineers entering the Valley, it hardly fits with the elder statesmen and women of Palo Alto, those engineers around during the early days of Web 1.0 and earlier.

And that’s the dichotomy set up in the latest New York Times Magazine cover story, “Silicon Valley’s Youth Problem,” on a different type of tech culture clash from the ones you’ve been reading about lately.

That being the growing divide between a new generation of engineers, those eager to flex their coding muscles at the latest hot consumer startup like Uber or Pinterest, and those in their 40s, 50s and above, who gained their technical chops working in other areas like semiconductor research, network hardware or other first-gen technology companies.

“There are certainly young engineers today comfortably ensconced at established companies, just as there are 50-year-olds at their fourth start-up,” wrote Yiren Lu, the twenty-something computer science graduate student who penned the piece for the Times Magazine. “But as a group, my peers feel more restless, more constantly in search of the next big thing.”

This is a problem. According to Lu, bigger, less sexy companies like Cisco or Oracle have found it difficult to compete against the Facebooks or Googles or smaller startups of the Valley for the talent exiting grad schools every year. Instead of building the next wave of chipsets and routers, the Zuckerbergs of tomorrow are far more interested in striking it big with the next Instagram.

That’s a bit hyperbolic. But Lu is right in that every big tech company is clamoring for young coders full of vigor. And many of those coders are enamored with the idea of finding Web 2.0’s next big company.

Even now in my reporting, I’ve spoken with dozens of people who have seen their young colleagues develop the itch to get in on the ground floor of what may be tomorrow’s Twitter or Facebook. And for the outfits that deal with the less buzzy components of the tech world, it can be hard to measure up to a new type of sexting app — especially when that app has been splashed across the front page of the New York Times.

Fret not, old guard, as not all is lost. Lu, who we should remember is herself a twenty-something CS major, says it’s possible for established companies to reinvent themselves, potentially changing the way they’re perceived by the new class of techies. Apple, of course, is cited as a prime example. Even Microsoft is trying its best to do the same.

Reinvention is fine — just please don’t start calling your employees ninjas.

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