Unlike at many tech startups, at Virtual Software Systems Inc., being old is in.
The average age of the nine employees at the Burlington cybersecurity firm is 65 — a mantle they wear with pride. Their pitch, spelled out on a slide shown to prospective clients: “240+ years combined development experience.”
Headquarters is not a cool open office with a foosball table and bean bag chairs but a spartan 10-by-16 foot room in a coworking space adorned with a conference table, 55-inch-monitor, a white board, a few desks and filing cabinets, and a printer. The team gathers for meetings, and to review code, but largely works from home.
The founders, four men in their late 60s and early 70s, sought out experienced engineers to create software that destroys cybersecurity attacks in progress — the first of its kind to stop a breach underway and prevent it from stealing data, according to the founders. They brought in friends and former coworkers, with 26 patents, two PhDs, two Harvard Business School degrees, and 50-plus years of military experience among them — luring several out of retirement in the process.
“When old guys round up the usual suspects, the usual suspects tend to be old guys,” said Fred Smith, 60, chief financial officer of Virtual Software Systems, known as VS2.
In tech, the usual suspects tend to be much younger. The median age of workers at Facebook and LinkedIn is 29, according to the salary data and software company PayScale Inc. At Amazon and Google, it’s 30. The median age of all American workers, according to the Labor Department: 42. Many older tech workers report dyeing their hair and removing decades of experience from their resumes in order to land a job.
But at VS2, age is an asset.
The developers have been immersed in computer science for decades, gaining a breadth of knowledge that led to a new architecture at the heart of the company’s cybersecurity software, said vice president Tom Wetmore, 71. Extracurricular interests in music theory, electrical engineering, and biology also helped shape their designs.
The company’s product, called xRA, is expected to be released by the end of the year. Several clients have already expressed interest, including a large automotive manufacturer, an aerospace contractor, a major financial institution, and the US government.
Another advantage to having a team that has been in the trenches for so long: “We just have access to a tremendous network of contacts, not only talent, but also clients,” said chief executive John Conway, 65. “It makes it relatively easy for us to gain access to the Fortune 200 to test our ideas.”
This wide network has also made it easy for them to secure $3 million in funding so far, without having to appeal to the more youth-conscious venture capital crowd. “We don’t have to impress them with ponytails or cool-looking offices,” said chief operating officer Nat Welch, 59.
In addition, the men — and they are almost all white men, save for a Hispanic nuclear physicist, a female board member, and a female contract coder — have already made a good living and don’t require big salaries.
The work is not easy. Most of them are at it six days a week, 10 hours a day, sometimes in the middle of the night. There have been a few age-related issues: a knee replacement, a herniated disc. But there are also no children at home to distract them.
As the company grows, the founders hope to bring in a more diverse array of talent. But for now, they are happy with the way things are.
The chief executive says this is the best team he’s ever worked with — a wise-cracking group with no big egos and “hardly any blood” spilled.
“You gain more emotional intelligence as you get older,” Welch said, “and in other cases you get crankier.”
As Wetmore put it: “Life is too short to tolerate jerks.”