Good Years for Technology?

Is the success of an engineering career determined by birth year?

3 min read
Good Years for Technology?
Illustration: Dan Page

Malcolm Gladwell, in Outliers (2008), argues that one of the factors in success is the year you were born. In technology, he reasons that the perfect year to have been born was 1955, so that at the start of the computer revolution—which he pegs as January 1975—you would have been just the right age to take advantage of the new advances. If you had been born later than 1955, you would still have been in school when everyone else was capitalizing on the new tech. If you had been born earlier than 1955, you would probably already have had a comfortable job at a place like IBM and not have been inclined to strike out on your own.

In support of this assertion he cites birth years for famous technologists. Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, Andy ­Bechtolsheim, Eric Schmidt, and Vinod Khosla were born in 1955. Bill Joy, Scott McNealy, and Steve Ballmer were all born only a year earlier or later. It’s an impressive list, but there are enough counterexamples that I’m inclined to be skeptical. Moreover, Gladwell’s measure of success is wealth, whereas we have had many engineers who through discovery or invention have changed the world without becoming rich.

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